Breakthrough Made in Forests Protection

Jiang Wandi

The summer of 1998 was a nightmarish period for China, when a vast region along the Yangtze River suffered from the worst floods in 50 years. Ecological imbalance eventually became a real concern for both government and the public, fanned by stories and photographs from journalists returning from the upper reaches of the Yangtze River, demonstrating how vast stretches of natural forests had been chopped down。 By autumn, this had led to a government ban on the logging of all natural forests.

However, the question remains whether the logging ban can be strictly implemented, and, if so, how. As a developing country, China still has a lot of poor people, including many living near or within primeval forests, who chop down trees for a living. Nearly half of the rural population relies on wood for cooking and heating. Besides, China developed a huge lumber industry in the past few decades, with 135 large state firms alone employing 1.41 million workers in 1997. Obviously, the colossal labor force cannot vanish by itself, or be transferred to serve other sectors overnight.

In addition, China is also a large timber consuming country, with growing demand due to a boom in the infrastructure construction, furniture and papermaking industries. It is estimated that, by 2000, total wood consumption will be 100 million cubic meters, while domestic supply could be as low as 64 million cubic meters, leaving a gap that can only be filled by expensive imports. This casts a big shadow over the efforts to protect the natural forests.

While the government and its think tanks have been casting around for ways to balance relations between economic development and the environment, and finding a way out for the declining timber industry, an ideal solution already existed. In Hainan Province, the largest economic development zone in China, "A Demonstration Program of Sustainable Utilization of Tropical Forests by Means of Differentiated Management in Hainan" started in 1993 and will end next year. The project is funded with US$4 million from the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO). Based on studies and investigations into the political, economic, social and environmental conditions of Hainan, scientists from the Chinese Academy of Forestry and the province's forestry bureau built four demonstration areas, called "sub-project points," in different places. They experimented with ways to protect natural forests by employing separate means simultaneously--growing substitute woods, helping local residents to eradicate poverty by doing profitable household business rather than tree chopping, working on a optimized methods of chopping the natural forests and creating modern protection methods.

Hainan is the only region in China with mountainous rain forests. Its overall forest coverage rate is 52 percent, ranking fourth among all provinces, but well down from the 90 percent plus in the Han Dynasty about 2,000 years ago. Large-scale felling began in the economically prosperous Tang and Song dynasties (618-1297), and again in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), when a shipbuilding base was established. The 1930s witnessed Japanese invaders landing in Hainan, stealing wood not only for its war machine, but also sending back to Japan. After the People's Republic of China was founded, a local timber industry developed rapidly, earning Hainan great profit. In addition, more primeval forests were cut down to make way for rubber plantations. As a result, the natural forest coverage in Hainan dropped sharply to 300,000 hectares in the current decade from 830,000 hectares in the 1950s. In 1994, the provincial government banned logging in all natural forests.

The ITTO project began in 1993. Its No.1 demonstration area was a man-made tropical forest plantation. Established at Danzhou, a flat lowland plain in western Hainan, it was designated to develop high-yield and fast-growing commercial woods with internationally advanced nursery techniques, and then promote the species and techniques to the rest of the province and even outside. The plantation has a nursery producing 3 million saplings a year, supplying 24 species of eucalyptus and other high-yield woods for the local forestry industry. The demonstration point has 2,000 hectares of eucalyptus, ideal materials for the construction and papermaking industries. The trees are so perfect and identical that it seems they must have been cloned. According to Wen Maoyuan, chief engineer of the sub-project area, the demonstration effect has already showed up, with the technologies employed being publicized and its quality saplings introduced to other units. The plantation has also attracted the interest of local villagers, who have demanded regular technical training and have grown 130 hectares of quality eucalyptus themselves with saplings provided by the plantation.

About one-third of Hainan residents live in areas where agriculture, forestry and pasturing overlap. These areas are mainly home to such ethnic groups as the Li and Miao, whose living standards and production means are so primitive that they usually rely on chopping wood for a living. Therefore, another ITTO sub-project was designed to help the people living near forests to wipe out poverty by providing them with the necessary facilities and skills for an alternative means of livelihood.

The demonstration point, called an "agro-sylvo-pastoral ecosystem," occupies 500 hectares. In the past seven years, project scientists and technicians turned a wasteland into an idyllic picture of flourishing vegetation, fine-breed sheep and cows grazing and birds twittering happily. Apart from a piece of pasture, there are also farmland and orchards where sugar cane, mangoes, pineapples and sweep potatoes are grown. Also growing there are rubber trees, teak and Caribbean pines, for both commercial purposes and as a farmland shelterbelt.

What's more impressive is the change of local residents' lives as a direct result of the establishment of the "agro-sylvo-pastoral ecosystem". Yaxing Town is a typical poor area with per capita income less than 700 yuan per year. The Li nationality accounts for 72 percent of the population, living and working in extremely backward conditions. The only exception is 25 families living within the demonstrating area, including the ambitious and ingenious young farmer Li Mengqing.

Li Mengqing and his wife and two children live next to a small reservoir built as part of the ITTO project. Now, his household business has grown in scale with project engineers' help. Sweet potatoes grow on land in front of his two-room house and in the backyard. A facility was built to link his pigpen with a methane-generating pit supplying his kitchen with clean and convenient energy. Fish teem in the nearby pond, while ducks swim on the small river. Li is so busy at high season that he has to hire a number of relatives living in adjacent villages to help. They, of course, like to do the seasonal work for money while witnessing how their cousin has got rich so swiftly. Last year, the Li family's income was 38,000 yuan, but Li Mengqing was apparently not satisfied with it, saying, "My pigs and fishes sell well, so I am considering expansion of the production scale."

The Li family's success, by relying on the improved ecological surroundings, is regarded by local government and the masses as the "Li Mengqing Model" to be followed by others. According to a township government official, 66 households in the area have followed Li into diversified business, and the number may increase to 120 by the end of this year. Commenting on the ITTO project, he said, "It's great to have the social-forest project conducted in our area. Though designed to improve the ecosystem and prevent further reduction of the natural forests, it provides palpable methods for local people to change their way of live, so it has enormous and far-reaching social effect."

The chopping down of natural forests will not necessarily stop, but this should serve human beings through sustainable management. Therefore, finding a feasible standard for felling so as to guarantee a fair cycle of regeneration is required. In the forest proper of the beautiful Bawangling Hill is a sub-project point mainly devoted to this purpose. The state-approved experimental area covers 2,000 hectares of forests including 90 percent mountainous rain forests, with the accumulation of growing wood totaling 350,000 cubic meters. The trees of different types and ages are labeled with red or white cloth strips for observing the felling period and intensity. Scientific instruments were installed to record how the soil, water quality, the number of species in the environment and the forest structure change as a result of different kinds of felling.

Finally, there is the No.4 demonstration point engaged in effective protection of tropical virgin forests with scientific modern means. The work is conducted on Jianfengling Hill, where the tropical virgin forests cover 8,000 hectares. As early as 1956, the forest proper was set as a statutory place where chopping was strictly forbidden. The whole area was regulated as a national reserve enjoying intensive care in 1965, and it became a national forest park in 1993. Entering the luxurious forests, and among the towering old trees and gigantic tropic plants, visitors may feel that they are suddenly becoming the residents of Lilliputian country of Gulliver's Travels. The air is fresh, and meandering among the dense bush strata below the trees are gurgling streams. The singing of various birds from different directions composes a multi-part cantata, accompanied by the tympanic resonance of woodpeckers.

The virgin forest in Jianfengling hill belongs to one of the best-preserved tropical forests in China, home to 2,200 kinds of high-grade plant species, 200 kinds of bird, about 70 kinds of animals, 90 reptiles and 2,200 kinds of insect. In order to maintain the ecological condition and ensure specie diversification, a modern protection facility has been installed in Jianfengling with ITTO funding, which covers roads, telecommunications, fire control, research work and technical training for personnel. Several small demonstration points were established by scientists in villages near the forest, through which they teach local residents techniques in animal husbandry and planting fruits, bamboo and herbs so as to relieve human pressure on the forests.

The existing timber industry is clearly a victim of the logging ban on natural forests. Hence, developing a "substitute business" to help firms survive is one goal of the ITTO project, which has been put into successful practice in the two forestry bureaus in Bawangling and Jianfengling hills. For instance, the Jianfengling Forestry Bureau made a profit of 14 million yuan last year through diversified business, almost half its annual turnover from chopping in the past. This income, with some government subsidies paid after the logging ban, has kept two thirds of the employees in work. According to Lin Chongfei, director of the Bawangling Forestry Bureau, the bureau used to chop down 10,000 cubic meters a year, bringing in 20 million yuan. After 1994, when the logging ban was implemented in Hainan, the bureau and its 1,800 employees faced financial trouble. In recent years Lin's bureau has finally turned the corner by running various business, including oranges, mangoes and lichee planting, developing small-scale hydro power plants, and the production of rubber and rosin. Now, such production has reached 60 percent of the bureau's former income from logging. "Yes, we in the timber industry are paying the cost of the logging ban. But the sacrifice may be worth making, as the forest ecology is apparently improving already," Lin said.

Hainan is benefiting a lot from the ITTO project. According to Huang Jincheng, an official with the Hainan Forestry Bureau and director of the project office, it has brought in not only new technology, but also internationally advanced forestry philosophy, which is exerting a positive influence on the province's forestry and timber industry development. Huang said, "Though the project period will expire by the end of next year, its demonstration effect will remain. Furthermore, the precious study methods, information channels and knowledge derived from the project about reasonably developing forestry will stay with us, helping Hainan to improve both of its economy and ecology."

The Hainan project is among the biggest supported by ITTO, which has 51 members, both timber producing and consuming countries. Last March, Dr. James K. Gasana, representative of Swiss government, which is acting as an ITTO donor, inspected the sub-project areas. Before leaving China, Dr. Gasana said, "I was particularly impressed not only by the quality and quantity of the output, but also with the high professionalism of the staff at all levels. Equally impressive is the technical and scientific research results which are available now in China and may be helpful for other ITTO member countries."

Widely recognized by both scientific and industrial circles, the project's effect goes far beyond the four eye-pleasing sub-project areas in terms of impact on forestry and ecological development. Prof. Hong Jusheng, a natural forestry expert with the Chinese Academy of Forestry and director of the ITTO project in Hainan, explained, "The issue of tropical forests has been a hot one over the past 10 years, and it was top of the agenda of the International Conference on Environment and Development. A developing country, China is surely facing the conflict between economic development and environmental protection. So it is up to us to find a way out in this regard, ensuring the sustainable development of the timber industry, while not damaging the ecology.

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