Thursday, March 22, 2007

Ryan Pyle Blog: The Destruction of Xishuangbanna

Deforestation & Global Warming in China's South

"Xishuangbanna is known as a beautiful, abundant place; if the forests are destroyed then in the future it will become a desert, we Communists will go down in history as criminals, and later generations will rebuke us." Zhou Enlai, 1961 in Jinghong City.

Xishuangbanna is a very small autonomous region in China's southwestern Yunnan province. The district of Xishuangbanna makes up China's portion of the Golden Triangle, a large jungle and opium growing region that includes Laos, Thailand as well as Burma. Xishuangbanna has always been a remote place. It was home to one of the most pristine rain forests in the region; home to many unique species of plant and animal life living in a carefully balanced environment. But that was the past and things have changed.

In the 1950s the Communist Party began looking at Xishuangbanna for economic development. Roads needed to be made for cross border traffic with Laos & Burma. The minority people in the region needed to be lifted out of abject poverty, and so begun the policy of slash and burn agriculture. Jungles were destroyed (burned) en-mass, replaced with cash crops like sugar cane, tea and rubber trees. Over 50 years after this policy began, I made my first visit to the region, and it was devastating.

After landing in Jinghong, the regional capital, I made my way south to explore the remote areas near the border of Burma. Previous areas that had shown on my map as jungle were anything but. New highways, new tea plantations, new rubber tree plantations are everywhere. There was no pristine natural jungle to be found. Everywhere I turned I was witness to mans assault on nature.

At night after dinner I would walk around in small villages and witness the new found wealth: farmers with mobile phones, every home at a motorcycle and one family even had a 25 inch television, floor speakers, and a new DVD player. While it is true these people deserve the right to improve their quality of living, the engine for their improvement must be sustainable. It is clear now that the cost of this development is just too great, as is the same with other parts of the country.

After my early evening walks I would sit on the front porch of the home I was staying in. As the sun began to set the early evening burn would begin. With the light fading the hills around me became ablaze. By morning most of the fires had already gone out, but left hanging in the air was an all consuming smoke clogging up the valleys and suffocating everyone and anything that lives in the region.

As early as the 1961 the central government in Beijing knew that burning the jungle in Xishuangbanna who lead to massive deforestation, soil erosion and temperature rises. Zhou Enlai's comments during an official visit in 1961 are evidence of this knowledge, but recognition never means action and Xishuangbanna has suffered.

The devastating effects of government policies on land use have endangered the tropical rain forests beyond repair. Temperature rises, soil erosion and dust are now evident almost everywhere. While the government has roped off certain protected areas for national parks, they are small and their motivation is completely tourist driven offering such services as elephant rides and cable cars rides through the jungle. Besides, the nature parks won't last long if everything around them gets slashed and burned, because as the regional temperature increases the environment within the protected areas with also change dramatically. But that seems to be beyond anyone's forethought.

Xishuangbanna is an excellent example of the devastation government economic policy can cause. And while local farmers are enjoying increased revenue from cash crops, they lack the education and experience to understand that in 30 years all of Xishuangbanna will be a dust bowl. I'll be sure to go back and do the story in 2037 about the Chinese government tourism bureau offering up camel rides on the sand dunes of what was once a topical rain forest. Buy your ticket now.

You can view the photo story at Enter the archive.

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle


  1. What I wanna say is not really about xishuangbanna, it is the frustration that I have got lately from work. See, people are afraid of speaking out in a media controlled country like China. Whenever I contact people on the phone, I often get screened or hang ups.If lucky enough to get someone, it is almost like begging. If this is the kind of job I wanna do all my life, does it mean a life long rejection from interviewees? Should I put up with it, and keep on trying and looking for more rejections. Or be wise and flexible change to some other professions that don't require I behave like a sales person.Should I believe by the limited what I could do, can really make a change somehow.

  2. XF, I feel your pain. Everyone here is afraid and that fact won't change anytime soon. I see two choices, one is you get an assistant to work for you - where you can transfer your frustration on to someone else who is being paid to arrange things for you, or you may have to consider moving on.

    Either way, I believe working in China is much more time/energy consuming than working in other parts of the world. It's just something we have to deal with.



This is Ryan Pyle. I appreciate you adding a comment to my blog and I hope that this space has offered you something useful and interesting. I look forward to staying in touch and I'm glad you took the time to comment.

Ryan Pyle