Seeing the Forest for the Trees: World’s Largest Reforestation Program Overlooks Wildlife

B. Rose Kelly ・ High Meadows Environmental Institute

After years of environmental destruction, China has spent billions of dollars on the world’s largest reforestation program, converting a combined area nearly the size of New York and Pennsylvania back to forest.

The government-backed effort, known as the Grain-for-Green Program, has transformed 28 million hectares (69.2 million acres) of cropland and barren scrubland back to forest in an effort to prevent erosion and alleviate rural poverty. While researchers around the world have studied the program, little attention has been paid to understanding how the program has affected biodiversity until now.

New research led by Princeton University and published in the journal Nature Communications finds that China’s Grain-for-Green Program overwhelmingly plants monoculture forests and therefore falls dramatically short of restoring the biodiversity of China’s native forests, which contain many tree species. In its current form, the program fails to benefit, protect and promote biodiversity.

Following a literature review, two years of fieldwork and rigorous economic analyses, the researchers found the vast majority of new forests contain only one tree species. While these monocultures may be a simpler route for China’s rural residents — who receive cash and food payments, as well as technical support to reforest land — the single-species approach brings very limited biodiversity benefits, and, in some cases, even harms wildlife.

The researchers conclude that restoring the full complement of native trees that once grew on the land would provide the best outcome for biodiversity. If native forests are unachievable within the current scope of the program, the researchers recommend mixed forests — which contain multiple tree species and more closely resemble natural forests — as a second option. Mixed forests better protect wildlife than monoculture forests, and would not financially burden farmers participating in the program. Both native and mixed forests also help to mitigate climate change.