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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

China: Of Trees, Logs, and Floods

Air Date: Week of October 2, 1998

The devastating floods that swept China this summer claimed more than 3,000 lives and destroyed twenty-two million acres of farmland. To the surprise of many observers, the Chinese government admitted its own clearcut logging practices had likely contributed to the destruction, and vowed official action. On September first, they imposed an unprecedented ban on logging in old-growth forests throughout China. The goal is to replenish many of these forests by 2010. Erik Eckholm writes about China for the New York Times and recently toured the western provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, and Gansu, near the Tibetan plateau. This is where the clearcutting has taken its greatest toll on the forests and the workers who log them.

Transcript

CURWOOD: The devastating floods that swept China this summer claimed more than 3,000 lives and destroyed 22 million acres of farm land. To the surprise of many observers, the Chinese government admitted its own clear-cut logging practices had likely contributed to the destruction, and vowed official action. On September 1st, the imposed an unprecedented ban on logging in old growth forests throughout China. The goal is to replenish many of these forests by 2010. Erik Eckholm writes about China for the New York Times, and he recently toured the western provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, and Gansu, near the Tibetan plateau. This is where the clear-cutting has taken its greatest toll on the forests, and on the workers who log them.

ECKHOLM: There are huge areas that used to be quite splendid and pristine natural forests. But most of those have been cleared over the last 50 years, and there are large areas that are quite barren now. What you see if you head west from Chungdu, which is the capital of Sichuan, you head west on the mountain roads, the roads are quite clogged with logging trucks full of big logs because they're trying to get everything out.

CURWOOD: The Chinese government has been faced with this sort of choice before. That is, the economy versus the environment. And in the past, the economy has pretty much won. Why do you think this time the government decided to act in favor of environmental protection?

ECKHOLM: I think the government and the country as a whole were just so shocked by the scale of the flooding this year, it had jolted them into taking a rather drastic action. I mean, they've known for years that they need to bring this logging under control, and there have been people warning for years that flooding problems would be worsened because of logging. They also know that it was having bad economic effects, and in fact the logging companies were losing money as their resources depleted. So that made it somewhat easier to make these plans to stop the logging. It was a funny kind of treadmill, where the more money a company lost, the more it tried to log to get a little bit more money to pay off its past debts.

CURWOOD: On the human side of this, there are what? Some 240,000, 250,000 officially employed loggers who are going to soon be looking for work. What will they do?

ECKHOLM: It's going to be a very traumatic change. Many, many people have structured their lives and their work around the logging business. Now, the big logging companies are government-owned, and they have promised that most of those workers will keep their jobs. For one thing, they're going to transfer a large number of former logging workers into reforestation programs, tree-planting instead of tree-cutting. But that probably can't absorb more than a third or half the total workers. The ones in the state companies are really the lucky ones, because at least they've been promised some kind of a pension or, you know, monthly payment, even if they don't have a lot of work. But those companies, much as some American companies have done in recent years, have been hiring a lot of so-called temporary workers to which they give no benefits or no promises about the future. And those people are just out of luck. I talked to a number of people in some timber yards who just said, "Well, I'm just going to have to go back to the farm."

CURWOOD: This ban was imposed rather abruptly. Do you think it will stick?

ECKHOLM: Yeah, I think it will stick. It's an issue that's received enormous national attention from the top to the bottom. Everyone in the affected regions knows all about it and knows why it was done, and knows that the national leadership cares about it. So, 2, 3, 4 years down the road, might some communities find a way to cut some trees that shouldn't be cut? Sure. But I think, for the most part, at least in that area of southwestern China where the forest is largely depleted anyway, I think you're not going to see a resumption of large-scale clear-cutting.

CURWOOD: Okay, so clear-cut logging has been banned, but China's population is still growing. They still have a demand for wood and paper products. Where are they going to get this stuff?

ECKHOLM: Well, for one thing, China is going to have to import more wood and paper and wood products. For another, they're trying to develop a sustainable wood products industry with tree plantations.

CURWOOD: Imported? Where could they get the wood from?

ECKHOLM: Well, Canada has a lot of trees, and I'm sure is looking very closely at recent developments here. And wondering how much they can fill the gap. It might be that some areas of Russia or Siberia might be able to supply some. Maybe even the United States.

CURWOOD: Erik Eckholm covers China for the New York Times. He spoke with us from Beijing. Thanks for joining us, Erik.

ECKHOLM: Thank you. I enjoyed it.

 

 

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