Anticipated economic gains key driver of forest transitions in Yunnan, China

Whereas state forest policies were the main drivers of forest transition in the past, private afforestation activities play an increasingly important role in planting of trees on former croplands in Yunnan, China. This is according to a study published by Frayer et al in Land Use Policy. Participants in a state-run programme—and non-participants—both afforested significant areas without compensation or incentive payments, but private afforestation initiatives were more likely to cover areas larger than 0.2 hectares. The study used Bayesian Networks, which combine qualitative knowledge with quantitative data to generate results.

openagroforestryStrict forest protection and massive afforestation campaigns have contributed to a significant increase in China’s forest cover during the last 20 years. A ‘forest transition’ is defined as the change from net deforestation to net reforestation, and can result from several processes including industrialization.

What are the socioeconomic factors leading to forest transitions? The pathways framework, a conceptual approach, categorizes forest transitions based on the pathways that cause them. For example:

  • the economic development pathway where changes in off-farm opportunities lead to forest regrowth;
  • the smallholder intensification pathway where land-use in rural areas shifts from labour-intensive to capital-intensive agricultural production, such as the cultivation of tree products; and
  • the forest scarcity pathway where observed negative environmental impacts from past degradation lead to policies encouraging forest recovery.

The various pathways are not expected to be mutually exclusive. Rather, they emphasize the most important drivers in a given case and enable comparisons across cases. Still, the authors argue that they do not fully explain how forest transitions evolve over time and space, and set out to glean a more in-depth understanding of the drivers of forest transitionmainly by focusing on the differences between state-run afforestation programs and private tree planting activity.

The study used Bayesian networks (BNs) to identify factors that influence farm households to plant trees on former cropland. BNs allow the incorporation of causal relationships in data analysis and can combine qualitative stakeholder knowledge with quantitative data. A survey was conducted of 509 households from 17 villages in Yunnan Province in southwest China, and then completed with expert knowledge and in-depth discussions with land users. The focus was on householdswho to this date have received inadequate attention in studies of forest change in Chinaas major actors of rural change.

How much of the increase in tree cover on former cropland can be attributed to government policies? And to what extent is voluntary tree planting by farmers responsible? Overall research questions were twofold:

  1. What are the main drivers that influence farmers to plant trees on former cropland?
  2. Which of these drivers are the most influential?

The results highlight the importance of government programs in increasing the extent of tree planting on former farmland. However, they also illustrate the recent emergence of private tree planting activities, driven mainly by expectations of high economic returns from trees, reduced availability of farm labour, and more secure forest tenure. In short, the expectations of economic returns from planting trees underpinned many of the changes in land-use decisions in rural Yunnan.

Other findings:

  • Participants in a state-run program and non-participants both afforested significant areas without compensation or incentive payments, but private afforestation initiatives were more likely to cover areas larger than 0.2 hectares.
  • Participants in state forest programs converted most of their larger marginal plots with government support while their smaller plots were planted with trees at a later stage without government support. Non-participants, in contrast, predominantly planted trees on large plots to increase labour efficiency.

The increasing importance of forestry and tree crops for income generation suggests that significant conversion of afforested areas back to cropland after compensation ends is an unlikely scenario. A better understanding of the underlying causes of the tree cover transition in Yunnan can help guide land-use policy. Like most Chinese forest transition, the study area was found to be deficient in its ecological quality, with the vast part of increases in tree cover being made up of trees either for timber or, more often, fruit. The lack of ecosystem value of the Chinese tree cover transition calls for improvements in land-use planning to improve ecological outcomes and restore ecological integrity.

Read the full paper here.

Frayer J., Sun Z., Müller D., Munroe D. K., Xu J. 2014. Analysing the drivers of tree planting in Yunnan, China, with Bayesian networks. Land Use Policy 36 p. 248-258

Climate change adaptation and mitigation, which considers how forests, trees and agroforestry can play a role in climate change mitigation and also how they can help people adapt to climate change  is a key 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

You may also like...