Hua, F., L. Wang, B. Fisher, X. Zheng, X. Wang, D.W. Wu, Y. Tang, J. Zhu, D.S. Wilcove
China is credited with undertaking some of the world’s most ambitious policies to protect and restore forests, which could serve as a role model for other countries. However, the actual environmental consequences of these policies are poorly known. Here, the authors combine remote-sensing analysis with household interviews to assess the nature and drivers of land-cover change in southwestern China between 2000–2015, after China’s major forest protection and reforestation policies came into effect. The authors found that while the region’s gross tree cover grew by 32%, this increase was entirely due to the conversion of croplands to tree plantations, particularly monocultures. Native forests, in turn, suffered a net loss of 6.6%. The pursuit of profit from agricultural or forestry production along with governmental encouragement and mobilization for certain land uses – including tree planting – were the dominant drivers of the observed land-cover change. The authors also found that households’ lack of labor or financial resources, rather than any policy safeguards, was the primary constraint on further conversion of native forests. The authors conclude that to achieve genuine forest recovery along with the resulting environmental benefits, China’s policies must more strongly protect existing native forests and facilitate native forest restoration.