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The Last Lumberjacks
Text by Liu Haile Photographs by Xiao Shibai

 

During logging season, an open-air timber warehouse is packed with logs.  
During their stay in the snow-sealed mountains, the lumberjacks lead lonely, harsh lives. Sometimes they eat only a few steamed buns heated on a campfire for dinner. 
Because motor vehicles aren’t available in snow-sealed mountains, logs are transported manually by lumberjacks.  

As the morning sun creeps over the horizon, its rays shoot like knives through the dense pine forest, dazzlingly reflecting off ground covered with thick snow. For a moment, the silence is broken only by clumps of snow falling from tree branches. Suddenly, the roar of chainsaws shatters the tranquility. “Watch out! A tree is falling!” several lumberjacks shout. Then, a Chinese pine with a diameter of about 20 centimeters bends to the ground, lifting the white flakes from the forest bed like a snow globe.

Such is the scene at Ma Yongshun Forest Farm in Yichun City, northeastern China’s Heilongjiang Province. There, the country’s last lumberjacks repeat the routine all day during logging season. In December, before transportation becomes impossible due to heavy snow, they trek deep into the mountains and stay until March of the next year when the snow begins melting. The lumberjacks are farmers from nearby neighborhoods, with the oldest in his 50s and the youngest only 17. During their stay in the snow-sealed mountains, they lead lonely, harsh lives. They work hard all day and sleep in humble dormitories at night. Sometimes they eat only a few steamed buns heated on a campfire for dinner. The lumber they collect is processed into more manageable blocks before being transported elsewhere in the country.

  

Ma Yongshun Forest Farm sits in the Hinggan Mountains (which is divided into the Greater and Lesser Hinggan Mountains by the Nenjiang River). The region is covered with boundless forests, hence its nickname, the “green treasure trove.” As the largest timber producer in China, it accounts for 50 percent of the country’s total timber reserves. However, after decades of excessive logging, local forests have been steadily shrinking. Particularly, virgin forests in the area are on the verge of extinction.

Zhang Daoting is a retired lumberjack for Ma Yongshun Forest Farm, but still serves as a guard for the farm. “In the past, Tieli Forestry Bureau, to which our forest farm belongs, provided nearly a million cubic meters of timber each year,” he reveals. “But now, the figure has dropped to 100,000 cubic meters, which is even less than what a single forest farm could do in years past. And this situation has been ongoing for more than 10 years.”

Why not cut more trees? “The reason is simple,” laments Zhang, “There aren’t many trees.”

“Look at the grove,” he suggests, pointing at nearly-bare hills in distance. “It’s all small trees and seedlings. Visitors may consider it a forest, but it’s pitiful to forestry professionals. Previously, we transported the timber out of the mountains by train, but the railway became so dilapidated that it was dismantled and sold for recycled iron. Our timber warehouse used to be packed with logs throughout winter even while we worked overtime every day to deliver them around the country. However, now, it is used to store timber transported from elsewhere.”

Over decades of excessive plunder of the natural environment, forest resources saw an increasing decline, and humans are now suffering the consequences. “When I was a child,” a lumberjack recalls, “grouse, pheasants, and roes were often found in the forests. Even large animals like bears weren’t uncommon. But now, along with the decrease of trees, the population of animals living there has also sharply declined.”

 

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