Fall 1999
Vol. 14, No. 3

Logging on top of the world

by Chris Clarke

Disastrous flooding last year in the watershed of the Yangtze River sparked the government of the People's Republic of China to propose, last August, revolutionary new forestry policies to forestall more such disasters. Environmentalists in Asia and elsewhere gave cautious support to the rules, which included a ban on state-funded timber harvesting and a program to retrain forestry workers as tree-planters. However, in the year since, a combination of regional resistance and government inertia has appears to have defused the initiatives. The forests of the Tibetan Plateau are still coming down, this year's floods have started, and the deaths have again started to mount.

In 1998, record floods in the Yangtze River basin killed at least 3000 people, devastated much of China's most fertile countryside, and displaced or otherwise affected 230 million people: nearly the population of the United States. Heavy rains caused by El Niņo, abundant snowmelt from a heavy winter in Tibet and Qinghai Province, filling of riparian wetlands by peasant farmers, and increased runoff from urbanized land were all cited as important causes of these disastrous floods. But most observers now agree that deforestation on the Tibetan Plateau, the three-mile-high headwaters of six major Asian rivers, was the major reason for the severity of 1998's disaster.

The Tibetan Plateau - comprising parts of the Chinese provinces Qinghai, Gansu, Yunnan and Sichuan, as well as the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), and parts of Bhutan, Nepal, India, and Pakistan - is the highest landform in the world. In the upper elevations of the Plateau, at an average elevation of 14,700 feet, conditions are severe and vegetation is sparse. Closer to sea level in the southeast part of the Plateau, the combination of tropical moisture and temperate alpine climate has created some of the most biologically-diverse forests on earth. Here, for instance, is the center of diversity for rhododendrons. Downhill from the rhododendrons grow forests of massive conifers and, farther downhill, hardwoods such as oaks and poplars.

Centuries of conversion to grazing lands and small-scale fuelwood harvesting have had their effects on the forests of the Plateau, particularly in the creation of open pasturelands in the southeast region, but it was not until the 1950s, and the advent of intensive industrial logging, that human activity began to seriously deplete the Plateau's forest cover. A 1986 study by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development in Nepal and the Beijing-based Commission for the Integrated Survey of Natural Resources said the rate of cutting in parts of Sichuan province was nearly three times the rate of regrowth. Other estimates place the overdraft at more like five times regrowth. In western Sichuan alone, 110,000 square kilometers of clearcut land are subjected to severe soil erosion.

Last August, Zhuang Guotai, a representative of the State Environmental Protection Agency, estimated in an interview with Worker's Daily that for every 70,000 hectares of Plateau forestland clearcut, a million cubic meters worth of water storage capacity is lost. Now, when it rains on the Plateau, that water collects soil as it flows; the steeper the slope, the more soil erodes. Downstream, over the course of the twentieth century's logging binge, sediment built up until much of the Yangtze's bed is now actually higher than the surrounding countryside, and the river's fringing wetlands are filled with silt, increasing the danger of flooding even in dry years. Thus the stage was set for 1998, the devastating flooding in Hubei, Hunan and Jiangxi provinces, and the appalling loss of life that resulted.

As a result, the Chinese Central Government's State Council told 151 different logging concerns in August to halt their operations in the Yunnan, Sichuan and Qinghai portions of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers' watersheds. Soon thereafter, Sichuan governor Song Barui imposed a ban on all logging in the catchment basins of the Yangtze and several of its tributaries. Song's ban also affected two prefectures within the Tibetan Autonomous Region. After concern was voiced that the bans would simply shift forestry operations to other parts of Tibet, TAR officials shut down timber mills in all of the southeast in December. To ameliorate the economic effect of the cut in logging, a five-year, US$2 billion plan was drafted to retrain timber workers as treeplanters. One such logger, Tang Song of Sichuan, told the publication Nanfang Zhuomo (Southern Weekend) "I have something to do with the current flooding along the Yangtze River because I have caused too much damage. I learned about the relationship between tree felling and protection of the environment last year."

Environmentalists in Asia and elsewhere responded to the logging bans with guarded optimism. But the logging had its proponents. In a move reminiscent of the North American "counties' rights" movement, some local officials in the Plateau Region openly defied Beijing's order to stop the cutting, prompting an article in the Communist Party journal Banyuetan entitled "Some People Dare Disobey Orders from the Party Central Committee." Enforcement of the bans has been uneven, in part due to the Central Government's lack of enforcement powers. Even before the 1998 ban, provincial and local governments throughout China routinely violated forestry edicts handed down by Beijing, with government-owned timber companies, for instance, clearcutting in nature reserves. In the absence of enforcement mechanisms, the tradition of violations may continue, especially as some local governments derive 80 to 90 percent of their revenue from timber sale proceeds. Further, timber workers have pointed out that the talk of retraining loggers covers only a small fraction of the million people likely to become unemployed if the bans are enforced; in the current economic climate within China, there are few other jobs for those workers to take.

The remoteness of the region, the lack of communications infrastructure, and the traditional reserve of the Chinese government in publicizing internal matters all make information on the current status of the forests hard to obtain. But with regard to logging on the Eastern Tibetan Plateau, no news is bad news. The Sichuan forests that logger Tang Song regrets helping to cut are expected to last no more than another decade if deforestation continues at last year's rate. Not long ago, the average tree cut in Sichuan's forests was about four feet thick. Now, few trees measure more than two inches in diameter. By June, flooding and mudslides in Qinghai had already claimed at least 21 lives. The death toll is expected to rise as the summer monsoon intensifies and flooding increases.

Chris Clarke is the departing Editor in Chief of the Earth Island Journal. For more on logging in Tibet, contact the Tibetan Plateau Project at (415) 788-3666, or e-mail <tppei@earthisland.org>, or visit their website at <http://www.earthisland.org/tpp/index.html>.