'Green bank' helps China reduce carbon emission

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As the international community pins high hopes on the coming UN climate change conference in Copenhagen, for greenhouse gas emission reduction, farmers in a southwestern China county have already made tangible progress in this regard.

"When I was young, we used to chop down finger-thick trees to make fire for cooking," said Li Xue, a villager from Leishan County in Guizhou Province. "Now we don't even touch big trees."

Leishan was located on the upstream of two major water systems, the Yangtze River and the Pearl River. It was once one of the country's most ecologically fragile regions.

Thanks to the afforestation and forest protection measures jointly carried out by the local government and farmers in recent years, 70 percent of the county' land area is now covered with forest, up 11 percentage points from ten years ago.

"We often see wild boars in the forest nowadays. It was a rare thing in the past," said Li.

According to Li Tianyou, deputy director general of the Leishan County's Forestry Bureau, the local government started to contract collective forestland to farmers chronically in 2007. As of now more than 190,000 farmers have been issued forest warrants, covering 84,500 hectares of forest. "This is just like a 'green bank' we have built."

"Through reasonable logging, cultivation in forest and eco-tourism, the trees have been bringing farmers large fortune," said Li, adding that the government also gave compensation fees for local people to manage their forest.

A fruit tree called Litsea cubeba is Leishan people's favorite. It grows fast in barren soil on top of high hills. Its berry is edible and can be extracted to make oil for food flavoring.

Different from the traditional administrative pressure to "safeguard" a certain proportion of forest, China's current forest protection focuses on "smart" measures to let farmers take initiative in the protection work by giving them subsidies and encouraging them to make it a business.

Two years later, the concept of "green bank" once again comes into the spotlight as the international community is joining hands to combat climate change.

Days before the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen, China announced its specific goal of controlling green house gas emission, including the increase of 40 million hectares of forest area and 1.3 billion cubic meters of forest volume from the figures in 2005.

Chinese farmers' environmental protection awareness was also boosted under the "green bank" conception.

In Chuanyan village of Guizhou's Dafang County, where mudslide frequently occurred due to excessive logging, now the forest area has been expanded to 2,000 hectares, with a forest coverage rate of 68.52 percent.

"We suffered too much when our environment was terrible," said Yang Xianfu who contracts 40 hectares of barren mountain land to plant trees and vegetation.

In northwest China's Qinghai Province, where the Yangtze River, the Yellow River and the Lancang River originate, the local government raised the compensation fee from 5 yuan per mu (about 11 U.S. dollars per hectare) to 10 yuan to encourage farmers to take on the forest business.

"For families who contract a large piece of forest, they can get as much as 50,000 yuan (7,353 dollars) per year," said Huang Jiangyong, an official with the Qinghai Provincial Forestry Bureau.

According to Huang, about 1.46 million hectares of forestland will be contracted to local farmers and herdsmen next year, and contract period is 70 years.

However, a dilemma still exists -- as in many developing countries.

After giving up the traditional way of making incomes, how can developing countries find a substitute to compensate the economic loss while protecting the environment?

In Leishan, as the once flourishing wood processing industry was restrained by the government, many started other businesses like restaurants and hotels, most of which are not nearly as profitable as wood processing.

Li Tianyou said the current compensation was too small for some poor families and called upon the government to increase the subsidies.

It'll also be a key issue for this time's climate change summit.

According to statistics from the Chinese State Forestry Administration (SFA), between 1980 and 2005, forests in China had absorbed net 4.68 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide through the afforestation program, and 430 million tons was reduced by controlling deforestation, totaling 5.11 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, equivalent to 8 percent of the total industrial CO2 emission during that period.

SFA head Jia Zhibang said the increase of forest vegetation and resources proved that China was actively coping with climate change.

However, to Li Tianyou, terms like "forest carbon sinks" were too complicated for ordinary people.

"What we care about the most is how to increase the forest while bringing local people real benefits," he said.

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