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Stunned By Floods, China Hastens Logging Curbs

By Erik Eckholm

[The New York Times, September 25, 1998]

Lixian, China.

The trucks are still running through the mountains here, laden with big logs carved from the jagged slopes of western Sichuan.

But by the end of October, the trucks now crowding these winding roads will be idle as the timber trade that was the lifeblood of a vast region of western China, abutting the Tibetan plateau, comes to a halt.

Stunned by this summer's devastating floods along the Yangtze River, which experts said were intensified because slopes far upstream had been stripped bare, China has banned cutting of the old-growth forests that once formed a rich green carpet over these mountains. No trees were to be cut after Sept. 1, and all logs must be trucked to timber yards by Oct.31.

After a half-century of rampant clear-cutting, China's decision to save the remaining forests along the upper reaches of the Yangtze and other major rivers represents a dramatic shift in priorities in favor of environmental protection. Huge tree-planting campaigns have also been promised.

But the change is certain to be wrenching for hundreds of thousands of people in Sichuan, Yunan and Gansu provinces, including large numbers of ethnic Tibetans and other minorities, who have built their lives around the logging trade.

"I feel this policy will probably benefit future generations," said Luo Erwu, who was driving a load of logs out of the mountains the other day. "But this generation will have to suffer," added Mr. Luo, an ethnic Tibetan who still owes thousands of dollars on the logging truck he bought two years ago.

Far up a mountain gorge outside Lixian, where trees felled this summer are still being dragged out, 53 year old Wang Qunggan brewed tea over a wood fire.

"We'll be putting down our axes and picking up our spades," said Mr. Wang a worried employee of the state-owned logging company that has cleared much of the surrounding county.

Actually, what Mr.Wang has put down is not his ax but a pair of scissors.

For 27 years, the Western Sichuan Logging Company, which once had thousands of workers, kept Mr.Wang as a full-time barber. Now he finds himself on hillsides planting seedlings. But at least he still has a job and a promise of a small pension when he retires in two years.

Not everyone in the region is so lucky. The thousands of former farmers or workers who scraped together as much as $10,000, a small fortune here, to buy logging trucks are chief among the casualties.

"No forest, no money" another private trucker, Gu Yuefu, said with a shrug as he idled in a traffic backup caused by a small landslide. Since he bought his truck last year for $10,000, Mr. Gu has been able to earn about $300 a month hauling logs from around his home of Aba, in the far western mountains of Sichuan, down to Chengdu, the provincial capital.

Now he is deep in debt, no one wants to buy a logging truck and he does not know what he will do. "Maybe I'll sit around and drink tea," he said.

Other truckers and timber workers who expect to lose their jobs said they would have to return to farming. In this densely populated, land-short region this may only worsen another serious cause of erosion and silting of rivers: the widespread farming of steep mountain slopes.

Abrupt as is seemed this fall, the logging ban was only a bow to the inevitable, a hastened end to a classic pattern of boom and bust.

At midcentury about 20 percent of land in the western part of Sichuan, Yunan, and Gansu was covered with dense, primary forest, said She Guofang, a professor at the Beijing Forestry University, in a recent interview. Now, between logging and the spread of farming, the share of land in forest has been reduced to 10 percent, he said, and much of that consists of slowly recovering second-growth or plantations that do less to conserved soil and water.

Peng Huangshi, deputy director of forestry for Sichuan, said that "the timber resources have been approaching complete exhaustion" in the province, with marketable trees increasingly inaccessible. Many logging concerns have been running in the red, with the Government forced to make up the losses.

About two years ago, concerned about the financial and ecological cost, national and provincial officials drew up plans to phase out most logging in Sichuan and restore the landscape, Mr. Shen and provincial officials said.

But last year, national planning officials said there was not enough money to proceed, Mr. Shen said. Money would be needed to support displaced forest workers and pay retirees, to subsidize local governments dependent on logging revenues and to pay for tree-planting and other new projects.

"The flooding this year pushed the Government at last to implement this plan," Mr. Shen said.

The bulk of the logging has been by large state-owned companies, although towns and even private farmers have increasingly been involved, sometime logging illegally in protected zones.

With accessible timber increasingly scarce, the more than 20 large state-owned companies in the region were on a financial treadmill, with mounting losses. Not only were costs raising while production fell, but the older companies were saddled with the pension and health costs of workers from the glory days.

The large state logging companies in Sichuan alone now have 45,000 active employees, but are responsible for the pensions of 65,000 retirees, officials said.

The Western Sichuan company where Mr. Wang, the former barber, works, is a case in point. In the mid-1960ís it was producing 1,560,000 cubic feet. By the time of this monthís ban, its staff was down to 462-- including many working in reforestation or hydropower projects rather than logging-- and the company must support 2,353 retirees.

Not surprisingly, the company has been losing money for 20 years.

Mr. Wang recalled conditions when he started working here in 1971, when big trees were plentiful and near. "Back then, when we'd have a meeting, they'd have all sorts of food laid out for us," he said. We were receiving bonuses all the time

Several workers for the company said it often falls behind in paying their wages, which for many are only $36 a month. Some said they had not been paid since June.

To aid the transition from a logging economy, the central Government has promised Sichuan $121 million a year in aid, provincial officials said, while the province will come up with the extra $24 million to help its western region.

Productively employing all 45,000 state forestry workers in Sichuan will itself be a challenge. Mr. Shen said the reforestation requires only one-third the work force of logging. Local officials also dream of promoting eco-tourism in the remaining pristine areas.

Forestry officials in Beijing say that nation-wide-- logging is also being curbed in Chinaís northeast and in the upper reaches of the Yellow River-- at least 241,000 state timber workers will be laid off.

Tens of thousands more affected people, not officially state workers, have not been promised government aid. Many were hired by the state companies as ìtemporaryî employees, with no benefits. Thousands more in township-run companies or in private enterprise, like the dismayed truckers on the road, depended on logging for their living.

Small businesses in towns along the roads, too, will feel the pinch. As he patched a threadbare tire in a grungy storefront here in Lixian, a man who gave his name as Mr. Li said that 80 percent of his work involved repairing logging-truck tires. "Our income will fall for sure,² he said.

Asked whether the sudden, blanket ban on felling primary forest might be unnecessarily traumatic, Mr. Shen, the forestry professor, said: "Given Chinese reality, there are just too many involved, and if you tried a gradual approach you couldnít stop the logging. So it must be done very clearly and strictly this way."

After one or two years, he said officials can consider whether to allow selective, less-damaging logging methods in some areas. And some wood production from second growth forests and older plantations will continue.

Sichuan officials are putting brave face on the situation, perhaps because they accept that era of easy timber was already gone.

"We believe that whatever problems the logging ban creates can be overcome," said Zhang Zhongwei, the Deputy Governor of Sichuan, in an interview. "It's for the good of future generations."


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