Greening China: successes and failures

China has a long history of tree-planting, and the country has a greater area of man-made forests than any other. But this picture obscures a poor record of preserving biodiversity and old-growth forests, argues Song Xinzhou.

The greening of China began with the founding of the People’s Republic, and it has not stopped since. The massive tree-planting programmes of the past century mean that China now has a greater area of man-made forests than any other country. In 2003 artificial forests covered over 1% of China’s total land mass for the first time. By 2006 artificial forest coverage had reached 520,000 square kilometres. 

But despite these efforts over the last five decades, serious problems with greening programmes have emerged. Every year, without fail, the north is afflicted by terrible sandstorms. Cities are hit by drought, and the Yellow River often fails to reach the sea. Huge efforts are needed to try and regulate the Yellow River’s flow. Floods are very frequent; every year we see scenes of people battling against the flood waters.

Serious environmental problems continue to rear their ugly heads. Environmental alarm bells ring louder year on year; and some people are starting to realise there are natural laws that just have to be obeyed.

Against “green deserts”

The earth’s natural forests evolved to their present state over a very long process. These forests have many properties: they retain water and prevent soil erosion; they moderate the climate; they help prevent pollution and natural disasters; and they support biodiversity. Blindly planting artificial forests can only result in ecologically useless “green deserts”.

The blind pursuit of quantity over quality throughout the history of forest-planting in China has created large areas of single-species, artificial forests. Different trees dominate in different areas of the country: firs are common in the south, poplars in the north, red pines in the southeast, and larches in the northwest. These artificial forests are unable to resist natural pests, have poor water retention qualities, do not help prevent soil erosion, and do not support much undergrowth, which leads to more frequent forest fires. Single-species forests, grown to increase coverage alone, not only fail to solve environmental problems, but also create new crises of their own. This has led to enormous economic losses for the country.

In the late 1950s, problems arose with the Feibo forest reserve in Sichuan, which consisted of Burma Pines. The forest floor was covered with a thick layer of pine needles, which produced no compost and supported no organisms in the soil. Animals and other plants found it hard to survive in such an environment, leaving the forest floor dry and prone to regular forest fires. The soil was also eroded by rain.

Another forest, this time in Heilongjiang and consisting of larches, fell victim to an infestation of pine caterpillars in 2002. A railway operated by the Qiqihar Railway Bureau ran through the forest, and on June 1, several kilometres of the track were covered by a layer of caterpillars two to three inches thick. Passing trains mashed the larvae into a pulp that covered the tracks and stopped the trains.

Quality versus quantity

It is hard to for artificial forests planted against the laws of nature to survive in unsuitable environments. These forests not only fail to improve the environment, but they also place a burden on the local ecological system, waste human and material resources, and can even lead to the deterioration of the local environment. Many of the poplar trees planted as natural barriers in the north have shown stunted growth, or have wilted and died. When trees are grown on grasslands, the cost is high, and they have to be watered regularly. Also, because the depth of topsoil in these areas is quite shallow, the trees can never reach full size, and the drying out and erosion of the grasslands is accelerated. Some regions have launched huge projects to turn farmland back into forest, but have utterly failed to take local environmental conditions into account. At the same time, they care only about coverage, as this is how success is measured and political performance is evaluated.

Of the more than 400,000 Chinese pines planted in Qingjian County, northern Shaanxi, only about 100 trees remain. The locals call them the “bandits of the hills”. In 2000, the city of Wuhai in Inner Mongolia decided to plant cypresses on 270 square metres of sand dunes. The result? The cypress trees died, and the sand dunes, which had been confined to one area, started to spread.

Five to ten years after artificial forests were planted in Liangmaoding in the 1950s to 1970s, most of the trees were either stunted or dead. At the start of the 1980s, sainfoin was planted in Shadawang in Feibo, but over five years it gradually all died out. Research has shown that across artificial grasslands, soil is often obviously and seriously parched.

The facts all point to one conclusion: at the same time as we make efforts to improve the natural environment, we have to respect natural laws. We cannot rush blindly into projects or act rashly; above all, we must not purse quantity over quality.

Consolidation and protection

Because many areas think primarily about economic value when carrying out greening, the forests not only consist of a single species, but contain trees all of a similar age and height. This means that they have a very limited ecological value, and it is hard for them to recreate a natural ecosystem.

Natural ecosystems are biodiverse, and they are needed by the animals, plants and microorganisms that contribute to the recovery of other ecosystems. But the process of creating them is necessarily a long one. Ecosystems are fragile, and once they are damaged it is hard for them to recover. For this reason, priority needs to be given to protecting existing natural ecosystems. What is particularly regrettable is that at the same time as China plants artificial forests, primeval forests are rapidly being cut down.

Yunnan has earned a reputation as the “Kingdom of Flora and Fauna”. But seven local forestry bureaux reported that between January 1995 and September 1998, a total of 1,184 square kilometres had been deforested – an average of 333 square kilometres a year. In 2001 several state-owned forest management organisations illegally employed over 100 labourers to cut down and steal an area of nine square kilometres of primeval forest in the Yili River valley in Xinjiang.

Some local governments ask for money from the state to plant trees and grass, but at the same time destroy comparatively pristine ecosystems. They are sacrificing the opportunity for sustainable development, in favour of short-term individual financial gain.

Areas of Inner Mongolia are introducing water-intensive, heavily polluting industries in the name of “developing the west”. One town in Dong Ujimqin Qi, in Xilingol, brought in a paper mill, a matte smelting plant and a number of mines in the last couple of years. The companies dug waste pools that cover tens of hectares, directly into the natural grassland. Untreated waste is emitted straight into these pools, and because soil on the grassland is loosely packed, this waste seeps through into groundwater supplies, causing irreversible pollution. This means that the grasslands, already short of water, are now facing an even bleaker future.

We should be trying to develop in a sustainable way, in harmony with nature. Organisms that develop sustainably have a symbiotic relationship with nature and do not just take without giving anything back.

Grasslands and forests

There has been a lot of greening, but not much public attention has been paid to the grasslands. In fact the grasslands have many important ecological functions: they absorb carbon and produce oxygen; provide a home for many different organisms and act as windbreaks, holding sand down. They are also a source of water, conserve soil and moisture, moderate climate, prevent soil salination and sustain biodiversity.

China is relatively lacking in forests, with only 16.55% coverage across the country. But China is rich in grasslands, which cover 41.7% of the country’s area, putting China second in the world in terms of grassland coverage. Protection of the grasslands is of vital importance to environmental conservation in China.

After the willful destruction of the grasslands in the last century, the resultant sandstorms are now starting to spread awareness of the importance of grassland protection. The following statistics demonstrate the severity of the problems now facing the grasslands:

In 1989, the area of viable grassland stood at 312 million hectares (that is, twice the area of farmland). But current statistics show that 90% of natural grasslands in China are being degraded, including almost 180 million hectares which are undergoing serious degradation. The area of grassland at risk is rapidly increasing by 2 million hectares a year, and each year 650-750,000 hectares of grassland are lost.

What is causing this? As well as the industrial projects mentioned above, the immigration of people from other areas, increased cultivation and the construction of new towns are all inflicting mortal wounds on the grasslands. At the start of this century, the Wulagai development zone, said to be the biggest in China and eventually abandoned, was built on natural grassland in Inner Mongolia.

Ecological protection should consist of a whole raft of different and interlinked projects, of which tree-planting should be but one part. It is encouraging to see how keen the public is to participate in tree planting sessions, but we also have to realise that for many people, participation only reaches the level of showing a willingness to take part. For many people, tree-planting is mostly a way of demonstrating in interest in wider participation in environmental activities. This is important, and these actions can bring about change. However, what will improve the environment most may not be planting trees, but changes in the individual mentality – the steady accumulation of experience and hope.

Song Xinzhou is the founder of the website

Homepage photo by yewenyi

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