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China’s new forests aren’t necessarily green

When most of Asia is cutting down its forests, China stands apart. In the last two decade the massive country has gained over 30 percent forest cover. However, a new opinion piece in Nature by Jianchu Xu, with the World Agroforestry Centre and the Kunming Institute of Botany, argues that China’s growing forest is not what it appears to be. The problem, according to Xu, is that the statistics of forest cover include monoculture plantations.

“Most of [the gain in forests] results from the increase in tree crops such as fruit trees, rubber and eucalyptus, not recovery of natural forest, yet Chinese data do not record this shift. The change threatens ecosystem services, particularly watershed protection and biodiversity conservation,” Xu writes.

A number of studies have shown that monoculture plantations are losers in terms of biodiversity conservation and carbon sequestration over natural forests. In China, Xu says some landowners have taken to cutting down natural forests and replacing them with plantations, but such environmental degradation is not reflected in the data.

“Since 2008, forest tenure reform has encouraged the privatization of former collective forests, with more than 100 million hectares affected. Privatization can benefit local economies. But in the absence of any management framework, it has also promoted conversion of natural forests into plantations: smallholders often fell natural forests for immediate income, then plant monoculture tree crops for long-term investment,” Xu explains.

China’s reforestation project is not without positive results however. A study this year found that tree planting on the eroded banks of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers had decreased erosion by up to 68 percent in some areas. Landslides linked to massive deforestation killed nearly 400 people in the region in 1998. Participants in this program received subsidies for foregoing farming on the land.

Still to safeguard ecosystem services, Xu recommends that China employ the best science possible in its tree-planting initiatives with a focus on payments for restoring natural forests, not planting artificial ones. In addition, he writes, the rural poor should be aided in planting industry trees within farmland.

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