Science, Tech & Environment

What China's successful reforestation program means for the rest of the world

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Forest recovery was seen particularly in mountain regions, including the Min Mountains pictured here, and in areas that had previously been cut down by logging companies. (Photo: Andrés Viña)

After major flooding in 1998, China introduced the Natural Forest Conservation Program, a logging ban to help protect against erosion and rapid runoff. A recent study in Science Advances of 10 years of satellite data found significant recovery in some Chinese forests.

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But it's not all good news. Andrés Viña, an author of the paper, says this reforestation is probably shifting deforestation elsewhere.

"They implemented two national programs. One was the Grain to Green program, which is basically to reconvert agricultural fields in steep slopes into forests. And the other is the natural forest conservation program which is, in a sense, a logging ban to prevent deforestation and also to increase the aerial forests,” Viña says. “At regional scales, in the Sichuan province, the program seems to be working in the sense that there is forest regeneration, forest recovery. And so we wanted to see if that was the case on a national scale. And we also wanted to see if the program was, in fact, related with this regeneration.”

China’s conservation policies banned logging and employed locals as park rangers, protecting forests so that they could regrow. The recovery of a forest in the Min Mountains, Sichuan Province, is pictured here. (Photo: Andrés Viña)

Viña's research revealed that many of China's forests had in fact experienced regrowth over the last 10 to 15 years as a result of China's reforestation programs. Some 1.6 percent of China exceeded a net gain in forest cover, with a large chunk of the gains covering some 61,000 square miles in central China. Forest fires and other problems destroyed over 14,000 square miles of forest, meaning the total net gain for China was about 46,000 square miles. 

China's reforestation initiatives, in other words, have been a huge success. But Viña says this isn't necessarily a good thing. China, as it turns out, is just looking elsewhere to get the lumber products it needs. 

“China has become one of the leading timber importers in the world,” Viña says. “It's Southeast Asia, Vietnam, Indonesia, as well as Africa, northern Eurasia, Russia are the ones that are now supplying all the gap that has been left by this program enacted. In a sense, the program exported the deforestation, and we basically also speculate that it's not just a climate issue, but also a biodiversity issue, because many of the places that are being deforested right now are also places of high biodiversity. We are replacing high biodiversity places in other places for relatively poor biodiversity forests in China.”

Satellites tracked forest cover and regrowth from 2000-2010 in the study, “Effects of conservation policy on China’s forest recovery,” published in Science Advances. (Photo: Viña et al. Sci. Adv. 2016)

Viña believes the deforestation issue in China and elsewhere is a global problem. As a result, the entire globe needs to contribute to a solution. 

“We as consumers with user consumption habits and user consumption rates basically encourage China to participate in things like sustainable timber production certification. A lot of that timber that is imported is used to produce furniture, for example. But then is exported again to countries like the US and countries in Europe, etc. So, indirectly, we are contributing to this export of deforestation. ... What we do in one place will have repercussions beyond that particular place,” Viña says. “Thinking of China as a vacuum, it's a win for China, but how much a reality in terms of climate change mitigation this program is accruing is still a question mark.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Living on Earth with Steve Curwood