Managing Chinese forests responsibly

China is one of the world’s biggest timber producers, importers and exporters. What issues does the logging trade raise for the country, asks Zhang Kejia, and how can it be made more sustainable?


One result of China’s rapid economic growth has been the massive expansion of the timber trade, which has been growing by over 110% annually for the past few years. People are now asking: will such heavy demand result in the shrinking of China’s forests and a change in the country’s ecology?

Chen Xiaoqian works for The Nature Convervancy’s (TNC) forest project. She believes that forest resources can be used sustainably, as long as two key rules are followed: forests must be managed efficiently; and forest products must be used in a sustainable way.

Man-made forests accounted for only 3% of total global forest coverage in 2000, but managed to satisfy 35% of demand for lumber. Many timber-producing countries have shed their reliance on natural forests, and rely instead on man-made forest. In Brazil, for example, man-made forests satisfied 62% of demand for lumber in the same year, showing how the global forestry trade can move towards sustainability.

China is now one of the world’s largest producers, consumers and traders of timber, says Chen Jiawen of the Chinese State Forestry Administration, and it will have increasingly influence in the development of sustainable forestry. In 1998, China placed strict limitations on logging in old-growth and natural forests. These measures received widespread recognition from the Chinese leadership and the public, and illegal logging was reduced. Now, with demand for timber on the rise, there are several steps that can be taken. Expanding man-made forests and planting fast-growing, high-yield species is one. But there are other effective measures for achieving sustainability, such as forest certification and stepping up the fight against illegal logging and the black market in timber.

Establishing a forest certification system in China, says Chen Xiaoqian, has been a long, drawn-out process. The National Certification Small Group was set up in 2001, but only in March 2006 was the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) China Work Group established. There are currently only 300 companies in China monitored and certified by the FSC. TNC, however, has been heavily involved in publicising forest certification in pilot areas. The group carried out training in the Great Kinghan area and in southwest China to raise ecological awareness and management skills among those who manage forests.

In European and American markets, products are benefiting from having received forest certification. In Britain, said a report from last year’s EU-China Conference on Forest Law Enforcement and Governance, 93% of timber products sold by popular hardware chain B&Q were certified. In the US, almost 30% of timber products sold by some companies originate from certified forests. However, as the market for certified timber products rapidly expands, there are barely any certified products on the Chinese market. This is extremely worrying both to conservation experts and many of those involved in the Chinese timber business.

In response to claims that there is still a trade in illegal timber in China, and that some lumber comes from tropical forests of high ecological value, Chen Jiawen says that such problems exist in many countries. What is needed, he says, is for the countries involved to take urgent, coordinated action to crack down on illegal logging and smuggling. The root cause of the problem, says Chen, is an imbalance in the global economy.

Illegal logging, he says, takes revenue away from local economies, harms legal operators, disrupts international markets, destroys forests, depletes natural resources and severely affects the sustainable development of the environment, society and the economy. China takes the same stance as other countries, adds Chen, and has always clamped down hard on illegal logging and trading, regarding it as an important measure in achieving sustainable development. Effective management of forest resources is a key part of the fight against these crimes.

China strictly manages its domestic forest resources, says Chen, and it has sufficient legal frameworks and monitoring capabilities to tackle its problems. However, tackling the international trade in illegally-logged timber is harder. He says the Chinese government has carried out forest management training in timber-producing countries in Africa, Oceania and southeast Asia. People in forested areas of Burma, Laos and Cambodia have been helped to plant trees as cash-crops, which can replace illegal drug crops. These programmes guarantee the recovery of the environment by providing alternative livelihoods to locals.

Chen Jiawen’s sentiments were confirmed in a speech made by Michael Dosim Lunjew, Malaysia’s minister of plantation industries and commodities, at the EU-China Conference on Forest Law Enforcement and Governance.

Lunjew explained to the conference that a great deal of Malaysian timber is turned into furniture by Chinese companies, which then sell the products in Europe. In order to maintain Malaysia’s rich forest resources, the country has signed cooperation agreements with organisations from China and elsewhere to put in place measures that will promote sustainable forest management. Currently, 44% of natural forest in Malaysia is protected by law.

Chen Jiawen says that 60% of China’s timber is now domestically produced, most of which comes from approved man-made forests. A small amount also comes from natural forests, which are only allowed to be logged intermittently. The Chinese government also requires that all logging and timber-processing companies operating abroad obey local laws and regulations that help locals to protect, foster and renew resources. The State Forestry Administration and the Ministry of Commerce last year jointly released the Guide to Sustainability in Forestry for Chinese Companies Operating Abroad, demanding companies should adhere strictly to local laws, protect forest resources and must not transfer land assigned as forest to other uses.

Discussing the rapid growth of China as a centre of imports and exports of timber over the last decade, Chen Jiawen says that this is the inevitable result of globalisation. As China’s global economic influence grows, it is notable for its efforts to take responsibility for sustainable sourcing of forest products.

Many experts have pointed out that both producer and consumer countries share the responsibility for sustainability of forests.

She Xuebin is the chair of the board for a Guangdong-based company, and is keen to buy products originating from certified forests because it is now becoming common practice. Currently, 80% of his company’s products come from certified forests, and at times over the last five years, this figure has risen to 100%. He says that many consumers do not mind paying slightly more for environmentally friendly products; his company has been running a successful scheme called “Buy my floorboards and I’ll plant trees”. Since forests naturally expand at a rate of around 2% per year, he explains, a certain amount of logging can be carried out without causing harm. The key is that the amount taken must allow the forest to maintain its own ecosystem. Real wood floorboards require timber from natural forests, most of which currently comes from Africa and Russia. Timber is Africa’s second-largest export after oil. She Xuebin says that his company will help source countries to improve their standards of forest management and attain international certification, providing a sound basis for a successful business and a flourishing market.

In response to allegations that some Chinese logging companies are causing poverty in country where they operate, Chen Jiawen says the Chinese government has never received any complaints from exporting countries. Complex and often opaque supply chains provide opportunities for illegal trading, but the Chinese government has always used strictly examined companies in such high-risk areas of business.

The China Timber Circulation Association says that the government should place more emphasis on forest certification and provide support with favourable policies and financial aid. They should also encourage companies to invest in ecological reconstruction and forest recovery. The government should provide for the more rapid introduction of forest certification in China – after all, the Chinese market for wood products relies on permanent supply of lumber from well-managed forests.

Kejia Zhang is a reporter for China Youth Daily


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