Saving China’s natural forests (part two)

Natural forests are needed to avert disasters such as flooding. But they are being covertly destroyed and replaced with new stock, writes Feng Yongfeng in the second of two reports from Fujian province.

Flooding has brought the most destruction to Fujian” over recent years, says deputy professor of ecology at Xiamen University Li Zhenji, but “the people can’t understand [why].”

There is no confusion that natural disasters can be deadly. Floods, droughts and (to a lesser extent) earthquakes cost countless lives and billions of yuan each year. Li recalls the 1998 flooding in Fujian as “the worst flood for 200 years.” The question which locals do not understand, rather, is why forests are not doing the job they were designed to do.

Ordinarily, forests shelter the earth’s soil from excess moisture, helping to avert natural disasters such as flooding and landslides and Fujian has the highest rate of forest coverage in China – more than 60%. “So why do we suffer these floods?” asks Li rhetorically.

In fact, Fujian’s status as China’s most forested province is misleading. “Since 1949 there have been three major changes in vegetation,” explains Li. “The last in the 1980s occurred when many mountain areas became orchards or bamboo forests – natural forests faced continued destruction” he continues, adding that Jian’nou City, in the north of Fujian, converted all of the natural forest which covered 10% of its land.

Reforestation projects during the 1990s improved the overall situation, and by 1995 forestry reserves had increased slightly. But the replacement of older self-sustaining, native species trees with young fast-growing plantations is not like-for-like.

“The root system of a pure forest – fir, pine and eucalyptus – is much less able to retain soil than that of a natural forest and this can give rise to disasters such as landslides,” says Li, adding that “The water retention ability and biodiversity of pure forests are [also] much lower than that of natural forests [which historically covered large swathes of Fujian.]”

Research conducted by fellow colleagues at the Faculty of Ecology which studies the effect of natural forests on soil fertility, soil and water retention in the Min River Basin is unequivocal in its findings. A natural forest, research shows, can retain rainfall of up to 200mm in a single downpour and only begins to fail at 400mm. In a pure forest or orchard, floods can occur even if there is only 200mm of rain. The upshot is that the same amount of rain will produce much greater risk. Even an average downpour can result in flooded crops, it concludes.

“So why do we suffer these floods?” asks Li, repeating his earlier question – “Because of the destruction of natural forests” comes his reply.

Disaster prevention means protecting forests

Protection, however, offers salvation. “Without human interference this [ecological] weakness remains dormant,” concludes the above study. Li also claims that natural forests, if restored, would reduce the economic losses from flooding and droughts by 50% to 80%, bringing benefits worth hundreds of billions of yuan.

“The efforts spent on disaster relief would be better used for disaster prevention – and the best method of disaster prevention is to increase protection for natural forests and severely punish those who destroy them,” insists Li. Protection of natural forests that contain multiple species, he promises, would also preserve biodiversity, help to prevent disease (by diverting bugs away from local crops) and reduce local poverty, which has been hit by soil erosion associated with deforestation.

But “If fast-growing forests continue to replace natural ones, these natural disasters will worsen,” warns Li.

Forestry authorities are an accomplice in environmental destruction

Local forestry bureau chief Hong Shenghe confirms that forestry officials are on the frontline in protection efforts and provides reassurances that “Without our approval, nobody can touch a single tree.” But the commitment of the bureau has been directly challenged by villagers in Fuzhu Village who allege that regulations have been routinely broken to accommodate local businesses such as Fangte, a local forestry company accused of felling natural forests in cahoots with local officials.

“Fangte were employing people to fell trees before they had permission” according to villagers. Fires, they say, were lit (in contravention of bureau rules) to help clear the natural forest behind Fuzhu, bogus paperwork passed onto Fangte by forestry officials to cover the incident up. “They even said it was us villagers who did it [set the fires],” add locals.

Villagers eventually turned to forestry police, but were met by unyielding officials who denied any knowledge of the forest, which brings back vivid memories for the locals. “The trunks were that 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,” they recall.

But academics at Xiamen University including Li Zhenji acknowledge that natural forests are indeed being secretly replaced, with forestry firms using underhand methods to obtain the necessary legal documents and that southern China now faces an eco-crisis. If the actions of these self-interested officials are not controlled, says Li, the forestry authorities will not only fail to protect these natural resources, they will actually have the opposite effect – becoming an accomplice to the destruction of the environment.

Meanwhile, Hong Shenghe reports that reforms which address the issue of forestry rights are now on trial in Fujian and meet with his own personal approval, but warns that “the principle of ‘who plants, profits’ is more suited to the less fertile and less forested north, where it will encourage locals to improve the environment. In the south where natural forests are abundant, it may at times have the opposite effect.”

A better role for the forestry bureau, Hong believes, is in the provision of guidance and advice to locals, who currently hold land rights. “Forestry officials don’t just need to protect the natural resources, in the future they also need to offer good guidance to local residents,” he says, adding that “If we don’t, they [locals] will transform their natural forests to artificial pure forests, or transfer the land to commercial forestry firms, with the same dangerous consequences.” But villagers may ask: what use is such a reform when there are so many bad eggs on the inside?

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

Homepage photo by Matthew J. Stinson