China losing its biological treasures Deforestation damages Yunnan

May 20, 1991|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

KUNMING, China -- North of here, lush valleys rise to depressing knobs of red earth, bare mountaintops long stripped of their tree cover.

South toward China's border with Laos and Myanmar, almost 40 percent of a unique resource -- the only rain forest in the world that lies in the north tropics -- has been sacrificed to rubber plantations, logging and the pressures of feeding a rapidly increasing population.

Yunnan Province, once dubbed "China's plant and animal TC kingdom" for the abundance of its biological treasures, has lost much of its crown jewels during the four decades of Communist Party rule. In 1949, almost half of this province in far southwestern China was covered by trees. Now, only a quarter is forested.

Yunnan once boasted examples of half of China's 15,000 species of plants, of more than half of the nation's 500 types of mammals and of two-thirds of the country's more than 1,000 kinds of birds.

Now, certain medicinal herbs -- for which Yunnan has long been famous -- have become rare. And more than 160 of the province's species of animals are endangered, including wild elephants, bulls, antelopes, tigers and certain types of monkeys and gibbons.

Large sections of eroded, no-longer-arable land; increased incidence of alternating droughts and floods; rising bouts of pestilence; and a chronic shortage of firewood -- all have followed in the wake of what Guo HD Li, a top provincial forestry official, acknowledges is "a man-made disaster."

Yunnan only reflects a small portion of the deforestation evident across virtually all the rest of China, an ecological nightmare that the most massive tree-planting effort in the world has not yet been able to reverse. It is a nightmare that essentially evolved from the doubling of China's population in just 40 years and from a series of social policies that went awry.

First came the Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s, in which China's forests were stripped to stoke thousands of backyard steel furnaces.

Then came the Great Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, when Chinese peasants were exhorted to clear all available land, even mountaintops, for the growing of essential grain.

And then came the shift to the household responsibility system of the late 1970s and early 1980s, a seminal, in most ways positive, change that at first prompted Chinese farmers to cut down as many trees as quickly as possible -- out of their fear that their new economic freedom would soon be revoked.

Despite claims that more than 10 billion trees have been planted during the last decade, forests now are believed to cover less of the country than the 12.7 percent in 1949.

Some Chinese environmentalists believe that the percentage of forest coverage may now be as low as 10 percent and will drop to 8 percent by the end of the century.

For a nation trying to feed 22 percent of the world's population with only 7 percent of the world's arable land, the consequences of this deforestation are far from merely aesthetic.

One-sixth of China's land is believed to be so ravaged by erosion that it is no longer productive.

Another sixth has been taken by encroaching deserts in the north and northwest, deserts that are expanding at the rate of more than 600 square miles a year.

In an effort to stop the southward advance of the sands, China in the late 1970s embarked on the world's single largest environmental project, planting a "Green Great Wall" of trees stretching across 13 north China provinces and regions.

All over China, tree planting has been turned into the stuff of high political ritual and mass campaigns since first advocated a decade ago by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. Every Chinese between the ages of 11 and 65 is now urged to sow three to five seedlings a year.

But even the Chinese press has admitted that half the state's official tally of planted trees may be bogus. And because of poor management, more than half of the trees actually planted may not have survived.

Yunnan, too, can boast of planting a huge number of trees in recent years, but, even by official reckoning, that effort has only added a half of 1 percent to the province's percentage of forest cover.

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