Forests and Floods

From 1998 onwards, China’s forestry sector shifted it mandate drastically: from maximum timber production to a strategy of forest ecosystem conservation and restoration. The essence of the new strategy lay in its focus on the roles of forests in ecological safety, as well as a recognition of the scarcity of natural forests (Song and Zhang 2010). By 1998, China’s forest volume per capita was one-eighth of the global average, covering only 14% of the country’s territory (Harkness 1998).  

In 1998, China witnessed a catastrophic flood on the Yangtze River that caused $30 billion in damages (FAO 2005). Unusually excessive rainfall from June to August across central and South China. Five million hectares of precious cropland were completely inundated. The official death toll was 3,600. Thirteen point two million people were rendered homeless (Glantz and Ye 2003). The government publicly acknowledged that past environmental policies had contributed to the severity of flooding by encouraging deforestation and reclamations of sloping riverbanks for agriculture (Song and Zhang 2010).

From late June to early September of 1998, torrential rains persisted in the Yangtze River basin. Deforestation had exposed the sloping riverbanks to the direct impact of raindrops, which eroded the soil considerably. The resulting rocky soil compromised the water-retention capacity of the watershed: rather than being absorbed into the earth, the water travelled down the slopes and into the growing river (Cao et al. 2011). A forested terrain in central China will lose no more than a few tones of topsoil per hectare annually, a clear cut slope will lose more than 30, or even 50 tons per hectare annually, and in North China’s erodible Loess Plateau, the rate may easily pass 100 tones per hectare per year (Cao et al. 2011).   

Throughout the 1990’s, eroded land continued to increase by more than 10,000 square kilometers every year; by the end of the decade, 38% of China’s land area was considered badly eroded (Zhang et al. 2000). Accelerated soil run-off from the mountainous areas at the head of the Yangtze caused sedimentation in the middle and lower reaches of the river, raising the level of the water far higher than normal. The most vulnerable areas were the low-lying basins surrounding the Dongting and Poyang Lakes in Hubei and Jiangxi provinces. The storage capacity of these drainage lakes had been reduced to half of their 1954 capacity due to land reclamations (Smil 2004).  

By the time of the Yangtze flood, the Chinese economy had been growing considerably for two decades, which allowed the government to invest heavily in forestry. Eighty-five billion dollars were allocated to Six Key Forestry programs, with the goal of increasing the forest cover by 26% in 2050 (Xu et al. 2001). These scale of these programs were unprecedented; they covered 97% of China’s territory, and sought to restore, conserve and commercially develop China’s forest, focusing on ecologically sensitive regions such as the Yangtze and Yellow River catchments (G. Wang et al. 2007). China invested more in forestry between 2000 and 2007 than it did in the preceding fifty years, resulting in 76 million hectares of afforested land (G. Wang et al. 2008).

The ten year program, launched in 2000, marked a major reorientation in Chinese forestry policy from timber production to a strategy of resource and ecosystem conservation and restoration (Démurger et al. 2009). Forestry policy aimed to restore, conserve, expand and develop forest ecosystems in state-owned northeastern and southwestern forests (Zhang et al. 2011) and in ecologically sensitive areas. Soil and water protection became a priority, and marginal, sloping cropland was to reconverted to forested or grass lands. Similarly, desertification was to be halted through the Western China Development Initiative, while afforestation under the Three Norths Shelter Belt project would continue (Wang et al. 2004). Timber production was to be shifted entirely to fast-growing high-yield timber forest plantations in the South, and a moratorium on timber harvesting in natural forests was declared (G. Wang et al. 2008). Nature reserves would be expanded for ecological restoration and for maintaining biodiversity (Wang et al. 2004). The Ministry of Forestry, granted a mandate in 1984, was downgraded to the State Forestry Administration, reflecting its reduced scope of work: namely the preservation of forest related values and attributes, and afforestation of barren hills and sandy land (Wang et al. 2004). 

Eleven point six billion dollars were allocated towards the National Forest Protection Program (NFPP) in 2000 (Trac et al. 2007), following a countrywide forest inventory and the development of locally focused forest management strategies (Zhang et al. 2000). The NFPP applied to 18 provinces and autonomous regions (Zhang et al. 2000), and affected 734 counties and 167 forest industry bureaus within those provinces (G. Wang et al. 2008). The NFPP banned logging on 30 million hectares of natural forest on the upper reaches of the Yangtze, Yellow and Songhua Jiang Rivers (Yeh 2013). Two million hectares of mountain land were closed off to grazing, logging and firewood collection (Yeh 2013). This had a considerable effect on the subsistence farming communities dependent on forest resources for fuel and construction materials. And yet, it was these communities who had to shoulder the economic cost of the reforestation: exchanging income from crop yields and livestock by converting agricultural and grazing land to forest for the Sloping Land Conversion Program.  

In order to restore the functions of riverine forest ecosystems, $40.6 billion were allocated to the Sloping Land Conversion Program (SLCP), which officially started in 2002 (Song and Zhang 2010). The SLCP was the largest land retirement program in the developing world (Bennet and Xu 2006). The nation-wide program attempted to return 14.67 million hectares of sloping agricultural lands to forests and grasslands in 25 provinces (Trac et al. 2007). In southwest China, slopes greater than 25 degrees and in  the northwest those over 15 degrees, were to be converted. In addition, 17 million hectares of wasteland were also to be afforested (Yeh 2013). The SLCP also proposed an additional soft goal of afforesting a roughly equal area of wasteland by 2010 (Bennet and Xu 2006).

Eighty percent of the afforested area was designated for ecological forests for timber production. Because of national grain surpluses, farmers planting commercial forests for timber harvesting were compensated with saplings, grain and cash subsidies for eight years (Bennet and Xu 2006). Economic forests, comprised of fruit trees, would bring in five years’ of compensation, while converted grasslands would bring in two. While planting was incentivized, forest management and protection were not (Li et al. 2013). 

In 2004, concerns regarding diminishing grain resources compelled the government to replace grain subsidies with equivalent cash compensation. In 2007, the State Council extended subsidies for a second period, however subsidies were eventually halved and the program expansion was halted. Food security became a primary concern as farmland was increasingly giving way to urban development (Xu et al. 2006). With the end of the state-sponsored program in 2010, a total of 27.7 million hectares of cultivated land had been converted to forest in 25 provinces (Li et al. 2013). In addition, soil erosion had been controlled across an area of 445 thousand hectares and sediment into the Yangtze reduced by 46% (Li et al. 2013). However, subsistence communities no longer benefited from converting sloping agricultural land to forest, and many participating farmers reconverted their lands after program period ended in 2010 (Cao et al. 2011). 

Like the reforestation policies of Mao’s era, the SLCP, the NFPP and even the Great Green Wall  have all favored a centrally designed approach focusing on magnitude and speed (Trac et al. 2007).  While the Central Government has been providing major funding for tree planting, local governments lack the funds to implement them effectively (G. Wang et al. 2007). Continued stewardship by local governments can also by compromised due to unavailable funds on the local level (G. Wang et al. 2007). On the local level, only cursory attention has been given to capacity building of locals and monitoring of actual success (Xu et al. 2000). This has affected farmers’ ability to get compensation, as payment was rewarded for meeting targets and rather than participation: local communities were not consulted in the process, and so the program’s targets were often unreasonable (Trac et al. 2007). 

Moreover, the needs of local people in some areas affected by the NFPP had not been properly addressed, resulting is low compensation for losses taken (Wang et al. 2004). Few farmers considered planting trees to be a long term priority, and many planned to reconvert forested and grasslands to farm and range land once the government subsides end (Cao et al. 2010). Still, some studies have demonstrated that socioeconomic changes associated with the SLCP have been profound and multi-lateral, potentially transforming rural income structures from subsistence farming by providing farmers with the ability to be mobile (Xu et al. 2000).  

While focusing on protection and natural restoration, the NFPP had failed to integrate ecosystem management into its mandate, affecting the sustainability, biodiversity considerations and ecosystem functionality of some regions where the program was in effect (Xu et al. 2000). The government policy did not stipulate the native tree species were to be planted. Rather, dense planting of fast-growing exotic tree species was encouraged by Chinese foresters who preferred tree species such as larch, poplar and Chinese fir (Zhang et al. 2000). 

Selected on the basis of sapling availability rather than geographic specifications, some species could not grow successfully in more arid regions (Cao et al. 2011). In regions with inadequate precipitation, groundwater sources risked becoming depleted with the expansion of monoculture afforestation utilizing tree species with a low water-use efficiency. The high transpiration rate of many fast-growing species often led to soil desiccation, with the water-stressed trees becoming more vulnerable to disease and insects (Cao et al. 2010). This reduction in soil moisture was compounded a reduction in sunlight due to an expanding canopy, ultimately proving detrimental to native grasses. The removal of understory vegetation—part of the planting method to reduce competition—meant that water and soil erosion were still hard to control, in spite of the tree planting (Cao et al. 2010).

In spite of the critique, the NFPP has been the first indication of a political and economic commitment by the Chinese central government to reverse deforestation, and indicates an important shift in the core of forestry policy, from timber harvesting and forestry management towards ecological protection and restoration (G. Wang et al. 2008). Locally, the NFPP has resulted in an improvement in forest resources and ecosystems. Annual monitoring by the State Forestry Administration shows that forest area, standing stock and forest cover have increased in areas protected under the NFPP, while biodiversity has also improved (Zhang et al. 2011). Timber harvesting in natural forests was reduced from 32 million cubic meters in 1997 to 29 million cubic meters in 1998, to 23 million cubic meters in 1999 (Zhang et al. 2000). By 2000, the timber harvests were reduced by 30% (Zhang et al. 2011).

From 2000 onwards, the strict implementation of the logging ban has been progressively relaxed. While ecological forests remain duly protected, commercial forests have been opened to managed logging activity which does not compromise ecological integrity of forestland (Démurger et al. 2009). As result, by 2009, the State Forest Administration has reported an increase is national timber production to 52 million cubic meters in 2004 (Démurger et al. 2009). Unreported timber production above the state harvest quota has also been on the rise; the sixth forestry inventory, which coincided with the implementation of the NFPP, estimated an above-quota harvest of 75.54 million cubic meters (Démurger et al. 2009), 40 million cubic meters of above quota timber was harvested in Yunnan alone (Yang et al. 2004). The seventh forestry industry stated an above quota harvest of 67.76 million cubic meters (Perez-Garcia 2012).

Harvest trends between natural and planted forests, and state and collective forests, however, have changed significantly due to the NFPP (Démurger et al. 2009). Timber plantations have alleviated much of the pressure on natural forests through the development of an alternate forest base. Today, China possesses the largest land area dedicated to tree plantations in the world (Démurger et al. 2009). The first forest inventory after the NFPP was instituted, the Sixth National Survey of Forestry Resources, demonstrated that the total area of forest plantations was 53 million hectares, with an increase in forest cover 16.6% to 18.2%, and an increase in forest stock volume from 11.57 billion cubic meters to 12.46 billion cubic meters (G. Wang et al. 2008). The Conversion of Cropland to Forest Program (CCFP) has converted 8.8 million hectares of cropland to forest by offering monetary compensation to farmers for planting trees in place of crops (G. Wang et al. 2007). In the Yangtze and Yellow River catchements, an additional 8.7 million hectares of forest were established (G. Wang et al. 2008). Soil erosion had been reduced by 4.1 million hectares by 2006, representing a 4.1% an annual reduction of 4.1% (G. Wang et al. 2007).   

The northeastern provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin and Eastern Mongolia possess the largest state-owned forests and possesses the highest concentration of state-owned forest enterprises (Zhang et al. 2011). Under the NFPP, this region, which consists of 80-90% natural forest, benefitted from the prohibition of human intervention to assist natural recovery, protection under forest patrols, an increase in afforestation and the resettlement of forest enterprise staff to alleviate the harvest burden on the forests. A decrease in harvest volumes has been determined at 35 sampled State Forest Farms in the northeast since the 1998 implementation of the NFPP (Zhang et al. 2011). Between 1997 and 2006, the forest area in the sampled farms increased by 13.42%, while the standing stock volume increased by 17.93% (Zhang et al. 2011).  Timber production, moreover, has been reduced from 18.24 million cubic meters in 1997 to 11.26 million cubic meters in 2005 (G. Wang et al. 2008). 

As the NFPP potentially affects two-thirds of China’s land area, it therefor plays an important role not only to China’s forestry industry, but to the global environment (Xu et al. 2000). The NFPP thus brought significant changes to the previously high and stagnant rate of global wood removal. 98 million hectares of land of forest are now under protection because of the NFPP (G. Wang et al. 2007). In 2005, the FAO reported a considerable drop in wood remove in East Asia for the first time in fifteen years (FAO 2006). Asian forests have transformed from an annual loss of 800,000 hectares to an annual increase of one million hectares due China’s afforestation policies (Zhang et al. 2011). The NFPP also introduced new silviculture and harvest methods, including selective cutting and released thinning, both of which improved forest growth (Zhang et al. 2010). Little attention, however, has been given to ensure the long term stewardship of reforested land (Song and Zhang 2010). 

Forestry in China faces the particular challenge of balancing environmental security with economic growth and a growing demand for forest products both inside and outside of its borders (G. Wang et al. 2007). As the largest exporter of furniture in 2006, and with a growing middle class, the demand for  timber in China has been on the rise (G. Wang et. al 2007). In order to address the need for sustainability assurances, in 2006 China began the development of the China Forest Certification Scheme (G. Wang et. al 2007). In 2014, the compliance standards set by the CFCS were acknowledged and endorsed by PEFC, an international third party organization promoting sustainable forest management. China is the second Asian country whose Forest Certification standards are in compliance with the internationally recognized PEFC Sustainability Benchmarks. 

While China has taken steps towards safeguarding forests within its borders, the growing demand for wood has also been met, in part, through an increase in imported wood (Lang 2002). In 1999, tariffs on log imports were removed, resulting in China being the greatest importer of industrial logs (FAO 2004). This has led to severe environmental degradation in supplying countries, namely the Russian far east, Malaysia and Indonesia, due to unsustainable practices and illegal logging (Démurger 2009).

The change in forest cover is considered to be closely related to a country’s economic status. Forest cover in a developing nation only increases when the economy grows at a higher GDP. This non-linear development of forest and economic growth has been widely acknowledged as the environmental Kuznet’s curve (Song and Zhang 2010). The overall forest cover in China cannot be attributed to provincial economic development, but to the central government’s mandate for reforestation. Forest cover expansion, however, risks coming to a halt were the government funding to cease as well (Song and Zhang 2010).

For now, China is looking towards greater individual and corporate participation, and incorporating private sector partnerships into previously government managed forestry activity (G. Wang et al. 2007). Separate sustainable forest management systems are to be developed for ecological and commercial forests, and the former are to be protected from conversion into other land use (G. Wang et al. 2007). Although the local and central governments will remain the authority behind regional planning, zoning and policy directions, locals will be consulted more in developing forest management strategies (G. Wang et al. 2007). Carbon eco-compensation are to be integrated into forest stewardship practices, making reforestation in China a more sustainable practice for the future.