Chinese reforestation kills biodiversity

In an attempt to reduce their environmental impact and provide jobs, China created the Grain-for-Green Program, an initiative focused solely on reforestation. Its intention was also to improve the quality of the land and reduce erosion. One of the largest efforts of its kind, China has spent billions of dollars since 1999 on the conversion of 28 million hectares of land into forest.

A recent study, “Opportunities for biodiversity gains under the world’s largest reforestation program,” published in Nature Communications, suggests that China’s program actually fails to bolster the land’s biodiversity, one of the most important factors in successful and productive reforestation. The study explains, “GFGP’s enormous scale dictates that it should have [had] profound effects on China’s biodiversity and potentially offer substantial biodiversity co-benefits…It is therefore important to understand if opportunities exist for improving biodiversity conservation under GFGP.”

The study’s team, headed by Princeton University’s Postdoctoral Research Associate Dr. Fangyuan Hua discovered that most of the planted forests were uniform in their species, with bamboo, eucalyptus and Japanese cedar as the main contenders. Only three locations contained forests that were mixed and native to their area.

While monoculture cultivation, a common agricultural practice, seems to be beneficial initially, it actually runs the risk of being monetarily and biologically disastrous. The crop stands little to no chance of survival because of its lack of diversity if it is hit by disease or parasites.

Ideally, a forest with great biodiversity harbors a multitude of species that interact and adapt to the environment around them. If a certain species fails to survive because of disease or other biological factors, other species can take its place and evolve with greater resistance and superior genes, bolstering sustainability. Biodiversity also promotes a balanced ecosystem where the ecosystem’s species all depend on and benefit one another.

For a forest to retain and improve its biodiversity, the species of animals that live within it should be growing and thriving. When a forest is planted uniformly, however, it usually fails to provide a healthy environment for animal species native to the area and ultimately bars environmental growth and productivity. These types of forests also tend to support fewer species that are more vulnerable to disease and have fewer chances to adapt or survive in the event of extinction.

In order to measure the biodiversity of China’s replanted forests, researchers used the area’s native birds and bees as indicators, since both species depend primarily on forest biodiversity for resources and survival. The study found that there were significantly less birds in mono-cultural forests than in native forests, while bees suffered regardless because there were no attempts to replant flora.

Other concerns are also posed by China’s effort. Although China’s reforestation has cut down on its own carbon troubles, its increased lumber importations have contributed to increased deforestation in other areas, such as Russia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. China’s reforestation also has yet to make an impact on its air and water pollution.

The study’s researchers recommend focusing on the biological and environmental information of each area and, from there, begin planting forests that are diverse and native in nature.

Doing this, the team discovered, would also not impact farmers’ household profits negatively, one of the greatest drivers behind the program. The researchers explain, “GFGP can achieve better biodiversity outcomes at essentially no cost to households by promoting mixed forests over monocultures.”

With biodiversity coming with much benefit and such little cost, implementing this program could be an easy solution to an ongoing dilemma.