A Poverty Project That Is Restoring China's Forests

December 7, 2007

China has been a forest-poor country for a long time. The increasing gap between timber supply and demand is a constraint to sustainable forestry development which has led to a threat to biodiversity and natural forest protection.

World Bank Group

December 7, 2007 - Yuan Zouhe and Zhou Qi Lan have seen their lives change dramatically in the past 10 years.

In pre-reform China, the couple struggled to make a living from their share in a collective farm and get their children – a son and a daughter – through school. Today, the farmers are building a two-story house right next to their old home in Tong Xin, a small village in China's Anhui province.

The couple's son lives in a nearby city and works as an auto-mechanic, occasionally sending money home. But the main reason that the farmers’ income has grown three-fold is their stake in a highly productive chestnut orchard.

Covering a hillside near their house, the chestnut orchard is one of thousands of new orchards and tree plantations across China - part of an ambitious government plan to restore the country’s forest cover.

China's increasing forest cover

Over the past 20 years, China’s forest cover has grown from around 12 percent to more than 18 percent through a concerted reforestation program and a ban on logging across vast areas of the country. Much of the program’s recent success has come from involving poor farmers like Mr. Yuan and Ms. Zhou.

It took a number of years of back-breaking work – mostly by the village’s older residents who had not migrated to the cities – to turn their 68-hectare hillside into the productive orchard it is today. Farmers took out small loans provided through a World Bank-financed project and planted drought-resistant, high-yielding chestnut trees under the guidance of county forestry advisers. The hillside was terraced to reduce erosion and farmers were trained in using fertilizer and pest management to the best effect.

Now, the chestnuts have created a small economy of their own with new jobs created around transporting and processing them in nearby towns. The villagers recently bought 50 computers with broadband connections so that they can market their products more effectively via the internet.

New tree planting techniques

Professor Zhou Gentou, the head of provincial forest projects for Anhui Province, says the province’s forest cover has returned to close to 25 percent, a success that can be attributed largely to the involvement of local farmers but also to the adoption of new expertise and the introduction of new techniques. “We used to rely on seeds to grow the next generation of trees but the World Bank proposed the use of cloning seedlings. This led to a much higher yield.”

About 1.5 billion top-grade seedlings were produced to meet demand created by the Forestry Development in Poor Areas Project in 12 provinces.

Dramatic impact

A 2005 evaluation of this project showed dramatic environmental and social changes. In six years – from 1998 to 2004 - average annual per capita income in project areas increased by 150 percent. Most of that increase (85 percent) came from the products of ‘economic’ trees like chestnut, ginkgo and bamboo while the remainder came from off-farm employment. Poverty was found to have declined in the project counties from 40 percent in 1998 to 17.5 percent when the project closed in 2005.

Forest coverage across the participating provinces increased by 6.7 percent over 1997 levels, according to the evaluation, helping to reduce water loss and soil erosion “substantially”. More than 375,000 hectares of new timber plantations were established and close to 290,000 hectares of economic trees and bamboo were planted.

“China is the only country in the East Asia and Pacific region that is actually increasing its forest cover,” says Liu Jin, the World Bank’s forestry specialist based in Beijing. The Government declared a partial logging ban in 1998 when devastating floods along the Yangtze River highlighted the dangers of severe erosion and stark deforestation.

Altogether, the World Bank has supported China with $1.2 billion in financing for eight forestry projects covering 21 provinces since 1985. The long-term program has resulted in the establishment of over 3.8 million hectares of forest plantations -- an area roughly the size of Switzerland and about 12 percent of the country’s total plantations established over the same period.

Bank-financed plantations yield an estimated cumulative carbon sequestration of 562 million tons, at a current annual rate of around 56 million tons. This offsets roughly 1 percent of China’s total annual carbon dioxide emissions.

China’s ambition is to increase forest cover to 23 percent by 2020. That would narrow the gap between domestic timber supply and demand, reduce pressure on fragile ecosystems and help absorb more carbon dioxide, the main agent of climate change.