China is building a green Great Wall, planting millions of trees in drought-stricken and wind-swept provinces to prevent further soil erosion and other natural disasters. The central government launched a 10-year Yn96bn reforestation programme last December, mobilising millions of soldiers, workers, officials and farmers to plant trees and grow grass.
It has also banned logging along the upper and middle reaches of the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, which lie in arid provinces. Wood imports have risen in each of the past three years as a consequence.
Converting farmland into grassland
To whip up enthusiasm for this momentous task, the government speaks repeatedly in the state media of the importance of what it calls the ?greening of the motherland.? To date, 188 counties in 17 provinces, mainly those in arid south-west and western China, have turned 372,000 hectares of land unsuitable for farming into grassland. This year, another 224 counties will follow suit and convert about 330,000 hectares.
Critics say such massive reforestation would not have been necessary had the country acted earlier to protect its forests. Excessive logging has reduced China's forest coverage from more than 30 percent of the total land area in the 1950s to the current 14 percent, according to the Beijing-based Huasheng Daily, an online paper. On a per capita basis, China's forest resources rank close to the bottom, 119th in the world, the online daily reported. Much of the destruction of forests has occurred in the last decade, as a result of soaring demand for timber and agricultural land.
Now China is paying the price, having upset its fragile ecological balance. Environmental problems, such as serious soil erosion, flooding, erratic weather changes and the extinction of rare species, originate in part from the vanishing of the forests. Why has the situation deteriorated so badly and how effective will the current reforestation effort be in rescuing the forests?
Yunnan, the south-west province famous for its lush forests, is a case study of how serious the problem has become. Its experience also shows that many interest groups are bound up in the forestry issue and that orders from the central government alone cannot solve the problem.
Yunnan is China's fourth biggest forest region, with 80 percent of its area covered by forests in ancient times. The green environment has provided a hospitable habitat for thousands of different species of wild animals and plants.
One hundred years ago, more than half of Yunnan was covered by forests. However, two powerful forces – explosive population growth and growing commercialism – have cut the coverage to 40 percent, according to official figures. There are now 12.87m hectares of forests, of which nearly 70 percent is natural forest and the rest plantations, according to the US embassy in Beijing.
Yunnan's population has tripled since 1949 to 43m, thanks to the absence of wars and of large-scale famine, as well as less stringent family planning controls. The province has 25 major ethnic minorities, who are allowed to have more than one child per family, under China's preferential policies towards non-Han Chinese. A typical minority family has three to four children.
Most inhabitants are poor, with 83 percent of Yunnan's population living in mountainous farms. With limited contact with the modern world, these mountain people practise primitive ?slash and burn? agriculture for their livelihood. They look to the forests as an inexhaustible resource for their survival. They cut down trees for agricultural land, fuel, building houses, livestock feed and cash income.
With the dismantling of collective farms and the arrival of the market economy, peas-ants have become more aggressive in exploiting the forests for extra income. They log trees for sale to timber companies, to subsidise their meagre average income of around Yn2,300 a year, the seventh lowest in the country.
"Farmers have been logging ruthlessly for years. There are some parts of Yunnan where you can drive for hours and no longer find a lush forest; only isolated trees remain," says a local tour guide.
A bigger cause for concern, though, is the growing forestry industry. Spurred by the rapid demand for timber and wood products, plantations expanded rapidly, encroaching on virgin forest areas. Most of Yunnan's 2.1m hectares of plantations were established in the last decade and one third were created in 1996-97. Forestry related enterprises, too, have grown from a negligible base to more than 4,000, of which 850 are saw mills and 2,900 furniture making firms. The forestry industry accounts for only three percent of Yunnan's industrial output but is of great importance to many counties that rely heavily on it for tax revenue.