STANFORD (US) — Planting trees instead of crops on sloping lands in China is preventing erosion from rain and has the added bonus of helping some farmers make economic gains.
“The Sloping Land Conversion Program, which began in 2000 after massive flooding caused in part by land clearing, focuses on China’s largest source of soil erosion and flood risk—farms on steep slopes,” says Gretchen Daily, professor of biology at Stanford University, and aims to return more than 37 million acres of cropland back to forest or grassland.
The government pays villagers in varying amounts of cash and rice to give up farming and find new sources of employment.
“It’s a tremendously innovative program designed to address two critical problems—securing the environment and providing economic opportunities for people in rural, desperately poor areas,” Daily says.
The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The Natural Capital Project has developed a software tool called InVEST that is helping the Chinese government decide where to focus conservation and restoration efforts, based on the potential return-on-investment for society in the form of ecosystem services like water purification and biodiversity conservation.
“We can think of these life-support services as flowing from natural capital, like forests and wetlands, which provide very tangible, financially valuable services,” says Daily. “Forests soak up tremendous amounts of water, filter it and release it gradually into rivers and streams that we use for drinking water, hydroelectric power, and growing crops.” In many ways, the environment can help mitigate damage from floods and even human disasters, like oil spills.
China’s land conversion program has its roots in the late 1960s, when farmers in the mountainous western provinces began clearing vast stretches of land to make way for more crops.
The increased agricultural production helped feed a growing nation but also caused problems when in 1998 record monsoons pelted the region causing soil from the agricultural fields to wash down the mountain slopes, killing thousands of people in the villages below.
The damage prompted China to reconsider replacing forests with farms, especially in steeply sloping terrain. In 2000, the government launched a campaign to reforest the countryside and established several large-scale programs to help farmers in the western provinces find new work in surrounding cities.
The new study is one of the first to assess whether the government’s effort has reached its twin objectives of improving the environment and lifting people from poverty in rural mountain regions.
A passing grade
Ecologically speaking, the program has been clearly successful helping to decrease soil erosion by as much as 68 percent in some areas.
But economically, the benefits have been less pronounced, according to Jie Li of Xi’an Jiaotong’s School of Public Policy and Administration in China who analyzed the response to survey questions posed to 929 villagers in the western provinces.
On average, families that participated in the program reported doing better financially than those who did not, but some farm workers had trouble finding new work.
Households that profited most did so by sending a husband-and-wife team into the city to earn money as unskilled laborers. The wages they earned in the city combined with the government subsidy easily topped what they had earned as farmers. But not all families were able to send both parents to the city, because they had no one to care for children while they were away.
“In many cases, it came down to whether or not the grandparents lived with the family and were available to look after the couple’s one, maybe two, children,” says study co-author Marc Feldman, professor of biology.
The researchers’ evaluation of the sloping land conversion program has provided feedback to the Chinese government that will be used to fine-tune the system for calculating subsidy payments in the future, Daily says. For example, some families may require bigger subsidies or other assistance, like special permission to enroll their children in city schools where they work.
“It’s highly unusual for any government to check the effectiveness of a program like this so rigorously,” said Daily. “We’re fortunate to have an opportunity to evaluate an operation of this magnitude and learn lessons for other parts of the world.”
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