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World Perspective | ASIA

The Weather Is Going to Extremes in Wreaking Havoc

In China, floods have killed more than 3,000 people and left 14 million homeless. Officials acknowledge that overzealous logging contributed to damage.

September 11, 1998|MAGGIE FARLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHUANXI FOREST, China — Just a few months ago, champion logger Tang Song was lauded as China's Paul Bunyan and named a national model worker. His boss boasted, "He can chop as many trees as four men together."

But now, as China battles its fiercest floods in 44 years, Tang has fallen from grace like one of his own 100-foot cedars. He was toppled when the government finally acknowledged a connection between the felled forests near the source of the Yangtze River and the devastation wrought downstream.

Admitting mistakes in its land policy, the government banned logging in Sichuan province Sept. 1. About 100,000 timber industry workers will have to retire or switch jobs, and onetime hero Tang is "taking a long vacation."

"I have something to do with these Yangtze River floods," the 48-year-old Tang meekly told the Southern Weekend newspaper. "I have destroyed too much."

Near Tang's home in Maerkang, deep in the heart of what once was Sichuan's lush forest, the result of the loggers' work is unmistakable. The slopes are stubbly with the stumps of century-old trees and stacks of slashed undergrowth ready to burn. Most of the animals that once filled the woods--tigers and bears and pandas--have disappeared.

"It's a wasteland," said wildlife biologist William Bleisch, who advised the Forest Ministry in Sichuan on conservation for two years. "Certainly the ministry knew long ago the logging had to be stopped."

But the loggers at the head of the Yangtze weren't aware of the ripple effect downstream, the way the denuded forests turn the annual runoff into catastrophic floods that worsen each year. The forest acts as a sponge to soak up rainfall, and the network of tree roots keeps the land from washing away. But without the forest to absorb it, the rain sluices layers of soil down the Yangtze, filling tributaries and reservoir basins with silt, leaving fewer places to contain the overflow.

"I heard about our connection to the floods on TV," said Jia Ge, a Tibetan log truck driver who lives in Maerkang. "But I can't see it myself."

This year, an early snow melt from the Himalayas and heavier-than-usual rains also exacerbated the flooding, which was so bad that officials had to blow up dikes and sacrifice small towns to the flood waters in order to save some of China's largest cities. Nearly 14 million people are now homeless, and more than 3,000 have been killed.

Economic damage is estimated at $24 billion, and economists say the floods could knock as much as 1 percentage point off economic growth this year.

As a result, the floods have become a national preoccupation. People are asking why the floods are so bad, why the country is not better equipped to prevent the annual devastation.

It can't all be blamed on El Nino and La Nina. Although environmentalists have been pointing to the overzealous logging as a contributor to the floods' damage for years, only in August did the government finally concede the point.

China's environmental policies have been "far from satisfactory," Premier Zhu Rongji said during a visit to a flood-stricken area in northeastern China just after the logging ban was announced. Tree cutters should now become tree planters, he said, and indiscriminate logging should be considered a crime. And so Tang Song went from hero to villain.

Why the turnaround? "The problem finally caught up with the government. They couldn't ignore it anymore," said Bleisch, whose two-year stint with the Forest Ministry in Sichuan taught him about the political and financial obstacles to preserving China's forests.

Bleisch said he believes that economic arguments were the key factors in the policy reversal and that a recent restructuring of the powerful Forestry Ministry gave the government a chance to change.

In addition to the lives lost, crops ruined and industries shut down, floods mean that hydroelectric power plants can't generate as much electricity.

"The money lost from hydroelectric projects would more than pay the cost of reforestation and conservation efforts," Bleisch said.

But not to be discounted is popular pressure, which has swelled along with the flood waters ravaging the country. In the largest dissident petition since the pro-democracy movement of 1989, 309 protesters from 19 provinces signed their names to a letter demanding urgent action to save the environment.

"For so many years, by blindly following the concept that man can conquer nature, we have built up vast, evil debts to the Yangtze River," the petition said. "We are now swallowing the bitter fruit of nature's revenge."

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