China’s empty forests

China has committed to a target of 20% forest cover by 2010, and tree planting has been actively encouraged. But fast-growing, single species forests threaten wildlife and imperil the country’s biodiversity, writes Feng Yongfeng.

Every year around this time, many cities and regions of China hold a tree-planting month. Employers in the cities often fund tree-planting outings for their staff. In counties, towns and villages, farmers are given support for tree-planting projects, which they hope will bring in some extra earnings. A renewed enthusiasm for greening the country seems to take hold of everyone.

The Chinese government has committed itself to achieving a target of 20% forest cover by 2010. And as a result, the State Forestry Administration has been promoting greater integration between forestry and the paper industry, as well as promoting tree-planting initiatives, especially of fast-growing, high-yield trees. However, just as these measures are being enthusiastically put into place, something very worrying is happening to China’s forests – they are becoming empty. So, how are these “empty forests” being created?

Golf courses

When Li Xiaoxi, a professor at the Air Force Command Institute, found out about plans for a project to regenerate Beijing’s Old Summer Palace, she made several unsuccessful attempts to stop it going ahead. The plans meant that the area – which has been semi-wild since the 1950s – would be cleared of old trees and vegetation to make way for a golf course-style lawn of imported turf. “Water in Beijing is increasingly scarce, and the old Summer Palace garden used to have its own water system,” said Li. “Moreover, its high density of shade and large amounts of vegetation meant there was a high degree of biodiversity. Now, with this landscaping going on, the area will consume more and more water because there is no vegetation under the trees and the lawn needs to be watered.”

A well-established bird-watching group, who form part of environment NGO Friends of Nature, believe that the Old Summer Palace gardens were once home to the finest natural environment within Beijing’s Fifth Ring Road, but have deteriorated in recent years. They say the destruction wrought by the park administration is on a par with that of the foreign troops who first destroyed the Old Summer Palace in during the Second Opium War in 1860. Back then, it was China’s national dignity that was insulted. Now, it is the park’s environmental dignity.

The changes to the park in the Old Summer Palace reflect a growing obsession with golf courses that has spread across many of China’s cities. The bright green grass of the golf course obscures a reality of intensive water use and diminishing biodiversity. In recent years, city landscaping departments have been continuously enlarging urban green areas. But this interference, while superficially greening the cities, may in fact be reducing the ecological value of urban vegetation. The greenery is made up of plants that are easily transported in or out; apart from magpies, doves and sparrows, very few animals inhabit these areas. The main “wild animals” are stray dogs and cats that have been abandoned by their owners.

There are also problems with green areas in China’s suburbs. Some cities have contracted out these green areas to companies, which turn them into company holiday resorts, defeating the object of the schemes. Many companies take a very crude approach to tree-planting, often cutting down native trees and planting evergreens such as pine trees in their place. They believe this is more aesthetically pleasing, but have no idea that it goes against principles of respecting native tree varieties and encouraging biodiversity.

Cash crops

Starting in the 1980s, poor farmers living near forested areas have been known to “open up” the forested slopes around them by planting trees as cash crops. These trees usually include tangerine, peach, apple and chestnut, though some have been known to venture higher up and plant groups of fir, poplar and pine trees, which they see as a longer term investment. 

The income to be gained from regular crops has been falling since the 1990s, and greater numbers of farmers now reclaim land for tree-planting. In rural areas that have no other industry, such is the case in parts of Fujian province, farmers have stripped the hills from top to bottom, even burning the original forests to the ground to make way for fruit trees. This is the main reason for the high frequency of flooding in Fujian over the last few years.

Policies of planting fast-growing, high-yield trees and integrating forestry with the paper industry mean that since the turn of the new century, certain privileged people and big commercial interests have been able to encroach on areas of natural forest. With the collusion – or even assistance – of local governments, they have won contracts to open up areas of natural forest in the name of “transforming uncultivated hillsides”, cutting down original forests and replacing them with rapid-growth trees such as eucalyptus, fir or pine. Natural forests have been replaced with artificial, single-species forests. These forests may look green, but in fact they are nothing more than shells. Beneath the canopy there is very little vegetation, few animal species and almost no fungi.

Artificial forests are the greatest long-term threat to China’s forests. There has been a recent explosion in the wild boar population as their natural predators have disappeared, but single-species forests may signal the end for the boar, as they run out of food and space to live. In the end, like Yunnan’s elephants, they may have to vie with humans for food that has been taken away by encroaching cropland and artificial forests.

Natural forests

China has a large area of nature reserves, which is said to far exceed the global average. However, the forests in these reserves are also in danger of being emptied out.

Jiuding Shan Nature Reserve, in Sichuan province, is home to an NGO that aims to protect local biodiversity. For years they have been removing animal traps left by hunters and clearing away metal wires designed to cut the necks of takin. They want to fight the poachers and create a place of safe passage for wild animals. They sometimes even come face to face with the hunters, who have been known to set fires to smoke animals out of the forest.

Southwest China’s Yunnan province has always been known as the “land of wildlife.” However, much of the wildlife in China and southeast Asia has been brought to the brink of extinction in order to satisfy the greed of certain wealthy diners. In fact, the “land of wildlife” is fast becoming a misnomer. Tourism has grown massively in Yunnan over the past few years, and visitors from all over the world flock to eat the local delicacies. Larvae and hornets, various fungi and many herbal remedies are being picked or dug out on an unprecedented scale to keep up with the tourists’ demands.

Jilin province’s Changbai Mountain National Nature Reserve used to be surrounded by verdant forests of Korean pine trees. In the 1980s, large numbers of these trees were cut down. Residents of the nature reserve secretly harvested the pine nuts. At the beginning of 2000, the reserve decided to lease tracts of Korean pine forest to contractors, and create a pine nut industry. Without any environmental impact assessment, 980,000 trees covering almost 50,000 hectares were assigned to 38 contractors. The pines were severely damaged; 11 types of bird and 15 varieties of mammal were forced to either starve or change their diet. Only in 2006, when Changbai Mountain Reserve was made a World Natural Heritage site, did the Jilin provincial government agree to “cancel, with regret, the contract system…at an annual loss of 10 million yuan.” But by this time the forest ecosystem had already suffered severe damage.

Human activities such as large-scale harvesting, logging and hunting have caused a massive decline in the biodiversity of China’s natural forests. These forests may look healthy on the surface, but under the canopies, their insides have been scraped out and they are losing their vitality and richness.

If this goes on, China’s forests may decline in ecological value – despite their expanding surface area. With their biodiversity decreasing, they will be nothing but empty forests.


Feng Yongfeng is a science reporter for Guangming Daily

Homepage photo by Marc van der Chijs