Measuring impact a challenge as China reclaims farmlands for forests

The Conversion of Cropland to Forests Program is the world’s largest Payments for Ecosystem Services afforestation program.
Patchwork mountain landscape of agriculture, forestry, and deforested terrain, Tianlin County, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, China. Photo by Nick Hogarth for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

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China - China does not usually come to mind when one thinks about reforestation or afforestation.

It should. China’s Conversion of Cropland to Forests Program (CCFP) is the world’s largest Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) afforestation program. In a recent article, Bennett et al. analyze which household-level and local institutional factors are important in determining survival rates of trees planted on CCFP croplands. Two co-authors from CIFOR, Louis Putzel and Nick Hogarth, have been working closely with colleagues from the National Forest Economics and Development Research Center (FEDRC) of China’s State Forestry Administration to monitor and evaluate the program’s impacts.

The CCFP was launched in 1999 as part of a nationwide effort to stem soil erosion and flooding, following the catastrophic flooding events in the Yangtze and Yellow River basins in 1998. The largest of a portfolio of projects, the CCFP reflects a major shift in Chinese forestry policy from a primary focus on timber production to one that has broader economic and environmental mandates.

Also known as the “Grain for Green” or “Sloping Land Conversion” Program, the CCFP subsidizes farmers to convert their cultivated lands on slopes into forests or grasslands. Since its inception, it has engaged 32 million rural households to afforest over 24 million hectares of land. The program has both rural welfare and ecological goals.

But has the CCFP met these goals? Can socio-economic and environmental goals be met simultaneously? What are good measures to assess successes and failures? And how can they be attributed to the project?  Will communities continue to plant and manage trees after program subsidies end? Are results generalizable across diverse households and ecosystems?  Drawing on independently collected case-study data, previous studies (see here, here and here) have found that the CCFP has had moderate success with respect to livelihood outcomes, but there are few studies on program-induced environmental outcomes. However, regional variations are significant.

In short, given the massive scale and geographic range of the program, assessing its impact is a challenging task.


Bennett et al. tackle the challenge by drawing on a large and unique data set to identify which local factors and institutions are important for the program’s success in terms of survival rates of planted trees (as reported by household). In 2010, 125 students from Beijing Forestry University working in collaboration with the FEDRC surveyed 2,808 rural households participating in the CCFP. What is unique about this data is that it was collected by the students from their home towns and villages during the annual spring festival. To ensure that the data collected was robust, students were trained in sampling and enumerating techniques before they left for their vacations.

The data, analyzed using an interval regression model, yielded some interesting findings:

  • Households with more available labor and more experience managing trees report higher survival rate of trees.
  • Households that receive solid or continued compensation and ones that were consulted prior to program implementation also report having more living trees.
  • Where land and hands were needed for other purposes, tree survivorship was lower.
  • Households made up of ethnic minority groups reported lower tree survival rates.
  • Similarly, survival rates of trees were lower in plantations managed by migrants (as opposed to local residents).

In addition to the methodology, the results from Bennett et al.’s analysis yields important questions for future research, which in turn can help in designing and implementing CCFP Phase III.

Assessing the CCFP’s impact is also important because 65 percent of China’s total land area is mountainous and hilly, and about 50 percent of China’s people, mostly smallholder farmers, live on these sloping lands. Thus, how the program juggles ensuring rural welfare while restoring ecological functions may provide clues about how to balance meeting local needs while being attentive to broader agendas. Indeed, countries across Asia and the world are experiencing forest transitions—whether it is because of migration from rural to urban areas, or because of state-sponsored or community-managed afforestation and reforestation schemes, such as the CCFP.

As other countries attempt to meet these related goals, they might learn from China. Conversely, FEDRC scientists are eager to learn from experiences elsewhere in Asia.  Indeed, it is to gain comparative insights and learn across cases that CIFOR has launched a new research initiative called Sloping Lands in Transition (SLANT).

With the recent adoption of the New York Declaration of Forests, the global community has set ambitious targets for forest conservation and restoration (to restore 150 million hectares of degraded landscapes and forestlands by 2020 with significant increases thereafter, and at least an additional 200 million hectares by 2030). With the forest agenda as one of the paving stones for achieving sustainable development, China’s CCFP clearly has wide relevance in terms of understanding what’s at stake in attempting to address global goals without forsaking local needs.

For more information about this research, please contact Kiran Asher at

CIFOR’s Sloping Lands in Transition (SLANT) project is supported by KNOWFOR, a knowledge sharing project funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

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