ENVIRONMENT: CHINA STRIPS OTHER ASIAN FORESTS TO SAVE ITS OWN
(English IPS News Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)by Marwaan Macan-Markar
BANGKOK, Apr. 18, 2006 (IPS/GIN) -- Even as it wins praise for increasing forest cover at home, China is importing increasing amounts of wood from the jungles of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Burma.
Few green groups expect this paradox to be resolved soon, after Beijing revealed Monday the scale at which the Chinese economy had expanded during the first three months of this year. China's gross domestic product (GDP) grew 10.2 percent in the first quarter, Chinese President Hu Jintao said during a televised speech.
"Logging in the forests of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Burma will continue because of China's demand," a forestry expert at the global environmental watchdog Greenpeace told IPS by telephone from Indonesia. "China's industrial capacity is growing fast, forcing it to look for more timber supplies."
Forest plantations will "not be enough to meet China's increasing needs," adds the Greenpeace campaigner Hapsoro, who, like many Indonesians, has one name. "The forests in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea are threatened."
Indonesia, in fact, is ranked among the worst affected in the world due to the scale of illegal logging to meet the demand for timber in Japan, the United States, the European Union and China, Greenpeace revealed last week.
"Indonesia's forests are being destroyed faster than any on Earth. A forest area the size of six football fields disappears every minute," it adds. "In total, Indonesia has already lost more than 72 percent of its large intact ancient forest areas and 40 percent of its forests have been completely destroyed."
Yet, China is winning laurels for helping lead efforts in the Asia-Pacific region to expand forested areas. "Of the 10 countries in the world with the largest plantation areas, six are in the Asia-Pacific region, namely China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Thailand and Vietnam," states the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). "China posted an overall increase in forest area of more than 9.9 million acres per year between 2000 and 2005."
Such a combined effort has helped this region record "the highest rate of forest plantation in the world, over the past five years," the U.N. food agency added on the eve of a meeting on Asia's forests being held in Dehradun, India, from April 17 to 21.
The spike in forest plantations, notes the FAO, had resulted in the region witnessing a net gain of more than 1.4 million acres per year from 2000 to 2005, marking a significant turnaround from the net loss of 2.3 million acres of forest per year across Asia and the Pacific in the 1990s.
But such achievements pale in comparison with the scale of logging that is flattening the world's forests. It barely matters given the pace at which natural forests are being destroyed, says Patrick Durst, the FAO's senior forestry officer at its Asia-Pacific regional office.
"While plantation forests are an extremely valuable resource and will undoubtedly supply an increasing portion of wood and fiber needs in the future, they should not be considered a substitute for the region's dwindling natural forests," Durst said. "During the past five years, the region lost more than 14.8 million acres of natural forests."
And there is little disagreement in the studies done by environmental groups about the pivotal role China plays to find a balance between protecting threatened forests on the one hand and meeting its demand for timber to sustain its construction boom, the furniture it makes and paper products on the other.
"Faced with an increasing demand for wood and paper products along with diminishing forest resources, China imports timber from many areas including Russia, Indonesia, South America and Central Africa," states the "Global Forest and Trade Network Quarterly," a publication of the World Wildlife Fund, in its inaugural issue earlier this year. "These regions have significant problems such as illegal logging."
According to the Center for International Forestry Research, China's imports of round wood are expected to reach 100 million cubic meters by 2010, a six-fold increase in timber imports over 2002, when it was 16 million cubic meters.
The Asian giant's appetite for foreign wood arises from its spectacular economic growth and from a policy shift by Beijing in 1999 to protect its environment. The Chinese government banned all logging in its own forests following the death of more than 4,000 people in 1998 from floods linked to heavy deforestation.
Burma, China's immediate neighbor to its southwest, soon filled the void created by Beijing's ban, followed by Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea, among others. The timber trade with Burma, which is illegal, is currently estimated to be close to $350 million and includes about 1.5 million cubic meters per year that is transported across the border, Global Witness, a non-governmental group, revealed in early March.
"On-site investigations during February underscored the need for action -- at least 150 loaded log trucks are crossing the border from Burma into China every night," stated Global Witness. "Cross-border imports (of wood) from Burma to China increased by 12 percent in 2005."
According to Hapsoro of Greenpeace, the forests of Southeast Asia will offer early clues if there is a shift away from the illegal timber trade that China is profiting from. "It is not so at the moment. The timber exports from the forests are still increasing in this region."
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