“[Brown’s] ability to make a complicated subject accessible to the general reader is remarkable...” –Katherine Salant, Washington Post
Chapter 8. Protecting Forest Products & Services: Introduction
In the summer of 1998, the Yangtze River basin of China suffered some of the worst flooding in its history. An estimated 120 million people were driven from their homes by the floodwaters. A reported 3,656 people died. This near record flooding—with damages totaling $30 billion—came in a year when rainfall, though well above average, was not close to being a record. What was different from earlier years of comparable rainfall was the loss of forests. By 1998, the Yangtze River basin had lost fully 85 percent of its original forest cover, leaving little to hold the above-normal monsoon rainfall.1
Although it was too late to prevent massive deforestation, in August 1998 Chinese officials announced that they were imposing a total ban on tree cutting in the upper reaches of the Yangtze River basin. A senior official observed that trees standing were worth three times as much as trees cut. The state logging firms that had been cutting the trees were converted into tree planting organizations. As one employee noted, "It's now time to put down the ax and pick up the shovel."2
Because deforestation increases flooding, accelerates soil erosion, inhibits aquifer recharge, and decimates plant and animal life, it directly affects several other trends that are shaping our future. Although we do not rely as universally on forests for fuelwood as we once did, forests still provide material for building our homes and for manufacturing the paper that remains the principal medium for communicating information. In addition, 2 billion people depend on forests for fuel.3
Since the beginning of agriculture, the world has lost nearly half of its forests. Much of the loss occurred during the last century. Although some individual countries have reversed the tide of forest loss, the world's forested area continues to shrink. As this area diminishes, so does the human prospect.4
1. "Flood Impact on Economy Limited," China Daily, 1 September 1998; Doug Rekenthaler, "China Survives Fourth Yangtze Flood Crest as Fifth Begins its Journey," Disaster Relief, 11 August 1998; economic losses and deaths from Munich Re, "Munich Re's Review of Natural Catastophes in 1998," press release (Munich: 19 December 1998); removal of tree cover from Carmen Revenga et al., Watersheds of the World (Washington, DC: World Resources Institute (WRI) and Worldwatch Institute, 1998).
2. "Forestry Cuts Down on Logging," China Daily, 26 May 1998; Erik Eckholm, "Chinese Leaders Vow to Mend Ecological Ways," New York Times, 30 August 1998; Erik Eckholm, "China Admits Ecological Sins Played Role in Flood Disaster," New York Times, 26 August 1998; Erik Eckholm, "Stunned by Floods, China Hastens Logging Curbs," New York Times, 27 February 1998.
3. WRI, World Resources 2000-01 (Washington, DC: 2000), p. 93.
4. Emily Matthews et al., Pilot Analysis of Global Ecosystems: Forest Ecosystems (Washington, DC: WRI, 2000), p. 16.
Copyright © 2001 Earth Policy Institute