China's New Forest Policy
Northeastern China is the largest naturally forested area in China and in the past decades it has supplied over 50 percent of the nation's timber production. A half century of forest exploitation in China has led to disastrous consequences: degradation of the forests, soil erosion and catastrophic flooding. Thirty-eight percent of China's land is considered badly eroded.
Despite thousands of years of human land use, large areas of old growth forest existed in China at the beginning of the 20th Century. Since 1950 China's population has increased 2.5 fold, and demand for timber has resulted in massive cutting of forests with little or no provision for replanting. In 1998 China instituted the Natural Forest Conservation Program, a long term plan to reverse forest degradation and destruction. The NFCP emphasizes the expansion of natural forests and increasing productivity of forest plantations. The plan is to restore natural forests in ecologically sensitive areas; to plant forests for soil and water protection; to increase timber production in plantations; and to protect natural forests from excessive exploitation. The plan focuses on the interior provinces of China; that is, the areas away from the population centers on the coast.
The upstream regions of the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers have suffered massive ecological and environmental degradation during the last fifty years. These and similar areas under the plan constitute more than half the land in China. First priority is being given to the interior provinces with the central government paying 100 percent of all costs of the program. Second priority areas are funded at a lesser rate. In 1998 the government spent the equivalent of US$500 million to implement the program; $750 million in 1999; and will spend $875 million in the year 2000. Timber harvests from China's natural forests were reduced from 32 million cubic meters in 1997, to 29 million in 1998, to 23 million in 1999. Timber harvests in the year 2000 are projected at 14 million cubic meters, with still lower harvests thereafter. It is too early to estimate when China's timber industry will be sustainable. In the meantime China will have to enter the world market to meet its timber needs. We spoke with Guang Zhao and Guofan Shao, authors of a recent Science article about China's new forest policy .