Logging success at home is not enough

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 July, 2007, 12:00am

The mainland knows well that forests are more valuable when left standing than cut down for timber. Centuries of environmental abuse have led to spreading deserts, destructive floods, falling water quality and dust storms. Learning the lesson the hard way has resulted in aggressive forest-protection and tree-planting programmes in recent years. More land is now being returned to forest on the mainland than anywhere else in the world - an achievement the government has a right to crow about.

But leaders could be even prouder of their record if they extended their concern beyond the nation's borders to the world's rapidly diminishing tropical rain forests. The mainland's demand for timber - some of it cut illegally from these forests - means it is ideally placed to set an example to other governments.

Tropical forests are, after all, important to the world's future. That they cover vast areas of land in equatorial countries gives them a crucial role in the battle against climate change: their trees suck up the carbon dioxide that causes temperatures to rise, while rain clouds develop from the water that evaporates from the leaves.

The forests also have the world's richest ecosystems, supporting more than a million species of animals, plants and insects. They balance environmental systems elsewhere in the world and provide medicine and food. But because forests elsewhere have long ago been cut down, their wood is also eagerly sought. Despite protective national laws, there is a thriving international trade in illegally cut tropical forest logs - and the mainland - where construction is booming and which exports more furniture than any other country - is one of the main destinations for this timber.

Authorities yesterday played down the mainland's role in forest-clearing. Instead, they highlighted the success of afforestation at home and pinned the blame for the problem on the demand from the United States, Japan and other countries for Chinese-made furniture. They are, to a degree, right; no nation has enacted a law forbidding the import of illegally obtained tropical wood.

Beijing may have done more than any other government to ban the trade. Agreements have been signed with Indonesia and Myanmar and environmental groups have noticed a measure of success. They stress, however, that what has been achieved is piecemeal and that much more could be done. A ban has been in place along the border with Myanmar for the past year, for example, but truckloads of logs still cross into Yunnan province because of poor enforcement, smuggling, corruption and companies taking advantage of loopholes. In Beijing, the desire is genuine; on the ground, though, as with so many central government policies, it is quite another matter. Yet within its borders, the mainland has shown it is capable of reversing deforestation. The limits imposed on logging in its own forests, and its tree-planting efforts, are reducing deserts by 1,200 sq km a year. Afforestation has meant the nation now has a sustainable paper-milling industry and plans are well advanced to use trees for biofuels.

Stopping illicit logging is labour-intensive and requires skilled inspectors. Patrolling borders, checking shiploads of imported logs and ascertaining the origin of the wood being used on construction sites and in factories is a costly business.

In light of the pace at which tropical forests are disappearing, though, making the effort is essential. The mainland is well placed to take that extra step - and show other governments the way forward.