Over four decades, China has been at the forefront of global afforestation and reforestation (A/R) efforts to restore degraded landscapes and increase vegetation cover. With several mega-forest-restoration programs that are considered the most ambitious programs ever undertaken, China has sought to address environmental degradation, including extensive desertification, flooding, soil erosion, dust storms and, more recently, the loss of biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions. Between 2000-17, China alone accounted for 25 percent of the global net increase in canopy area with only 6.6 percent of global vegetated area. A/R programs cover all major river valleys and plains along the coastline and in the steep western mountains, while desertification control projects are mainly located in the northwest regions.
Learning from mistakes: shifting from timber production to natural forest conservation
The longest running A/R project in China is the multi-decade Three Norths Shelterbelt Development Program – also known as the “Great Green Wall”. It was initiated in 1978 to plant more than 36 million hectares of forests by reforesting farmlands and pastures, and afforesting barren land until 2050 to fight desertification and provide income from timber in northern China. According to government data, the program afforested 26.5 million hectares, however, it suffered from a number of design flaws. Tree survival in the project area was low – according to some authors as low as 15 percent –  and until 2000, desertification continued to increase. Moreover, the project expanded plantations into unsuitable areas and tree species were mismatched with the local conditions, depleting ground water and leading to poor growth of planted trees and decreased natural vegetation.
In 1998, the Natural Forest Conservation Program (NFCP) was launched in response to large floods that led to 3,600 people’s deaths, destroyed the homes of 13.2 million people and caused an estimated 36 USD billion in property damage. The floods were exacerbated by the shortage of trees that were previously deforested for agriculture. To address widespread environmental degradation, the government shifted its forest policy away from timber production and towards forest conservation and restoration. The NFCP promoted natural forest conservation, reducing timber harvests from natural forests, and increasing tree cover in suitable regions with indigenous and ecologically suitable tree species. To achieve these policy goals, the government applied a mixture of policy instruments including expanding natural forest reserves, reforming the national land tenure, and paying farmers in cash and grain for planting trees. The program covered 25 provinces in all regions of the country except provinces in the southeastern region.
Poverty alleviation through reforestation
As part of the NFCP, the Conversion of Cropland to Forest Program (CCFP) or “Grain-to-Green Program” was designed to convert cropland and shrubland on mountainous terrain that was susceptible to erosion back into forested landscapes, and to increase vegetation cover by afforesting barren lands, and was expanded to target poverty alleviation through grain and cash subsidies. Under the program, the State Forestry Administration allocates A/R quotas to provincial governments who then allocate them to the counties responsible for fulfilling the targets and assessing tree survival, which are part of the evaluation of county governments’ and mayors’ annual performance. The project links villages to the central government, and coordinates several sectors like forestry, agriculture, water, and the finance at the national and local levels.
Farmers participation in the program is voluntary and is incentivized through the provision of seedlings, grain subsidy, and annual cash stipend based on the extent of the afforested or reforested area. Payment of subsidies is conditional to a 75 percent survival rate of the planted trees, which is annually inspected by the county forestry officers. Farmers receive payments directly in their bank accounts, which has promoted the modernization of household finances and use of digital banking technologies. Furthermore, after the first three to four years of the program, households were provided with forestland use rights certificates thus making tenure reform a crucial element of the A/R program, and encouraging participation and compliance among farmers.
The Program is implemented in two rounds: the first one stretching from 1999-2015 and the second from 2014-20. Round one was implemented in two phases (1999-2007 and 2008-15). The first phase included an initial three-year pilot phase, compensation for conversion of crop land into forest included one-time cash for seedlings, annual grain subsidies, and a living allowance, in addition to an annual cash stipend. These were paid for each hectare of planted forest and for a duration of eight years for ecological forests (e.g. non-commercial timber trees) and five years for economic forests (e.g. fruit trees). The grain subsidy was scrubbed after the first phase of the first round; and in the second round (2014-20), annual allowance and stipends were paid for five years for tree plantations and three years for grassland.
“In the first 15 years of the Conversion of Cropland to Forest Program, the Chinese government reported the establishment of 28.2 million hectares of new forests on former cropland and wasteland.”
In the first 15 years of its implementation, the Chinese government reported that the CCFP forested 28.2 million hectares[a] of cropland and wasteland, including 9.06 million hectares of cropland with limited potential for food production, and afforested 16.5 million hectares of barren or waste land. By 2014, the program covered an area larger than Ecuador and had become one of the largest rural development programs in the country with more than USD 50 billion in government investment. The tree survival rates were at 60 to 70 percent. The program has significantly increased tree cover and aboveground biomass sequestering an estimated 198.5 million tons of carbon dioxide by 2010, and has had considerable success in achieving its two primary goals: soil retention and flood mitigation. It is the largest “Payment for Ecosystem Services” program on A/R in the world in terms of scale and investment. It covers 32 million rural households in 25 provinces, providing both direct compensation to households and village-level development assistance. By 2020, the Program intents to reforest and restore an additional 2.83 million hectares of marginal cropland, shrub, and grassland.
Setting biodiversity and ecosytem enhancement as reforestation goals
However, as most planted forests are monocultures or simple mixed forests, their impacts on ecosystem function and biodiversity vary across the regions, with localized trade-offs such as reduced water yield or biodiversity. For example, in arid areas with low rainfall in the northern region, afforestation reduced the soil moisture and led to a depletion of water resources, mainly because planted trees were not suitable to local ecological conditions. In the south of China, reforestation with monocultures has led to loss of biodiversity, but in mixed forests, it has resulted in moderately improved biodiversity although much lower when compared to biodiversity in native forests. In response, managers of the project have begun planting more shrubs and trees that are native to the region. And in some regions, they have also started to develop new plantations that mimic the structure of natural forests to increase the resilience of the established ecosystem. The government also plans to plant more mixed forests across the country to improve biodiversity.
The CCFP has had positive impact on the livelihood of the participant households. It has increased household income through the subsidies and indirect employment. Participating in the program increased farmers’ total income by 11.7 percent on average, and that of the poorest farmers by 24.7 percent. It also diversified sources of household income with increased income from sale of fruits, retail businesses, and formal employment.
In summary, there is evidence that suggests a substantial increase in forest cover and associated carbon stocks, reduced risk of soil erosion, and increased household incomes because of the CCFP implementation. But these impacts vary across regions and there are localized trade-offs like water depletion and reduced biodiversity depending on the type of restoration (monocultures vs mixed forest) and because the selection of tree species did not consider the local ecological conditions. Furthermore, the question is whether income from tree products will be enough after the subsidies provided under the project end, or will farmers favor cash crops, putting pressure on the established forests? As the rural economies have transformed in the past 20 years and off-farm opportunities have increased, the hope is that farmers will not revert to the old land-use practices after the A/R programs end and that, together with the forest protection policies and programs already in place, China will sustain the recovered forests.
[a] Differing numbers of forested area have been reported by the government and scientific literature. Results from the systematic literature review of global restoration progress that compiled data from peer reviewed and grey literature put the figure at 9.5 million hectares for the same time period (see findings in Section 3). A peer-reviewed paper is forthcoming.
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Banner photo: Afforestation patches subsidized by the Conversion of Cropland to Forest Program. Red Earth Township, Dongquan County, Yunnan Province, China. Xinjiang barley is growing in the foreground. Photo by Louis Putzel/CIFOR via Flickr.