From the frying pan into the fire: natural forests lost as tree cover increases in China

A national program designed to improve ecosystem services in China is, in reality, replacing natural forests with monoculture plantations. This is according to an article by Zhai et al in Regional Environmental Change. Under current Chinese policy, plantations and natural forests fall under one definition: Forest. If a proper distinction is not made between plantations and natural forests, programs designed to improve ecosystem services and forest quality may actually end up threatening biodiversity and ecological function in many of China’s forests.



China has invested billions of dollars in reforestation and payments for ecosystem service (PES) programs to protect biodiversity and improve environmental conditions. But are these investments yielding desired results?

Although China’s tropical areas still suffer from deforestation and plantation expansion, the country has gone from net forest loss to net forest gain—primarily due to reforestation programs such as the Sloping Land Conversion Program (SLCP). By end-2008, through the SLCP, about 170,000 ha of forest had been replanted in Hainan Island, the largest tropical island in China. However, a 2011 Greenpeace report found that in the same period, a quarter (72,000 ha) of Hainan’s natural tropical rainforest had been destroyed.


Examining open agroforested land. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre

To investigate these conflicting claims researchers, including the World Agroforestry Centre’s Deli Zhai, Jianchu Xu and Edward Grumbine, carried out research that centred around a simple, but key, question: did plantations in Hainan replace degraded or natural areas?

Their research was conducted in the upper Changhua Watershed, south of the Hainan Island, which is one of eight plant conservation hotspots in China. Land-cover was classified natural forests; natural shrub and grasslands; tropical crops; rubber plantations; pulp plantations; and open areas—using landsat and satellite images for 1988, 1995 and 2005.

The study reveals that Hainan Island has indeed undergone a transition from deforestation to net reforestation, but natural forests and natural shrub and grasslands have been replaced by non-native monoculture plantations. Swidden agriculture, one of the most important traditional land-use systems in Southeast Asia has long been held as the main cause of deforestation in Hainan. The SLCP program seems to be changing this dynamic, replacing the relatively diverse and ecologically balanced swidden systems with plantations. Large-scale monoculture plantations have also developed in other Chinese regions during the SLCP with serious ecological consequences. When a national program designed to improve ecosystem services and stabilize marginal lands, instead leads to the replacement of natural forests with monoculture plantations there is cause for concern.

What drives this transition?

Perhaps definition is key. The Chinese government defines rubber and pulp plantations as forests. From a policy perspective, this makes them equivalent to natural forests. Equating plantations with natural forests in forest management policies has also contributed to the conversion of nature reserves, national protected areas and important reservoir areas into monoculture plantations—causing serious environmental problems. The definition issue is not unique to China—it has affected forest dynamics and land-use change in tropical areas worldwide. The government’s definition of natural shrub and grasslands as ‘bare hills’ is also ecologically problematic.

Apart from the definition issue, the study revealed other causal factors:

  • Priorities: 69% of the SLCP lands are controlled by companies and other private investors. Their land-use choices reflect their priorities.
  • Perspective: unlike swidden agriculture lands and natural shrub and grasslands, plantations are assumed to have positive economic and ecological benefits.
  • Pressure: growing Chinese demand for rubber adds conversion pressure on Hainan’s remaining natural forests.

Largely initiated as a response to the 1998 floods in the Yangtze River watershed the SLCP has certainly restored marginal cultivated lands to forests or grasslands, increased forest cover and generally improved ecosystem services. However, although Hainan has been identified as a priority protection area its natural forests are being replaced with monoculture plantations, which spells serious trouble for biodiversity conservation efforts there. The Hainan government plans to increase the island’s forest cover from 60.3 to 62% by 2016, but this may well lead to further loss of natural forests if a number of important issues are not addressed.

Clear distinctions must be made between ‘production forests’ and ‘ecological forests’. A more scientific definition of ‘forest’ must be created to distinguish between profoundly different types of forest. The distinction must take into account species composition and ecosystem function, including contributions to the conservation of biodiversity. Continued use of the current definition will jeopardize tropical natural forests and their associated biodiversity functions. As a key biodiversity hotspot, Hainan’s reforestation and PES plans have major implications for future tropical rainforest conservation—not just in China but several other parts of the world. The costs and benefits of spending billions of dollars on reforestation using non-native species in monoculture plantations should therefore be much more carefully reviewed.


Read the journal article

Zhai D, Xu J, Dai Z, Cannon C, Grumbine RE. 2013. Increasing tree cover while losing diverse natural forests in tropical Hainan, China. Regional Environmental Change 14(2):611-621.



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Landscape management of forested areas for environmental services, biodiversity conservation and livelihoods, which explores the drivers and consequences of forest transition and restoration is a central focus of the CGIAR’s Collaborative Research Project 6 on Trees, Forests and Agroforestry—of which the World Agroforestry Centre is a key partner.'

Rebecca Selvarajah

Rebecca is a science writer, manager of publishing projects, trainer in science writing, and novelist — working partly from Nairobi, Kenya and partly from Morwell, Australia. With over 15 years of experience in writing, advertising/marketing, publishing and social media, she takes on varied assignments, travelling, if needed, to conduct relevant research and interviews. Originally from Sri Lanka, Rebecca holds a BA honours in Psychology, with minors in Gender Studies and Sociology. Email Rebecca on

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