As we all know, deforestation poses a huge environmental threat, with about 7.3 million hectares (which supposedly is about half the area of England, for example) of forest disappearing every year, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. This practice comes with negative effects which affect areas such as climate change, number of species, soil erosion, water cycle and general life quality. It goes without saying how vital trees are for our existence. Therefore, many countries as well as organizations are trying to counter it with reforestation or afforestation.
Reforestation can be described as the process of planting new trees in areas where they have been damaged or destroyed, mostly by fire, disease and logging. While it is sometimes possible for forests to naturally regenerate themselves through dispersal of their seeds by wind or animals, areas which have been severely hit need manual help. That is where we come in.
The obvious reason for reforesting is recovery of trees that have been accidentally destroyed. But there are other uses. Reforesting helps fight pollution and is used to mitigate climate change, through the ability of trees to absorb carbon dioxide. In some cases, forests are managed, new trees are planted to replace those that were cut down, much like crops.
During the Great Leap Forward in China, which happened in 1950s, millions of hectares of native forest were changed to cropland. In the following decades, forests continued to be destroyed. China spent about 14 billion dollars between 2000-2010 on the protection of forests. After years of intensive logging, the country has introduced a few national programs regarding forest restoration. In 2000, after major floods in the late 90’s, China has introduced the Natural Forest Conservation Program – a logging ban designed to battle soil erosion and deforestation. And it has proven to be a big success. An independent analysis in the journal Science Advances found that between 2000 and 2010, forest cover increased over 1.6% of China’s territory (15.7 million hectares), while at the same time about 0.4% of the country’s territory (3.7 million hectares) lost its forests, which implies significant net gain. According to the study, China has pledged to increase its forest cover by a total of 40 million hectares between 2005 and 2020. Another program, which is said to be the worlds largest reforestation program, involving the largest population in the history of China and in the world, is the so-called Grain-for-Green Program. This effort, which is supported by the Chinese government, was first initiated in 1999 and was later implemented in 2002 across the country. One of the many program’s objectives is to change agricultural fields and farmlands in slopes back to forest. Within this program, rural residents are also being encouraged to plant forests, grasslands and shrubs. The Grain-for-Green program is in place in about 26 out of 31 mainland provinces covering around 60 million farmers. It has thus big significance in poverty alleviation too. Like the Natural Forest Conservation Program, this effort has similarly tried to address the soil erosion problem. It has transformed about 28 million hectares of cropland and barren scrubland back to forest. The program has helped reduce soil and water erosion as well.
Now the important question is, whether these efforts are really that successful as they seem and if there aren’t some less desirable side effects to the projects and to reforestation in general. I think that often many topics and issues that even seem unrelated are in reality intertwined and the solution of one might influence another in a good or bad way. It could even create a chain reaction of sorts. This is especially true if were talking about ecology and the environment.
Now back to China. While the overall significance of these programs and their results are undeniable, the authors of the previously mentioned study are worried that since China increases its imports of lumber, the whole problem of deforestation is simply transferred onto other countries. The Chinese lands gain low biodiversity forests, while the foreign high biodiversity forests are being used to satisfy the demand in China. The whole topic thus needs to be tackled globally. That’s the way I understood it, anyway.
Continuing with the topic of biodiversity, a research led by Princeton university has found that the above mentioned Grain-for-Green Program is not very effective in restoring the biodiversity of native forests, since it’s mostly planting just monoculture forests (just one species) and can potentially even harm the local wildlife. If it were not possible to restore the native forests, the second best option would be mixed forests.
To sum it up, I believe that this is a good example of how things can mutually affect one another on a regional, as well as on a global scale. Reforestation is a more complex topic than one would think. It’s not just about planting trees, but about the different factors that influence the outcome, too.