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Former loggers turning over new leaf

Updated: 2015-08-17 11:09
By He Na (China Daily)

The end of logging operations in State-owned forests has resulted in thousands of workers losing their livelihoods and forced local governments to restructure their economies. He Na reports from Yichun, Heilongjiang province.

Former loggers turning over new leaf

Workers collect edible fungi at Yichun Jinrui Forest Food Co. The company helps about 1,000 households to earn stable incomes. ZOU HONG/CHINA DAILY

Xu Huiqing has spent her entire life surrounded by the woodland around Yichun, China's "forest capital", in Heilongjiang province. She was born on a forest farm, worked as a forest ranger for three decades, and her nearest family members all worked in related industries.

It never occurred to Xu that the employment situation would deteriorate to the point that she, her husband, close relatives and colleagues would be forced to consider leaving Yichun to look for work.

However, the 43-year-old was one of the last batch of workers to leave their jobs in April last year, when a ruling that curtailed logging operations in State-owned natural forests came into effect.

The ruling was the coup de grace for the local timber industry, which had been in steady decline since the turn of the century when the coverage of natural forest began to recede. Many young people left Yichun to seek work in other cities, but Xu and her husband, who both were in their late 30s and had children and parents to support, decided to stay and take their chances.

Although no official data is available to show how the end of logging has affected local employment levels, the Yichun Development and Reform Commission estimates that 70,000 people have lost their jobs.

"As a city with the forest economy as pillar industry, we are facing huge pressure from unemployment," said a commission official, who declined to be identified.

The uncertainty that has affected Yichun for at least the past 10 years is just beginning in other woodland areas, and on April 1, logging operations were curtailed in State-owned forests in the northeastern provinces of Jilin and Liaoning and in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region. Other former forestry centers in the vast Greater and Lesser Hinggan Mountains and the Changbai Mountains also face unprecedented challenges.

Economic driving force

Yichun is home to 13 percent of China's State-owned natural forests and the local logging industry has made a huge contribution to the country's economic development. Data from the local development and reform commission show that in the past 60 years, the city has produced 270 million cubic meters of high-quality timber and paid 30 billion yuan ($4.83 billion) in taxes.

Those days are long gone, though, and now the city is facing its biggest challenge. "When I was young, towering trees about 50 centimeters in diameter could be seen everywhere. But now, the new trees are all smaller, with an average diameter of about 20 cm," Zhang Baoku, a 48-year-old former forestry worker, said.

The end of more than half a century of logging resulted in Yichun's annual revenue falling by more than 20 million yuan last year, the first time the city had registered negative GDP growth. Although the State Forestry Administration provides an annual subsidy, the amount is too small to balance the local government's books.

Xu found it hard to cope with the transition. "I felt as though the sky had collapsed. We began looking for jobs downtown but failed because there was no work for the forestry-related factories and small workshops. They were badly affected," she said.

"My husband finally found a job as a taxi driver, and our family got through the hard times on his monthly salary of 2,000 yuan," she said.

With the logging industry gone, and with iron, another local pillar industry, in a downturn, economic restructuring has become a priority for the local government.

"It's not simply an economic problem, but also an important social problem for the government," Sun Wenqing, deputy director of the Yichun Bureau of Commerce, said.

It's not the first time that Yichun has attempted to transform its economic model. In 2005, it was named as an "experimental city for the economic transformation of forestry-based economies", and allowed to establish new pillar industries. "We chose forest tourism, forest food and medicine, the exploration and development of resources, metallurgy and building materials as Yichun's new pillars," Sun said.

Last year, Yichun's eight industrial parks attracted 152 businesses, and the city welcomed more than 6.3 million tourists, five times the resident population, who brought revenue of 5.36 billion yuan.

In June, Bu Jingyun, vice-president of Alibaba, led a company delegation to Yichun to inspect the business environment and discuss cooperation. The authorities are eager to attract the e-commerce giant, but there are hurdles to be overcome. "E-commerce is still in its infancy in Yichun and a shortage of e-commerce talent is our major obstacle. Cultivating more talent in this field is at the top of our agenda," Sun said.

Despite overtures from businesses, the lack of sufficient financial support from central government and the State Forestry Administration mean the benefits of restructuring have yet to become obvious. "Yes, the process is difficult and long, but it will give people hope," Sun said.

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