Material concerns in Sichuan (2)

Concluding his account of Sichuan’s timber struggle, Feng Yongfeng talks to a local official fighting to balance political and environmental commitments in Dege county.

Zhang Kelin, head of the Dege Forestry Bureau, is fed up of felling. When I met him he was preparing to go out and plant trees – every year the bureau plants tens of thousands of them.

But his job also makes him a timber supplier. Zhang has been instructed to provide quality wood for Sichuan’s herder-settlement project. As a political commitment, this is more important a part of his work than environmental protection.

The county plans to build 7,000 homes for herders over the next three years, along with several hundred village halls. That will require at least 160,000 cubic metres of wood. Dege also needs to provide timber to counties without their own trees to fell, such as Shiqu, as well as the reconstruction programme in Yushu in Qinghai, which was hit by an earthquake in 2010. And so six timber-supply points have been designated as places where the necessary timber can be felled.

Zhang explained that the bureau has issued strict rules on logging. Villages carrying out construction must calculate how much each household will need – usually about 20 cubic metres – and apply for a felling quota from the forestry bureau. Once they have that, they can go to the timber-supply points to fell the trees.

But the herders themselves don’t know how to cut down trees, and so companies are employed to fell and transport the timber. Once the trees have been chopped down, they are delivered to the villages and used in construction. In order to encourage participation in the project, the government is providing large subsidies to the herders – about 60,000 yuan (US$9,300) per household. This means they hardly need to spend any of their own money.

But it is hard to avoid trees being illegally felled and sold. “Our bureau has very few employees, but we’ve been strengthening supervision,” said Zhang.

Zhang admits that the larger felling quotas have put pressure on the environment. Dege has 32% forest coverage and lies at a high altitude – only 10,000 or 20,000 cubic metres of new wood grow here every year. So providing 160,000 cubic metres in three years far outstrips the natural replacement rate.

Also, if trees are included that grow by water sources, or on slopes and other geologically vulnerable sites, there is bound to be an impact on the environment and community: mudslides will be more frequent, biodiversity reduced and there will be a psychological impact on local people.

Zhang explained that the local campaign to protect the trees would have consequences elsewhere: “The fact that people in Maisu are not allowing felling will increase the pressure on the other locations. Of course, we’re doing our best to reduce the use of timber in construction in favour of cement, tiles and corrugated steel. If that’s successful, we may be able to reduce timber demand for the county to 60,000 cubic metres or less.”

When I visited Maisu, the locals had been working to prevent felling for 10 months, but the county government still hadn’t sent anyone to the area resolve the issue. Zhang argued that there is no need for the locals in Maisu to get involved, as the felling isn’t even happening in their villages – in fact, much of it is taking place in neighbouring Baiyu county, or in areas of disputed ownership. He added that the checkpoint is illegal: “They have no right to do anything outside of their administrative area.”

But the people here aren’t concerned with borders, and traditionally this area counts as Maisu. They also believe that, even if this land isn’t officially theirs, they still have a duty to intervene.

Some of the people employed to chop down the trees have started visiting temples to repent and swear that they won’t do it again. Felled trees lie uncollected by the river and road – nobody wants to claim them as their own. Sometimes someone will take a few pieces of timber home by motorbike, but only off-cuts. Even though the trees have been felled, they belong to the forest, not the people.

In October last year, a visitor to the area, named Wang Wuzhi, discovered that tree-felling was taking place in Maisu and uploaded a number of pictures to the internet. Greenpeace responded quickly and sent a team to the scene to investigate (see chinadialogue article “Saving Sichuan’s trees” for more details). In mid-March this year, the team arrived in Dege, and Wang joined them as a volunteer.

Their field study found that that, in places like Baiyu, large stretches of natural forest had been destructively felled. Yi Lan, forest campaigner for Greenpeace China, explained that most of the trees chopped down were firs and spruce firs, with trunks measuring up to a metre in diameter. Some were more than 20 metres tall. In a high-altitude temperate region like this it takes over a century for a tree like that to grow.

Greenpeace visited the 80-kilometre long Dengqu valley in Baiyu county and saw fallen fir trees littering the slopes on both sides of the river, with marks left where they had been dragged down the mountainside. These are steep and loose slopes and felling here can trigger landslides. This precious natural forest should protect water sources – but now the trees lie scattered on the slopes and in the river.

Yi Lan explained that 2011 is the UN International Year of Forests, and the first year of the second phase of China’s natural forest-protection programme. That second phase will see China work to halt commercial felling of natural forests on the upper reaches of the Yangtze River and the upper and middle reaches of the Yellow River. Sichuan is within the scope of the programme, and any felling of natural forest here should be tightly controlled and monitored.

In March 2006, Greenpeace and scientists and cartographers from around the world published the result of three years of work – the most detailed map to date of the world’s natural forests. Satellite data was used to map the area and distribution of all unspoiled forests of more than 500 square kilometres. According to that map, China’s unspoiled natural forests account for a mere 2% of total forests. Most of these are concentrated in the same areas: along the Nu River and the border with Burma in Yunnan, at the bend in the Yarlung Zangbo River in Tibet, in a few spots in Xinjiang and north-east China – and in Baiyu and other areas in western Sichuan.

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

Homepage image from hudong

Part one: local revolt