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ICJ: Forestry and Downstream Impacts

The other primary cause of biodiversity loss is the felling of the Tibetan forests. While most forests are renewable because of the altitude, cold temperatures, steep slopes and sharp differences between day and night temperatures, no-one knows how long it may take for clearfelled conifer/rhododendron/juniper forests to regenerate. Once a forest has been clearfelled there is no tree canopy to protect seedlings from temperature extremes. It may be that, in the absence of reforestation practices specifically designed for the special requirements of eastern Tibet, the forest does not regenerate at all. Many species grow slowly: juniper are often 1500 years old. WWF fears that clearfelled forest exposes remaining Tibetan soils to frost heave, destroying seedlings as they sprout, and preventing regeneration.

A Chinese scientist frankly reported in 1992:

Long term overcutting has caused severe consequences to ecology, economy and society in the Tibetan area. It is nearly impossible to find a big tract of forest along the banks of the four primary rivers which join to become the Yangste. Especially in the Dadu River valley, where logging has continued longest, the eight timber companies assigned to its forests lack an exploitable resource and the annual harvest floated downstream in boom years, 1.5 million cubic metres. has dropped to 0.18 million cubic metres. Soil erosion is serious, floods and debris flows occur often in summer. The siltation load dumped by the rivers increases, harming downstream dams. Also the water conserving capacity of the forests is destroyed. The 1981 flood in Sichuan can be traced to the forest reduction. Flood disaster frequency in western Sichuan has increased from once in 15 years to once in five. On the other hand, the winter seasonally lowest flow level in the Min River has dropped to 1/42 of levels recorded throughout the 1930s.

A Chinese environmentalist in 1991 estimated that: “If the unrestrained activities of local and provincial (state) enterprises and greedy individuals continue at this rate, the western Sichuan forest will not last more than 13 years.” However, as logging expands westward within Sichuan, there is no sign of any reduction of logging to a sustainable rate, and some indications that the massive Three Gorges dam, currently under construction, has actually increased the demand for Tibetan timber, for use in dam construction formwork.

China's population explosion is the underlying pressure for the accelerating destruction of Tibetan forests and panda habitat. “Since the modern world made its way into the Tibetan Plateau via Chinese modernization the forests have been reduced nearly by half.” The rate of destruction is by various estimates three to four times faster than the forests can regrow, a practice which results in a renewable resource becoming non-renewable. Vaclav Smil terms this extraction the “planned destruction” of the portion of Tibet annexed to Sichuan.

Chinese surveys of Kham, (western Sichuan), published in 1986, reveal the extent of deforestation, with consequent soil erosion and flooding: "In Western Sichuan 160 million cubic metres of timber, 1/5th of the total forest resource stock was consumed in the last 30 years. Forest exploitation is 2.3 times more than the forest productivity." In addition, "[f]or 30 years the process of deforestation has been widespread, and clearing of forests for grazing, cultivation and firewood has rapidly depleted the forest cover." Problems with clear felling, erosion of hillsides and of stream banks due to rafting of timber, increased sediment in streams and rivers and floods are reported.

According to a Chinese scientist, "[a]dministration of the forest industry has not conformed to natural and economic principles." Deforestation and decreased water retention of watershed areas has reduced or eliminated the power output of many hydropower units and increased flooding. Because many forest areas are inaccessible, cutting has been concentrated in accessible areas and among the best stands of forest with deleterious results. Afforestation, including aerial seeding, has been attempted, but in only 30 percent of the afforested areas has the forest successfully regenerated. Similar concerns from an economic perspective are echoed by the Policy Research Department of the Sichuan CCP: “the Sichuan Tibetan area is very important to our economic development. Additionally, it is a lot different from other forest areas, the E. China and the S. China forest areas: 1) The forest has vertical distribution and the growth cycle is very long, so it is difficult to renew it... To renew the natural forest needs 120 years... ; 2) being located in a Tibetan area, problems of benefit distribution among the central and provincial government and the minority nationality arise ; 3) The forest industry is most important to economy on the Tibetan area.... In many counties, the timber industry provides 70% of the revenues.

The study acknowledged that since the beginning of the 1980s, the forest industry in this area has plunged into a resource crisisÊ and asserted that "[i]f this trend continues, in 20 years the forest will be used up, we need at least 40-50 years to renew it." It expressed concern at the consequences for logging enterprises in the region. "Because of heavy felling for a long time, many forest factories have no trees to fell. In the Aba district, there are 11 forest factories and the forest resources of 8 of them are exhausted. These have no continuous forest areas left and in order to let the company survive, they are forced to fell forest shelter walls and protection forests. .... There is no other way to keep the local economy except overfelling. Of course, they all knew overfelling will bring harm to the economy, the environment and the social development."


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