The United Nations General Assembly has declared 2011 the International Year of Forests. The aim is to raise awareness on the sustainable management, conservation and sustainable development of all types of forests around the world. Though Hong Kong has an abundance of countryside and designated country-park areas, it may still be difficult to see the link between our concrete urban landscape and lush forests. Just how do forests relate to our city? For starters, anyone who consumes soy, palm oil and paper (to name a few from the long list of forest-generated products, go to page xx), which is probably everyone in Hong Kong! And by consuming these products, you may be contributing to the world’s forest depletion.
A forest is more than simply a piece of land containing trees. Forests are complex ecosystems that are home to micro-organisms and a wide and rare range of flora and fauna, as well as humans. According to figures from the United Nations, forests cover 31 percent of the Earth’s total land area. They house 80 percent of our terrestrial biodiversity, and are home to an estimated 300 million people around the world.
Each year, 13 million hectares of the world’s forests are lost to deforestation. It is estimated that up to 100 species disappear daily as a result (many of which we did not know existed). Deforestation does not only impact on the species and people who are directly dependent on the forests, but also affects communities and other distant ecosystems. For example, deforestation accounts for the third largest source of global greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to climate change. Large-scale tree loss disrupts water cycles and intensifies soil erosion. Deforestation disturbs the livelihoods of over 1.6 billion people around the globe who depend upon small-scale agriculture, hunting and gathering, and other harvesting activities in forests in order to survive.
Brazil, where the majority of the Amazon rainforest is located, has the world’s largest rainforest area. In the past 50 years, 17 percent (about 697,000 square kilometres) of this biome has been lost. The Congo Basin forests contain the world’s second largest tropical rainforest expanse. Rampant hunting for bushmeat from species such as elephants toand primates has led to a critical loss in biodiversity. Forest conservation is difficult in the Congo Basin due to domestic conflicts, as well as the continuous demands for wood products from China, Europe and the US. Around 91,000 square kilometres of forests in Central Africa were lost between 1990 and 2000.
Further from the Equator is Russia. The world’s largest country houses one-fifth of the world’s forest and supplies timber to Europe and China. The country’s forests are under pressure from illegal and irresponsible logging.
Closer to home is Indonesia, which boasts some of the most biodiverse lowland rainforests in the world. Sadly, it is also the world’s largest palm oil producer, and also has the highest deforestation rate. It is estimated that about half of its rainforests have already been lost.
Global deforestation persists. It is d,riven by a variety of social and economics factors of which agriculture is an important one, but there is hope: various international measures are at work simultaneously to mitigate the situation. We need to learn to live more sustainably and start to place more value on the many benefits and services forests provide. High Conservation Value Forests (HCVFs) led by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is one such measure. Canada, 45 percent of whose land mass is forested, is currently the country with the largest area of FSC-certified forests in the world. Canada has shown that, with appropriate strategies and professional knowledge, effective regeneration of the forests is within the realm of possibility.
China: Keeping Pace in Forest Conservation
China’s forests are the most biologically diverse temperate forests on earth, with over 2,800 tree species and a wide variety of rare and threatened animals, including the giant panda, golden monkey, snow leopard and crested ibis. China’s forests also provide 40 percent of the fuel for its rural population. It also plays a crucial role in protecting the country’s lowland river valleys, as well as sustaining its intensive irrigated agriculture system. For these reasons, China is considered “the most forest-dependent civilization in the world.”.
As the world’s second biggest economy, China’s forest productivity remains low. Factors that accompany the nation’s rapid economic development, such as logging and clearing land for agricultural use, are contributing to deforestation. Global warming does not help matters much either.
China is the world’s second largest timber importer. Since its ban on commercial logging in natural forests in 17 provinces in 1998, China’s timber import reached nearly 15 million cubic metres in 2000, as compared to about 4 million cubic metres before the ban. In addition to accelerating the destruction of Southeast Asian and Siberian forests, the ban also means a higher risk of China importing timber from illegal sources from other countries.
The good news is China is keeping pace in mitigating the problems. “In general, China’s forest protection is doing better than many other countries,” says Dr Han Zheng, Director of Forest Program Officer, WWF-China. Though Dr Zheng believes that the Chinese government can do more to alleviate forest-related problems, they adopt an open attitude and welcome suggestions from non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
WWF-China’s forest programme alone has made remarkable progress over the last decade. WWF brought the concept of timber certification into China in 1999. Currently, there are four certified forests and over 90 wood processing companies operating under the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) scheme. WWF also is continuing its effort to restore the world’s richest temperate forest in Minshan. In 2008, forests owned by members of the Chinese chapter of WWF’s Global Forest & Trade Network (GFTN) and certified by the FSC went beyond 1,000,000 hectares. The GFTN is an initiative by WWF to eliminate illegal logging and improve the management of valuable and threatened forests.
Despite these efforts, Dr Zheng points out that there is still a lack of market demand for sustainable forest products in China due to low public awareness of sustainable forest management and utilisation. Indeed, the road ahead for China’s forest conservation is long but optimistic. At the UN biodiversity conference in October 2010, the Chinese government announced a conservation plan hailed as “the most ambitious in a generation.” The action plan advocates controlling biodiversity loss by 2020 and designating 35 priority conservation areas, covering 23 percent of the country. “Implementation of the plan needs coordination and support from many departments, so compromise would not be avoidable,” comments Dr Zheng, “but this is a very strong signal to the Chinese that the government attaches great importance to biodiversity, so it’s good news for NGOs, such as WWF and other organisations addressing environmental conservation.”
The newly appointed Pambassador shares her experiences with conserving the beloved animal, and the impotance of preserving its habitats
Conservationist Jennifer Croes (nicknamed “Jungle Jenn”), who was WWF-Australia’s National Project Manager for Earth Hour in 2009, was recently selected as a Panda Ambassador (“Pambassador”) to learn about panda behaviour, breeding and conservation at the Chengdu Panda Research Base in Chengdu in the Sichuan province. The campaign is supported by WWF-China as the technical advisor to raise the awareness of panda conservation in China.
As China’s national treasure, the giant panda plays a unique role in politics, economics and diplomatic relations. The wild panda population was last recorded at around 1,600 with over 80 percent found in Sichuan province. Their habitats have been lost to the ever-increasing human population growth and climate change. The cutting down of trees and bamboo forest for agriculture, bamboo harvesting, infrastructure development and tourism has made the situation worse.
The Chengdu Panda Base was founded in 1987 with a focus on improving the captive population and wild giant panda research. Having Sstarted with six pandas from the wild, the research centre now has over 97 pandas.. Jennifer’s role as Panda Ambassador has allowed her to get a behind-the-scenes look of pandas in captivity and the efforts to breed these rare animals in the hope of one day re-introducing them back into their natural habitat to increase the wild population. Apart from the day-to-day activities – cleaning cages, preparing panda food, observing panda behaviour and engaging the visiting tourists – Jennifer has attended field trips with WWF-China to real panda habitat. “A focus simply on species protection is not the answer. There is a real need to take a broader view into biodiversity protection,” says the Pambassador. “Habitat protection and community-based conservation will have a huge impact in instigating this change and will not only merely protect the giant panda, but all of the other fauna and flora that share the same habitat – golden monkeys, red pandas, musk deers, takins, pheasant – all of which are endangered and protected animals.”
Hong Kong: A Subtropical Rainforest?
Where have our forests gone?
It’s a rather lesser known fact, but before Hong Kong was inhabited by people, it was mostly covered by subtropical rainforest. Like many jungles around the world, it has suffered from the impact of human activity. Historical evidence suggests that deforestation took place as early as the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368 AD) when the upper slopes of Tai Mo Shan were used for tea cultivation. Transformative deforestation seemed to have stopped by the early 18th century when the Hakka clan cleared land in the New Territories for settlement. In the 1840s, while Hong Kong Island was often described as “bleak and bare” by foreign visitors, three substantial forest areas could be found in Happy Valley, Aberdeen and Tai Tam Tuk. Despite the efforts to minimize the cutting of trees, however, the newly established colony was affected by extensive ecological destruction.
But things started to turn around beginning in the early 1900. By 1938, 70 percent of Hong Kong Island was covered by plantations initiated by the government. Large afforested areas could also be found in the New Territories.
Unfortunately, decades of forestry work was undone during the Japanese Occupation (1941-1945). The damage was so great that only the village fung shui woods survived. There was nearly complete destruction of the forests in the New Territories. During the 1950s, Hong Kong witnessed a large-scale population influx from Mainland China and unprecedented residential and industrial developments. Many villagers deserted their houses and moved to urban areas. Then in the 1970s, agricultural lands were abandoned but were never recovered, as they were used for commercial or residential purposes. Despite continuous afforestation, Hong Kong’s forest areas failed to reach their pre-war levels.
According to Dr Alan Leung, Terrestrial Conservation Manager of WWF-Hong Kong, the current forest areas in Hong Kong can be divided into three main types. The first type is plantation forest, where trees of a single species are planted around a reservoir area to prevent erosion. The second is secondary forest, which has recovered naturally from previous loss. Lastly, the fung shui wood. Located in the New Territories, fung shui woods usually have a richer biodiversity than the other two forest types. Shing Mun Fung Shui Wood inside Shing Mun Country Park, which has been around since the 17th century, possesses 76 different plant species.
Despite the distinct and unique ecological value of our countryside, its future is overshadowed by rapid developments. Go to the page xx to find out more.