China’s Policy of Returning Farmland to Forests Must Be Upheld
China is witnessing a dangerous trend. The country’s policy of returning farmland to forests is faltering, and many areas are opting out of this activity in a push to protect local farmers. They are recklessly expanding farmlands that should have been replaced with forests under the policy, or they have simply allowed farmers to continue cultivating steep hillsides.
The related policies of ‘returning farmland to forests’ and ‘protecting natural forests’ are China’s two environmental initiatives that best uphold the rules of nature. The former confirms that human activities are the major culprit behind the destruction of the natural environment, while the latter pins its hopes on restoring natural forests to reverse the current situation where artificial forests comprise a large share of China’s forestlands. But today, less than a decade after these policies were launched, there is growing opposition to their implementation, particularly among farmers who claim they need the land to grow plentiful food.
Yet the major reason for the decline of China’s farmlands is the expansion of urban and industrial areas and road networks, which have encroached on thousand-year-old fertile farmlands. In a last-ditch effort to preserve China’s 120 million hectares of farmland, portions of the nation’s roughly 288 million hectares of forestland have been converted to farms, and wild lands are then reclaimed to plant new trees. As a result, the total amount of farmland remains steady, land for industrial development is guaranteed, urban expansion can continue, and the area of “forestland” grows year by year.
But nature is the loser. The decline of wilderness has led to the loss of ecological carrying capacity and to a growing human presence in nature. Wilderness areas with high ecological value are China’s precious natural heritage, but in land-use documents they are described as ‘spare farmland.’
What is the difference between rural and urban areas? From an ecological perspective, the main difference is the amount of “ecology” present. Rural areas are home to more diverse ecological communities than just humans. So chickens that are raised in villages on vegetarian feed without antibiotics and hormones taste better than their counterparts in urban industrial farms. And rural people usually live more simply than city dwellers, as they typically have a closer connection with nature. Urban residents suffer from the smell of contamination when they fish in polluted rivers, from the noise of traffic when they engage in outdoor recreation, and from the auto emissions when they walk along roads.
But rural areas are now also experiencing industrialization, urbanization, and livestock breeding, all of which have gradually decreased the local ecological carrying capacity, the level of village simplicity, and societal health—as well as residents’ feelings of well-being. Ecological deterioration has led to the deterioration of society. Unlike more visible urban pollution, some of this rural deterioration—caused by residents or investors whose resource exploitation is even encouraged by policies—often goes unnoticed at first. The most obvious type of such degradation is ‘ecological replacement’: replacing agriculture with industry, forests with farmlands, and natural landscapes with artificial ones.
Historically, China’s rural areas were full of wilderness: mountains, rivers, wetlands, trees, grasslands, and fields. But over the centuries, the traditional farming culture has driven residents to reclaim nearly every possible landscape for human use. The North China Plain, for example, has been developed into farmland for thousands of years. (In South China, where mountains and valleys prevent the land from being easily cultivated, some ecologically valuable areas have been preserved.) Starting in the 1980s, policies that encouraged farmers to lay claim to wild lands appeared ready to convert all of China’s available wilderness to farmland.
This process of “ecological replacement” changed in 1998 with the launch of two new policies: ‘protecting natural forests’ and ‘returning farmland to forests.’ These have helped slow the speed of ecological destruction. People even cheered the coming of a new era of ecological protection in China.
But the applause came too early. Today, there is increasing noncompliance with implementation of the “farmland-to-forest” policy. Young trees that were newly planted have been removed, and corn is being planted on land that should have grown trees. In many areas, the policy has been craftily abused, as many forestlands are cultivated with medicinal herbs or bamboo. Landowners who have already been compensated by this policy will next turn to the ‘water and soil-erosion prevention’ program for further compensation.
Development extremists who consistently attack environmentalists need only to take a look at the telling stories unfolding in China every day. Many anti-poverty projects that rely on the exploitation of local resources have ended up worsening local poverty. Before their resources are exploited, impoverished rural areas are able to fight poverty by relying on the existing ecological base. But when their resources are destroyed, poor villages will lose their last defense, and their spirits will deteriorate along with the local ecology and societal well-being. After that, the only thing residents will be able to taste is the bitterness of ecological deterioration.
Yongfeng Feng is an acclaimed journalist at China Guangming Daily who reports and writes on science and technology issues. Outside contributions to China Watch reflect the views of the authors and are not necessarily the views of the Worldwatch Institute.