The Growing Pains of China's Massive Reforestation Project

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Panda's delight: Newly planted bamboo forests are a boon for China's national animal. For other forms of native wildlife, not so much. . (Photo: tefl search /flickr)

China will gladly accept any superlative you throw at it these days, applicable to pretty much anything: longest, fastest, tallest, biggest, baddest, most expensive, even weirdest. And now China can also lay claim to a new title: the largest reforestation project.

Launched in 1999, the Grain-for-Green program is nothing short of remarkable. Over the last decade alone, the Chinese government has spent $100 billion replanting trees across large swaths of land where, once upon a time, forests were cleared to make way for agricultural operations. Covering more than 1,600 counties spread across 25 provinces, municipalities and regions, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) notes that the effort has impacted a staggering 15 million households and 60 million farmers.

About 70 million acres of land — a combined area roughly the size of New York and Pennsylvania — has been converted to forest though Grain-for-Green. And there’s more to come. As the Christian Science Monitor reports, Premier Li Keqiang recently announced plans to convert a swath of farmland the size of Delaware back into forests and grasslands.

Places like Hongya County, a rural outpost in the Sichuan province, are now nearly unrecognizable: sylvan, lush and more prosperous than a decade ago.

But what about the farmers? What good does reforestation do for impoverished agrarian communities?

As it turns out, plenty.

Grain-for-Green isn’t just a countrywide tree-planting initiative. The program aims to curb environmental degradation — namely catastrophic flooding — brought on by soil erosion, which was caused by deforestation and the creation of sloped cropland in environmentally sensitive areas. In an effort to alleviate rural poverty, farmers are indeed receiving green — in the form of much-needed grants and subsidies — for allowing their land, much of it barren and unproductive to begin with, to be converted back to forests. Many farmers, though not all, are finding it more financially lucrative to plant trees than to harvest grains.

Almost everyone wins: the environment, the Chinese government and once-destitute, flood-prone rural communities that have benefitted from the seemingly unlimited largesse of the world’s largest reforestation program, which has seen the total amount of forested land across China rise from 17 percent to 22 percent since the effort began.

Flood mitigation and soil retention levels also have climbed significantly.

“I prefer how it is now,” Zhang Xiugui, a 67-year-old grain farmer-turned-cedar tree steward in Hongya County, told the Christian Science Monitor. “The mountains are green and the water is blue.”

Still, native wildlife is one crucial element that hasn’t benefitted under Grain-for-Green. And monoculture — the planting of a single species of plant in lieu of a biodiversity-friendly array of them — is largely to blame.

Reforestation project near Yangtze River, China.
Landslides triggered by heavy rains along the Yangtze River have been a costly and deadly headache for the Chinese government. Reforestation has proven to be an effective solution. (Photo: Leo Fung/flickr)

A sustainability success story ... but where are the birds and the bees?

As numerous critics and experts have pointed out, the size and scale of reforestation under Grain-for-Green is commendable but the program’s early tendency to have farmers plant monoculture forests — bamboo forests, eucalyptus forests and Japanese cedar forests, specifically — is a regrettable misstep.

Before China’s verdant hillsides were razed to give way to cropland during China's Great Leap Forward of the 1950s and '60s, these forests were home to a number of different trees, which, in turn, fostered more biodiversity. These new forests, although impressive in size and carbon sequestering abilities, are failing to attract native animals. The Christian Science Monitor notes that Grain-for-Green forests "provide few habitats for China’s many threatened species of animals and smaller plants."

In fact, a 2012 ecosystem assessment found biodiversity across the country to be on a slight decline, about 3.1 percent. Not a dramatic figure, to be sure, but one that has triggered red flags within the scientific community.

A more recent study published in September 2016 blames the planting of monoculture forests as a leading factor for downward trending biodiversity in China.

“The land under the Grain-for-Green Program is in what’s typically called ‘working landscapes,’ or landscapes which support the livelihood of rural communities,” Hua Fangyuan, the study's lead author and a research fellow at the University of Cambridge, tells the Christian Science Monitor. “Although these landscapes are outside protected areas, there is increasing realization among the conservation community that they serve important roles for biodiversity conservation.”

Studying birds and bees — key indicators of biodiversity — across recently forested tracts of land across the Sichuan province, Hua and her colleagues found cropland to actually be more supportive of biodiversity than the forests replacing it. True monoculture forests with just one species of tree were largely devoid of birds and bees while forests with a small handful of tree species fared a bit better. Bees, however, were more abundant in non-restored farmland than in the forests, even the newly planted mixed forests.

Writes Michael Holtz for the Christian Science Monitor:

The study found that forests planted under the program had 17 to 61 percent fewer bird species than native forests. The reason is most likely that these new forests don't have the diversity of resources, such as food and nesting habitats, necessary to support the ecological needs of many species.

“We call them green deserts,” says Wu Jiawei, a local conservationist and birdwatcher who contributed to the study. “The fear is that some species will disappear and never come back.”

Reforested land In Yunnan Province, China
Millions of acres of barren agricultural land is being converted back to forests by impoverished grain farmers, who receive handsome government subsidies for their efforts. (Photo: eutrophication&hypoxia;/flickr)

'China can do better'

With a lack of biodiversity raising alarms among conservationists and the scientific community, the Chinese government has largely taken to denial and instead redirected attention to the myriad of environmental benefits of Grain-for-Green.

Contradicting numerous studies including the one headed by Hua, an emailed statement provided to the Christian Science Monitor by the State Forestry Administration claims that biodiversity has improved in the areas most dramatically improved/impacted by Grain-for-Green, such as the Sichuan province. The statement makes clear that Grain-to-Green “protects and improves the living environment for wildlife" while noting that monoculture forests that have largely come to define the program were an early oversight and that more recently planted forests contain a diverse array of trees species.

“If the Chinese government is willing to expand the scope of the program, restoring native forests is, without doubt, the best approach for biodiversity," Hua said in a press statement released upon publication of the study. "But even within the current scope of the program, our analysis shows there are economically feasible ways to restore forests while also improving biodiversity."

With China throwing its full weight behind an array of environmental initiatives (an aggressive push toward renewable energy being another) in a large-scale effort to mend its Earth-scarring mistakes of the past and transform itself into what President Xi Jiping calls an “ecological civilization for the 21st century,” many continue to worry that biodiversity concerns will continue to be left in the lurch.

“Now that we have the political will to restore China’s forest landscape, why aren’t we doing it more properly?” ponders Hua. “There is this missed potential. China can do better.”