Rooting out the tree thieves to save forests

0 CommentsPrint E-mail China Daily, January 4, 2011
Adjust font size:

The slopes of the Tongbai Mountains were once covered with beautiful, thick forests of ancient trees. That was before villagers started stealing them.

In the 1990s, farmers were simply looking for free lumber and firewood, but today organized gangs are targeting large and rare trees as part of a multimillion-yuan industry.

"The mountainsides are starting to look very bare," said Li Peng of the Huaihe Rangers, an NGO set up to protect the rivers and forests of East China's Huaihe River Basin.

"You'd be lucky to find a living tree up there measuring more than 30 centimeters in diameter now. The thieves have taken almost all of them," he said.

As more stolen trees go to nearby nurseries to be sold for huge profits to property developers in northern cities, woodlands across the neighboring Tongbai and Biyang counties are being left in ruins.

Not only are the lives of ancient trees being shortened, thieves are also destroying grasslands and other plant life when they remove them.

"The deforestation has likely contributed to the floods and droughts we've witnessed here in recent years," said Li. "If it continues like this, future generations will not thank us."

Due to the mild climate, the Tongbai Mountains are home to a wide range of species, from the common Chinese honey locust to rare maidenhairs, the removal and sale of which without permission are illegal under State laws and regulations.

However, as some varieties are now hot commodities, tree traders are taking advantage by organizing villagers to sneak past forest rangers and steal them. Unfortunately, this usually involves killing every smaller tree and plant that stand in their way.

"I grew up next to a mountain with a thick forest. It was beautiful," said Tongbai farmer Li Hulin, who did not want to be identified by his real name for fear of reprisals from traders. "Even a stranger to the area would be heartbroken at the sight of it now."

As one of three forest rangers in Taipingqiao village, Li receives 3,000 yuan ($450) a year from the county government to protect 6.5 square kilometers of woodland.

"We patrol the mountains at least once a day separately and, from time to time, we catch the thieves red-handed, but it's useless. The forest continues to vanish," he said, adding that thefts have dramatically increased since 2008.

Fearless traders

Four hours northeast of the Tongbai Mountains is Yanling county, a famed horticultural trading hub where roads are lined with nurseries displaying large trees for sale. Of the hundreds of garden businesses here, Xinke Nursery is arguably the biggest.

When a China Daily reporter visited the store posing as a potential customer in December, manager Yu Fei said his company had 2,400 trees with diameters of more than 30 cm for sale, including seven 1,000-year-old maidenhair trees 70 cm in diameter.

Other rare plants mixed among the standard pines and maples were hackberry, Chinese holly and fringe trees.

"My big trees are from the mountains and most of them are hundreds of years old," boasted Yu, whose father owns the business. "Some are bought from suppliers, others we find ourselves."

When asked if he was concerned by the growing difficulty in finding old trees due to the mountains becoming barren, he said it was a good thing as it means prices will go up.

The State Forestry Administration forbids the removal of trees older than 100 years from forests without the necessary certificates. Those moved legally must be replanted. Loggers are also banned from touching forests preserved for the benefit of the environment, while county authorities must give permission before any tree in a State-owned, collectively owned or private forest is used as lumber or firewood.

Yet, for traders like Yu, money can help overcome any obstacle.

A worker at Xinke surnamed Hou said his boss uses his connections with county officials to get village cadres to form gangs to roam the mountains for large and rare trees.

"It's safe to buy old trees from nurseries," assured Yu. "We can help get the transportation and quarantine certificates from the county forestry bureau, which makes it easier to take the trees to your place."

A dealer called Tao at a nursery five minutes down the road explained quarantine and transportation certificates cost 20 yuan and 40 yuan per ton respectively, and added: "We can persuade county forestry officials to give you a discount."

It is this link with the local authorities that farmers living near the mountains are worried about.

Connection fears

Li Hulin, who has worked as a forest ranger in Taipingqiao village since 2005, relies heavily on the government for help.

"If the crooks are first offenders or local villagers, they might get scared and run away when (a ranger) approaches. Otherwise, there is little we can do apart from calling the authorities," he said.

Rangers report to the village Party secretary. However, the previous incumbent in Taipingqiao, Fu Dehua, was dismissed in mid-2010 after being convicted at a disciplinary hearing of embezzlement and taking bribes. A permanent replacement will not be elected until April 2011.

"Fu was corrupt. When he arrived (at the scene of a theft), he would order the rangers to leave and then take bribes from the thieves," said Li Hulin, who explained he was too afraid to go over his head and complain to county officials.

"The acting village Party secretary always says he is just a deputy and it's not his business to take care of the forest. Nothing has changed for the better," he added.

Geng Linwang, whose family has farmed in Tongbai's Dalishu village for more than five generations, leased 1.23 million square meters of woodland in 1982 and had hoped to make a tidy profit when the trees were large enough to be legally cut down and sold for lumber. That dream has slowly disappeared with his trees.

He estimates that, since 2006, thieves have stolen trees from his land worth a total of 300,000 yuan (incidentally, this is roughly the same amount it would take to buy the most expensive tree at Xinke Nursery).

"We are powerless," complained Geng, who calls the county forestry authorities directly when he sees evidence of a theft in progress, such as freshly dug trees on the roadside. "It always takes (the police or other officials) at least 30 minutes to arrive and, nine out of 10 times, the thieves have already gone.

"The thieves are breaking the law but they aren't afraid," he added. "Their bosses have power. If not, they wouldn't be able to take the trees."

Du Quan, director of the county forestry bureau's police department, dismissed any suggestion that the crooks have connections with authorities and insisted his team has an 85-percent detection rate.

The authority prosecuted at least 50 people in 2009, although Du did admit his department lacks sufficient resources, with only 15 officers covering an area of 1,067 square kilometers.

Yan Kejie, director of Tongbai forestry bureau, did not answer calls by China Daily to either of his two cell phones last week. During an interview on Dec 9, however, he said his department was drafting strict regulations and plans to increase subsidies offered to forest rangers to improve their performance.

A State Forestry Administration publicity official, who gave her name only as Wang, revealed that the nation's laws were being amended but refused to elaborate. Enforcement, she said, is "reliant on the local bureaus".

Branching out

As most of the thieves are actually farmers looking to make extra cash, Li Peng at the Huaihe Rangers feels the problem also stems from a lack of education.

"Villagers know little about the environmental value or market value of large trees," he said. "Some of them sell big trees growing around their homes at a low price, while others simply work for whoever pays them to move trees. It's a shame."

To move a tree with a diameter of 30 to 50 centimeters requires at least 10 men working for one day. This costs traders about 2,000 yuan, yet the resale value is usually triple that amount.

Yu Fei said his nursery makes an average profit of 30 percent on large trees.

"The huge profits are the main driving force of this widespread problem," said Dong Yunlan, a retired researcher with the Henan Institute of Forestry Science. "From villagers to businessmen a profit chain has formed."

Another tree dealer said most buyers of large and rare trees are property companies looking to decorate new developments or city governments that use them to boost their "green" image.

Old Tree Park, which covers 400,000 square meters in Zhengzhou, capital of Henan, was built on barren farmland in 2005. It contains 880 trees, including three that are said to be more than 1,000 years old.

"Stealing trees not only violates the law but is also a crime against the trees and the environment," said Jiang Gaoming, a professor and senior researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences' institute of botany.

Despite the use of chemical supplements by maintenance crews at the parks and residential complexes where large trees are replanted, the damage caused by thieves to the roots when digging them up often results in 50 to 70 percent of the trees dying.

"The ultimate solution is to stop the demand among buyers at the end of the chain," said Jiang. "There is no excuse for moving large trees into cities from their natural habitat in the mountains.

"The law should punish whoever buys and uses these trees as decoration."

Print E-mail Bookmark and Share

Go to Forum >>0 Comments

No comments.

Add your comments...

  • User Name Required
  • Your Comment
  • Racist, abusive and off-topic comments may be removed by the moderator.
Send your storiesGet more from