Sat, Mar 23, 2002 - Page 8 News List

Forestation no solution to problem with soil

By Li Ken-cheng 李根政

More than a century ago, the British naturalist Charles Darwin observed 57 small saplings grow out of 210 grams of mud within a six-month period. In 2000 in Taiwan, 765 saplings of 43 species grew out of 1m2 of soil obtained from Wushihkeng, located 1,200m above sea level, by the Taiwan Endemic Species Research Institute (TESRI) of the Council of Agriculture.

Another experiment conducted by Providence University's Chen Yu-feng (陳玉峰) shows that each square meter of topsoil from various low altitude areas of vegetation contains around 10,000 seeds of heliophilous, or secondary-growth pioneer weeds, shrubs and trees.

A recent TESRI study of Peak 99 (九九峰), which was completely denuded by the 921 earthquake, shows that not only have secondary plants thrived without any reforestation or grass-planting efforts, but even wild animals have returned.

All this is evidence that Taiwan's soil contains a boundless potential to support life.

In fact, denuded topsoil can grow into lush secondary forests within a few decades at low altitudes and between 20 and 30 years at medium altitudes.

Conservation groups have argued that there is no need for people to plant trees because Mother Earth does it better.

However, one must remember the argument about "man shall conquer the heavens" and the thinking of the logging and forestry industries, as well as long-standing superstition about forestation.

Despite their engagement in large-scale logging in virgin forests over the last 50 years, Taiwan's forestry authorities in 1965 said that the nation's natural broadleaf forests were useless. So they carried out a 20-year-long "forest stand transformation" campaign, which turned Taiwan's precious natural forests into monocultural, artificial forests.

Government reforestation projects covered more than 1.13 million hectares, almost one-third of Taiwan's entire area.

In 1996, Typhoon Herb unleashed massive landslides -- an indication that soil stability throughout Taiwan was on the verge of collapse. Afterwards, the government launched a "forestation by all the people" project. After Typhoon Toraji last year, the Executive Yuan once again vowed to "secure Taiwan's soil with tree roots."

But the reality, whether one grows endemic or foreign plants, is that reforestation on collapsed land involves further destablization of topsoil and removes grasses and trees that have naturally sprouted there, thereby hindering the natural regeneration process.

All the public forestation efforts in the past have involved cutting down the naturally growing secondary or virgin forests and replacing them with artificial ones.

In Ilan County, thanks to the efforts of conservationists, the cypress forests of Chilan were incorporated into a new national park before they could be trimmed by the Forest Protection Department of the Vocational Assistance Commission for Retired Servicemen. That department had planned to turn the cypress forests into monocultural forests. It was a backward and absurd plan by anyone's reckoning.

For many years, "forestation" has been a shield against criticism for those in power, who have used the policy to deceive people into believing that it can prevent the disaster that is facing Taiwan's soil.

This so-called "forestation" is in fact an extension of the "forest stand transformation" program and is simply a recipe for disaster. Continued forestation will not stop Taiwan's increasingly serious droughts.

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