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China’s forests are growing back – but at a cost

  • In 1998, catastrophic flooding spurred China to implement the Natural Forest Conservation Program, with a goal of reforesting 40 million hectares by 2020.
  • Analysis of satellite data indicate the program has had some success, with a 1.6 percent gain in overall tree cover between 2000 and 2010.
  • But now, instead of supplying its own timber products, China is sourcing them from the forests of other countries.

More than a decade ago, China enacted one of the largest forest conservation programs in the world. But has it worked? It has, according to an analysis published recently in Science Advances. However, its authors caution that this success has meant the destruction of other forests around the world.

China is a nation that has been in an upward flux for decades as its economy builds and its residents multiply. One result of this momentum was the razing of large swaths forests to create more farmland to feed its growing populace. With the loss of these forests came losses in the ecosystem services they provided; namely, erosion and flood control. Without tree roots to hold the soil and absorb water, catastrophic floods rocked the country in 1998. Around 4,000 people died, millions were displaced, and the damages amounted to more than $20 billion.

Partly in response to this tragedy, China implemented the Natural Forest Conservation Program (NFCP), aimed at reforesting 40 million hectares by 2020. The country invested heavily in the project, spending $14 billion in its first decade. But little has been known about the efficacy of this policy – at least to the world outside China.

Rainforest reserve in Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

To figure out whether or not the NFCP has worked, researchers from Michigan State University in the U.S. used satellite data to analyze changes in China’s forest cover between 2000 and 2010.

They found that there was indeed more tree cover gained than lost during this period, which correlated to the implementation of the NFCP. In total over the decade, there was a 1.6 percent overall increase in the country’s tree cover compared to a loss of 0.38 percent. It should be noted that tree plantations as well as natural forests figured into this analysis.

Beyond correlation, they suggest patterns of forest regrowth in specific areas indicate tree cover gain was in fact caused by the NFCP.

“This significant relationship suggests that government intervention—in the form of logging bans and monitoring activities to prevent illegal logging—was instrumental in enhancing forest recovery,” the authors write.

Other NFCP-borne projects like the Grain-to-Green Program, which encourages farmers to plant trees on hills too steep to cultivate, along with increased forest management may also have contributed to the uptick in forest regrowth, write the researchers. And China’s trend of rural-to-urban migration may too have played a role.

The benefits of increased forest cover aren’t just felt locally in the form of ecosystem services and biodiversity, write the researchers. There’s also been a big increase in carbon-storing biomass – enough to potentially have an effect on global carbon budgets.

China’s forests are home to many organisms – like this bamboo fungus (Phallus indusiatus) in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

However, the situation may not be a total win. As China has slowed down on its own logging, they’ve stepped up importation of forest products from other countries, becoming one of the world’s biggest timber importers. Data from the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization show China brought in millions of dollars worth of forest products from Southeast Asia, Madagascar, and Russia between 2000 and 2010. Vietnam held the top spot, with $695 million in trade.

“Thus, China’s conservation policy may be exacerbating forest degradation (through both legal and illegal logging) in other regions such as Southeast Asia, Africa, and Northern Eurasia from which China has been importing forest and agricultural products,” the authors write.

They recommend conservation programs like China’s NFCP take into consideration the possible impacts they may have in other countries – especially those whose forests hold high levels of biodiversity.

“A systems approach that simultaneously considers the tradeoffs and synergies among conservation, production, and consumption in both importing and exporting countries is urgently needed to address these challenges,” they write.

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