TIN News Update / 26 August 1998 ISSN: 1355-3313
The Chinese have announced a ban on timber felling in eastern Kham on the upper reaches of the Yangtze river. The ban applies to natural forests in Ngaba and Kandze Tibetan autonomous prefectures (TAPs), Liang-shan Yi Nationality autonomous prefecture, Panzhihua and Leshan cities and Ya'an prefecture, an area that is being described by officials as the "Chuanxi Forest Area." In a further move announced on 24 August, the construction of float channels for logs at a major hydropower station on the Yalong river, a major tributary of the Yangtze in western Sichuan, has been suspended.
The unconditional ban on logging and the closure of timber markets, to take effect from 1 September, was announced by Sichuan's governor, Song Baoru according to Xinhua on 23 August. He said that the prohibition would be carried out "without exception" in a total of 54 counties in western Sichuan. The prohibition is being imposed, said Xinhua, in a bid to "curb severe soil erosion that exacerbates the threat of floods". China is currently experiencing what President Jiang Zemin has described as the "largest flood over the entire [Yangtze] river course since 1954".
"Sichuan has almost lost all its forest reserves as a result of several decades of arbitrary felling", said Xie Shijie, secretary of the Sichuan provincial Party Committee, as quoted by the China Daily on 24 August. The day before, Xinhua reported that the reduction in natural forests has led to the area affected by soil erosion in western Sichuan almost doubling since the 1950s to 110,000 square kilometres at present.
A news analysis by Xinhua news agency on 17 August gave the first hint that the authorities were preparing to admit that at least some of the flooding was due to deforestation in the upper reaches of the Yangtze river basin. "Soil erosion caused by random cutting of trees and the damage done to vegetation on the upper reaches have made the flooding worse," said Xinhua.
The "Chuanxi Forest Area", a designation for the region not previously used, is an area totalling 4.63 million hectares, one of the three largest forest areas in China. Containing vast regions of old-growth forests, it has a major role in conserving the headwaters of the Yangtze. There are more than 70 state-run logging companies working in the area, according to the 24 August edition of the China Daily, and they have between them cut a total amount of 120 million cubic metres of wood from the forests, generating over 2 billion yuan in taxes and profits.
Workers currently employed in the logging industry are from now on to be responsible for the planting and protection of trees, said Song Baorui. The reforestation plans also include proposals to close off areas of pastureland to facilitate afforestation. This will be implemented through the closure to livestock grazing of nearly 9 million hectares of land in the eastern Kham area. The authorities have not so far publicly said how this may affect local pastoralists. Grassland in Kandze TAP (known in Chinese as Ganzi) makes up 61.7% of the total land area. Nearly 90% of the population live in rural areas, and are probably involved in pastoralism. Similarly in Ngaba TAP (Chinese: Aba), over 50% of the total land area is grassland, and over 80% of the population is rural.
Re-afforestation is a priority built into the Chinese constitution but this week's announcement is the first real indication that the authorities are taking seriously the threats posed by deforestation. The river valley along the upper reaches of the Yangtze covers one million square kilometers, representing nearly one tenth of China's total territory. About 35% of the upper reaches of this valley "suffers severe water and soil losses", reported Xinhua in November 1996, adding that 1.6 billion tons of soil had been washed away annually.
Chinese scientists have long been aware of the potentially catastophic impact deforestation has on soil erosion on the Tibetan plateau. In 1986 a joint report of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu and the Commission for the Integrated Survey of Natural Resources in Beijing described forest exploitation in western Sichuan as 2.3 times more than forest productivity. The Min valley, it says, had 50% forest cover during the 14th century, 30% by 1949, and only 18.8% cover by 1985. "Administration of the forest industry [in western Sichuan] has not conformed to natural and economic principles," said Dong Zhiyong, then Vice-minister of Forestry, in the report.
Policy decisions regarding deforestation on the Tibetan plateau also have implications for countries in South Asia, such as Bangladesh, where flooding is frequent and often devastating, and attributed by some experts to the soil erosion brought on by deforestation in Tibet. As the source of the Brahmaputra, the Salween, the Mekong, the Yellow River and the Yangtze, Tibet is seen by some scientists to hold the key to environmental stability in much of south-eastern and Eastern Asia.
The Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) Specialist Plan, an internal publication dating from the mid-1990s outlining a 25-year plan for the TAR covering the years 1996-2020, reflects these concerns. In a chapter evaluating the forestry environment it recognises the importance of forestry conservation in the Tibetan prefectures of Chamdo, Nyingtri and Lhokha (known in Chinese as Qamdo, Linzhi and Shannan respectively) and the "Three Rivers" zone in south east Tibet. The plan states that "making good use of their forest conservation capacity is not only extremely important to the conservation of water resources in that area, but it is of the greatest significance as regards water and soil conservation and flood prevention relating to the Yangtze river and rivers which cross international borders."
Tibetans have long expressed concerns about deforestation in Kham (as the Tibetans call eastern Tibet, which includes the Tibetan areas of Sichuan and Yunnan provinces and Chamdo prefecture in the TAR) and its effects on the environment. In May 1996 the BBC showed footage from a film shot clandestinely in eastern Tibet, showing logging operations in Dawu (known as Daofu in Chinese) in Kham where timber is transported by up to 300 trucks each day eastwards into central Sichuan. It is illegal for individuals to cut timber in the region: "If one local person cuts down a tree they have to pay a fine of 50-60 yuan or even 100 yuan, but the Chinese government cuts down trees anywhere it likes," the film maker said.
The ban announced this week does not apply to logging in the TAR. The film from inside Tibet showed that the logging industry had already spread from Kham into central Tibet, with shots of trucks travelling from Kongpo, in southern Tibet, carrying four or five tree trunks each about 2 or 3 meters in diameter. In one seven-hour filming session the crew counted 70 loaded trucks passing them, heading north towards Golmud in Qinghai, en route for transportation to inland China.
The TAR Specialist Plan recognises the concerns raised by deforestation in the region and admits that in some areas "there is excesssive felling of trees, the rate of afforestation is slow and the forest cover ratio is decreasing." It continues by saying that until the year 2000 "the area of land that is kept forested must not be less than one million mu (66,700 hectares). Every year, the total consumption of forestry resources must be kept below 2 million cubic metres." It is not known whether the TAR authorities have implemented these plans.
Hydropower Projects Affected
News of the ban on logging in western Sichuan was followed by an announcement carried by Xinhua on 24 August that the Ertan Hydropower station on the Yalong river, a major tributary of the Yangtze, is to abandon plans for the design and construction of float channels, which are put in place to allow felled logs to pass downstream. The initial plans had included float channels capable of handling 1.1 million cubic meters of timber per annum.
The station, which was partly funded by World Bank loans, is the largest completed hydropower facility in China and is part of a development comprising five hydropower projects around Panzhihua and Ertan in southern Sichuan. The construction of the float channels has been suspended "as part of an effort to protect the environment", said Cheng Zhihua, vice-president of the Chengdu Survey and Design Research Institute and chief designer of the station. In his comments, quoted by Xinhua on 24 August, he added that "related design practices" would also be abandoned.
Statistics cited in the article said that every year approximately 500,000 cubic meters of timber had been felled in areas upstream. The Ertan Hydropower station has a designed capacity of 3.3 million kw and is part of a huge development geared towards iron and steel production in the region. Currently under partial operation it is believed to be crucial to China's development strategy for western Sichuan, which includes part of eastern Tibet (Kham).
Following the announcement that the Ertan hydropower development will not facilitate logging interests in the region, plans are reportedly underway, according to Xinhua on 24 August, to build a further 21 power stations along the Yalong, Jinsha and Dadu rivers. Experts say the rivers - all of which run through parts of Kham before joining the Yangtze downstream - have a combined water reserve of over 120 million kW, 25% of China's total. As with the Ertan development, they are believed to be part of plans to develop the river basins in line with development of south and west Sichuan as a whole.
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