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China’s Yellow River got its name from massive deforestation that happened more than 2000 years ago along a waterway once simply named “the River.” Tree-felling along the river’s banks caused root systems that once kept erosion in check to displace heavy sediments into what is now called the Yellow River. As China’s population soared following WWII, clear-cutting and deforestation became the norm, so when a reforestation program was begun, many were hopeful it could replace rampant tree loss covering hundreds of thousands of acres.

The Great Green Wall

China launched a program that was dubbed the “Great Green Wall,” and they intended to plant over 90 million acres of new forest in a band more than 1200 miles long across Northern China.  Some smaller programs were launched to rebuild grasslands and plant native-species trees, but largely, the replanting of China’s green space is bitter sweet.

Large swaths of non-native trees, mostly planted mono-culture style have indeed created a greener China, but the inhabitants of the old-growth forests are not returning. Their ecosystems have likely been irreparably damaged.

While the Great Green Wall has helped tremendously with desertification issues, it is not the panacea to the problem of clear-cutting timber on a grand scale. Biodiversity has not been restored to the forests, asnew research from Princeton suggests, and has even been shown to harm wildlife.

69.2 million acres of cropland and barren scrubland have been transformed back to forest, which is astounding, yet, the Grain-for-Green program overwhelming led to the planting of single-species forests such as the eucalyptus forest, Japanese cedar forest and bamboo forest.

This program falls dramatically short of restoring the biodiversity of China’s native forests, which contain a myriad of tree species. Most of the new forests contain a single tree species.

Co-author of the study, David Wilcove, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and public affairs in Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Princeton Environmental Institute says,

“Around the world, people are leaving rural areas and moving into cities, potentially creating new opportunities to restore forests on abandoned farmland. In many places, we’re seeing efforts to reforest areas that have once been cleared, and China is the first country to do it on this large of a scale.”

Wilcove argues that vast plantings costing the Chinese government over a billion dollars might not be the answer,

“The critical policy question is how to restore forests that provide multiple benefits to society, including preventing soil erosion, providing timber and sustaining wildlife. China has an opportunity to do it right and turn these monocultures into mixed or native forests that will be more valuable for wildlife in future years.”

Lead author of the study Fangyuan Hua, a postdoctoral research associate in the Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy in Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School stated,

“If the Chinese government is willing to expand the scope of the program, restoring native forests is, without doubt, the best approach for biodiversity. But even within the current scope of the program, our analysis shows there are economically feasible ways to restore forests while also improving biodiversity.”

China In a Vacuum

And then there’s the other elephant in the room.

China has apparently been restoring their own forests, while turning to other countries for their timber needs, shifting deforestation to countries like Southeast Asia, Vietnam, Indonesia, as well as Africa, northern Eurasia, and Russia.

China is just looking in other place to get the lumber products it needs. It is now one of the largest timber importers in the world.

We, in the US are contributing to this problem, though. Our consumer habits help to fuel the use of non-sustainable timber through purchases of furniture and other wooden consumer goods, which largely come from China.

What we do in one place has serious repercussions elsewhere.  China has been acting as if it were in a vacuum, and so have the people of the US and other countries who purchase timber from China.

How Long Does a Forest Take to Grow?

In the tropics, forests are usually cut down every thirty years or so. They are allowed to grow back, but they are never truly the same, never having an opportunity to completely restore themselves. Thesesecondary forests have been called ‘relatively useless for biodiversity’ by researchers from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

45 regrown plots of forest re-planted in the Panama canal watershed had around 52,000 plants and 324 species. While this sounds impressive, an average old growth forest in the same area had 55 to 93 percent more biodiversity. The species were also not evenly distributed in the new-growth forests. These new-growth forests were also more likely to succumb to deforestation, so even if they might become more bio-diverse in the future, it was rare for them to do so.

Tropical rainforests usually contain:

  • 18,000 varieties of plants (c.13, 680 endemic)
  • 434 species of mammals (138 endemic)
  • 239 reptile species (59 endemic)
  • 225 species of amphibians (203 endemic)
  • And more freshwater fish and primates than anywhere else on the planet!

Many of these forests have been around for tens of millions of years. Do we really believe that a few decades will replace the flora and fauna that Mother Nature has created in her greatness?

As Albert Einstein once said,

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” 

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  China’s Yellow River got its name from massive deforestation that happened more than 2000 years ago along a waterway once simply named “the River.” Tree-felling along the river’s banks caused root systems that once kept erosion in check to displace heavy sediments into what is now called the Yellow...