Most of the world's remaining natural forests are formally protected by law and regulation, but enforcement is generally corrupt and ineffectual. Thus, the planet's deforestation problem is largely one of illicit logging, and China is the world's leading importer of illegally logged wood. Chinese wood purchases have also helped finance armed conflicts conducted by such international pariahs as Cambodia's Khmer Rouge, Burma's military government, and the now-deposed regime of Liberia's Charles Taylor. "China is the number one buyer of timber from many of the countries most affected by the scourge of illegal logging," the eia reported in 2005. The largest supplier of timber to China is Russia, where an estimated half of all logging is illegal. In Siberia, pine forests are largely protected unless damaged by fire, so loggers intent on exporting wood to China routinely set the woods ablaze.
In Indonesia, the rate of illegal logging has sometimes reached as high as 80 percent. From there, logging syndicates plied what the eia calls "perhaps the largest and most destructive single trade route of stolen timber in the world," from the forests of Indonesia's Papua Province (which comprises most of the eastern half of New Guinea), often through Malaysia, where export documents are forged, to wood factories on China's southern and central coast. It's indicative of the injustice perpetrated by illegal logging that when prized tropical hardwood trees called merbau were cut down in Papua in 2004, locals were paid $11 per cubic meter; when the logs reached China, their value increased to $240 per cubic meter; by the time they arrived in the United States or Europe as flooring, they brought $2,288 per cubic meter. Most of the profit falls to high-living timber barons running smuggling syndicates out of Jakarta, Singapore, and Hong Kong. They receive support from Indonesian military and police officials who often invest in smuggling operations themselves or, if not, are bribed to facilitate them.
In addition to its many other devastating effects—species extinction, the spread of disease and poverty—deforestation dramatically speeds up climate change. Not only do cut trees no longer absorb carbon, but they release (either slowly, or, in the case of Siberian fires, rapidly) the carbon they'd sequestered. Thus, deforestation accounts for 18 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions—a rate higher than the global transportation sector's, pegged at 14 percent. The staggering rate of deforestation in poor, nonindustrial Indonesia places the country third among the world's emitters, after the United States and China.
While Indonesia and the other supplier countries endure the effects of deforestation, the countries that benefit from it behave as if the problem is not of their making. Thus China has signed both multilateral and bilateral commitments to halt imports of illegal wood but failed to enforce them. And George W. Bush's "President's Initiative Against Illegal Logging," announced to much fanfare in July 2003, doesn't even propose to ban American imports of illegally cut wood, but rather focuses on helping supplier countries combat illegal harvesting.
An end to American and European purchases of products made from illegally cut wood—still retailed by such companies as Ikea, Home Depot, and Armstrong (see "Timber Line")—would certainly reduce the destruction of tropical forests, as half the tropical wood that enters China is reexported as finished products. Even so, about 90 percent of all Chinese-manufactured wood products are consumed within China. This is alarming, for per-capita consumption of wood products is still far below that in developed countries, and is likely to grow as the middle class expands. China's per-capita consumption of paper, for example, is now only an eighth of the United States'; if it reaches the American rate, pulp suppliers will have to double the world's current annual timber harvest. As Greenpeace argues in a 2006 report titled "Sharing the Blame," "The world's forests cannot support either the level of consumption of developed countries, or the aspiration of developing countries to attain a similar level."
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
mr. zhang said he had a friend who might be able to help us find desertified land, but he wasn't sure the friend still lived in Inner Mongolia. On that faint hope, we descended the pass and found ourselves in a vast flatness. We drove through urban developments bursting with the excitement of sudden affluence, all flash and tackiness, new and decrepit at the same time. Mr. Zhang found his way with the aid of a dashboard gps system he consulted about once a minute while proclaiming that all such Western devices focus on details at the expense of the whole and are therefore deceptive. Indeed, the primacy of Eastern thought was one of his favorite themes, a point on which he probably spoke for many Chinese: Even as the Chinese transform their economy by embracing Western methods, they never stop believing that their civilization is superior.
At last Mr. Zhang arrived at what looked like an aspiring commercial development, a few yurtish structures atop a partially paved but otherwise featureless expanse. Mr. Zhang quickly determined that his friend had moved away, but the man he asked proved just as valuable. He was a local grassland-management official, a Communist Party member, who happened to know of recently desertified land only a three-hour drive away. What's more, after futilely trying to give Mr. Zhang directions to the area, he agreed to drive us there himself.
China's timber exports, about 40 percent of which goes to the United States, exceed $17 billion. But while some furniture and building-supply stores have agreed in theory to buy only wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council as sustainably and legally harvested, implementation is another story.
Ikea: The chain buys a quarter of its furniture stock from China, which imports wood from Russia. A recent Washington Post investigation found that even though about half the wood from Russia is illegally harvested, Ikea employs only two foresters in China and three in Russia to track the origins of its wood. A company official acknowledged that the expense of guaranteeing its wood's legality is prohibitive. Ikea has a goal that by 2009, at least 30 percent of its wood will be certified. Currently, only 4 percent of the wood used in its Chinese factories passes that test.
Home Depot: Only 5 percent of its wood products are made from certified timber.
Armstrong Floor Products: Sells endangered Indonesian merbau, and declines to join the certification plan.
Mr. Zhang looked relieved. "I always have good luck!" he exclaimed as he ushered the official behind the Great Wall's wheel and stationed himself in the passenger seat. The official was decked out in rumpled black pants slung low beneath his belly, a broadly striped, red and brown T-shirt that evoked a beach vacation, and a white baseball cap graced with a Nike swoosh, worn significantly askew. He proceeded to inhale the first of an unending chain of cigarettes—not surprising in a country that produces 2 trillion cigarettes a year for its 360 million smokers.
He spoke with candor, something rare in relations between Chinese authorities and American journalists. All he asked in return was that I not use his name, a request I am honoring by calling him Mr. Li. True to China's entrepreneurial spirit, Mr. Zhang soon proposed a joint business venture, and Mr. Li looked interested.
Between bouts of business talk, I learned that the region's environmental decline began during the Cultural Revolution, when too many sheep were raised and too many trees were felled. As capitalism gained momentum in the 1980s, Mr. Li said, peasants needed wood for fences to demarcate their newly privatized fields, and tree cutting accelerated. At the same time, the government dispersed many Han Chinese into the traditionally Mongolian province—to the point that it is now 80 percent Han. The grassland succumbed to the intensified grazing, and storms threw sand across the landscape.
"Every time there's a dust storm, it feels as if the sky is falling," Mr. Li said. "It smells like the earth. You have earth in you." It is decidedly not good earth, either: It causes respiratory and skin diseases among the human inhabitants and their livestock. He displayed his hands, riddled with cuts and cracks.
After a while, Mr. Li parried my questions with some of his own. How many times had I been married? Just once, I said. What did I think of China? Wonderful, I answered diplomatically, and asked him what he thought of the United States. Very, very carefully, he answered, "I know that Americans care about justice."
As we drove, the grassland gave way to sand dunes, until the terrain looked like the inverse of a golf course: monstrous sand traps the size of fairways, occasionally interrupted by sparse tufts of grass. The road steadily deteriorated and at times disappeared into the dunes, which Mr. Li negotiated by spinning the wheel like a sea captain through towering waves. Inevitably, the car got stuck, and three of us pushed it out. Mr. Li assured us that at our destination the desertification was much worse.
half a century ago, the world was much less dusty. Dust, after all, is nothing more than fine particles of soil, in contrast to larger particles known as sand. Many deserts are basins filled with dust and sand held in place by a protective crust of mosses, lichens, and soil bacteria. But modern civilization has exposed the fragility of these crusts as the human population has pushed impoverished migrants and profiteers onto marginal land. As the deserts deteriorate, they expand: Overgrazing of cattle, sheep, and goats causes grasslands to collapse, baring the underlying dust and sand to the mercy of wind. Sand is too heavy to travel more than a few miles, but dust can fly farther than many birds. If a storm system sucks it upward into the troposphere a few miles above the earth, it reaches a conveyor belt of powerful currents that can carry it across oceans and continents.
China now rivals North Africa as the world's leading producer of border-crossing dust. It has always been generously endowed with deserts—including the Gobi, Asia's largest (which China shares with Mongolia), and the forbidding Taklimakan, the world's largest sand dune desert—which cover more than a fourth of Chinese territory. Until recently, when programs to combat desertification began to make some progress, it lost a Rhode Island-sized parcel of land to desert each year.
Dust storms that now debilitate Beijing appear in records from as long ago as the 1200s, but they occurred less than once a year on average then; today they come at least 20 times a year. At their worst, the storms drape Beijing in a yellowish cloak that blots out the sun, shuts down air and road traffic, clogs machinery, and makes seeing across the street nearly impossible. Each year, they blow a million tons of dust through Beijing and several tens of millions of tons as far as the western Pacific Ocean, 7,000 miles away. Dust particles are so small—at most a seventh of the diameter of a human hair—that human lungs are defenseless against them. Frequent inhalation can cause coughing, painful breathing, bronchitis, asthma, permanently decreased lung function, and premature death.
Dust storms also set off ripples of harm. "When dust blows, what you are seeing are nutrients leaving a system—the ability of the soil to support agricultural crops is leaving," says Jayne Belnap, a research ecologist at the U.S. Geological Survey. "So you're setting up a dynamic that causes people to starve or to add more fertilizer to their soil. If they add more fertilizer, then the water becomes eutrophic, and it flows into the ocean and screws that up. It's just this huge hunk of 'uh-oh' on a massive scale. And every time we have an 'uh-oh' in a country, it doesn't matter where, it comes back and hits us."