The entrance of China into the global capitalist market with the ensuing accelerated expansion of its economy has been marked by a growing hunger for timber.
The path to industrialization first swallowed the country’s forests. Rampant logging led to the irretrievable loss of China’s natural wealth: accelerated desertification, decline of biodiversity and loss of forests up to the point that there is almost no old-growth left in China. The case of Yichun serves to illustrate the issue. The Guardian’s correspondent Jonathan Watts, reports (1) that in “Yichun, a north-eastern city in Heilongjiang province close to the frozen river border with Siberia, the forests were once so dense that the area was known as the Great Northern Wilderness. But more than fifty years of unsustainable logging have taken their toll. Yichun was classified last year (2008) as one of China's 12 ‘resource-depleted cities.’ ‘We are in a situation where we have no wood to cut. None of the forests are mature enough,’ Dong Zhiyong, former vice-minister in the forestry administration said.”
With the soil exposed to erosion fierce sandstorms have lashed the country while deforestation –especially in the upper reaches of river systems-- has contributed to devastating floods that caused thousands of deaths and millions of displaced people.
In 1998, a sweeping logging ban was established. However, wood consumption still increased, now at the expense of the forests of neighbouring countries (e.g. Burma, Cambodia, Russia) as well as of far away countries such as those in Western Africa, among other.
The need for papermaking resources added to wood demand and as result China launched in 2000 a Fast-growing and High-yielding Timber Plantations Program. The program –part of a wider set of six key programs- was to be established in 18 eastern and southwestern provinces and by 2012 the government aims to have planted an area of 44 million hectares (see WRM Bulletin Nº 85). This has implied land tenure reforms shifting from state-run or collectively owned land to land privatization in a country where farmer population is 1 billion out of a population of 1.5 billion.
Tax reductions and leeway management of fast growing, high-yield tree plantations have been established in an attempt to attract private investment. According to a Canadian report (2) “reforms are now moving from the recognition of individual assets and the encouragement of private companies to large-scale natural resource management”.
A number of pulp and paper firms have taken advantage of the opportunity and arrived to China to invest in planting trees and producing paper. Stora Enso, with business such as an integrated pulp and paper project in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, where the company leases 91,000 hectares of land for eucalyptus plantations plans to reach 160,000 hectares by 2010 to supply Stora Enso's pulp and paper project in Beihai (3). The notorious Asia Pulp and Paper has stakes in over 20 pulp and paper enterprises, as well as more than 20 tree plantation sites in China. (4) The Finnish UPM-Kymmene is also looking into investing further in the country in planting fast-growing trees. (5)
Soon an alert sounded: the province of Guangdong experienced a worsening drought coincidentally with the establishment of some 700,000 hectares planted with eucalyptus trees. Local authorities as well as members of the Chinese Academia exposed the link between the increasing number of eucalyptus tree plantations and the worsening drought in Guangdong (see WRM Bulletin Nº 106).
The weakness of the monoculture model –that lacks the natural protection provided by biodiversity- expressed itself in the case of poplar tree plantations, which became prone to insect attacks causing severe damage to leaves and trunks.
To amend the mess, a worse problem was introduced: genetically modified (GM) trees. Two genetically modified poplar lines were developed with support from Germany, FAO, and UNDP: Populus nigra and Populus hybrid named Poplar-12 and Poplar-741, which produce a Bt toxin in their leaves that kills leaf-eating insects.(6)
In 2002, both varieties were released for commercial use. Poplar is a fast-growing tree and the plans involved the establishment of commercial plantations with a ten-year rotation period covering an area of approximately 17 million hectares by the year 2012. (7)
China is the first country to approve the commercial release of GM trees.(7) According to Huoran Wang of the Chinese Academy of Forestry, "The accurate area of GM plantations cannot be assessed because of the ease of propagation and marketing of GM trees and the difficulty of morphologically distinguishing GM from non-GM trees." He adds that "a lot of materials are moved from one nursery to another and it is difficult to trace them." (8)
In spite of official assertions that GM poplars were female varieties with altered fertility –which allegedly would prevent cross-breeding– the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Science has already found genes from the GE poplars appearing in natural varieties. The threat of GM pollution has now become a tragic reality.
The case of China exemplifies the intrinsic problems of large-scale monoculture tree plantations, as well as those stemming from trying to address them through genetic manipulation. Reforestation is of course necessary in a country with few forests left, but much will depend on how it is understood. Reforestation can either mean larger monocultures of fast-growing tree species for wood production –including GM trees- or biodiverse plantations adapted to local environments and aimed at forest restoration. Planting billions of trees –as currently carried out in China- can be very good or very bad, depending on how it is implemented. We hope that the enormous effort carried out every year by the Chinese people and government will have the positive result of helping to bring back the country’s native forests.
(1) “China's loggers down chainsaws in attempt to regrow forests”, Jonathan Watts, guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 11 March 2009,http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/mar/11/china-forests-deforestation
(2) “The Development of China’s Forestry Sector and Its Implications for Canada”, Jason (Guangyu) Wang, CIC Junior Fellow Preliminary Paper, July 2008,
(3) “Stora Enso: Sustainable paper production”, China Daily, 2008, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/2008-10/24/content_7136326.htm
(4) “Special supplement: APP China pushes green initiative in making white paper”, Fu Yu, China Daily, 2008,http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/2008-04/12/content_6611376.htm
(5) “Nation's Tree-planting Strategy to Meet Paper Sector's Needs”, China Daily, http://www.china.org.cn/english/BAT/87695.htm
(6) Cheng Wenjing, TWN (2008), GE trees in China, presented at the International Biosafety Forum-Workshop 3, organized by Nanjing Institute of Environmental Science, GTZ/BMZ, Central University for Nationality College of Life and Environmental Science and TWN, Beijing, September 25-26, 2008, http://www.wrm.org.uy/countries/China/GE_Trees_in_China.pdf
(7) "Seeing once is better than studying a thousand times", GMO Safety, http://www.gmo-safety.eu/en/wood/poplar/325.docu.html
(8) “The New Chainsaw”, Katie Shafley, The Dominion, http://www.dominionpaper.ca/environment/2006/05/20/the_new_ch.html