Friday, July 11, 2008

China's monoculture urban lung

There are so many things going on in China at in so many different places and in so many different ways at so many different levels that it is almost impossible to say what's working and what isn't. Tree-planting at whatever scale is generally looked upon as a good and very worthwhile endeavor especially given China's air quality problems. But good things done poorly serve no purpose in the end. A short-term over-dependence on one particular fast-growing species -- driven by the need to get things ready for the upcoming Olympics -- could spell trouble down the road. Among other things a massive monoculture planting could eventually threaten biodiversity.(GW)
Tree-planting projects take root in poor, drought-stricken provinces
By Michael Burnham

July 10, 2008

The fourth in a series of stories on China.

LUSHAN COUNTY, HENAN PROVINCE, China -- Five years ago, the sun baked the Yellow River's barren floodplain and the winds swept its dry, sandy soil into the sky.

"When the locals cooked their food, they ate sand," said Zhang Wenjie, deputy forestry director for Henan Province, one of China's poorest and most populated provinces.

Today, 25 families who farm 47 acres of the floodplain here eat wheat and corn they grow behind rows of young poplars that keep the sandstorms at bay.

The trees are planted 10 meters apart -- wide enough to soak up sunlight but close enough to trap moisture. And when the trees grow large enough to shade the crops, some farmers raise geese instead.

The poplars and the birds will be harvested eventually. By maximizing the land use, the farmers are supplementing their income by about $1,100 per hectare (2.471 acres), according to the World Bank, which provided seed money for the project. Government officials are trying to replicate the forest farmers' economic success -- but the environment could reap perhaps the biggest gains, some observers say.

Rather than clearing natural forests, Henan and adjacent provinces are planting trees amid unproductive hills and former riverbanks to create sustainable jobs and mitigate droughts and floods. Increasingly, such afforestation projects are being used to clean the air in this fast-developing nation of 1.3 billion people, which ranks near the bottom globally in per capita tree cover.

"The environment is what economists call a 'normal good,'" explained William Magrath, the World Bank's lead natural resource economist for East Asia. "In China, demand is going up faster than incomes."

Controlling nature

China ranked among the world's top five producers and consumers of industrial roundwood, wood panels, pulp and paperboard in 2006, the most recent year for which U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization data are available.

And in a sign of both the Red Dragon's engineering might and its resource weakness, China is digging canals to divert more than 40 billion cubic meters of water a year from the south to sustain northern farm fields and urban areas such as Beijing. At the same time, China is attempting to reduce water consumption 30 percent per unit of gross domestic product by 2010.

"The reality is that China is running out of water," said Ray Cheung, a China analyst with the World Resources Institute. "Water is priced below the market."

In many ways, China is trying to do and undo a half-century of development policies simultaneously, said Judith Shapiro, the director of global environmental politics programs at American University's School of International Service.

In 1958, former Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong vowed that China would catch Great Britain in steel production within 15 years. Mao, who also fathered today's south-north water diversion project, ordered peasants to use trees to fuel crude backyard smelters.

With the nation's labor shifted to making metal, millions of farm fields lay fallow. A great famine followed, and Mao urged his countrymen to "open the wilderness and plant grain," Shapiro explained in her 2001 book, "Mao's War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China."

Peasants cleared millions more hectares of trees during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and the economic reforms of the early 1980s. Environmental aftershocks, including deeper floods and droughts, continue to ripple through the countryside, Shapiro said in an interview.

"Famine and flood are ongoing themes in China's history," she added. "The ongoing quest for China's leadership is grain self-sufficiency."

A warming climate, which scientists say is melting Himalayan glaciers and turning Inner Mongolian grasslands to desert, is making that quest more difficult (see related story).

China's northern deserts have been creeping eastward for decades because of overgrazing, unsustainable agriculture practices and excessive urban water consumption, noted veteran China observer and Earth Policy Institute founder Lester Brown. Spring dust storms foul the air of Beijing, which uses roughly four times as much water per capita as rural areas, he noted.

The U.N. Environment Programme warns that 50 million people could be displaced by desertification during the next decade, particularly in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. More than 3.3 million square kilometers -- about 35 percent of China -- is prone to desertification.

China imposed a temporary grazing ban last year to slow the desertification of its grasslands, which cover roughly 40 percent of the country (about a quarter of China is desert). Three years earlier, China invested more than $3 billion to restore almost 70 million hectares of degenerated grasslands.

There are signs of success. China's deserts expanded at a rate of about 10,400 square kilometers a year in the late 20th century, according to a 2006 U.N. report. During the first few years of this century, China shrunk its deserts by about 7,600 square kilometers a year.

"The deserts are becoming smaller, and ecological environment in some regions is improving noticeably," China's Vice Premier Hui Liangyu told state media in January.

The tree, of course, is China's weapon of choice against rural deserts and urban air pollution.

Urban lungs

China has increased its forest cover from about 12 percent to 18 percent since the mid-1980s through urban and rural afforestation efforts and a ban on logging across much of the country, according to government data.

The country is targeting 20 percent forest cover by 2010 and 23 percent cover by 2020.

Beijing, China's capital city, has also planted more than a half-million trees throughout its Olympic Green in preparation for the August games (see Part I of this series). The urban lung, replete with artificial hills and ponds, features about 200 types of trees.

By far, the fast-growing poplar is Beijing's most popular tree. Every March 12 -- dubbed national tree-planting day -- new poplars and ornamental shrubs sprout like mushrooms alongside the city's highways and arterials.

The reviews are mixed.

"The air is much better than it was before -- you can see it in the photographs," said David Liu, a taxi driver. "I think in the future, the air will improve even more because of all of the trees."

But a Canada-based conservation group, Probe International, released a report last week calling the new water-dependent greenbelts, coupled with Beijing's growing urban footprint, unsustainable. A lingering drought and pollution of the capital's reservoirs have reduced water resources per person from about 1,000 cubic meters in 1949 to less than 230 cubic meters in 2007.

"With each new project to tap water somewhere else, demand for water only increases, and at an even greater cost to China's environment and economy," the report says. "Whether diverting surface water or digging ever-deeper for groundwater, the underlying solution proposed is like trying to quench thirst by drinking poison."

American University's Shapiro worries that planting too much of a single tree species will reduce biodiversity.

"The risk is that a central-level directive comes down and it's poorly implemented at the local level," she said. "There's a tendency in China today to do things really fast."

But local government officials say they cannot plant urban forests fast enough when jobs are at stake.

Jin Mingzhe, foreign affairs director for the coal and iron hub of Benxi, northeast of Beijing, said new trees have helped clean up what was once labeled one of the world's 10 most polluted cities.

"Forestation is a big part of improving our air quality, but it is only one part," Jin said. "We have closed many mid-sized factories and coal power plants.

"If a district does not meet its air-quality targets, then it cannot get approval for more factories."

The World Bank, whose core mission is to alleviate poverty, has been using trees as an economic tool in China since 1985. But in a new era of global constraints on greenhouse gas emissions, the bank is exploring how its forests can store carbon dioxide to produce both economic and environmental benefits for Chinese farmers.

Forest farming

Over the past 23 years, the World Bank has cobbled together funding from government and nongovernmental sources to plant 3.8 million hectares of artificial forests in China. Local officials may choose among 18 types of trees, depending on the species' economic and environmental benefits, said resource economist Magrath.

In the eastern Anhui Province, for example, farmers planted unproductive hillsides with chestnuts that are sold locally. In Gansu, Sichuan, Yunan, Hebei, Hunan and Hainan provinces, local officials planted trees in nature reserves to increase biodiversity. Back in central Henan Province, farmers planted pear, peach and poplar trees on hillsides and floodplains that were vulnerable to soil erosion.

The environmental benefits are measurable, claims Liu Jin, a World Bank agricultural specialist in Beijing.

One hectare of forest is capable of preventing 37 tons of soil erosion and saving 370 kilograms of water, she said. The bank's 3.8 million hectares have also sequestered more than 500 million tons of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, she estimated.

In Guangxi Province, the local officials are using $205 million from the World Bank and other sources to plant 200,000 acres of pine, oak, maple and other species to boost the region's biodiversity and economy. About 4,000 hectares are part of a Clean Development Mechanism project, which produces carbon-sequestration credits for industrialized countries that are parties to the Kyoto Protocol.

It is the first such CDM project in China financed with a World Bank loan.

"Local governments have trouble making the link between planting trees locally and [carbon sequestration], which provides global benefits," Jin conceded. "They can accept this concept, but they need more understanding."

Back in poverty-stricken Lushan County, there are no plans for CDM projects, government officials say. They are trying to wrap their heads around another curious term: ecotourism.

On a once-barren hillside, peach blossoms bloom in the spring. Tourists come to pick the fruit in the fall, just as they do in developed countries halfway around the globe.

"The environment has improved a lot in this area and has attracted lots of tourists," said Fan Zengwei, an executive with Henan Forestry Department's Lushan County office. "That has also helped economic development."


Post a Comment

<< Home