By Liu Changjie
Published: 2008-01-30

Hard Times in the Northern Peaks

From Nation, page 10, issue no. 352, Jan 28th 2008

HAVING stood in the open-air market all day long, Mr. Guo begins collecting his goods and preparing to go back home for dinner. "I sold only two jin (500 grams) hazel nuts today. That's less than ten yuan," he says as he stomps his feet while collecting his goods. "It's so cold. Who will come out to buy things?"

It's the harshest time of the year for remote Mohe county, bordering Russia in northeast China's Daxing'an mountains. The annual deep freeze arrived in early January, pushing temperatures down to at low of minus 46 degrees Centigrade.

The hazel and pine nut Mr. Guo sells are not from the local forest. "The hazel is from America. The pine nut is from Xiaoxing'an Mountain," he says, adding, "the forest here doesn't produce pine nut, as there's no Korean pine."

For thirty years since he was 16, Guo worked as a logger for the collective in this state-owned forest. He was one of the first laid off during hard times for the forestry industry in mid 1990s, which forced him to look for a new way to make ends meet, and led him to his current way of life.

Meanwhile, 100 kilometers away in the Fuke Mountains, the Mr. Sun and his six employees are busy loading timber . "It's too far [from here to the storage area in town]. It's usually seven in the evening when we finish loading all the timber logged during the day, " he says.

There are neither permanent residents, nor paved roads. The seven of them live in a 20-square meter plastic cabin. Ten meters behind the cabin is a one-square meter plastic booth—the toilet. During the four months of intense logging, they work from five in the morning to half past seven in the evening every day. The only time they spend in the warm cabin is for eating and sleeping.

While most farmers in the northeast are killing the winter time on their kangs, or heated beds, the most important logging season has just begun. "The temperature will go on dropping. It's normal to go below minus 50 degrees Celcius," says Sun.

Despite living different lives, both Guo and Sun share a link to the regions forests, where natural disaster, mismanagement, and failed reforms charted a painful course for the region's natural resources and economic development.

A Broken Plan
Covering 84.6 thousand square kilometers of land in northeast China (approximately the same size of Austria), Daxing'an Mountain is the biggest and northernmost state-owned forest in China. It enjoys a tree coverage of 7,300 thousand hectares and 0.5 trillion cubic meters of accumulative stumpage, which stands for 7.8% of the country's total. Since logging started in February 1964, the Mountain has contributed about 1.1 trillion cubic meters of stumpage to the country's timber stocks. Recently, the Mountain's lumber has drawn 110 billion yuan each year.

But this green treasury was once forbidden to forestry workers. Back in the 1930s, when northeast China was invaded by Japan, some of the high quality timber along the Heilongjiang River was logged and shipped out on the river. After the Chinese government's reoccupation of the area, it hoped to push forward to this virgin forest through a land route instead of water, as the loading capacity on water is relatively low.

In an attempt to exploit the forest, the government sent a great number of forestry workers to the Mountain in 1956 and 1958, which proved a failure thanks to the formidable environmental conditions. "Cabbage was frozen like stones. You have to hit it with an ax if you want to eat it. You fetch water with a burlap bag in winter. You eat dried vegetable in May and June," Yu Changhai, a former official of the Research Office of the Chinese Communist Party's History in Daxinga'an Mountain Area, recalls.

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