Tibet is often thought of as a high and barren desert, but its eastern regions have lush forests that host many plants and animals. Unfortunately, indiscriminate logging is putting these pristine woodlands in peril.
British diplomat-adventurer Hugh Richardson, who served in Lhasa from 1936 till 1950 and wrote the book Tibet and Its History, had these comments to make: “In some 15 years of acquaintance with Tibet, I saw there was a deep, almost religious respect for the rights of each strata of society…This fundamental expression was extended towards all of nature. The majority of the people made efforts to live as much as possible with nature — not against it. Tibet’s ecosystem consequently kept in balance and alive.”
As Richardson and others before and after him have reported, in Tibet there was traditionally a general taboo against encroaching excessively on the natural environment. This was the direct result of Buddhist philosophy’s belief in the interdependence of all living things and in the inter-relation-ships among the whole spectrum of plant and animal life, as well as “non living” elements of nature such as mountains, lakes, valleys, rivers, air, sky and sunshine.
A direct result of this attitude towards natural life was that great forests of maple, oak, linden and birch were left untouched and hosted numerous species of animal life. The English explorer F.K. Ward wrote upon visiting southern Kham in 1920, “I have never seen so many varieties of birds in one place.” And J. Hanbury-Tracy, a traveler in Kham in the 1930s, stated, “The Salween valley is a haunt of wild birds even in winter…there were partridges, eagles and hawks of a dozen varieties, rose-fmches, orange-beaked choughs, crows, rock pigeons and numerous dun-coloured birds. All were extraordinarily tame on account of the rigidly enforced ban on hunting.”
That was how it was decades ago. Since then, huge tracts of forests in east and south-east Tibet have been transported into the Chinese mainland. The surface of Tibet plays a vital role in the world’s climate in general and the monsoon in South Asia in particular. Changes in forest cover and snow cover could significantly affect local, regional and global weather conditions. Widespread erosion in Tibet could also produce serious changes in the flow of many great rivers flowing from Tibet into the Chinese mainland, India and Burma.
Danlock of the University of British Columbia wrote recently in News-Tibet, published in New York: “Forests of fir, hemlock, spruce, larch, pine, cypress, juniper, walnut, birch, poplar and rhododendron cover a vast expanse of the mountains and valleys. These forests as a resource are worth much more alive and standing than cut, floating down the Yangtze and Hwang Ho. They are the living biological essence, the climate modifiers, the water attractors, the vital habitat for con-tinuity of all living things, including human beings. Excessive logging has been in progress for some time, resulting in extreme soil erosion and downstream floods.”
The major forest areas in Tibet are in the eastern region (Chamdo, Drayah, Zogong and Markham) and in the central and southern region (Kyirong, Dram, Pema Koe, Kongpo, Nyintri, Metok, Po, Zayul and Monyul). These make up China’s third-largest forest reserve. Add to them the traditional Tibetan regions of Derong, Mili, Minyak, Tawu, Drakgo, Nyarong, Lithang, Gyalthang, Karze, and Ngapa, now incorporated into the provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan (Szechwan) and Chinghai (Tsinghai), and the total must constitute the largest forested landmass in China at present.
According to the Sydney-based Australia Tibet Council, one recent Chinese document states that in eastern Tibet, the total forests of Po Tamo spread over more than 4,200 sq km. If the felled lumber were lined end to end, it would strech for a staggering 111,000 million metres. Trees felled in the fertile old Tibetan forest lands of Ngapa, Carze and Mili, now part of Sichuan, would measure 10 billion cubic metres, or 70 percent of the timber reserves of this forest-rich province.
Gyalthang’s ancient woodlands (now incorporated into Yunnan) cover more than 10,000 hectares, with a wide range of sub-tropical trees, including valuable varieties of firs, pines, Tibetan cypress and dragon spruce. In these forests, pandas, golden monkeys, and white-mouth deer abound. They also provide a rich source of plants for China’s herbal pharmacopoeia.
Tibetan forest regions of Nyintri, Gungthang, and Drago, were ravaged between 1965 and 1985 and a total of 18 million cubic metres of timber were transported downriver. The Tibet Autonomous Region, is connected to China with four large highways, which make it easier to transport the tree trunks. From the forests of Chamdo, capital of Kham, 2.5 million cubic metres of timber valued at 75 million yuan (U$20.3 million) were taken between 1960 and 1985. These figures were monitored from Radio Lhasa.
Devastation of forests also extend to Ngapa in Amdo (presently Qinghai) province. A radio broadcast from Lhasa on 15 July 1983 said that 1,100 tons of thangchu (gum) and another 30 tons of a thicker variety were collected between 1966 and 1976. Forest weeds also have a value in China. A Chinese timber factory claimed to have milled eight million cubic metres of weed which was valued at 80 million yuan (U$17.2 million).
The Boston Globe newspaper reported on 10 March 1989 that massive deforestation taking place in the eastern province of Kham, called Sichuan by the Chinese. Tibetans who have been allowed to visit the province were horrified by the quantities of timber being trucked or floated down the rivers to the north-east. So many logs are transported by floating them on the rivers of east Tibet that often the water cannot be seen. Lumbering has been carried out so enthusiastically that whole hillsides are barren and large areas have been completely defaced. An artist in Lhasa included a veiled message in a painting submitted for exhibition. It was entitled “How the Golden Bridge between Lhasa and Beijing has been turned into a Wooden Bridge.”
The Asia-Pacific People’s Environment Network (APPEN) is an information group based in Penang, Malaysia, that is committed to ensuring that the people’s voice is heard on environmental and development issues.