China’s ambitious Sloping Land Conversion Program has failed to protect natural forests

In what may be called an impedance mismatch, China offers an object lesson in how well-intentioned rules implemented in a top-down fashion can backfire at the local level.

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.

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.

h/t to my old sci.environment compadre Don Libby for this slightly stale but very thought-provoking link

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