Saturday, July 14, 2007

From German Oak Trees To Chinese Chopsticks

Chinese Dragon Devours Germany's Forests
Anjana Shrivastava, Writer and Journalist

Germans are afraid of a new kind of Faustian bargain, in which the nation will be tempted by the devil to sell off its forests, thereby selling its very soul down the river as well. In this drama, Germany plays the troubled hero with Europe's largest reserves of the valuable commodity of wood. The role of the devil is played by the ecologically reckless Chinese dragon, hungry to devour all the world's forests.

"From Oak Trees to Chopsticks", is a headline found in the Westfälische Allgemeine Zeitung. The paper tries to measure the potential threat posed by the growing Chinese demand for wood; so far, there are only rumours of imminent Chinese purchases of stretches of the German woods.

The Chinese haven't even touched one tree, but Germany has already set off alarms. Will the good old German forest be sold off? This would involve a sale of souls, if we believe Christoph Rullmann, Director of the Society for the Protection of the German Forest. According to him, very few countries have such an intimate relationship to their woodlands, which he calls "the soul of the Germans."

Wildfire of rumours
The wildfire of rumours began when a North German real estate agent, Matthias Manthey, began to advertise nationally that Chinese investors were highly interested in buying up pieces of the German forest. If he was unspecific on the details, he claimed that his Chinese clients were buying German forests "as the devil may care." Germany's union of forest workers picked up on his story and appealed to the nation to put an end to the sell out before it really got underway.

Private forest owners like Count Carl-Eduard von Bismarck began to issue denials like this one: "A sale of the Saxonian Forest (Schleswig Holstein) to the Chinese was never and is not currently planned." More denials came from state governments like that of Schleswig Holstein, which has been looking to sell off some of its forest lands. Manthey claims that the sales to the Chinese are being made through middle men and stooges. The head of the forest workers' union workers, Bernhard Dierdorf affirmed to the Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung "No forest owner would allow himself to be caught making such a sale, because in Germany the forest is so highly emotionally charged."

Forest is seen as the ancestral home of the nation
Why does selling a piece of forest border on treason? Because it was from the depths of the woods that the Germanic tribes dealt the Roman Empire its first signal defeat in Northern Europe at the Battle of the Teutoburger Forest in the year 9 A.D. In many nations the woods have been considered the home of lowly robbers mainly; in England the greenwood was the home of liberty in the form of Robin Hood and his band of merry men. But in Germany, the forest was seen as the ancestral home of the entire nation.

The feelings run very deep in the popular mind. A reader of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung sees these reports of a forest sell off as a "sell out of ourselves, our identity, and everything for which our ancestors have fought and suffered."

It is one thing when German forest owners sell their wood to China: one third of German wood exports goes to China, including oak in ever greater quantities. Germany, after all, is an export economy par excellence. But it is another thing when foreign investors, especially ones as "foreign" as the Chinese, buy the living woods and propose to manage them.

Various worries
The various worries which have been expressed are that the Chinese will not replant the trees they chop down, or that they will replant with them with a monoculture of fast-growing pine trees. Or that they will not take care of the hiking trails through the forest, or even that they will charge admission to Germans to enter their ancestral groves. That Chinese investors will theoretically be bound by the same laws as German forest owners today is not enough for many Germans, who have seen traditional regulations give way to the rules of the market in other areas of German life in recent years.

Sales of the forest is a matter of national (emotional) security, as if they could place the national soul at the disposal of strangers. The taz argues in this manner: "It is not only the forest workers who are deeply disturbed. This is about the spiritual ground of the German soul, bought up and slaughtered for cheap imports from abroad?"

Indeed the vast majority of what China buys up in wood gets sold back to the West as finished goods, as cheap imports. Thus, the guilt of selling the wood is more or less compounded by the guilt of buying it back later. In Goethe's "Faust" the devil promises to fulfill the desires of Faust in this world in exchange for Faust's soul in the afterlife. Is it really the Chinese who threaten the German woods, or is it developments in Germany itself? The Financial Times Deutschland tries to downplay the Chinese threat in: "Red Scare for the Green Wood".

German forest is unattractive for investors
"It is highly arguable whether German forests would really be interesting for investors given their ownership structure. About 46 % of the forests are privately owned, all the rest are owned by federal, state and local governments. The private forests are mainly small, under 30 hectares. Those are completely unattractive dimensions for investors, according to the associations of forest owners. And state and local governments will hardly be interested in selling to investors, given the public outcry which would surely ensue."

The threat to the forest is for the taz a central problem for modern Germany, "In all this chaos, the German forest endures peacefully, it could continue to do so for many hundreds of years. To simply cut it down for quick money, --well, a better image for the insanity of unbridled capitalism could hardly be found." And with that comes the other Faustian dimension in this story. Dr. Faustus spoke of his deep conflicts by claiming that he had two souls in his breast, one that clung to nature and one which strove to overcome it.

Germany today also has two souls, a capitalist one which still strives to compete as an exporter with the Chinese dragon, and an anti-capitalist one which resists the effects of globalization. The capitalist soul powers the modern industries of Baden Württemberg and Bavaria, The anti-capitalist one, as we have just seen at the protests at Heiligendamm, will take up its issue in the woods, in the very heart of the oldest of national myths. Stay tuned for more conflict.