A quarter of Hainan island's natural forested areas have been lost in the past decade, according to a report released yesterday by environmental group Greenpeace.
The report accused the provincial government of helping to push the island's ecology to the brink of collapse. However, Hainan's forestry authorities have dismissed the report as 'ridiculous', saying the island's natural forests had maintained their original size and were healthier and more luxuriant than before.
But some tropical rainforest scientists question the claims of both sides, and called on Beijing to launch an inquiry to settle the dispute.
Yi Lan, a Greenpeace China campaigner, who led the study, said Hainan's forests had shrunk by 72,000 hectares between 2001 and last year, after analysing remote sensing data from the US Geological Survey. The rate of loss is equivalent to a daily loss of an area about the size of 27 soccer pitches. To confirm the data, the group collected evidence in the form of photos and videos from several tropical rainforest reserves, Yi said.
Most of the forests that are lost were destroyed by illegal business activities, such as plantations, tourism, and development. More than half are now covered by eucalyptus plantations for paper mills.
'The expansion of plantations will bring disaster to the province's biodiversity and make the region more vulnerable to climate change,' Yi said.
Greenpeace blamed Hainan's government for ignoring the conversion of forests into plantations and, sometimes, encouraging the process.
Hainan's government launched a campaign to plant more than 23 million hectares of eucalyptus 14 years ago and it had achieved 70 per cent of the target. Greenpeace also blamed Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), a unit of the Indonesian Sinar Mas Group, for playing a major role in the destruction of forests. APP and Hainan's government, which launched the mainland's first forest protection programme, have denied the accusations in the Greenpeace report.
An official with the provincial forestry bureau's ecological preservation department said that the Greenpeace report had deviated significantly from the facts. Hainan's forests had not declined in recent years and trees were growing vigorously because of warmer weather and a strict no-logging policy. The timber mass in forests had grown by more than 70 per cent since 1997 to over 63 million cubic metres, the official said. 'I wouldn't be sitting here talking if we had lost a quarter of the forest. I would be in jail,' he said.
Professor Bai Jiayu, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Forestry who has spent decades studying Hainan's forests, said yesterday that the Greenpeace report might have been exaggerated, but that the government might also have overlooked the destruction of forests in some areas.
'When a big international environmental organisation has a dispute with a provincial government, the central government should play the role of referee,' Bai said.
APP China said yesterday that it had never felled a tree in Hainan forests and operated strictly in accordance with protection regulations.