Tree Lovers of All Countries, Unite

It takes a long time and many hands to afforest our barren mountains and wastelands. Our dream of a greener world can’t be realized unless most people are mobilized


There are two meaningful days related to trees this month. March 12 was China’s Arbor Day, and March 21, the World Forestry Day. The former was legalized by China’s parliament in 1979, when the government and society as a whole realized that deforestation was a daunting problem for the country. Like other tree celebrations elsewhere, China’s arboreal festival requires action. In reality, however, people, state leaders and ordinary citizens alike, usually plant trees in late March through early April.

China remains committed to its forestation obligation and many citizens, like me, grew up with the slogan of “afforesting the motherland.” Planting trees has been a part of our life. Years ago, I, together with my colleagues, planted a dozen or so trees at the foot of a mountain near the Great Wall in the northwestern suburbs of Beijing. I don’t remember what kind of trees I had planted, probably pines, which were said to be easy to survive. I haven’t seen those trees again, thus having no idea about their survival.

The Chinese consider themselves tree lovers. They keep planting trees every spring, making forestation an annual campaign. Last year, Chinese citizens voluntarily planted 1.86

billion trees, and new afforested areas reached 7.7 million hectares. It is interesting to note that the slogan “afforesting the motherland,” unlike many other slogans that often reflect governmental policies or the motif of a given time, has never been challenged or changed. Few people think the slogan is too ideal, or that it would someday become outdated.

But obviously China is far from its goal. Take Beijing for example. The city’s landscape of excessive concrete leviathans and insufficient sylvan areas is what many residents and visitors frequently grumble about. It seems that skyscrapers, highways and commercial blocks are greatly outgrowing willows, poplars and plane trees. As a matter of fact, many trees, except for those hundred- to thousand-year-old arbors that are protected by law, have been cut down to make room for municipal construction and business buildings. That is why many thought it was ludicrous to suggest that this city could offer a green Olympics in 2008. The point here is many other cities around the world are certainly greener than Beijing.

This has been a scenario one can find in many places. A lot of manpower, funds and equipment have been invested in forestation. Meanwhile, random and unlawful logging has not been effectively curbed, as unchecked industrial expansion still shows its momentum almost everywhere. According to China’s forestry authorities, some 979,400 cubic meters of woods had been destroyed during the second half of last year, with relative criminal cases up 59.5 percent compared with the corresponding period of the previous year.

How we treat forests, in the final analysis, reflects our attitude toward the land, nature and ourselves. In almost all native cultures, it is the land that is sacred and supreme and people traditionally regard the tree as the symbol of the land and nature, and some even worship trees. Thus, to bulldoze away a grove so a road can be built, or to inundate a primeval forest when building a dam over a river, is tantamount to sacrilege and sin.

I have neither seen a virgin forest nor the forest vanishing in the wake of construction, but I did witness deforestation in a mountain area in central China 35 years ago. After years of wanton logging by the locals, there was no trace of big tress on all the mountains for dozens of miles around. A century before, I was then told, those mountains served as an arboreous cornucopia. I later understood that what I had seen was nothing but an epitome of the evanescence of global forests. While it takes generations for mankind to correct its mistakes, people everywhere still face the decade-old dilemma: How to develop the economy at the lowest ecological cost.

In China, people are still debating on a 13-dam project on the Nujiang, one of the two pristine rivers in the country. The project will affect a canyon region unlike any other, which a UN agency has designated a World Heritage site. In Tasmania, Australia, as loggers prepared to cut down a towering woodland about one year ago, green activists were standing firm in their demand that the land, Styx Valley, be made a national park. The Styx is home to many world-class giant trees, including the 400-year-old swamp gum, or eucalyptus regnans, known as the king of the trees. More than 17 meters in circumference, it is almost as tall as London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral.

I don’t know the fate of the Nujiang and Styx, but I remain optimistic and confident about forest protection. After all, there are now more tree lovers taking concrete action than ever before. Certainly there are those perky activists who always spare no effort, and sometimes play hardball, to save or resuscitate our forests, groves and natural reserves. In the United States, many believe that 95 percent of the country’s original forests have been cut down. Most of the last, untouched wild forests can only be found in the national forests. That situation has invited and boosted some national movements to save America’s forests. These campaigns are successful mainly because they are based on ordinary people, who really care about wildlife and forests and want to protect their public lands for the future generations. Now these people have joined together. This, however, is not enough. We need a global green campaign before creating a global tree belt. It is time for the tree lovers worldwide to join hands.

Every March people spend a lot of time discussing forestry. What makes this year different is an African name: Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize a few months ago. During the late 1970s and 1980s, Wangari Maathai galvanized a movement of rural women across Kenya to plant 30 million trees in reaction to the widespread environmental degradation that had devastated the country. In China we have many heroes who contribute to our planet by planting trees. There must be many others around the world. Perhaps the best way to get others to join, the best way to create a greener globe is to lead by example. I deem that many will follow suit, which will bring hope for all of us.