Over recent decades most countries around the world have been cutting down their trees at alarming rates. Since the 1990s, however, China has bucked this trend, achieving the most extensive reforestation of any country in the world. In 2015, forest cover reached 22.2% of China’s vast territory, up from 16.74% of the country in 1990. This means that forests were rehabilitated over 5.5% of China’s enormous landmass – 511,807 square kilometres.

In 2018, China set a target to achieve forest cover over 30% of its land by 2050. China’s rapid transition to reforest vast swathes of depleted and deserted territory represents the largest ecological restoration project the world has ever seen.

The rehabilitation of forest land in China can largely be attributed to a series of six national forestry programmes which have been implemented since the late 1990s, through which China has planted more than 4 million hectares of forest every year. Between 1998 and 2014, investment across the six programmes is estimated to have reached USD 100 billion and involved the participation of 20% of China’s rural population.

The effectiveness of the forestry programmes has varied across China’s vast territory, and have not been without controversy. The programmes have been criticized for the top-down nature of their design and decision making, and environmentalists have expressed concern that the programmes increased monocultures of non-native trees – which has had negative impacts on biodiversity in the country. However, research has also shown positive impacts across many fronts, including improved environmental conditions, greater agricultural productivity and increased incomes for some of the poorest households in rural China.

An interesting case for rapid transition

The rapid rehabilitation of forest and landscapes at a massive scale in China proves that ecological restoration of large-scale, complex ecosystems is possible, and can be achieved by human hands.

The Chinese experience is highly significant for the future of degraded landscapes around the world. The global population boom and massive expansion of agriculture since the 1950s means that soil degradation and desertification is a growing problem in most arid and semi-arid landscapes of the Global South, which is likely to be worsened with the impacts of climate change. Indeed, the transferability of lessons from China’s forestry programmes has already been proven – the methods piloted in China to rehabilitate land that had been degraded over millennia have since been replicated in Sub-Saharan Africa with initial successes in Rwanda and Ethiopia.

What is extraordinary about that the transformation of China’s depleted landscapes is that it was achieved through the mass participation of tens of millions of Chinese people. A cornerstone of the Chinese Government’s restoration efforts was the ‘Grain for Green’ programme, which directly compensated farmers for restoring and protecting forests and natural vegetation where they had formerly planted crops or herded livestock. Initially, farmers were compensated for their labour in a massive engineering project that extended across much of China’s rural landscape – digging reservoirs at the bottom of valleys and terraces into the hillsides, to help the land to retain water and resist erosion. Farmers were mandated to keep their animals penned up to prevent damage to the newly restored land through over-grazing of livestock. On the reconstructed landscape they planted natural vegetation and trees in designated areas, and were also assigned plots to develop their own crops. Farmers were granted land rights to the fields and terraces they maintained and control over their produce, as well as subsidies for protecting the newly planted forests.

With 32 million families receiving annual subsidies, and 28 hectares of land restored, Grain for Green is considered by some to be the largest Payment for Environmental Services (PES) scheme in the world – and is taken as evidence of the potential success of the financial compensation approach to conservation.

Context and background

China’s six Forestry Programmes targeted vast swathes of the Chinese landscape – reaching 97% of the country’s counties and targeting 76 million hectares of land.

A key area to be restored was the Loess Plateau, an area roughly the size of France which stretches across 7 Chinese provinces in the central-north of the country. The Loess Plateau was the cradle of Ancient Chinese civilization, which historic annals describe as being covered in lush forests and rivers. But thousands of years of farming that intensified during the Cultural Revolution had degraded the land and created one of the world’s most extensive and inhospitable deserts. Overgrazing by livestock meant that vegetation had grown sparse, and rainfall drained off the surface of the sloped hill sides rather than draining into the earth, destroying the soil fertility. The paucity of the land meant that local communities lived in dire poverty, surviving through hand to mouth subsistence farming. The impacts of the desertification extended far beyond the Loess Plateau – as the erosion from the hillsides was swept down into the Yellow River, leading to flooding and huge ‘mud mattresses’ covering land downstream. In the dry season, the soil from the Loess Plateau was swept up by the winds causing the dust storms that plague China’s major cities.

Throughout last half of the twentieth century, Chinese authorities had tried various approaches to addressing the degradation of the country’s forest land. Shortly after the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, 136 state owned forest bureaus were set up around the country, charged with managing and protecting forests. These agencies lacked the autonomy and incentives to prioritise forest protection, and logging became the major source of revenue to cover the high social costs that state agencies owed to their workers. A booming population and expanding agricultural production made further deforestation and depletion of lands inevitable.

According to China’s national forest surveys, natural forests covered 98.2 million hectares in 1975, but declined to 66.7 million ha by 1993. In the 1980s the Chinese Government attempted to restrain farming on slopes through various regulations, but these were under-resourced and ultimately ineffective. ‘Grain for Green’ was a breakthrough in Chinese forestry policy as it saw a shift from command and control approaches to the use of financial incentives to farmers for forest restoration. Grain for Green was implemented in the Loess Plateau from 1999, with extraordinary results – by 2009 some 35,000 square kilometres of land had been restored.

Enabling factors

The key catalyst for China’s rapid transition to restore forest land was a series of environmental crises caused by land degradation that struck the nation towards the end of the twentieth century. Soil erosion from the Loess Plateau was a significant contributor to the dust storms that swept through Beijing during the 1980s and 1990s. The first World Bank sponsored Loess Plateau project was launched just a year after a massive dust storm, dubbed ‘the Black Wind’, hit Beijing in 1993. In 1997, severe droughts saw the lower reaches of the Yellow River dry up for 267 days, putting at severe risk the availability of water around the northern plains. Just a year later, devastating flooding occurred along the Yangtze River, killing 4,150 people and causing $36 billion damage.  The impact of deforestation in the highlands and along the river basin were considered to have been significant contributing factors to both the droughts and the flooding downstream. With a view to avert further such catastrophes in the future, in 1999, the Chinese Government launched the Grain for Green programme.

Key to the rapid rehabilitation of forest and cropland in China was the introduction and enforcement of wide-reaching bans on logging and strict limitations on grazing and harvests – the targets for which were largely met. From 1999, the Chinese Government mandated a total ban on grazing in the areas designated for restoration, resulting in a 99% increase in vegetation in those zones. At the same time, the Government also introduced bans on commercial logging in the upper reaches of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers by the year 2000, resulting in timber removals decreasing from 87.53 million m3 in 1997 to 26.50 million m3 in 2000 (with most of the remaining removals for local and non-commercial use).

It is perhaps difficult to imagine the rapid success of such radical reforms in a less authoritarian context. In this sense another important factor in making this transition occur rapidly was the centralised and top-down control of the Chinese state over the design and implementation of its ambitious forestry programmes.

The extraordinary scale of the rehabilitation would never have been possible without the mass participation of the rural Chinese population. Initially, their participation was incentivised by a cash stipend for restoration work, an annual subsidy in grain (hence ‘Grain for Green’). By 2004, the programme began to substitute the grain subsidy with cash payments. Participating households receive their payments directly to their bank accounts following annual inspection of their forest plots by forest officers. It was a major change in Chinese forest policy to move beyond bans and regulations to incentivising land rehabilitation and protection through direct payments to communities.

The centralised control of the Chinese state also of course had a role in the success of this Payment for Environmental Services scheme. Participation of local communities was in some cases mandated by the Chinese Government, and the top-down nature of decision making around the Grain for Green and other forestry programmes meant that even when farmers volunteered to participate, they had limited say in the design or implementation of the project, reducing local ownership. Indeed, researchers found that in areas of the country with stronger local institutions with downward accountability to communities, the programmes tended to have more positive outcomes.

Finally, key to the success of the mass scale restoration was extraordinary levels of funding. Estimates suggest that the six forestry programmes have to date involved investment of US$100 billion. The Loess Plateau project alone had a budget of US$500 million between 1994 and 2005. Finance came directly from the Chinese government and via World Bank loans.

Scope and evidence

  • China increased forest cover from 16.74% of its territory in 1990 to 22.5% in 2015, an increase of 511,807 square kilometres.
  • Since the late 1990s, China has planted more than 4 million hectares of forest every year.
  • Between 1998 and 2014, investment across the six forestry programmes is estimated to have reached USD 100 billion and involved participation of 20% of China’s rural population.
  • Rural households involved in the Loess Plateau restoration project saw their incomes grow from about US$70 per year per person to about US$200 through agricultural productivity enhancement and diversification.
  • Surveys have shown over 90% satisfaction rate of farm households in five of the seven counties involved in the Sloping Land Conversion Programme.
  • The flow of sediment from the Loess Plateau into the Yellow River has been reduced by more than 100 million tons each year.
  • In 2018, China set a target to achieve forest cover over 30% of its land by 2050.

Lessons for a Rapid Transition

  1. Rehabilitation of ecosystems at a massive scale is possible. China has managed to increase its forest cover since 1990 and the highly degraded and desertifying land of China’s north-western Loess Plateau was restored within a decade.
  2. Financial incentives can work to engage mass participation of people for ecological ends. One in five of China’s rural population were given incentives through allocations of grain, direct payments and subsidies to participate in landscape and forest restoration work.
  3. Environmental crises can spur radical environmental action. It was the intense droughts and flooding of China’s Yellow and Yangtze Rivers and dust-storms that hit China’s cities in the 1990s that pushed the Chinese Government to take radical action to address the deforestation and land degradation further upstream.


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Christian Science Monitor (2017) China spent $100 billion on reforestation. So why does it have ‘green deserts’? https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-Pacific/2017/0628/China-spent-100-billion-on-reforestation.-So-why-does-it-have-green-deserts

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Liu, J.D.  (2009) Hope in a changing climate (documentary) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bLdNhZ6kAzo

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Xu, J. (2011) China’s new forests aren’t as green as they seem. Nature 477, 371 (2011) | doi:10.1038/477371a

Xu, J., Yin, R., Li, Z., & Liu, C. (2006). China’s ecological rehabilitation: Unprecedented efforts, dramatic impacts, and requisite policies. Ecological Economics, 57(4), 595–607. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2005.05.008

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