Material concerns in Sichuan (1)

A push to build housing for Tibetan herders is driving logging in Sichuan, where angry locals have taken matters into their own hands. Campaigner Feng Yongfeng gives a view from the ground.

Editor’s note: in May, chinadialogue reported on a grassroots movement to protect forests in western Sichuan from destruction. Feng Yongfeng, a journalist and founder of Chinese environmental NGO Green Beagle, spent time in Dege county as part of that campaign. Here, he gives his account of the situation on the ground and the response of local people.  

Dawa Zhuoma always looks forward to getting home to the area known as Maisu in Sichuan’s Dege county and the large forest that will welcome her there. She collects folk songs and knows that, without the trees, those songs would never have been sung – the music is like the river flowing through the forest: it needs to be protected and nurtured by the trees.

But on a trip home several months ago, Dawa was first shocked and then angered by what she found: the forest she had been looking forward to seeing appeared to have moved, and the roadside was littered with felled trees. A chainsaw can cut down centuries-old spruce and fir in mere seconds – and chop it up into pieces in minutes. 

And then the trucks started passing. Each of these enormous vehicles can carry many trees. It takes about an hour to completely fill one, after which it drives its load away to an area with a timber shortage, where it is used to build houses and make furniture.

The other villagers were just as shocked as Dawa. In early 2010, teams of workers – who seemed more like bandits to the locals –turned up in the valley and started to fell, chop up and transport trees. This has continued ever since. 

Dege’s trees grow on steep, unstable mountainsides. Once the trees are felled, areas of mountainside slump into the river like a wounded man, blocking roads and becoming a potential cause of disasters such as mudslides and flashfloods. 

One day in June last year, the people of Maisu decided they weren’t going to stand for it any longer – they stormed the camps, sabotaged the chainsaws and chased away the loggers, putting an end to the felling. 

Then they built a simple hut at the entrance to the forest and erected a crude roadblock: this was the villagers’ timber checkpoint. The Maisu area is made up of three villages – Puma, Dama and Yueba – and each village sends three people a day to man the checkpoint. Without their say-so, no one can remove a single tree, nor can the trucks get in. In the year since they set up this system, the villagers have stuck to their guns: “No trees will be taken, even if I have to die,” said one.

Maisu isn’t an official administrative designation, but the name represents an area with a strong cultural tradition. It stretches several dozen kilometres along a mountain valley. The mountains, capped with snow in winter, are covered with trees. Barley, potatoes and turnips are planted on fields alongside the river. The local buildings are famous and attract tourists and cultural enthusiasts. Among them are well known monasteries, such as Dzongsar and the Buddhist college attached to it.

The area also has a famous hospital, which maintains Dege’s long-lasting tradition of Tibetan medicine and where new formulas and treatments are researched. The hospital has been rebuilt recently and an in-patients department will soon be added. The local Tibetan incense is also famous for its medicinal properties.   

Maisu is where Dawa was born and raised and is a part of Dege, one of the three main centres of Tibetan culture (the others are the Tibetan capital of Lhasa and Xiahe). Dege’s Ngaxu grasslands (Axu in Chinese) are believed to be the birthplace of King Gesar, and many heroic deeds are supposed to have happened here. Dege is also home to an institution that prints Tibetan scripture – another reason why it is an important place for the gathering and transmission of Tibetan culture. Dege’s temples, traditions and medicines are all sources of great pride for the local community. 

The most attractive part of Tibetan culture is that history is always alive in the present. In environmental terms, there are few places where people have lived for thousands of years without change: where the faith is the same and the scenery the same. Attitudes towards nature also stay constant here. When someone hurts the natural world, the people will respond on its behalf – because they believe that they are one with nature. Nobody can stop them protecting their surroundings. 

The people of Maisu are confident that the position they have adopted is the correct one. When the trucks first arrived last spring, the locals were told the timber would be used to build houses for the poor, and they were happy with that: even if the trees were precious, they knew it was right to fell them if it would help relieve poverty. 

But two things made them suspicious. First, the tree-felling was excessive: all the trees along the roads and on the slopes were being taken – and the bigger the trees, the quicker they were felled. Second, when locals went to see the houses that were supposedly being built with these trees, they found that, in fact, hardly any timber was being used. The buildings were almost entirely made from concrete and stone. 

If the wood wasn’t being used for “houses for the poor”, where was it going? The community heard rumours that the timber was being taken to Chengdu, the provincial capital, or Qamdo in Tibet, or to Yushu and Xining in Qinghai – wherever it was going, it wasn’t going where it was supposed to. Worse, the bosses of the felling teams said they had bought up all the trees in the valley and that the area was set to be completely cleared over the next three years. 

Completely cleared? It was unthinkable. In Maisu tradition, only fallen branches are used for firewood and, when people fell trees for construction, they must make repeated apologies to mountain and tree spirits. If they see people out hunting with guns the locals often beg for mercy for the animals. How could anyone want to clear the mountainsides of trees?

In fact, the “poor” the locals were told about are the “timber poor”. The provincial government wanted to build homes for grassland herders, but as there are no trees on the grasslands, there is a shortage of timber for construction.

In Maisu, people are both farmers and herders. Every household has cows and sheep, but they graze in the forests. In the summer, they move their herds up into the mountains, and live in simple wooden barns. Maisu homes are also classic mud, wood and stone constructions – local tradition demands the use of wood in homes – and are known for their solid walls built from gravel and mud, and exquisite structures made out of local wood. The ground floor of the buildings are given to livestock, while people live on the second floor and the attic is reserved for worship and burning mulberry branches. 

The provincial government’s programme to settle Tibetan herders includes spending 18 billion yuan (US$2.8 billion) on the construction of 1,409 settlements and associated infrastructure in 29 herding counties within four years from 2009. The aim is to improve living conditions for 100,000 families with no fixed home, or only crude housing. It promises that “every family will have a home and a new tent, and every village an activity centre,” along with better living and working conditions and improved infrastructure and public services.  

In December 2008, a survey of 500 herding households in Sichuan found that almost 98% of them were willing to live in a fixed dwelling, and even more than that were willing to pay for a house to be built. 

But you can’t build a house without building materials – and that usually means trees. To provide wood for the project, timber supply points were designated in locations such as Dege. Villages with forests are obliged to provide timber to villages without. Some counties in Garze prefecture have no forests at all – and all of their wood needs to be brought in from outside. 

Feng Yongfeng is a reporter at Guangming Daily and co-founder of environmental NGO Green Beagle.

Homepage image from Greenpeace

NEXT: The official view