Saving China’s natural forests (part one)

Natural forests in China are protected under state regulations. But as Feng Yongfeng discovers, logging companies still violate the rules and clear land for their own purposes.

People in Fuzhu Village, in southeastern China’s Fujian province, traditionally make their living from the sea. They have never shown much interest in the mountains until recently. Then, without the knowledge or support of locals, village leaders leased a large tract of ecologically-valuable natural forest to a local company named Fangte, on the understanding that they would be allowed to clear the plot and replant fast–growing, more profitable eucalyptus trees.

This is a new trend in the destruction of China’s natural forests. In the past, poverty often resulted in environmental destruction – local farmers with no other means of income would fell lumber to earn income for their basic survival – but larger, commercial interests have now taken a hold. Fangte, originally established as an IT company, diversified into forestry only this year, but already has several plantations near to Fuzhu as prospectors look to cash in on the huge profits can be made harvesting timber to supply the insatiable hunger of local paper-makers and fibreboard manufacturers.

“Forestry reforms were trialed in Fujian,” explains local forestry bureau official Hong Shenghe, “and as forestry rights were liberalized many commercial forestry firms took the opportunity to gain access to large areas of mountain land. I’ve found that fast-growing trees are very popular in the south of Fujian. Areas where fruits such as lychees and bananas were grown are now making way for eucalyptus trees.”

Land supply, however, is limited and “in some places which do not have enough land for commercial forestry, natural forests are being targeted,” confirms Hong. The displacement of crops, including multi-species natural forests, continues all over Fujian’s mountainous terrain, but expansion is most prolific in the south and the west of the province.

According to villagers in Fuzhu, companies are purposely targeting the land where natural forests grow because “Eucalyptus needs a lot of nutrients, and the humus in natural forests is pretty fertile. We all reckon that’s the main reason why they want to cut down the natural forests for the eucalyptus. The facts prove it – it grows better where there used to be natural forest.”

Parties involved in the Fuzhu Village deal, however, reject any suggestion that the leased land had any special ecological value.

Head of the county government’s propaganda department claims that “That land wasn’t forested originally….it was a county project to attract investment. Fangte won a bidding process, and everything was above board.”

“Fujian Forestry Office investigated the matter recently, and concluded that a number of young people had incited the villagers, with the aim of claiming the fast-growing plantation for themselves,” he adds.

Villagers, for their part, remain adamant that a natural forest once stood on the hill. “The natural broadleaf forests here on this mountain had been growing for at least several decades,” they say. “The trunks were so wide you couldn’t wrap your arms around them. It was dark in there, and steep. We never dared to go in, even to cut firewood. Some places used to be American pine…they were over twenty years old too.”

Sources at Xiamen University’s Institute of Ecology appear to back up the suspicions of local villagers. Lin Peng, Head of the Institute, says that “since the drive to make use of uncultivated (un-forested) mountain land in the 1980s Fujian hasn’t actually had much cultivated land. Therefore, claims to be planting forests on uncultivated land [as officials in the Fuzhu Village deal claim] are certainly false.”

Meanwhile, locals also accuse the village chairman, who doubles up as a ‘forestry management official’ on the Fangte payroll, of making significant financial gains from the deal and maintain that the village secretary responsible for ‘forestry protection’ failed to do any protecting. The new 1200 mu (about 200 acres) plot at the back of their village has made a mockery of Forestry Bureau regulations which restrict plots on steep hills to just 75 mu and villagers are aggrieved that their local environment has been compromised in exchange for cash.

“Us villagers aren’t in it for the money. For us it’s a battle for the environment and honour. While we’ve been making these complaints the Forestry Bureau and Fangte have tried to reach a ‘reconciliation’ with us, saying they’ll ‘compensate us for our work for the environment’, but we never accepted.”

“I think China’s biggest environmental problem currently is the inability to stop the destruction of natural forests,” continues Peng. “There are comprehensive measures in place to protect these forests, but they’re not enough to stop a lot of people from destroying them and planting single-species forests under the guise of ‘reclaiming agricultural mountain land’ or ‘greening coastal defenses.’ The current frenzied growth in eucalyptus forests could augur a new cycle of ecological disasters.”

The author: Yongfeng Feng is an award-winning journalist with the Guangming Daily.

Read on: Saving China’s natural forests (part two)

Homepage photo by Liqin Xu