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Heavenly Hainan> Beijing Review Archive> 1984
UPDATED: February 3, 2010 NO. 30 JULY 23, 1984
Hainan - A Treasure Island (4)

With its per-capita industrial and agricultural output value a little more than half the national average (in 1982, it was 438 yuan, against 816 yuan nationwide), Hainan's economy is far from the level it should be. Construction proceeds slowly.

What accounts for this situation?

First and foremost, it is because Hainan's potentials in the cultivation of tropical crops have not been fully realized. For many years, the islanders followed the policy of taking "grain as the key link," and strove for self-sufficiency in grain. That goal was never achieved, because the island's humid weather is unsuitable for growing grain. But in the effort, the production of tropical crops was affected, and the local people's livelihood suffered.

In Dingan County alone, the annual sugarcane yield plummeted from 110,000 tons to 60,000 tons, that of pepper dropped from 150,000 kilos to 10,000 kilos, and the total catch of pond fish shrank from 300,000 kilos to 200,000 kilos. Even at this huge cost, the increase in grain production was only marginal.

For centuries the peasants of Jianhuashan Village in Wenchang County have earned their living growing coconut palms. They trade their coconuts for food and clothing, and use coconut tree trunks and fronds to build houses and furniture. Today, earnings from coconut sales account for 80 per cent of Jianhuashan's total income. However, 12 years ago the peasants had to demolish many coconut plantations to make way for the cultivation of sweet potatoes. They never got a high potato yield; instead, the drop in coconut output brought in its wake continuous reductions of the villagers' incomes.

In its post-liberation heyday, Hainan's state farm had 33,300 hectares sown to sisal hemp, coffee and essence-bearing crops. But only 10,656 hectares were left intact after the decade-long "cultural revolution" (1966-76). By 1979, tropical crops made up only 36 per cent of the whole island's agricultural output value. Today, 800,000 hectares on Hainan are still waiting to be reclaimed.

Hainan Island's slow development is also attributable to its lopsided, weak industry. A lot of factories were hastily built in the 1950s, but many of those were shut down due to lack of raw materials and power. The few surviving ones are losing money. Ironically, the processing industry is extremely backward, making it impossible for the islanders to process and utilize the tropical crops.

Coconuts, for example, can be used extensively. In some countries the juice is being studied as a possible glucose substitute in medicine. The Hainan people, however, do not know very much about the use of coconuts' and every year they throw 3 million kilos of coconut juice into the sea.

The Haikou Cookie Bakery is the best bakery on Hainan, but only half of its products are up to standard - burning charcoal in the ovens has made it difficult to control their temperature.

Coconut shells' inner linings are a choice material for stuffing mattresses and upholstered armchairs, but the lack of processing workshops has forced the local people to leave them to rot.

Qionghai County is rich in a kind of pepper known for its pure and especially hot taste, but the county does not have a single pepper-processing factory. The rubber processing industry, too, can hardly match Hainan's position as China's leading supplier of natural rubber. Its rubber factories can only make low-grade products such as tyres and hoses, with a combined annual processing capacity of just 4,000 tons.

Hainan's wood-processing industry is hardly compatible with its rich timber resources. The islanders chop down several hundred thousand cubic metres of low-yielding rubber trees every year to make way for young saplings. However, the island's only rubber tree processing factory can handle just 3,000 cubic metres a year. As a result, most of the left-over rubber trees are burned in kitchen stoves.

Hainan was the centre of a technical innovation in textile industry in ancient China. But today, it has not one modern textile factory. and the local people have to depend on the rest of the country for clothing.

Building materials abound, but Hainan produces only 300,000 tons of cement a year, which can hardly meet the growing needs of economic development.

To date, Hainan's two ilmenite-dressing factories are still exporting the iron and titanium oxide as powdered ore, although they could earn more if they processed the rich deposits into sponge titanium before shipping them to other countries.

The discovery of oil and gas in the surrounding Beibu Gulf and Yinggehai Oilfields and on the island itself augurs well for the development of the petrochemical industry. But so far not a single factory has been built.

The major lesson learnt over the past three decades, however, is not so much what has not been developed as what has been overdeveloped. The major example is the serious damage to Hainan's tropical forests.

More than 1,000 years ago Hainan Island was covered with virgin forests. But long years of human activity have taken their toll. The dense forests shrank to 862,470 hectares in 1956, and further fell to 240,000 hectares by the end of 1978. This means the island's forest cover was reduced from 27.7 per cent to 7.05 per cent. Even when man-made forests and rubber plantations are added. only 15.44 per cent of the island is wooded today, far below what is considered ecologically safe. The deforestation has considerably weakened the island's ability to retain soil and water, led to reduced runoffs during the dry season, and caused unwanted changes in the climate.

The changes in the Qicha Commune in Changjiang County are illustrative. Nestled in a wooded ravine, the area was known in the early post-liberation days as the county's granary, thanks to a pleasant climate and abundant rainfall. But the good old days disappeared with the establishment of a lumberyard in 1957, which began felling trees in the virgin forests all the year round. Gradually, the water level in the streams and rivers dropped. In 1980, when a major drought hit Qicha, the wells in 15 villages dried up, 5,000 villagers couldn't get drinking water, and the turbine of a 200-kw hydroelectric power station stopped running.

Another example is Baisha County. In the 1950s, 45.5 per cent of the county's land was covered with forests, and despite frequent rainstorms the local people never experienced a landslide. Today, the forest covers 13.2 per cent of the county's total area. In July 1977, when the precipitation reached 442 mm during a three-day typhoon, landslides occurred on one-third of the denuded mountains, and 333 hectares of farmland and 600 water conservation projects were inundated or clogged with silt.

The examples of Qicha and Baisha show the punishment nature can inflict for carrying things too far.

The severe deforestation has robbed many animals of their natural habitat, and their numbers are declining. Some 100 species of birds have virtually disappeared. Precious trees, too, are be coming scarce.

Wanton deforestation went hand in hand with the destruction of offshore marine resources. Many coral reefs have been quarried for lime production, leaving many valuable sea creatures homeless, such as kelp, agaragar, sea cucumbers and some rare fish.

The decline of the ecosystem was not only caused by the drive to achieve self-sufficiency in grain and the wanton felling of trees while neglecting reforestation. It was also caused by the primitive "slash and burn" farming system and the practice of burning trees to obtain charcoal. Today, yellowish patches dot many lush green hills - ugly marks left by some islanders who burnt the precious trees to make way for the cultivation of a low-yielding dry rice.

But after all is said and done, Hainan remains to this day a green island. The local people owe much of this to the frequent typhoons. Though destructive for agriculture, rainstorms have brought one-third of the rainfall needed to keep the island a perennial paradise for all kinds of animals and plants. It is, in fact, China's centre for tropical studies.

The most important way to preserve the beauty of Hainan for ever, according to a visiting scientist is to protect the environment in the course of future development. The local people should be urged to abide by the laws of nature when they tap the island's rich natural resources.

(To be continued)

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