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China’s forestry fudge?

Beijing has set a bold new target for boosting forest cover, but one expert is sceptical about its lasting value to the environment – and has spoken out about his doubts. Meng Si reports.

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In late March, the Chinese government published an outline of its 12th Five-Year Plan. Among its aims is the creation of 12.5 million hectares of new forest – increasing China’s rate of forest cover from 20.36% to 21.66% and adding an extra 600 million cubic metres of forest stock. It sounds like good news. But Yu Changqing, former head of the Ecological Protection Research Centre at Tsinghua University, has doubts about the value of this scheme. 

Speaking at Beijing-based NGO Green Beagle in early March, Yu raised a number of questions: “Why is the environment continuing to worsen despite the increase in forest cover? Why are we continuing to create new forests, but retaining less than a quarter of them? Is it worth all the money and manpower? Have the experts at the relevant departments of the State Council and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference considered this?”

Yu has acted as a consultant to the World Bank and WWF and, in the 1990s, worked in the statistics department at the Chinese Academy of Forestry. After participating in a national survey of panda populations as part of an expert commission, he wrote an article on the survey process, exposing shoddy work and fabrication of results.

In 2005, the local government and forestry bureau of Hudehudu village in Alxa Right Banner, an administrative unit of Inner Mongolia, designated the local area as public forest. Herders were banned from putting their livestock out to pasture and, when they ignored the rules, they were taken to court. But Yu has a question: how does grassland become “forest”?

He researched the case and found that, in 2000, the entire banner had around 171,000 hectares of forest – just 2.3% of its land. By 2009, this had increased more than five-fold to around 960,000 hectares, according to documents on related compensation payments. This included key forests subsidised by central government funds (where herding is banned) of 523,000 hectares, three times the area in 2000.   

“Huge swaths of grassland have been declared ‘public forests’ – and ‘key public forests’ at that,” said Yu.

The state defines “public forests” as forests managed to protect and improve the human environment, maintain ecological balance, preserve genetic resources or contribute to scientific research, tourism or national security. It includes forests that provide shelter – for example from sandstorms – and can sometimes include scrub. However, some of the areas that have been blocked off to allow forests to grow do not meet this definition, said Yu, and are simply being used to bolster forest figures.

China’s rules for calculating forest cover allow “scrub forest” to be counted “according to state regulations”. But those regulations did not appear until 2004. Once formulated, they allowed scrub to be classed as forest in ecologically weak areas – such as arid regions with average annual precipitation of less than 400 millimetres – when it is used for ecological protection and has coverage of at least 30%. Alxa Right Banner does have less than 400 millimetres of precipitation, but for the scrub to be classed as forest, it still requires coverage of at least 30%.

Yu says that since 2000 – well before the regulations were in place – China has been including scrub in forest cover statistics. And, since the rules came into force, there has been no attempt to check the 30% rates, or even to clarify the policy: “How do you check? In which season? Before or after it has rained? Do you count grass? Different answers to these questions would give different results, but there are no regulations on how to do it.”

According to Yu, the only “benefit” is to the authorities concerned – the funding they receive for the forest projects and an apparent improvement in their performance. Meanwhile, on pastures no longer managed by herders, agricultural and mining activity is increasing, to the detriment of the land. In fact, this vegetation that the authorities call “forest” needs to be grazed to stay healthy.

Yu also has concerns about funding. State Forestry Administration (SFA) reports on six key projects from before 2005 indicate that, for each mu (around 0.7 hectares) of forested land, 100 yuan (US$15.3) was invested. If we assume a price tag of 300 yuan (US$45.9) per mu for the years from 2000 to 2009, to account for rising costs, then a total of 244.9 billion yuan (US$37.5 billion) would have been spent over the decade on creating 54.426 million hectares of forest – with an average annual spend of 24.5 billion yuan (US$3.7 billion). Investment in forest creation for those six major projects alone would have cost more than 30 billion yuan (US$4.6 billion), and that does not include money spent on relocating populations, foresters’ wages and so on. Actual spending for the years after 2005 has not been published.

After all of that investment, what was the result? Yu analysed SFA figures and found that, although 2.68 million square kilometres of forest had been created by 2009, only 22.9% of that has been retained. More than three quarters of the money spent has been wasted.

Yu believes that the root problem with the management of China’s forests is the extent to which the process is controlled by government: “The SFA manages the forest, it manages forest creation, it gets the money and it evaluates success. Forest inventories are carried out by a subordinate body, the heads of which are officials, not scientists. The results they publish are over-simplified – fine for public consumption, but scientists can pick any number of holes in them.”  

China’s forest creation work is managed by the National Afforestation Committee, which is chaired by the vice-premier of the State Council, while the SFA director is deputy chair. At the SFA, there are a number of bodies involved in forest creation, including the Forest Creation Department, the Resources Department, the Natural Forest Protection Office, the Farmland Conversion Office, the State Forestries and Tree Seedlings Work Main Station and more.

“Forest coverage is, just like GDP, a measure of government performance,” said one former forestry worker.

However, Yang Fangyi, climate-change officer at NGO the Shan Shui Conservation Center said that there has long been international debate over the definition of forests and calculations of forest cover – and you cannot simply blame ulterior motives. For example, China’s standards for canopy density (the degree to which trees obscure the ground; a measure of forest density) are higher than those of the United Nations. But Yang pointed out that, unlike China, the UN’s definition for forests excludes commercial trees such as mangoes and artificially planted trees such as cork and rubber trees and coconut palms.

An official with the SFA who wished to remain anonymous explained that loosening the forest definition in areas unsuitable for trees allowed scrub to benefit from funding for forest protection. And after all, said the official, scrub still helps to prevent sandstorms, adding: “Even if we do increase the figures for forest coverage, it’s no big deal. The more the better, as the environment in those places will be protected as forest land.”

SFA figures show that China’s forest area and coverage started to increase rapidly in the early 1990s. By 2008, forest coverage was almost 2.4 times that of the late 1940s. By the end of 2009, more than 12.1 billion people had taken part in voluntary tree planting exercises, and over 56.3 billion trees had been planted. But rates of soil erosion and water loss have not improved; one million square metres of new land is affected each year. Forests may be expanding, but the environment continues to worsen.


Meng Si is assistant editor in chinadialogue’s Beijing office. Editorial assistant Zhang Yingying also contributed to this article.

Homepage image from binfen98

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评论 comments

Default thumb avatar
anumakonda

造林的确能避免气候变化

中国在植树造林方面做得很好,一定程度上减轻了气候变化,这是在上策。

Forests do abate climate change

China is doing well in afforestation which is thebest way to avert climate change to some extent.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

Default thumb avatar
meter

就怕是面子工程、泡沫工程

真正的环保是人类心灵的环保,否则染污的心灵不可能造出绿洲来哦

face-projects or bubble-projects

The real environment protection has to come from human's heart and soul. You can't create a oasis with a contamination heart.

Default thumb avatar
cdhelennh

此文的“效益”不太清楚

植树造林的效益应该有生态的、社会的、经济的等等多重效益,此文对“效益”的描述语焉不详。我读过冯永锋的《没有大树的国家》,感觉我国植树造林多年以来,其在生物多样性方面的效益及其评估是鲜被涉及的话题。如果能发起一项对国家天保工程、退耕还林政策的实施评估工作(其“效益”要多重来共同评估),就能知道问题在哪里,下一步怎么做。

The VALUE in this article is not clear

Reforestation must have ecological, social and economical values. These values are not described well in this article.
I read the book "A Country Without a Big Tree" by Feng Yongfeng and found that effectiveness of reforestation on biodiversity and relevant assessment have been rarely referred, since reforestation was implemented years ago. Thus, the assessment on those policies such as China National Forest Resources Conservation Project and Converting cropland to forest policy, is necessary to launch, which is expected to get multiple stakeholders involved, so that the crux will be known and solved.

Default thumb avatar
gaidee

要于长青,更要树长青

这是我近来读到的最让人吃惊和引人深思的文章,为此,感谢中外对话为一个普通中国人提供的一件中国事。

植树造林原来不是那么美,这好像不是那么回事。中国的统计是个薄弱的环节,原因不在统计科学的本身,而在于统计者。如果统计者能够依照胡锦涛主席的科学发展观之“以人为本”为工作的指导原则,想必我们还是可以为子孙后代(首先是自己)带来收益的。这个我们首先要明确。其次,参照胡主席的科学发展观,同样的我们需要具有系统思维的能力,不能解决了一个问题,带来好几个更大的问题,就像外国引进的化学工业一样,你看看,哪个公司干过什么好事?今天是个重大的发明,明天就是个大麻烦的源头。整个社会在这样的思维状态中,不断“发展”,真是讽刺啊。

也许这就是我们的现状,什么时候能够改变呢?于长青辞职跑到内蒙古进行具体工作,实在是需要勇气、骨气和运气,放弃清华大学之教职,假如不是由其它之隐情,真值得吾辈效仿,至少是精神上。

按照于长青博士的说法,奇迹上我们有可能取得植树造林的巨大的社会效益的,但是这个做法本身不直接产生GDP,所以,也许国家林业局也是无能为力吧,想必也是一肚子苦水。

小时候读过鲁迅的一篇文章,说的是,我家门前有两棵树,一棵是枣树,另一棵也是枣树,当是不能理解,以为是伟人的笔误。现在读来,管它笔误不笔误的,这个房子多好啊,有两棵树,“一棵是枣树,另一棵也是枣树”,空拍也只有我们在怀念鲁迅先生的时候才知道原来树对我们是那么重要。也同时在此为长青博士喝彩。

more Yus, more trees

This is the most astounding and thought-provoking article I've read recently, thanks to Chinadialogue for exposing such domestic affair to we Chinese. Afforestation is not as pretty as it appears. Statistics in China is untenable, which is not blamed on this discipline, but the statisticians in charge. At first, one point must be made clear. I believe that, if those statisticians can work under the principle of "people oriented, people foremost" raised by Chairman Hu Jintao in his "scientific outlook of development", by analyzing the result, we can still bring benefit to themselves and our offsprings. Secondly, apart from the "scientific outlook", we should also equip ourselves with systems thinking to avoid solving one problem with more to come. One example can be the imported chemical industry. Has any one of the corporations done anything applaudable? An important invention has always been causing a huge problem. The whole society is "developed" under such a narrow-minded operation. What an irony! Maybe that is exactly what we are facing, but when can it be changed? It takes great courage, responsibility and luck for Mr. Yu Changqing to resign and work in Inner Mongolia. Leaving Tsinghua University for ideal, if there's no any other unspeakable reasons, is definitely worth learning. According to Dr. Yu, afforestation can acturally bring great benefit to the society, but afforestation itself cannot increase our GDP. So maybe failure of this project is also against the will of the national forestry bureau. I remember reading an article written by Lu Xun when I was a child. There's a sentence written like this:"There are two trees in front of my house, one of which is jujube tree, the other jujube tree." I couldn't understand and thought it was a typo. But now I don't care. How great is a house with two trees! I'm afraid we can only realize the importance of the trees when recalling Lu Xun and his articles. I applaud you, Dr. Yu!

This commment is translated by Zhang Xiaofei.