Bamboo is often marketed as a green wonder material, but its cultivation can be seriously destructive to local ecosystems. Sean Gallagher reports for the Pulitzer Center on surging bamboo production in Sichuan and its environmental consequences:
“Demand is bigger than supply,” says Li Yugang, the head of Jiulong village, a typical rural hamlet in southern Sichuan which is encircled by bamboo forests. He seems optimistic about the newfound potential of bamboo to bring income to his community. “The first policy was 12 years ago, which said, if you grow bamboo, the government will give you more money. Now, bamboo is 70-80 percent of income in the area. The government has encouraged local people to ‘do better’, to plant more bamboo in the same area.”
This encouragement from the authorities, coupled with the obvious financial gains from planting and harvesting bamboo, has led to widespread over-harvesting and intensive monoculture plantations in many parts of southwest China in recent years. Unbeknownst to many locals, this has resulted in serious negative effects on local ecosystems, worrying environmental and scientific observers.
“During the past 15-20 years, a vast area of natural bamboo forests in many counties in the province has been turned into monoculture forests,” says Li of IBAR. “There is an urgent need to demonstrate long-term technical and policy strategies to halt and restore the degraded biodiversity and the natural productivity of the damaged forests. The trends of monoculture forests leads to biodiversity loss and ecosystem service decrease. Local communities believe that monocultures can bring more income. To change this strong belief is the main challenge.”
Among the dangers of plant monocultures are increased susceptibility to pests and diseases and the degradation of soil as loss of biodiversity leaves nutrient and other cycles broken.
One factor in the industry’s rapid growth is a 1998 logging ban whose tight restrictions on timber cutting made bamboo an attractive alternative. Another consequence of the ban has been an explosion of Chinese logging in Burma, as The Globe and Mail reported last month:
“It can’t last more than another 10 years, maybe just five or six years if they cut faster,” said Chen Jinian, office manager at Sen Long Timber, a company owned by his uncle that has been importing wood from Myanmar since the early 1990s.
Mr. Chen recently returned from a cross-border trip to negotiate a purchase, and said that his company has had to go deeper and deeper into the heart of Myanmar to find good-quality wood since the once-lush forests in the borderlands were now all but exhausted. In Yunnan province, on the Chinese side of the border, cutting is strictly regulated by authorities and the mountains are still topped with valuable but protected forests.
In Myanmar, Mr. Chen said, it’s a free-for-all, with the central government in Naypyidaw, local military commanders and anti-government ethnic militias that control the border areas all willing to sell the forests under their control in exchange for desperately needed cash. “When you cross the border to the Myanmar side, you can see the mountains that no longer have any trees on them,” he said. “Soon the trees will be all cut. Without the trees, there will be only mountains. So we will look into mining them.”