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Development Projects Devastating China’s Ecosystem

Award-winning scientist and conservationist discusses the environmental impact of a second "Nu River Dam Project".

Prof. Yang Yuming, one of the major proponents of environmental protection in China and the Vice President of the Southwest Forestry College of China, recently received the Parker/Gentry Award for Conservation Biology from the Field Museum in Chicago. According to the Field Museum, "established in 1996, the Parker/Gentry Award honors an outstanding individual, team or organization in the field of conservation biology whose efforts have had a significant impact on preserving the world’s natural heritage and whose actions and approach can serve as a model to others." This article resulted from a special interview by Epoch Times with Professor Yang regarding the protection of the ecosystem in China before the award ceremony.

Professor Yang revealed that the horrendous damage to the ecosystem caused by cutting down trees to plant eucalyptuses by the Jinguang (Sinar Mas) Group Co., LTD is no less harmful than the construction of the Nu River Dam. Prof. Yang remarked that it was his responsibility and mission to protect nature and the ecosystem of southwestern China. He believes that only through exchange and collaboration with international organizations, can Chinese experts be effective in protecting China’s natural ecosystem.

Lumbering Followed by Eucalyptus Planting Will Cause Big Damage

The Sinar Mas Group of Indonesia was founded by Mr. Huang Yichong. Its businesses focus mainly on paper, agriculture, finance, and real estate. Headquartered in Singapore, the Pulp and Paper Group (Asian Pulp & Paper Co., Ltd., or APP in short), a subsidiary of the Sinar Mas Group of Indonesia, was established in 1994 and is one of the largest paper manufacturing and sales corporations in Asia.

According to Prof. Yang, eucalyptuses originated in Australia. Because of its rapid growth rate, it is widely used in paper production. The Sinar Mas Group has invested heavily in renting or purchasing tracts of land to plant eucalyptuses. What seems beneficial to everyone, growing the trees, processing them and then paying taxes, can actually have tremendously negative consequences. This directly harms China’s ecosystem, and the negative consequences are long lasting and irreversible.

The Yunnan Province Branch of Xinhua Net reported on October 20, 2003, "The Sinar Mas Group has targeted the investment environment in the Wenshan (Wen Mountain) Autonomous Region of Zhuang and Miao ethnic groups. It has built the base for fast-growing forests covering 5.5 million Mu (1 Mu is equivalent to about 1/6 acre). Recently the project has been launched with efforts from both parties, and will soon be implemented across the board." The article highly praised the Governor of Wen Mountain Autonomous Region, who personally led the implementation of the project, as well as the oversight committee and government of the Autonomous Region, who formed the Wenshan Leadership Group to integrate the forestry, pulp, and paper components. The article reported that the overseas investors were very satisfied with the promptness and efficiency of the local government in carrying out this project.
Prof. Yang pointed out that the Sinar Mas Group plans to grow eucalyptuses in an area as large as thirty million Mu. What consequences will such a large-scale effort have? As Prof. Yang indicated, "Most experts I’ve talked to in the fields of forestry, agriculture, ecology, and biodiversity are against this project. In the last few decades, we have carried out systematic research in the biological characteristics and ecological patterns of eucalyptuses. In the meantime, we have also conducted long-term tracing, investigation, observation, analysis, and study of both the positive and negative impacts that eucalyptuses have on the ecosystem and the ecological environment of a certain region. The conclusion is that it causes the deterioration of the soil, and its consumption of the soil’s nutritional elements and deep underground water far exceeds that of ordinary trees."

Prof. Yang continued, "When a tree species grows in its original habitat, its characteristics and ecological effects are in harmony with the environment and the organisms around it. However, when it is taken out of its original habitat, its original advantageous characteristics such as its strong ability to adapt can potentially become harmful characteristics to its environment. The eucalyptus is such an example. When it grows in its original habitat in Australia, it is perfectly fine. When it is moved to a new habitat, it has a strong tendency to suppress the native species, growing at the expense of other species. The latter start to recede, and eventually, the eucalyptus forest becomes barren outside of the eucalyptus itself. There is no grass, shrubs, or smaller trees. Many other species simply cannot compete with it. The eucalyptus is an enemy of Yunnan’s biodiversity."

According to Prof. Yang, the large-scale development of the eucalyptuses in the late fifties and sixties did have significant positive impacts on the recovery and reforestation of the barren hills, and it was a boost to economic development at that time. Eucalyptus leaves can be refined to produce eucalyptus oil, which is a significant source of income for farmers when sold to medical and chemical manufacturers. Although lumber from eucalyptus trees is not suitable for furniture or other high quality products, it is good material for producing paper. However, introducing eucalyptuses into an extremely biologically diverse region such as the valley regions of Xishuang Bannai, Ximao, Wenshan, Dehong, Linchang, the Three Rivers (Nu River, Lancang River, and Jinsha River), where internationally protected biodiversity is at stake, will certainly reduce the local biological diversity. Furthermore, eucalyptuses will consume tremendous amounts of nutrients and water from the soil, leading to extremely harmful impacts to the soil’s water balance. It is very difficult to grow other plants once eucalyptuses are grown and then cut down.

Experts’ Assessment Ignored, "Planting on Bare Mountains" Is a False Claim

If experts consider the large-scale eucalyptus planting so harmful, why is this project still going forward? Prof. Yang said, "During the Yunnan Economic Development Seminar called by the Governor and Deputy Governor of Yunnan Province on November 27 of last year, which was attended by experts from various professions, I clearly stated my opinion. I talked about the pros and cons of Sinar Mas Group’s eucalyptus planting. I explained that we absolutely should not plant eucalyptus trees on a large scale in Yunnan from the viewpoint of forestry, biodiversity, and ecological protection. At the time, the leaders smiled without saying anything. As a specialist and scholar, one shouldn’t arbitrarily comment on what one doesn’t know. I knew I must speak up. I had to unequivocally state my academic opinion. The Sinar Mas Group does not have the backing of the scientific experts, nor was it brought in by entrepreneurs. They came in through a certain channel. They also knew they couldn’t possibly pass an expert’s assessment, so the assessment was simply skipped and the whole thing began with an order from the Yunnan Province: it had to be done, with no room for discussion."
Professor Yang said with distress, "The harm caused by the eucalyptus trees won’t be less than that of the Nu River Dam. The plan is not just to plant a few thousand or tens of thousands of Mu. The plan is to cut down nearly 30 million Mu of forest, and that’s 5% of the total area of Yunnan Province. The entirety of Xishuangbanna, Simao and Wenshan…it’s likely that almost all of the mountainous regions that are worthwhile will be lumbered and replanted. The Sinar Mas Group says it is utilizing barren mountains and wastelands to plant trees, but that’s not true. When the Yunnan Province Forestry Investigative Planning Agency was doing the planning with them, they found much of the land to be woodlands, and natural woodlands on top of that, though it is true that some were secondary growth forests. These locations were favorable from a transportation and logistics point of view. These woods enjoy wet climate and good conditions. After a few years, secondary growth characteristics will gradually disappear, and they may be restored to primary forests if the original trees are allowed to grow. But if we cut down these secondary forests, including the natural forests, and plant Eucalyptus trees instead, it will be almost impossible to restore these areas. Why? Simply because this foreign species is an enemy of biodiversity, and many other species cannot coexist with it."

Quantifiable and Unquantifiable Losses Caused by Eucalyptus Planting

Professor Yang analyzed the quantifiable and unquantifiable losses caused by replacing existing trees with Eucalyptus trees: The concept of green GDP was raised in the international community as early as ten years ago, but it was not until the past one or two years that it really made its way into the domestic newspapers. The concept of green GDP is that when calculating the GDP, one should deduct the cost to the environment, just like deducting the cost of manufacturing. The cost to the environment consists of a tangible part and an intangible part, and at least the tangible part can be calculated. However, at the moment the leadership and economists are not interested in the environment and only talk about GDP growth. They don’t care about the environmental cost.

As to the tangible part, Professor Yang gave an example, "In order to plant eucalyptus trees, you need to cut down the existing trees. The value of the felled trees can be calculated. Additionally, there might be a tree among those cut down whose value far exceeds the acre of eucalyptus you plant afterwards. Suppose there’s a Dalbergia sissoo inside, a very precious species. In 1983 when we went to do inspections in Xishuangbanna, a Japanese person saw a dead Dalbergia sissoo tree. At that time, color TVs were very rare in China and he was willing to give up two Hitachi TV sets. At that time a Hitachi TV set was about $3,000. To him, that tree was worth $6,000. That was inconceivable to the local people. Species like the Dalbergia sissoo are especially popular in the secondary growth woods in Xishuangbanna and Simao. We could list out these types of trees one by one. The soil erosion caused by planting eucalyptus trees on a large scale, the harm it causes to the soil, and other such considerations are tangible and can be calculated."
Other factors are intangible. Professor Yang said, "There are other types of value, for example medicinal plants. We haven’t discovered it, can’t calculate its value, and of course can’t use it. What is currently considered useless may turn into a priceless treasure tomorrow. Take rubber as an example. Before Columbus came to the New World, the coverage of rubber trees in Brazil didn’t exceed 200 square kilometers. If a significant logging effort were launched beforehand, it probably would have destroyed the rubber tree, and we would not be able to benefit from it today. Rubber is just one example, and there are many species whose value is much higher than rubber. Right now just because the eucalyptus can be used to produce paper, those precious woods are being felled, and nobody is concerned."

"The existence of a tree species contributes to the ecological effect to the surrounding environment. For example, it stabilizes the carbon dioxide ratio in the air, the oxygen released adjusts the climate, and it may serve as habitats and water sources for other organisms. These are things that we cannot calculate at the moment. But the intangible part, if you could truly quantify it, would likely be much greater than the tangible part. None of these costs are being taken into account. The value of the paper pulp that is produced is weighed against the small amount of money spent for renting the land and planting the Eucalyptus, and that is what they used to determine the cost. Meanwhile, the other tangible and intangible costs as a result of felling the woods are not considered. You tell me, is this type of GDP growth meaningful?"

Forests Being Cut Down, Experts’ Effort to Stop It Are Ineffective

What is the status of the Sinar Mas project? Professor Yang said, "The contract has been signed, the plan has been made, and many trees have been felled—at least a few thousand Mu. At the Lancangjiang River area, I saw with my own eyes a natural bamboo forest, the largest natural bamboo forest in China, being cut down. This bamboo forest was about 70 thousand acres in the 1970s. Later it gradually shrank, and what is left now is only about 20 to 30 thousand acres. If we continue like this, this forest will be gone. The largest planted bamboo forest is in Zhejiang Province. A planted forest cannot be compared with a natural one, and a natural forest is very rich in terms of biodiversity."

Professor Yang continued, "Although experts are voicing their objections, this project has always pushed forward as a government action, basically forcefully carrying out a directive. The Deputy Director and the chief engineer of the Yunnan Province Forestry Investigative Planning Agency talked to me about these things. This was an order from a higher level. It has economic benefits, and he has to do it. He was also very distressed upon seeing that large stretches of good woodland are being rented out at the rate of one or a fraction of one yuan (about 12 US cent)  per Mu, and the lease is often for decades at a time. What follows is existing trees being cut down and eucalyptus trees being planted."
"The country originally had many rigorous policies, laws and regulations regarding forestry. I don’t know why none of them are being enforced when it comes to this issue of the eucalyptus. My academic mentor and I are trying very hard to stop it. We want to persuade the government to be prudent, not to take on projects blindly, but to conduct an assessment first. Another part is to search for other tree species, especially primeval species, to replace the eucalyptus. So we are trying to tackle this matter in a proactive way. But it is very hard to make progress on this. It is said that the Sinar Mas Group has a very strong background."

Known Ecological Consequences Should Serve as Warnings 

Professor Yang urges everybody to pay attention to this little known Sinar Mas project, whose potential harm is a match for that of the Nu River Dam. He said, "Currently our country has proposed a scientific development outlook of being comprehensive, holistic, and coordinated. We shouldn’t be like before and think that development overrides everything, as if as long as we continue to grow, everything will be fine. In reality this kind of ‘development’ is limited and one-sided. Many ecological disasters don’t show up immediately. It takes years, even decades, for the effects to show up. Once they show up, it is extremely difficult to reverse them. Even if you spend time and money that’s ten or hundred times what you put into it originally, you still may not be able to restore it to its original state."

To support his conclusion, Professor Yang used several examples where ecological destruction could not be reversed. "One example is the excessive herding in Northwest and Inner Mongolia. After severe over-herding, the sheep ate even the grass roots. It would have been shocking if sandstorms didn’t follow. Another example is the flooding of the Yangtze River. That was the result of large-scale logging in the upper reaches of the Yangtze River, the Jinshajiang River region, in the 60s and 70s. I’ll give a third example. The soil in southern China is relatively thin for the most part. After the surface soil is brushed away, you’ll see stones. This is called rocky desertification. Years ago the production of sugarcane fell short, and sugar prices were high. So, Yunnan Province felled trees on a large scale and planted sugarcane. As a result they quickly made money, and lots of it. However, the cutting down of so many trees caused large-scale soil erosion. After two to three years of sugarcane planting, the soil fertility suffered, and they couldn’t plant anything anymore. The original woods became bare mountains and bald ridges. Rocky desertification won’t cause sandstorms as normal desertification would, but restoration is more difficult."

Translated from