Forestry in Tibet: Problems and Solutions
By Sultrim Palden Dekhang*
According to conventional belief, Tibet is cold and barren. However, southern, eastern and southeastern parts of Tibet have alpine, temperate, sub-tropical and even tropical forests! Tibet has one of the oldest forest reserves in central Asia, which has been preserved in its natural state not through the new- age 'environmental movement' but via centuries-old understanding of Nature by the Tibetan Buddhist belief in ahimsa (non-violence) and realization of the vital interdependence nature of both biotic and abiotic elements of the earth.
The forest belt of Tibet has a rich biodiversity of species, including many endemic and fossil tree species. Tibet has over 5,700 species of higher plants belonging to 208 families and 1,258 genera. Many plant species are unique to tile high Tibetan Plateau, such as species of rhododendron, saxifraga, meconopsis, iris and others.
This brief analysis aims to highlight the present wanton destruction of Tibet 's precious forest resource under Chinese rule, its consequences and proposes ways and means to restore and conserve the rich forest resource of Tibet for future generations.
Source: Weilie, 1980; Li 1993
Distribution of Forest
Major forest areas in Tibet are in southern (Dram, Kyirong, Pema Koe, Kongpo, Nyingtri, Tawu, Metok, and Monyul), eastern (Chamdo, Drayap, Zogong, Karze, Potramo, Dhartsedo, Nyarong, Nyawa), south-eastern (Dechen, Balung, Gyaltilang, Mili, Lithang, Zayul, Markham, Zogang). In the 'Tibet Autonomous Region' (TAR) alone there are more than 8 forest vegetation types, 45 forest formations and still many other large number of forest associations have been recognized.
According to Chinese government latest figures, the 'Tibet Autonomous Region' has the largest forest cover in China. The result obtained through satellites and land surveys shows that TAR has two billion square meters of timber forests, the biggest area in all of the present Chinese empire. About 9.8% of the region (7.17 million hectares) is covered by trees and vast tracts of forest spread across the east and south.
Forests purify the air, moderate the climate, protect soil from erosion and keep water clean. Forests provide lumber, fuelwood, food, fruits as well as raw materials for paper, medicines, and thousands of other products. Forests offer refuge for the landless, poor and rich and provide habitats for diverse flora and fauna.
Tibet is the largest timber reserve at the disposal of China. According to the official Chinese census the total value of timber China extracted from Tibet until 1985 is estimated at US $54 billion. No recent data is available. Timber is used for the construction of bridges, houses, boats, ships, making furniture and other accessories of daily use.
Mr. Gonpo (Standing Committee member of TPPCC (Tibet People's Political Consultative Conference) at its general body meeting held in May 1995 in Lhasa said, "Chinese government pays 180 yuan (US $22 at the current of rate of US 1$ =8.3l yuan) per cubic meter timber locally and sell them in Beijing and Shanghai for 8,000 yuan (US $963) per cubic meter and a whopping sum of 10,000 yuan (US $1204) in Japan."
Non-Timber Forest Resources
Food and fruits
Tibet's forest provide fruits, nuts, and varieties of vegetables for human consumption. The important ones being apple, pear, orange, banana and walnut. Bamboo shoot is a favorite ingredient in the cuisine of eastern Tibet. Grapes and other berries are used in brewery industries to produce alcoholic drinks. Forest products such as tea, honey, mushrooms and other food items are used locally and are also exported to other countries.
Oil and other products
Many plants species in Tibet produce oils, which find immense use in industries, factories, and in the domestic sphere. There are many tree species that produce edible oil; the important ones are walnut, camellia, and tallow. Example, Pinus griffithii produce oil for food. It also provides materials for paint and varnish. P. armadi's oil content can reach 40%. Potential productivity of different kinds of aromatic oil in the subtropical evergreen forests of Tibet is estimated to be about 2 million tons. Pines and other plant species are good source of gum and latex.
According to a Chinese radio broadcast from Lhasa 1,100 tons of thangchu (gum) and another 30 tons of a thicker variety were collected between 1966-76. Forest weeds have immense value in China. A Chinese timber factory claimed to have milled 8 million cubic meters of weed, which was valued at 80 million yuan (US $17.2 million).
According to preliminary reports there are over 160 species of plants with high fibre content in the region. Many coniferous trees such as fir, pine, spruce are excellent raw material for pulp industries in producing varieties of paper products. Bamboo is used in construction, weaving baskets, hats, etc.
In the Himalayan-Hengduan mountains alone, there are over 2,000 medicinal plants used in Tibetan and allopathic medicines. According to 1991 Social and Economic Annual Report of TAR, from the 'Tibet Autonomous Region' alone, Chinese government has transported 1.3 million kg of rare medicinal plant Cordyceps sinensis (Tibetan:Yartsa Gunbu), 5.5 million kg of Picrorrhiza kurrooa (Tibetan: Honglen) and 2,561kg of musk between 1975-1990 to China. Diverse physio-geographical environment provides vital habitats for many endangered, unique and variety of other wild animals such as giant panda, red panda, golden monkey, takin and white-lipped deer. These species possess important aesthetic, economic, educational and intrinsic value.
Forest Stock and Density in Tibet
Causal Agents of Forest Degradation
Population Pressure and Increasing Timber Demand
Tibet with a size of 2.5 million sq. km has 6 million Tibetans. According to preliminary investigation there are now over 7.5 million Chinese in Tibet increasing the population of Tibet to 13.5 million. Thus, the population density has more than doubled to 5.4 persons/sq. km. Despite a government program to limit population growth, population is increasing by 14 million annually in China (Beijing Review Oct. 2-8, 1995). Beijing provides incentive for Chinese workers to migrate into Tibet, this further blows hot air into the explosive population balloon. Chinese settlers, especially, in eastern Tibet, clear forests for settlement and agriculture. Forests are cut for construction and hardwoods are used to produce charcoal for sale in nearby markets.
According to Xu Youfeng, Minister of Forestry (Xinhua, August 3 I, 1994), China's per capita standing stock of forest is only ten cubic meters, still one of the least in the world. With the rapid economic development contradictions between timber demand and supply still looms large. The minister admitted that China can not still meet the needs of the national economic growth and forest protection.
Cashing On Timber
The problem is not because there is no forest protection laws in China, but because they are not enforced on the ground. Taking advantage of the weak Chinese government infrastructure in protecting forest and the widespread corruption among officials, some unscrupulous elements both domestic and foreign are cashing on the rich timber resource of Tibet by greasing the palm of influential Chinese officials.
Mr. Gonpo, standing committee member of Tibet People's Political Consultative Conference held in Lhasa in May 1995 said, "The citizens of Lhasa and Nyingtri (in Kongpo) have expressed serious concern over the destruction of forest by timber poachers on the excuse that they have the 'license' from various government forest departments (municipal, county, province) to fell trees." Most of these 'licenses' are obtained through unfair means.
According to He Bochuan, a Chinese naturalist, sustainable forest cover should be over 20% of the land area of a country, but in China it is estimated at 13% (it was 13% in 1949!), some experts put it much lower at 8%. The official Chinese news agent Xinhua (Jan. 6, 1995) puts the 1995 forest cover of China unbelievably at 13.9% (no doubt a concoction).
According to Chinese forester Li, by 1989, 25 of the state's 131 forestry bureaus had virtually exhausted their timber resources; 40 have enough wood for just 5-10 years; and 24 for 10-15 years. This means that by the year 2000 nearly 70% of China's forestry bases will have no trees to fell.
Tibetan forest regions of Nyingtri, Gyalthang, and Drag and a total of 18 million cubic meters of timber were transported down rivers. 'Tibet Autonomous Region' is connected to four large highways making it easier to transport the tree trunks. From the forest of Chamdo, capital of Kham, 2.5 million cubic meters of timber valued at 75 million yuan (US $20.3 million) were taken between 1960 and 1985. These figures were monitored by Radio Lhasa.
The Boston Globe newspaper reported on 10 March 1989 that massive deforestation was taking place in the eastern province of Kham, called Sichuan by the Chinese. Tibetans who have been allowed to visit the province were horrified by the quantities of timber being trucked or floated down the rivers to China. So many logs are transported by floating them on the rivers of east Tibet that often the water cannot be seen. Lumbering has been carried out so enthusiastically that whole hillsides and large areas have been completely defaced.
Tenzin, a middle-aged farmer of Markham village in Kham, told The New York Times correspondent Nicholas Meysztowiez in April 1990, "In the time it takes to drink one cup of tea, 15 Chinese trucks with timber pass by."
In Po Tramo if the felled lumber were lined end to end, it would stretch for a staggering 111,000 million metres. Trees felled in the fertile old Tibetan forest lands of Ngapa, Karze and Mili, now part of Sichuan, would measure 10 billion cubic metres, or 70% of the timber reserves of this forest-rich province.
The twenty three years of Commune Period (1956-1981) caused an unprecedented forest destruction in Tibet as local villages became production brigades during which, mountains were stripped of their forests to feed inefficient steel furnaces in the madness to produce enough steel for China to advance rapidly to the ranks of the advanced nations!
The Chinese government claims to have made massive afforestation input in Tibet. However, the output one could see on the ground is massive planting failures. Poor site selection, poor species/site adaptation, faulty techniques, and inadequate supervision were to blame. Therefore, annual plantation figures has not been able to compensate for the annual harvest from mature forests. For example, in the southwestern mountain region, the total afforested area accounts for 12.7% of the total deforested area. In Sichum Province (includes the major part of Kham) the ratio of trees felled to trees planted was as high as ten to one.
According to a survey conducted by the Northwest Institute of Forestry in Xian province indicated that half of the reported national afforestation claims in China (includingTibet) were false, and the survival rate of planted trees was no higher than 40%. Local Chinese officials blow up their statistics on afforestation to please higher officials, a Chinese style of keeping in touch with Beijing's development fever!
Poor Forest Protection
Inadequate prevention and control of forest fire, forest pests and diseases have led to forest degradation in Tibet. In Yunnan Province (includes a part of Kham) from 1951-1980, over 100,000 forest fires have occurred. The loss of forest resources caused by forest fires totals 1.3 million cubic meters per year or 5% of the total forest resources of the province, nearly equal to the timber extracted by the nationally owned industrial forest enterprises. During 30 years of Chinese rule in TAR, there were 240 forest fires and destroyed more than 10,000 acres of forest.
In Yunnan province about two million hectares of coniferous forest have been damaged by different pests and noxious diseases since the 1950s. The regeneration capacity of tree seedlings in the mountainous regions of Tibet is low and therefore need extra protection, which is missing.
Faulty Logging Operations
Logging efficiency in China is poor and it is even poorer in the inaccessible forest reserves of Tibet. According to Li Wenhua, a Chinese forestry expert, logging efficiency throughout China is about 60% on an average, while in Tibet due to transportation problem the logging efficiency is much lower. Chinese logging operations are clumsy and destructive. Forest regions are clear-cut and left to rot, due to poor coordination between the Chinese government agency responsible for hauling the cut logs to China. According to Chinese sources, loses from such inept practices is in excess of US $2 billion each year.
Logging operation involve the use of bulldozers, chainsaws, tractors, and other heavy machinery, damaging the forest vegetation, trampling the ground, leading to soil compaction and male the forest soil unfit for seedling germination. During heavy rain the barren under-canopy forest soil is prone to scouring gullies and ditches and erosions. Falling trees also damage other trees in the forest and destroy habitats of many wildlife species thriving in the forest.
Until recently in Tibet, forestry development was relegated to one department without adequate position in the national development plan. There is a lack of proper coordination between various government departments as to the protection of forest resources. The poor foresight and allocation of responsibilities in maintaining and preserving the forest stand all lead to denudation of forests. According to Menzies and Peluso (1991) policies governing utilisation of forest is formulated by agencies in regional of national capitals, far removed from forest resource and people who use them. As a result local officials interpret and carry out policies to suit local conditions and their own needs.
The high handedness of top government officials illegally granting tree felling licenses to timber merchants for personal gain is one of the major causes of deforestation in Tibet. Nepotism, fraud, and embezzlement are all prevalent involving the heads of various government offices. But, as the Chinese say, the fish rots from the head.
Many forest regions of Tibet are stripped to the bone to create barren hillsides, creeping sand dunes, desert-like heaths, water logged moors, contaminated swamps, polluted drinking water, adverse climatic effects and negatively affect the biodiversity of these forest. Forests of Tibet abounds in various animal and plant lives, which are unique to Tibet. Tibet's forest is located at the upper reaches of ten major rivers flowing into south Asia and southeast Asia. Consequently, the destruction of Tibet's forest in the head-watersheds means the contamination and even drying up of these rivers. Deforestation has had major impacts on society. Historians contend that deforestation of Greece and Italy contributed significantly to the decline and fall of the Greek and the Roman empires.
Soil erosion and landslides
Tibetan Plateau is geologically speaking very young and is only 40 million years old. Therefore, the soil and vegetation cover is fragile. The roots of vegetation bind and hold soil particles together and act as natural check against erosions. When this vegetation cover is removed, the land is exposed to all sorts of natural disasters. The high altitude and the steep mountain valleys of Tibet air accelerate different natural calamities, especially during heavy rainfall. Soil erosion, landslides, floods not only affects the livelihood of people up-streams, but also drastically affects the lives of people living down-streams in other countries as well such as India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, Vietnam, and China. In the last five years, both China's Yangtze and India's Brahmaputra rivers flooded more extensively than at any other time in this century, killing thousands and causing more than $500 million in damage.
By mid-July 1991, according to official Chinese reports, summer floods had killed 2,000 people in China, causing 40 billion yuan ($7.5 billion) worth of damage while destroying 6618,000 acres of farmland and caused a 30% decrease in grain production in the affected regions. In some areas the bed of the Machu (Yellow River) is already 3-10 meters higher than the fields on either side due to high siltation caused mainly through deforestation.
According to He Bochuan if a major flood occurs, causing a flow of more than 22,300 cubic meters per second, the embankments could collapse, endangering the lives of tens of millions of people, and wrecking numerous development projects on the Yellow River plains.
A BBC report of 26th September, 1995 said that Zanchu (Mekong) River, which flows from Tibet overflowed affecting the lives of half a million people and spreading disease epidemic in Laos. The United Nations has asked for 200,000 tons of food grain as emergency relief for the flood victims from the international donors. Some scientists have blamed the exhaustive deforestation taking place in Tibet for this flood disaster.
Deforestation has demonstrable impact on the local climate. Today in much of southeast Tibet (major deforested area) the typical weather pattern has changed from one of mild winds and adequate rain to one of sporadic storms and drought. The once deep and gently flowing rivers have dwindled to paltry streams, occasionally swelling to roaring torrents by flash floods.
The impact of the Tibetan Plateau on the global climatic pattern is significant. Scientists have observed that there is a correlation between natural vegetation on the Tibetan Plateau and a stable Indian monsoon. Monsoonal rain is very essential for the bread-baskets of south Asia. However, strong monsoon currents are a havoc for the people living down-stream in the South-Asian sub-continent.
A study by Professor Elmar Reiter notes a definite relationship between variations in the pattern of jet streams (high altitude winds) over Tibetan Plateau and a number of global weather anomalies. These anomalies include high winter sea surface temperatures over the North Atlantic to bring sunny summer weather in Europe, and typhoons in the Pacific, which often bring rain and floods in Eastern China. Pacific typhoons, in turn, result in the interpretation of trade winds off the west coast of the Americas, which is responsible for the el nino (warm ocean current) phenomenon, which stirs up ocean water causing disruption of the marine food chain, affecting the entire economy of Peru, Ecuador and California coastline, while New Zealand, Australia, India and southern Africa reel under dreadful droughts.
Forest Conservation, Management & Development
The Chinese government must realize that the degradation of Tibet's forest not only means forest denudation in Tibet, but it will also have far-reaching long-term consequences to the global weather pattern and will affect the economy of China drastically, because Tibet's forest regions are located at the headwaters of ten major rivers flowing into China such as Machu (Yellow River of Huang-ho), Drichu (Yangtze) and Gyalmon Ngulchu (Salween). China must take immediate steps to stop the clear-cutting of Tibet's forest for short-term economic gain before it is too late.
Change of Ethics
Tibet and Chin have a long history of association with Buddhist ecological ethics. However, the Tibetan Buddhist ethics. However, the Tibetan Buddhist ethic was well preserved, but the Chinese counterpart was swept under the carpet when Maoist socialism took control of China in 1949. There is a need of the revival of this earth friendly ethic to reverse the process of environmental destruction in Tibet. China must realize that Tibet is not their hotel, but it is the home of 6 million Tibetans. It is not the chain-saw that log Tibet's forest, but it is the mind of the Chinese tainted with greed and selfish financial appetite that is fast destroying the forest of Tibet. The survival of 1.2 billion human lived in China is at stake if China continue to clear-cut Tibet's forest. The ecological healing of Tibet begins by healing the mind of the Chinese leaders. Sooner the Chinese realize the folly of their socialist arrogance of rather may I say mental backwardness, the better it is for China and Tibet in the long-run.
There should be a stricter enforcement of forest protection legislation and adequate personnel must be deployed to guard forest and nab illegal loggers, who must be prosecuted. According to He Bouchuan in 1987, civil courts in China prosecuted more than 75,000 cases of forest-looting involving the destruction of 247,000 acres of forest. In the first half of 1988, another 20,000 such cases were prosecuted. Out of these only 10% actually resulted in some kind of indictment, a dismal indication of the level of ignorance regarding forestry. Such loopholes in the administrative policy must be identified and remedied.
Public education programs are needed both before and after any forest protection law comes into force to help the public understand, abide by and support the legislation. Chin's State Councilor Chen Junsheng said in a Xinhua report (Jan. 1995) that more efforts are needed to protect forests, rare wildlife, including revising the existing Forestry Laws and drawing up new laws to crack down on illegal logging and hunting.
Planting seedlings is not afforestation, but it is taking care of them to mature into trees. Therefore, the Chinese government must shoulder the responsibility of choosing appropriate sites for afforestation and take intensive care of the planted tree seedlings. Local Tibetan communities should be given adequate power to manage the forest resources sustainably as they have done so, for thousands of years.
Proper allocation of responsibilities and accountability for failures in the forest protection department will yield rich dividends in the future. Forest resource is a key player in the nation's economic development and must be given a high priority in Tibet's national agenda. Token anti-corruption campaigns initiated in Tibet by China are not enough. Proper anti-corruption drive must involve higher officials also, so that the guilty employees in the ministry of forestry and others involved in illegal timber kickbacks could be punished.
Forests are undoubtedly the most precious natural wealth of a nation. Far from understanding this fact, the Chinese are absorbed in looting Tibet's forest reserve. Deforestation in Tibet is entirely different from deforestation taking place in other countries. Because China treats Tibet as a colony and the association is that of a master and a slave. Tibet's forest is currently in a vicious cycle of "the more the forests are cut, the less the forests become; and less the forests become, the more the forests are being cut." The tragedy is that local Tibetans have no say and get no benefits as their forests are clear-cut before their own eyes by a foreign force. The destruction of Tibet's forest not only will have adverse ecological, economic, cultural and social effects in Tibet, but also has global repercussions.
Keeping in view the vision of His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama, the supreme leader of the Tibetan people to transform the whole of future Tibet into a zone of peace, it is of utmost importance that Tibet's forest be protected and preserved for posterity. The need of the hour is emergency assistance and support from far-sighted countries and international NGOs to pressurize and lobby against China's unsustainable timber extraction in Tibet.
The real solution to deforestation in Tibet must come from China itself; as it is the culprit. However, recent Chinese statement such as this "Tibet has 2.5 million cubic meter of trees available for logging annually, but only cuts about 1.8 million cubic meters. Tibet's tree cutting is far behind tree growth." (as if a seedling matures into a tree in a day!) adds fuel to the burning deforestation problem in Tibet.
Therefore, a chance of having a Chinese solution to the Tibet's forest crisis is remote. Only with the restoration of Tibet to its rightful owners- the Tibetans will ensure the preservation of its rich forest reserve, providing a brighter future for the children of Tibet and for the benefit of other citizens of the world.
*Mr Tsultrim Palden Dekhang has done his M.Sc (Hons.) Botany, B.Ed from Panjab University, Chandigarh. Master in Environmental Studies (M.E.S.) from Yale University, U.S.A.
Article reprinted by permission from The Office of Tibet, the official agency of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in London.
Copyright 1998-2005, Tibet Environmental Watch (TEW)