World’s largest reforestation scheme fails to protect natural forests and threatens more

China’s Sloping Land Conversion Program had high ideals but a new study has shown that while it has increased the amount of tree cover it has failed to protect natural forests, say De Li Zhai, Jian Chu Xu, Zhi Cong Dai, Charles H. Cannon and RE Grumbine



Since 1999, in an attempt to protect biodiversity and improve environmental conditions, China has invested more than RMB 298 billion (USD 47.82 billion) in reforestation and ‘payments for ecosystem services’ programs.

The Sloping Land Conversion Program is the largest such program in the world. Initiated primarily as a response to the 1998 floods in the Yangtze River watershed, the Program has restored marginal cultivated lands on sloping land to forests or grasslands, increased forest cover and generally improved ecosystem services.

Early stage of restoration of vegetation on sloping land, China

Early stage of restoration of vegetation on sloping land, China. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre China

However, in our sudy of sites on Hainan Island we found that after 13 years of implementation the Program has had a negative impact on natural forests.

The history of the forests of Hainan Island in the last hundred years is one of deforestation and degradation, regrowth, reforestation and afforestation. Forest cover had fallen to 50% by the beginning of the 1930s, decreased further to 30% by the 1950s, then to 15% at the end of the 1970s.

After that, the trend reversed, with the following couple of decades seeing conservation, reforestation or afforestation. During the 1980s and 1990s, it was estimated that more than 20 000 hectares of land had been rehabilitated. However, it was also found that deforestation had occurred in league with plantation expansion since the 1990s.

From 2002, the central government invested more than RMB 710 million in the Program in Hainan, with nearly 400 000 people involved. By the end of 2008, about 170 000 hectares had been planted, increasing forest cover by 5.2%. However, a recent Greenpeace report found that during this period a quarter (72 000 hectares) of Hainan’s tropical rainforests had been destroyed and natural forest cover had decreased overall.

To investigate these conflicting claims, we used remote sensing and GIS data to investigate changes to different land-use types, especially the conversion of natural forests, shrubs, grasslands and open areas to other vegetation. We wanted to identify what had caused the deforestation and plantation expansion, identifying the underlying factors that might have an impact on Hainan’s remaining tropical rainforests.

We found that rubber and pulpwood plantations had replaced natural forests on sloping land, with pulpwood showing a sharp increase in area from 1988 to 2005. More than 60% of this land-use type replaced natural forests. Rubber plantations and tropical croplands also significantly increased. Natural forests, shrubs and grasslands decreased greatly, with the latter two losing a larger percentage of habitat (65%) and natural forests losing a larger amount (21 603 hectares). Around 22% of natural forests were lost compared to the baseline of 1988. More than 70% of natural shrubs and grasslands were converted into pulpwood plantations.

As well as the ‘top–down’ nature of the Sloping Land Conversion Program causing quota-driven excesses at local government levels, it seemed that the official definition of exotic species—such as rubber, pine, Eucalyptus spp and Acacia spp—as ‘ecological’ forests as well as government subsidies to participants might have changed farmers’ opinion of these exotics. Unlike swidden agriculture and natural shrubs and grasslands, plantations were believed to have more economic and ecological benefits. This belief and the government definition of natural shrubs and grasslands as ‘bare hills’ has been problematic. Equating plantations with natural forests in forest management policies, according to China’s current definition of ‘forest’, is causing serious environmental issues. Rubber and pulpwood plantations are being planted in nature reserves, national protected areas, and important protected watersheds.

Regional market trends in Southeast Asia will put major pressure on natural forests in Hainan. Rubber plantations are likely to expand under new regulations, as smallholders become increasingly involved and the demand for rubber grows. There are also more government subsidies available for rubber and pulpwood planting.

Further, attempting to increase the amount of carbon stock might actually lead to higher carbon emissions if natural forests are replaced.

Establishing a more ecological definition of ‘forest’ should be a priority for future conservation in China. More forests will be degraded and lost under the current definition of ‘forest’ used by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Clean Development Mechanism and the Food and Agriculture Organization.

The ‘forest’ definition in China might also jeopardize its tropical natural forests and associated biodiversity. China’s aim to increase the number of its nature reserves to 2500 by 2050 means that 15–16 reserves must be declared each year. Our study implies that this might not be a cue for rainforest regeneration or restoration of degraded forests but for legal and widespread replacement of natural forests with plantations.

The problem of equating natural forests with plantations goes far beyond China. It has led to the expansion of plantations at the cost of natural forests and is a serious threat to the world’s remaining natural forests. We must not include plantations, comprised of exotic species with their industrial purpose, in the definition of ‘forests’.


Edited by Robert Finlayson


Read the article

Zhai DL, Xu JC, Dai ZC, Cannon CH, Grumbine RE. 2013. Increasing tree cover while losing diverse natural forests in tropical Hainan, China. Regional Environmental Change. Online. DOI 10.1007/s10113-013-0512-9.



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This work is linked to the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry component on Landscape Management for Environmental Services, Biodiversity, Conservation and Livelihoods


Rob Finlayson

Robert Finlayson is the Southeast Asia program's regional communications specialist. As well as writing stories for the Centre's website, he devises and supervises strategies for projects and the countries in the Southeast Asia region, including scripting and producing videos, supervising editors and translators and also assisting with resource mobilization.

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