Xiuwachu tungsten and molybdenum ore mine (located in the buffer zone of the World Natural Heritage Site). Greenpeace/Xiao Shibai

The state of the world’s forests should be of concern to everybody. Forests are not simply sources of timber, they are not just a resource. They are “the lung’s of the earth” - vital ‘carbon stores’ which help limit the impact of CO2 emissions - and places of exceptional biodiversity, labelled by some as “dynamic living entities.”

China’s forests have a long history. For millennia people have depended on forests for food, fuel and other necessities of life. This is not always sustainable, however. Deforestation in China also has a millennia-long history. So it came as good news when in 2013 President Xi Jinping announced that China would protect all existing natural forest from 2017 on, and that the country would expand its forested area to 23% of the country by 2020.

Intact Forest Landscape scenery on the road to Sangdugele tungsten and molybdenum ore mine. Greenpeace/Xiao Shibai

There are many types of forests, however. From an ecological and biodiversity perspective, there is one type of forest which is of importance above all others – so called ‘intact forest landscapes’, shortened as IFL. These are areas within existing forests which show no signs of significant human activity and are able to maintain their native biodiversity. They are home to an incredible array of animals, and once they are lost, it is next to impossible to restore them.

They are also extremely rare. To find out more about the state of China’s IFL Greenpeace East Asia carried out satellite mapping of China’s forest coverage. The mapping shows that just 3.3% of China’s existing forest can be classified as IFL. It also shows that over the past 13 years, a total of 490,000 hectares of IFL in China have been lost.

A map of the distribution and degradation of China’s Intact Forest Landscapes.

In the process of satellite mapping, we also decided to zoom in on one of the areas of IFL concentration, the mountains and gorges of north west Yunnan. Over half of the IFL lost over the last 13 years was located here. The area is also acknowledged by UNESCO as being perhaps “the most biologically diverse temperate region on earth” and is partly included in the UNESCO Three Parallel Rivers world natural heritage site. [LINK]

But the situation in this precious and supposedly well protected global treasure was not what we expected. Our research showed widespread mining within the IFL area, including within the world natural heritage site.

A map of Intact Forest Landscape areas and mining sites in Yunnan province.

Field trips confirmed what the satellite imagery had told us. We were shocked.

In total we uncovered 24 mines operating in the IFL region, three of which were in the UNESCO site. It also seems likely that some of the mines never applied for the obligatory environmental impact assessment before they began operations, presumably because they knew it would be refused.

On the field trip I saw for my own eyes the impact the mining has had on the surrounding pristine forest. Trees have been felled to make way for mine entrances and roads, hillsides have eroded and become susceptible to landslides, and some areas are even threatened by water pollution from the mines’ refuse water. Among the vegetation affected are endangered species, such as Himalayan Mayapple, which are protected under CITES, an international treaty to protect rare wild animals and plants from overexploitation.

The Sige tungsten and molybdenum ore mine in core area of the UNESCO world natural heritage site. Greenpeace/Xiao Shibai

This kind of rogue mining in an area of such immense ecological value to both China and the world is extremely worrying. It must be stopped.

Just this month a new world natural heritage site in China, Shennong Jia in Hubei Province, was approved by UNESCO. China is now the country with the second largest number of world heritage sites. It is absolutely essential for the country to assure the international community that it is able to protect these sites as it is supposed to - they are the world’s heritage and of significance to every one of us.

Chinese provincial governments are currently in the process of drawing up ‘ecological redlines’, a new system designed to protect the country’s ecologically rich areas from further decline. Greenpeace urges all provincial governments to include IFL within these redlines and ensure that they are fully protected.

In the more immediate term, Greenpeace demands that the Yunnan government immediately halt all mining operations in the province’s internationally important IFL.

Yi Lan is deputy head of forests and ocean campaign at Greenpeace East Asia