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As China Grows Rich, Rainforests Fall

An incredible forest lies on its side in this gritty industrial town in southeastern China. On the southern bank of the Yangtze River nine-foot-diameter kevazingo trees from Gabon rub against Cambodian rosewoods and Indonesian teaks. Nearby, rust-colored bark from Malaysian pacific maples flakes onto stained concrete.

Together, the horizontal forest contains more than 220 species from every corner of the globe. If they were living, they would create one of the most diverse spaces on earth.

Instead the mountains of wood are a harbinger of the environmental changes unleashed by China’s rapid rise. As China has maintained three decades of unprecedented economic growth, it has outstripped its resources and begun scouring the world for more—in the process becoming the world’s top consumer of dozens of commodities, everything from logs, coal and iron ore to shark fins and tiger bones.

The impact on forests highlights how China’s size and rapid growth has pushed up the world’s metabolism—with dramatic consequences for its shared land, waters and climate. Since 2000, the volume of wood imported by China has roughly doubled while China’s share of global trade in logs and wood pulp used to make paper has tripled. Nearly half of all tropical logs shipped worldwide now end up in China.

That rising demand has come at steep environmental costs. Even as consumers in developed nations increasingly seek out alternatives to tropical hardwoods, China’s shoppers have taken up the slack, driving unsustainable logging and leading to the rapid loss of some of the world’s last stands of pristine rainforest.

The stakes are openly displayed at the Zhangjiagang port. On a warm winter afternoon a twenty-four-year-old timber trader surnamed Zhuo drives a Buick minivan through the piles of logs. He points out the kevazingo logs from Gabon, which has one of Africa’s highest rates of deforestation—more than two percent each year according to recent government data—and timber from Indonesia, Myanmar, and Cambodia, Southeast Asian nations that experts say could be cleared of accessible natural forests within a decade. He waves a suntanned hand toward a stack of Brazilian logs that he admits might have been cut illegally.

And then he rolls to a stop in front of a hill of timber painted with the letters “KWI” and flagged with tiny plastic tags. KWI is industry shorthand for kwilla, a tropical hardwood with a deep red grain that is popular among wealthy Chinese shopping for hardwood floors.

The tags are printed with tiny drawings of birds of paradise and the name of a distant country that has become a symbol of the world’s threatened natural bounty: Papua New Guinea.

Tropical Paradise

Three thousand miles south of Zhangjiagang Benny Francis is trying to make sense of the forces remaking his forests. Sitting on the porch of a rattan-and-thatch hut in Manamaging, a village of several hundred people carved out of Papua New Guinea’s jungle, he talks about the decision several years ago to open their land to logging.

As for most of Papua New Guinea’s communities, the choice was hard. For countless generations villagers have lived off the jungle’s bounty. For food they hunt pigs and collect wild fruits. When someone has a fever they pick leaves that, eaten, lower it. When they need a new building, they walk into the jungle and find materials. Most villagers believe their ancestors’ spirits live within the forest.

But Papua New Guinea is one of the world’s poorest nations. Many of its 6.5 million people have no access to electricity, paved roads or piped water. Manamaging has no school or medical clinic.

In the end, the families decided that the income from selling their trees—an area that Francis says takes a day to walk across—was worth the costs. They signed paperwork with a Malaysian-owned logging company and men soon arrived with chainsaws and bulldozers.

Across the country, thousands of communities are making the same calculations. A study by the University of Papua New Guinea found that more than one percent of the nation is cleared or degraded each year. Other experts estimate that all of Papua New Guinea’s accessible wilderness could be converted to logging and other uses within a decade.

In Manamaging, the $20 villagers receive for each log has brought new opportunities. Villagers have purchased several generators and a car they use as a taxi, earning more income. Many have purchased new clothes and electronics. Some have invested in education.

But Francis worries that the costs will prove too high. Instead of hunting and farming, some villagers have started buying canned food and alcohol, shifts he thinks have made them lazy. When the logging company is finished in a year or two, there will be no more income and the forests they have always relied on for hunting and agriculture will be degraded.

“One day we’re going to cry for what we did to our land,” he says, dragging on his cigarette and staring across a yard where chickens and pigs root in the dirt. “We will spoil everything if we let all the logging and mining companies come in. Our children and their children won’t have anything left.”

For the world, the loss of Papua New Guinea’s forests could also prove traumatic. The country covers the eastern half of New Guinea, the world’s third-largest tropical wilderness. Only the jungles of the Amazon and Congo are bigger.

Together with other tropical forests, the three areas cover roughly six percent of earth but protect more than half of all described species. Much of New Guinea’s wildlife is found nowhere else and scientists still routinely discover new creatures.

Vojtech Novotny, an ecologist who splits his time between a research center on Papua New Guinea’s north coast and the University of South Bohemia in the Czech Republic, says science has described “only a tiny fraction” of the island’s diversity. He focuses on insects and estimates that less than 10 percent of some 250,000 species have been studied.

Besides the value of those species to the local environment, researchers are finding wildlife that may be useful to humans. One recent study described more than 1,000 plant species used by Papua New Guineans.

As the jungle is cleared, many of those species face extinction. “These are products of millions of years of evolution that can’t be recreated,” Novotny says. “We really don’t understand what we’re losing.”

Shifting Trade Winds

Like for much of the world, the pace of forest destruction in Papua New Guinea is rising in step with China’s economic growth.

In the eighties and nineties the country exported most of its logs to Japan. But by the mid-nineties, exports had tailed off as Japanese consumers sought out sustainable forest plantations, such as those in Canada and the United States. The Japanese “didn’t want to be seen as causing a lot of environmental destruction,” says Goodwill Amos, an official in the country’s forest authority.

Then, in the summer of 1998, heavy rains in China flooded the Yangtze and other rivers. Thousands of people died and millions were left homeless. Beijing blamed deforestation for exacerbating the floods and—enacting the power allowed by one-party rule—banned logging across large sections of the country.

To make up for the sudden lack of domestic supply, Chinese companies looked abroad. With more than two-thirds of its land covered with pristine rainforests, Papua New Guinea made at attractive target. Today, it takes nine out of every ten logs exported from the nation.

What happens to the logs after they reach China, however, has changed. Even a few years ago, most of the tropical hardwood entering ports like Zhangjiagang was used in export products—everything from dining room tables to floor boards and guitars. In 2005, Chinese-made furniture accounted for nearly a third of global trade.

The global financial crisis and China’s burgeoning wealth has shifted the picture. Even as Americans and Europeans cut back on new purchases, Chinese spending has picked up. In 2009, China was the only major global market that increased its consumption of wood products. A recent study by RISI, a timber consultancy based in Bedford, Massachusetts, found that 92 percent of China’s manufactured wood products are now sold within China.

The shift is certain to lead to greater demand as the world economy recovers. Industry analysts expect China to be the fastest-growing consumer of wood products in the years to come, “to feed what is likely to be continued demand from the US, Europe and elsewhere, but in particular, a burgeoning domestic market,” a forthcoming report by Forest Trends, a Washington D.C.-based non-government organization, states.

“There are serious concerns about the rapid decline of natural forests in many of the countries that source forest products to China,” the report adds.

Money Matters

The forces unleashed by China’s rapid rise resonate in both Manamaging’s forests and the Zhangjiagang timber port.

For Zhuo, the trader, Chinese demand means more work. As he guides a visitor through the port he fields calls on his cell phone, blithely rattling off prices for Brazilian and Malaysian logs. He only recently graduated from college and knows little more than the names of the countries the wood comes from.

Back in Papua New Guinea’s jungle Francis shakes his head when asked where his trees will end up. Perhaps America, he thinks, since it must cost a lot to ship them so far.

Both men, however, believe that the logging will continue.

“Life is hard in the bush, so people want to make quick money,” Francis says, sitting on the porch of a house and watching birds fly through the nearby jungle canopy. “When the loggers leave, the trees will be gone, the land will be spoiled, but they don’t think about that. They only think about the money.”

A seeming world away, amid the sprawling Yangtze industrial zone, Zhuo stands next to a pile of logs that might have been felled near the village. Money also dominates his thinking. Business has been picking up and he’s expecting a new shipment from Papua New Guinea soon.

“China is getting rich,” he says. “We’ll have a lot more work.”

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A longtime China journalist, Craig Simons is writing a book about China’s large – and growing – global environmental footprint. The book, as yet untitled, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in...

Craig Simons was a 2011 Fellow with the Alicia Patterson Foundation. This article was originally published on AliciaPatterson.org.

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