Forestry Under Mao: 1949 to 1978

China has been one of the most anthropogenically altered landscapes in pre-modern time (Roselle et al. 1997). Its legacy of environmental degradation can be traced back an entire millennium, to the development and diffusion of Neolithic agriculture (Marks 2011). During the period known as Imperial China from 220 BCE to 1911, the consolidation of power by ruling dynasties—all but two dynasties during this period have been governed by ethnic Han Chinese—has been inextricably linked with transforming the country’s natural environment (Elvin 1998). For centuries, peacetime population growth was considered central to national security, both for taxes and for uptake into the army, creating the recurrent problem of food security. Consequently, China’s vast countryside had been remolded for agriculture; its water sources re-engineered for irrigation and flood control, and large swathes of forests cut down for construction and fuel (Elvin 2008). Numerous biologically diverse eco-systems were thus transformed into agro-ecosystems (Marks 2011).  

During the two millennia of China’s Imperial history, the country had had lost 290 million hectares of forest (Marks 2006). Approximately half of this loss was, arguably, unavoidable: due to the conversion of forest land to farmland, settlements and transport networks. In 1949, the People’s Republic of China was formed after over two decades of civil war and Japanese invasion, which had brought on social dislocation, agricultural crises and much environmental degradation. Like his militarily inclined predecessors, Mao’s accession to power brought on a renewed cycle of population growth and  indiscriminate resource exploitation for economic development (Shapiro 2001). 

This commitment to industrialization was rooted, in part, in the desire to economically reconstruct the vast, rural and impoverished nation (Shapiro 2001). Consequently, the demand for timber was high. The low fixed procurement price, however, was set by the government rather than by the market. Thus, no market forces were in play to check the high demand, in spite of the limited supply. As a result, over-cutting, shortages and wastage were pervasive (Harkness 1998).

Official figures claim that 8.6% of China’s forest resources were intact when the People’s Republic of China was formed. Scholars have argued that the real figure was closer to 5%, with China ranking 121 of 160 nations in per capita forest cover comparisons (Smil 1984). Still, extensive forests did exist, although they were dispersed: in northeastern China in Heilongjiang, Jilin and Inner Mongolia, in ten southern provinces of Anhui, Fujian, Guangdong, Guanxi, Guizhou, Hainan, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi and Zheijiag and the southwestern provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan (Song and Zhang 2010). 

Under Mao’s leadership, changes in land use policies failed to mitigate pressures on the country’s natural forests; nor did the institutional changes foster environmental stewardship in the society. Instead, forestry policy was subservient to agrarian reform, with various changes to land use and resource ownership. From 1950 to 1955, the Communist Party of China instituted the Land Reform Campaign to restructure land ownership and wealth distribution in the previously feudal country. Natural forests privately owned by wealthy landlords were confiscated and redistributed. 42% of the total forested area of China was nationalized, effectively giving the state control over 68% of the timber volume produced yearly (Song and Zhang 2010). These were mainly natural forests situated in the Northeast and Southwest. Two major institutions were established to take on the management of state forests: state forest industry bureaus and state forest farms, both of which prioritized timber supply for national industrial development (Démurger et al. 2009). 

The remaining non-state forest resources were divided amongst farmers in equal shares, regardless of wealth or social status. The reforms were implemented throughout China in the spirit of egalitarianism, with the exception of Tibet and border regions containing ethnic minorities. Given the conflict in the region, nationalized forests were designated as communal property of the community (Liu 2001). Given that non-state forests account for 60% of China’s forested area, they have an important role to play in terms of forest resources and environmental services in China. 

Private ownership was effectively dismantled in 1956 with the establishment of advanced cooperatives. Since then, all land in China has been either state-owned or collectively owned. That year, ninety 6% of of rural households were incorporated into advanced cooperatives, comprised of 200 to 600 households (Liu 2001). Land, forests and other means of agricultural production were now under collective rather than individual ownership. Individual households were meant to be remunerated for relinquished forest resources, however, in many cases this did not happen (Liu 2001). Non-timber trees planted around the living space, however, remained the private property of individual households. In the border regions of Yunnan, orchards were not collectivized either, perhaps because the high altitude created a short growing season which prevented double-cropping (Liu 2001).     

In 1958, all non-state forests across China, including scattered fruit and other economic trees, were transferred once more from advanced cooperatives, to “people’s communes” averaging 4,600 households. The institutional reform meant that forest ownership and management thus became increasingly centralized, and local governing bodies of people’s communes were vested with decision-making power over the usage of forest resources (Menzies and Peluso 1990). By the 1960’s, it was eventually recognized that people’s communes were too large for either effective agricultural production or forest management. But not before the communes facilitated the mass deforestation that ensued during the Great Leap Forward: an ill-conceived industrialization campaign which disrupted the afforestation activities of the early 1950’s, and resulted in a sharp decline of forest cover between 1957 and 1964 (Richardson 1990).

Before analyzing the averse impacts of the Great Leap Forest, it is important to recognize that afforestation had been a practice in the state-owned forests in the northeastern regions. Forests were recognized as key to protecting the agricultural heartland in North China early in the regime. In order to protect the North China plain from advancing desertification, the PRC instituted massive afforestation programs as early as the 1950’s (Richardson, 1990). 

A consensus emerged following the first national forestry conference in 1955, to reforest 100 million hectares of forest on barren land and in mountainous areas within a decade and a half. Since then, afforestation has primarily been a top-down exercise, monolithic exercise (Smil 1993). Seeds were chosen based on availability rather than soil and environmental compatibility. Access to afforestation areas became strictly restricted to the Forest Service Centers that were developed in order to monitor them. Success was monitored on parameters of planting rather than long-term survival, which was an estimated less than 30% (Smil 1993). The Chinese Academy of Forestry was established in 1958, the same year that afforestation abruptly ended with the advent of the Great Leap Forward.  Afforestation activity in China was not properly reinitiated until the Three Norths Shelter-belt was established during the Reform Era in 1979. 

Mao Zedong initiated the Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1961. During this period, large hydropower and irrigation projects were extended throughout the country. The deforestation, erosion and siltation from these projects was immense, and to little national gain. By 1980, and estimated 2,976 dams built during this period had collapsed, highlighting the futility of the large-scale environmental degradation (Shapiro 2001). 

China’s forestry history chronicles “Three Great Cuttings” or “San Da Fa”, campaigns during which communities were mass-mobilized towards deforestation. The First Great Cutting took place during the Great Leap Forward. In an effort to catch up with Great Britain in steel production, villages across China were engaged in smelting iron and steel in rudimentary backyard furnaces. In regions where the coal supply was limited, large swathes of forest were cut down to fuel the nation’s 600,000 furnaces (Lynch et al. 2011). Climate change followed the massive deforestation. The diversion of agricultural labour towards steel production and dam construction, averse weather conditions, locust swarms and a flawed system of taxation (and export) combined to push the country into the worst famine in the 20th century, dubbed the Three Hard Years. Food security became paramount, with forestry policy of non-state forests once more determined by agricultural policy. 

Population growth added additional pressure on food security. The People’s Republic of China’s first national census in 1952 cited a population figure of 583 million. Calls to curb population growth were written off as “Malthusian”, for which the numbers steadily grew to 700 million in 1964, and over a billion by 1982 (Lynch et al. 2011). These two decades of population growth were the largest in China’s history, once again giving rise to the challenge of how to feed so many people.

Prior to the use of nitrogen fertilizers, traditional agriculture took mere decades to confront the nitrogen limits of the soil. Expanding food production meant either converting more natural ecosystems— forests and grasslands—to agro-ecosystems, or trying to raise yields from the same amount of land. Once the rich stores of organic nitrogen from converted grasslands or forest were significantly depleted, relying of organic sources of nitrogen, such as that available through precipitation, meant a low harvest (Smil 2004). Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers were necessary to ensure high yields, even when the natural nitrogen in the soil was depleted. 

Following the Korean War in the 1950’s, China faced trade sanctions and could not import the synthetic fertilizers used by developed countries in order for agricultural output to meet national demands. A few fertilizer plants had been built by Soviet aid, however with the Sino-Soviet split of 1960, the country could only obtain five medium-sized ammonia-urea plants from the UK and the Netherlands between 1963 and 1965 (Smil 2004). The collective output of these plants were well below the industrial demand. Until thirteen fertilizer plants were built in the 1970’s (after which China became the world’s largest producer of nitrogen fertilizer), the decade prior saw an expansion of arable land to ensure food security. China’s forests and wetland were consumed by mass land reclamations in the 1960’s (Smil 2004). 

China’s political isolationism encouraged the ideology of self-reliance, and each province was required to be an independent producer of its own grain. With the national slogan “Take Grain as the Key Link”, grain production took precedence over forestry, animal husbandry and fisheries. Following the pseudo-scientific doctrine of Lysenkoism, it was widely believed that grain could be made to grow anywhere: flood plains, grasslands, steep slopes and sandy beaches (Shapiro 2001). The forested slopes of the northeastern and southwestern provinces paid the price in the Second Great Cutting during the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976. As a result, in the north and northwest, grasslands were opened to the plough and, with or without irrigation, winds eroded the soil and turned farmland into desert. In mountainous areas with slopes over 25 degrees forests were cut down and crops planted in rows down the slope, increasing the rate of erosion (Shapiro 2001). 

When it came into power, the Chinese Communist Party inherited a rural economy that included eighty million hectares of farmland, 40% of which were rice paddies. By the end of Mao’s rule in 1976, the total area increased by 50% to 120 to 130 million hectares (Smil 1993). In thirty years as a People’s Republic, as much farmland had been added as had been under the plow for one millennium, from the Han to the Song dynasties. Much of this increase came from the forests of Yunnan and Manchuria, which were particularly affected (Lynch et al. 2011). 

Yunnan had always been dependent on grain from flatter regions in the province, and rarely traded with external provinces. In mountainous regions, cash crops of tobacco, sugarcane, rapeseed, and peanuts were preferred, and traded for wheat, which was not commonly eaten in the province. Moreover, the state was densely forested, with steep slopes of over 40 degrees, and thin rainforest topsoil. Deforestation expanded during the Great Leap Forward from 1,300 meters above sea level to 1,700 meters (Economy 2007). “The inevitable vicious circle set in soon after slopes were deforested to make way for grain-fields: after a few years, as the accumulated organic matter was sharply reduced and the thin soil rapidly eroded, yields on the newly reclaimed land plummeted and more land was deforested just to maintain the harvests”(16, The Bad Earth, Vaclav Smil). Newly reclaimed areas were often abandoned after a few years due to pests, erosion and declining yields (Shapiro 2001). 

The degradation of Yunnan’s forests continued during the Cultural Revolution of 1967-1977: an era of military industrialization. State ordered relocations sent 200,000 Han Chinese to grow rubber in southern Xingshuanbanna, a biodiversity sanctuary and home to 12 ethnic minorities. Traditionally, forests were sectioned off and cut every thirteen years. The indigenous practice was overlooked in favor of clear-cutting for rubber. From 70% forestation in the 1940’s, only 26% of Xingshuanbanna had virgin forest cover by the end of Mao’s rule (Shapiro 2001). In the state-owned enterprises that managed the forests, promotions were offered based on profits from timber production alone. Increasing timber resources was not incentivized, resulting in a disproportionate volume of timber harvest to growth. As a result, 75 million hectares were harvested by SOE’s between 1949 and 1981; 92% were were natural forests (Song and Zhang 2010).

For three decades prior to the 1978 economic reforms, China’s forest sector had no clear legislation to determine its mandate or regulate its operations and output. It merely supplied deliberately underpriced logs to sustain national economic development, especially after the opening up of the Greater Xing’An Mountains in the Northeast and the Jinsha River Forest region in the Southwest in the 1960’s (Liu 2001). While supplying low cost construction materials achieved numerous social objectives in the energy and transport sectors (Wang et al. 2004), 1.1 billion cubic meters of forest products were supplied unsustainably from Heilongjiang’s boreal forests during this time, reducing the country’s resource base considerably (Richardson 1990). Only 600 cubic meters of new growth were added during this time. In the five major forested provinces of Heilongjiang, Sichuan, Yunnan, Guangdong and Fujian, 16 million hectares of forestland had been logged since the birth of the People’s Republic (Richardson 1990). 

24% of China’s total forested areas were lost during the “decade of darkness”, the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976 (Smil 1984). Inconsistent afforestation programs, discontinued during the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution, seeded 104 million hectares. But the success rate of survival was a dismal average of 20% (Wang et al. 2004). Careless planting, inadequate long-term care and an overall lack of a scientific approach to seed selection have been the major cause of low survival rates (Smil 1984). 

As the forest sector was made subservient to agricultural policies, grain production was paramount. The environmental consequences of China’s deforestation has been recognized, even in the Chinese press, which briefly opened during the first decade of the Reform (Smil 1984). Deforestation has been cited as the principal cause of an increase in frequency and impact of natural disasters. Between 1950 and 1958, 20 million hectares of farmland were impacted every year by lengthy droughts or excessive flooding. Between 1972 and 1977, this amount increased to 35 million hectares, constituting one third of China’s cropland (Smil 1984).    

Land in China is either collectively owned or state-owned. Forest resources therefore belong either to the state, managed by state-owned forest enterprises, or to collectives, with township governments and village committees acting as legal representatives (Démurger et al. 2009). In collective forests, while the land belongs to the collective, the trees may be owned by the collectives, individual households, or some combination of the two.  

The state reversed the collectivization of private forests numerous times between 1950 and 1979. Groves of fruit tress and non-timber plantations, collectivized in 1958 with the establishment of communes, were returned to individuals households, who were now endowed with rights over the forest products and income from trees around their homesteads. Communes were also devolved back to elementary and advanced cooperatives, comprised of 20-30 and 300-600 households respectively, returning forests to smaller-scale collective ownership (Liu 2001). 

Forest ownership and management would be reversed once more in the same decade, during the Cultural Revolution, when the household ownership of trees was considered incompatible with socialism. Household ownership of fruit and non-timber trees were reverted to collective ownership. The frequent policy reversals left farmers with little confidence in property rights; the resulting public indifference played out in reformist era from 1981 to 1992 in the Third Great Cutting (Economy 2007).