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  Channel NewsAsia 9 May 07
China's reforestation programme hurts farmers' livelihood

ZHANGJIAJIE, Hunan: China's reforestation projects have expanded the country's forest area by some 3.5 million hectares over the last five years.

But not everyone is delighted with the environmental efforts.

China's first national forest park, located in Zhangjiajie in Hunan province, is known for its breathtaking natural landscape. With a forest coverage ratio of 65 percent, one of the country's highest, Zhangjiajie stands out from many Chinese cities which have turned into concrete jungles plagued with pollution.

But it was no easy task for the city to protect its forests from excessive logging and over-cultivation. In a bid to improve its degraded ecological system, China started the project of converting cultivated land back to forests in 2002. This is now a major forestry project in most parts of Hunan province.

By providing subsidies to farmers, China wants to reforest his cultivated land without depriving farmers of their livelihood.

Some farmers, however, say they are facing hardship after their land was reforested. One farmer said he used to live at the foot of the mountain, but had to move up to earn money. He now sells fried chestnuts, and the business is poor.

Xiang Xu Ceng, 88, has lived there all his life. He said more than eight generations of his family had farmed the land in the mountainous area until officials took it to plant trees.

Xiang said his hopes for a better life were also crushed. "By the time compensation from the government reaches us, there was nothing left," he said. Xiang now makes a living by collecting bottles. He has nowhere to go. "The government relocated some people, but we were not included," he added.

Professor Yin Wei-Lun at the Beijing Forestry University, said: "The law stipulates that farmers will receive compensation for their cultivated land that's reforested. How is it possible that anyone does not get compensated? These days, the common people know how to use the law to protect themselves."

With each plastic bottle fetching only about one US cent, Xiang will need many bags full before he can afford to pay for legal advice. But for those like him who have fallen through the cracks, there is new hope.

The local government has promised to look into their cases. Li Ding Yi, Deputy Director of the Forestry Department of Hunan Province, said: "Under our reforestation policy, farmers are not supposed to hand over all their farmland, they should have some land for subsistence farming. We will look into exceptional cases where the families lose all their farmlands. We will consider giving them more food subsidies or other aids."

To boost awareness of environmental issues, the authorities organised the 10th International Forest Conservation Festival. - CNA/de

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