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Logging off

Plans to plant more trees have mixed benefits

Is this sustainable?

“Green is the new black,” proclaims China Forestry Holdings’ website.

China’s third largest private tree plantation raised $200 million in its IPO this week. And it claims its intentions are noble. For the avoidance of doubt, it used the word ‘sustainable’ 67 times in its listing prospectus.

The Chinese government clearly has the same idea – which is why Beijing has ordered the planting of 2.6 billion trees. But could the leadership be missing the forest for the trees?

The need to protect China’s forests became apparent in 1998, when deforestation on the upper reaches of the Yangtze River contributed to devastating floods. Indiscriminate logging is also said to be behind Beijing’s frequent sandstorms, as well as the growing desertification of areas of the country’s more arid north.

The government’s response has been to ban logging in a number of ‘old growth’ forests and launch massive afforestation programmes elsewhere.

Add in the creation of a series of nature reserves and the promotion of the tree plantation industry, and the hope is for a ‘Green Great Wall’ in the north.

“The country’s six key forestry programmes have gradually changed the image of the forestry sector from a lucrative industry to a basic pillar in ecological protection and sustainable development,” observes State Forestry Administration (SFA) Vice-Director Lei Jiafu.

The programmes were given a boost recently by President Hu Jintao’s commitment to cut China’s carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP.

“Planting trees is the best thing that China can do to contribute to the fight against climate change,” says SFA Director Jia Zhibang.

The country’s forests have increased by 36 million hectares since 1998, and covered a fifth of national territory at the beginning of this year.

China Forestry is trying to lead change in the industry. It doesn’t ‘clear-cut’ its plantations and replants about as much as it cuts down. The company also says it is applying for Forest Stewardship Council certification “with the aim of improving our forestry management standards”.

But environmentalists say the industry still has some way to go before it is truly sustainable.

For starters, much of the illegal logging has shifted to other countries. China’s factories accounted for 16% of the global market for wood furniture last year. So when Beijing took steps to protect its own forests, it shifted some of the search for timber elsewhere. China still has no law against importing illegally-sourced logs.

But perhaps the biggest problem is that most of the new afforestation efforts involve planting just a single species of tree.

“High-density, single-species forests are a source of almost never-ending problems,” complains Chinese Academy of Science Institute of Botany Professor Jiang Gaoming. Jiang calls them “green deserts” as they support very few species of plant and wildlife. He says that they are very poor at retaining soil or water too.

Natural or ‘old growth’ forest also still need protecting, even if new plantations are being seeded. The latest National Forest Survey estimated that 8.32 million hectares of natural forest were lost in the last five years.

According to a recent 21CN Business Herald report, more than 150,000 hectares of tropical rainforest are cut down in Yunnan every year.

At a climate summit in New York in September, President Hu committed to planting a further 40 million hectares of forest by 2020.

But SFA Director Jia’s challenge will be to make them sustainable. “The quality of the forests is low,” he explains, “The ecological problem is a major issue in the sustainable development of China.”


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