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Deforestation in Yunnan
Forests covered much of China, especially in southwestern China, in the early twentieth century. Currently around 23.4 percent of China is covered by forests. Most of these are in the northern, southern and mountainous central parts of the country. There are some tropical rain forests in Yunnan Province in southern China and in other provinces along the southern coast. The last remaining large stands of forest are in northeast Manchuria. The forests of the northeast near the Tumen River include larch, fir, pine, cypress, juniper, birth, and walnut

Dense virgin forests lie along the Yarlung Zangbo (Brahmaputra) River in Tibet and in some places on Lancang (Mekong) and Nujiang (Salween) rivers in Yunnan Province.

Forest cover in 1990: 1,571,410 square kilometers; Forest cover in 2000 1,770,010 square kilometers; Forest cover in 2005: 1,970,290 square kilometers; Change in forest cover between 1990 and 2000: 19,860 square kilometers per year; Change in forest cover between 2000 and 2005: 40,580 square kilometers per year. [Source: Mongabay]

Websites: Water Wars Pulitzer Gateway ; Paper on Coping Strategies pdf file ; Old FAO article ; Beijing’s Desert Storm ; DEFORESTATION Chinese Lumber Industry ; Terra Daily Report Terra Daily Report Environment Websites and Sources: China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environmental Protection (MEP) EIN News Service’s China Environment News Wikipedia article on Environment of China ; Wikipedia ; China Environmental Protection Foundation (a Chinese Government Organization) ; ; China Environmental News Blog (last post 2011) ;Global Environmental Institute (a Chinese non-profit NGO) ; Greenpeace East Asia ; China Digital Times Collection of Articles ; International Fund for China’s Environment .

Deforestation in China

In the 1950s, 60s and 1970s forest cover in China fell to less than 10 percent of the total land area. According to the Los Angeles Times: “The misty hills of Yunnan province were once covered in pine trees. He Shigui remembers the hush of the fragrant forest when he was a boy. All that changed when Mao instructed farmers to cut down the trees to grow food for a hungry nation. Mao's slogan was "Man must conquer nature," and He Shigui and other farmers responded. By the 1990s, most of the trees along the Yangtze River were gone, along with the roots that once held the soil in place, creating a natural sponge. “He, his face now as furrowed as a field, still remembers the stormy day in 1998 when rainwater raced down the denuded hillsides, contributing to a disaster downstream. "Of course I feel bad," said He, walking across the remains of a red-clay slope on his farm that washed away that day. "There was a flood here and there was a flood there. It was the same water."[Source: Kenneth R. Weiss, Los Angeles Times, July 22, 2012]

While massive reforestation programs began to bear fruit in the 1990s deforestation continued. Trees were cut down in state forests in western China at double the rate of natural growth. Illegal logging and slash and burn agriculture consume up to 5,000 square kilometers of virgin forest every year. In northern and central China forest cover has been reduced by half in the last two decades. The mountains in southwest China suffered serious deforestation, logging, hunting and collection of plants and animals for traditional medicines.

In the 1980s and 90s forests in northeast Manchuria were cut down at an alarming rate to be "made into chopsticks, toothpicks and Ping Pong paddles." Most of China's rain forests along southern coast were threatened although a few areas were protected. The furniture industry in China gobbles up large amounts of Chinese timber as well as illegally-logged tropical rain forest timber from Indonesia and other places. The use of disposable chopsticks uses up 1.3 million cubic meters of timber a year according to China’s environment ministry.

Between the mid 1990s and mid 2000s China went from being a country that imported much of its wood products to one of the world’s leading exporters of furniture, plywood and flooring. China is also a leading consumer of paper. While many paper products are made with recycled paper China still has built a number of new pulp mills and in the future they will need trees to keep them going.

Chinese demand for wood is consuming forests around the globe. The rain forest of the Congo and Cameroon in central Africa, the Amazon basin and the islands of Indonesia are all being heavily logged to supply China’s growing demand for wood and its rapidly-growing furniture industry.

Affects of Deforestation in China

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More deforestation in Yunnan
Clear cutting and overgrazing have turned large areas of Qinghai province into a desert. Large tracts of forest also being cut down in Sichuan and Shaanxi provinces have threatened the home of the giant panda. Deforestation is blamed for the 4 percent decline in rainfall, 15 percent in the dry season, in the Xishuangbanna area of Yunnan, where 50 percent of local forest have been deforested

Logging, overgrazing and poor land use cause erosion which in turn causes lakes and rivers to silt up, arable land to be eaten away, and flooding to increase because vegetation that catches rainwater and slows its flow into rivers is gone. Logging and resulting erosion in the Yangtze River basin and along other rivers are believed to have caused devastating floods, landslides and mudslides that have killed thousands of people, washed away roads and caused billions of dollars in damage

Soil erosion is common on China's crop land that is not irrigated. The Yellow River--which drains much of Northern China-- derives its name from the 1.6 billion tons of eroded, ocher-colored topsoil that it annually transports to the ocean. Waterlogging and salinization affect 23 percent of the irrigated land in China and significantly reduce production on an estimated 15 percent of China's irrigated land. An estimated 6 million acres of land has been damaged by salt.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, the Chinese logged the forested areas of Tibet very intensively. The film “Cutting Down Tibet”, made secretly by a Tibetan, showed huge logging camps in southern Tibet and trucks loaded with trees three meters (10 feet) in diameter. Deforestation has turned once clear streams muddy brown. An increase in the number of livestock animals and a rising demand for fuel is threatening to strip the valleys of vegetation. Run-off from denuded mountain slopes is believed to have been a factor in excessive flooding of the Yangtze River in 1998.

Combating of Deforestation in China

China has banned logging in natural forests, earmarked $10 billion for reforestation projects and plans to spend $1 billion a year over 30 year to expand protected areas. To reduce consumption of wood China has imposed a five percent tax on wooden flooring and even chopsticks.

Deforestation has slowed in Tibet since the 1998 Yangtze flood. Logging has been banned in Omda, Markam and Gonjo counties in Tibet in part to prevent erosion from filling in the Three Gorges Dam reservoir on the Yangtze. Large reforestation projects are being carried out. The Min River valley, near panda habitats in Sichuan, is focus of ant-logging efforts. Lumber jacks are being trained as tree planters, logging is banned in some areas of Sichuan and Hubei provinces.

Chinese college students have organized a boycott of an Indonesian paper company for destroying tropical rain forests Following a widespread ban on logging in 1998, China's forests have started to recover but its paper mills, flooring firms and furniture makers consume more imported wood than ever, accelerating forest loss in Siberia, Indonesia, Tanzania and Brazil. [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, October 18, 2010]

20080318-water erosion

Reforestation in China

China is engaged in a massive tree planting program too revitalize its forests and timber industry, conserve its soil and halt deforestation and reduce its reliance on imported timber.The government has planted millions of trees since the 1970s and turned large swaths of for formally barren land into forests. The effort was undertaken mainly to control floods and erosion but also has the added effect of combating global warming by soaking up nearly half a billion ton of carbon dioxide a year.

In 1979, the Standing Committee of the Fifth National People's Congress adopted an Environmental Protection Law and a Forestry Law. China began a nationwide reforestation program 1989. [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Reforestation, including construction of shelter belts, has emphasized restoration of the erosionprone loesslands in the middle reaches of the Yellow River (See Greet Green Wall Below). Another belt of trees has been planted in southwest China as a protective measure against typhoons. Through its tree planting scheme China hoped to boost its forest cover to 20 percent by 2010. Tree-planting is considered a civic duty that must be performed by every person in China. The amount of land covered by forest in China has increased from 9 percent in 1949 to around 13 percent in the 1990s to about 17.5 percent in 2000.

On the basis or reducing carbon emissions, huge tree planting efforts in China have offset deforestation in Brazil and Indonesia. In Asia, the tree planting program in China more than offset deforestation in other parts of Asia to produce a net increase in the amount of forested land in the Asia-Pacific region between 2000 and 2005. A study published in 2006 in the U.S. journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found many of the world’s forests are making a comeback and some are more thickly forested now than they were 200 years ago. The great gains have occurred in China, Ukraine, Spain, Vietnam and the United States while the greatest losses have occurred in Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria and the Philippines.

Some of the reforestation work is done by sapling hole diggers who, for a days work, are “paid four or five packets of instant noodles which they consume dry because no water is available. In some cases holes are dug and terraces are built but no saplings are planted. When asked why one villager told the Los Angeles Times, “Because our labor is free, but they’d have to pay for the trees. The local officials embezzle the money instead.” When saplings are planted is when a Beijing VIP or television crew shows up.

Reforestation in China After the Yangtze Flood in 1998

Massive floods on the Yangtze River in 1998, exacerbated by deforestation, accelerated reforestation efforts. “The inundations across central China drowned more than 3,000 people, destroyed 13 million homes and caused at least $24 billion in damage. The catastrophe also changed the way China viewed trees. Chinese leaders issued a broad ban on logging and launched an enormous replanting program. In the 2000s, the government spent more than $90 billion to plant trees across millions of acres and pay farmers to nurture them. An enormous sign just up the hill from He's farm proclaims, "Keep the trees, protect Mother Yangtze River." [Source: Kenneth R. Weiss, Los Angeles Times, July 22, 2012]

“The reforestation has turned China greener — literally. Scientists have noticed the change on satellite images: Forest cover has expanded from 12 percent to 20 percent of the country. t least in this case, China learned the consequences of heeding Mao's exhortation to subjugate nature. "Harmonizing people and nature — that's how high government discussions frame China's future development," said Stanford University ecologist Gretchen Daily, who has studied China's reforestation. "There is widespread recognition that natural underpinnings of human prosperity are at grave risk."

After the Yangtze floods in 1998, a logging ban was imposed in natural growth forests and massive reforestation project was launched on the Yangtze watershed. Terraces on slopes steeper than 25 degrees are to be planted with grasses, bushes and trees. Huge tracts of farmlands are to be converted back to wetlands, pastures, forests and lakes.

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Deforestation on the upper Yangtze basin

Has China’s Reforestation Effort Been as Successful as Claimed?

China invested more than $100 billion in one decade alone in its nationwide campaign to plant new forests. “Planting trees now will benefit our future generations, and we should roll up our sleeves to plant more trees year after year, generation after generation,” President Xi Jinping said in March 2017 at a tree-planting ceremony in Beijing. But a study published in May 2017 in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B suggests that some official estimates of China’s greening campaign overstated its successes, and mistook shrubs for forests. [Source: Mike Ives, New York Times, May 4, 2017]

According to the New York Times: “United Nations data, which are based on national statistics, show that between 2000 and 2010 China gained 434,000 square kilometers (167,568 square miles) of forest, an area slightly larger than California. China’s own estimates were not far behind. But the newly released study, based partly on an analysis of high-resolution photographs, found that China had gained only about 12,741 square miles of forest over the same period, an area roughly the size of Maryland. And it found that much of the government’s reported new forests were actually just collections of shrubs. “China’s forests are not as green as we think,” Xu Jianchu, a co-author of the study and a professor of ethnoecology at the Kunming Institute of Botany in southwest China, said.

“Lu Zhi, a conservation biologist at Peking University in Beijing, said its findings were consistent with recent research suggesting that China’s forest resources have not significantly increased despite the government’s extensive tree-planting campaign or its efforts to halt commercial logging in forests. The authors of the study wrote that their results highlighted a need for more refined forest monitoring and a better way of measuring performance of Chinese forests based on “climatic suitability.” “These findings indeed point to major gaps between the way the concept of forest is defined in the various international conventions, versus how the general public understands it,” said Meine van Noordwijk, a professor of agroforestry at Wageningen University in the Netherlands and the chief science adviser for the World Agroforestry Center. He was not involved in the study.

“The study’s authors wrote that the United Nations forestry data was far higher than their own estimates in part because it counted young plantations and bare land that is earmarked for planting new forests. Places where modest forestry gains were detected in China were often not targeted for afforestation, they wrote, because the land was in demand for agriculture or urbanization. Pinpointing tree-cover change in China is globally important, the authors wrote, in part because China is the world’s leading timber importer and has invested more money than all other countries combined in tree-planting.

“The major reason for ambiguity in forest estimates worldwide is that there are over 800 official definitions for the term “forest,” with criteria ranging from over 10 percent to over 30 percent tree cover, the journal Nature Climate Change reported in 2015. Mr. Xu said the newly released study underscored that the Chinese government should pay closer attention to the areas it targets for new forests, and avoid its practice of planting trees in semi-arid regions and deserts. “It’s time to look at both the economic efficiency and the ecological returns,” he said. Mr. van Noordwijk said that to avoid such discrepancies in measuring forests, researchers could either clearly differentiate subcategories under the “umbrella” term of forest, or else avoid the term entirely.“Once you are over the initial shock, the latter is actually feasible,” he said.

Is Tree Planting the Best Strategy for All of China

David Stanway of Reuters wrote: “China plans to increase total forest coverage from 23 percent last year to 24.1 percent by 2025, but the constant expansion has masked many underlying problems. "There's been relatively low survival of trees in some regions, and discussions about the depletion of underground water tables," said Hua Fangyuan, a conservation biologist who focuses on forests at China's Peking University. [Source: David Stanway, Reuters, June 3, 2021]

“Struggling to find space for new trees, the government of an administrative division in Inner Mongolia was accused in 2019 of seizing farmland to meet forest coverage targets set by Beijing. Artificial monocultural plantations, such as rubber, have also been created at the expense of natural forest, according to some studies. "This (competing land use pressure) is a problem not just for China but all over the world," said Hua. "We are talking about millions of hectares of targets. With the growing population, there is going to be competition and tension."

“This competition for land has been reinforced by China's reliance on government-backed industrial-scale plantations to meet targets, though it is gradually shifting to a more nature-based approach to reforestation. There are also signs that China has learned from past mistakes, when trees were planted — often by scattering seeds from military aircraft — with no consideration for existing ecosystems or weather conditions, meaning many failed to take root. The government is now more careful in which species it selects to plant, and more inclined to make room for natural forests to expand, rather than create artificial plantations.

“The forestry commission also plans to rethink its strategy in northwest China to reflect concerns that new plantations have put water resources under more strain, experts said. But with local governments under pressure to grow the economy and guarantee food supplies, China's tree-planting may also be reaching a point of diminishing returns. "It's getting more and more difficult to really increase the forest coverage rate simply because there aren't so many places left for big reforestation projects," said said Ma Lichao, China country director for the Forest Stewardship Council, a non-profit organisation promoting sustainable forest management. Ma.

Image Sources: 1, 2) Nature Products; 3) ESWN, Environmental News; 4) IIASA; 5, 6) FAO; 7) Julie Chao ; 8) Landsberger Posters; 9) UNCCD

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2022

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