As we leave Beijing we drive by endless rows of trees: poplars, pines, oriental thujas. If I had passed by this area 30 or 40 years ago, I would have encountered a barren wasteland so damaged by erosion even grass had trouble growing on it. The forest restoration program in China has been the largest in the world and in many ways one of the most successful. It brought many places from zero to hero, increasing forest cover in Beijing city & province alone from 1.3% to 40% in 2013. Everywhere on the globe China symbolizes what scale forest restoration can take on.
Yet, it is often criticized that China did afforestation, but not forest restoration. Often, these forests are even called “green deserts”, implying they are so low in biodiversity that they might as well have left the original desert. These forests are short-lived (especially poplar forests), unstable and of low quality, making the afforestation efforts seem more like a hoax than real restoration. Furthermore, the afforestation efforts often failed to sufficiently involve the local population in the planning process or did not plan ahead for the post-project time, leaving no incentives to keep the forests standing.
Which, you know, is all true. However, there are also two famous phrases I learned during my forestry studies that come to mind: “It’s complicated” and “It depends.” I’ve wondered for a long time why in the world one would prefer these unstable, short-lived forests to the natural vegetation, especially considering that in many afforestation areas the logging ban, also known as the “Natural Forest Protection Program” (NFPP) introduced in 1998 in 17 provinces in China, is preventing any commercial benefit from being gained by these forests.However, as many of you know, “natural vegetation” does not necessarily go well with “totally destroyed and barren land”. In short, natural forests are adapted to the much more moderated conditions the forest itself provides. Except for a few tree species (which, not coincidentally, are our classical afforestation species) too-harsh winds, extremely thin soil and direct blazing sun are not things they are adapted to, All the species I named (except for a few poplars) are, in fact, part of the natural vegetation, but naturally they play a smaller role in the ecosystem and only settle on recently disturbed soil which is not supposed to be the entire landscape. So while they certainly would not have appeared in row-by-row monocultures, there was little room for giving the native forests a quick comeback.
This does not mean that the assessment of the quality of these new monocultures has been inaccurate. Many of these forests are collapsing, not only because often they are genetically very similar, which can attract all kinds of pests, but also due to the logging ban instituted in 1998. As a result of the ban, routine forestry treatments like thinning in forests designated as “natural forests” have been nearly impossible. This not only affects the forests themselves, but also prevents local people using them, as often they are only allowed to collect Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) from the forest.
This problem has not gone unnoticed, especially in the capital of the country, where new ways of thinking find their way in first. For example, the Beijing Forestry Society (BFS) has been working together with IUCN, Forests Trends, GIZ and many others on transitioning the planted forests into more natural forests. Currently, together with APFNet, BFS is targeting areas in Miyun, Beijing’s closest watershed and main provider of drinking water that have been afforested, but not restored. The hurdles are high, as in China the ideas that “more forest is also better forest” and “cutting trees means destroying forests” still prevail. It has been a story of small successes and pilot projects, of hoping to convince the government to see forestry in a new light and change the law accordingly.
The rewards makes it certainly worth it, as not only could communities transition into truly sustainable forestry, but native species could also safely be introduced under the current forest cover, enabling the region to regain its former glory. Miyun is already a hidden gem amongst Beijingers and further restoration could give the budding eco-tourism industry a real growth-spurt. In fact, as part of its holistic program, BFS is not only working on transitioning forests into more natural ecosystems, but also establishing real livelihood alternatives like eco-tourism or supporting walnut production. In Long Mountain Valley it is working on building hiking trails, nature education centers and environmentally responsible lodging to enable Beijingers to enjoy the natural beauty surrounding them.
Currently, BFS is collecting all these Best-Management-Practices (BMPs) in order to share them in the newly created “Partnership for Mega-city Watershed Protection” (PMWP), which is aiming to work with cities all over China on changing the “traditional” approach to forestry. This means that “scaling up” from the successes at Miyun is not in the far future but might be happening in the next few years. Then, forest restoration 2.0 can really begin.
Blogpost and pictures submitted by Anna Finke (Beijing Forestry Society – USA, China) – anna.finke(at)yale.edu
The content, structure and grammar is at the discretion of the author only.
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