Libo County, Guizhou Province, China. Xiaoqikong scenic area, part of the South China Karst U.N. cultural agency (UNESCO) World Heritage Site. Conservation and restoration of upland forests provides valuable water ecosystems services to people downstream, including provision of clean water for irrigation and urban use, as well as flood prevention. CIFOR/Louis Putzel

Landscape restoration in China: From grand design to co-design

Massive transformations

By Cora van Oosten, project manager at Wageningen University & Research (WUR), Netherlands and learning coordinator for the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF); Liu Jinlong, professor at Renmin University of China in Beijing; Li Linchao, assistant professor at Beijing Forestry University and Bas Arts, professor at WUR. This article presents some outcomes of a summer school course titled “Governing landscape restoration in China,” organized by these institutions in Beijing in July 2018.

Worldwide, landscapes are changing rapidly due to social-economic development and globalization processes. While such modifications have often brought prosperity for humans and societies, adverse effects can also be observed. Diverse ecological and cultural landscapes are disappearing at a rapid pace around the world, while local cultures and biodiversity are threatened.

Yet, we know that degradation can be reversed, and over recent decades many landscapes around the world have successfully been restored. Such restoration processes are often complex, providing economic, social and ecological challenges, which require smart governance processes to overcome competing claims and conflicts over areas targeted for restoration and methods to be used.


China has been particularly successful in addressing restoration pitfalls. Historically, the country has been confronted with severe landscape degradation due to massive political, socio-economic transformation leading to large-scale deforestation, water and soil erosion, and loss of biodiversity.

However, rapid response actions have led to massive restoration of China’s degraded lands. A frequently mentioned example is the northwestern Loess Plateau, which was highly degraded, but completely restored within a decade. Similarly, the country has been able to successfully reforest and restore landscapes at an impressive scale. For example, between 1998 and 2013, China has restored about 3.6 million hectares of forests annually, which equals about 35 percent of its total global forest loss.

This enormous effort has been made possible by strong government interventions and massive investments in the dryer hinterland areas, as well as in the major watersheds surrounding China’s coastal cities. In this way, China has managed to restore large parts of its productive land, while generating employment and providing ecosystem services to metropolitan areas nearby.

From grand design to co-design

Large-scale state intervention, drastic top-down planning and paid labor programs were the engine behind massive landscape transformations in the past. However, more recently China has developed a more participatory and “bottom-up”approach to restoration. New forms of hybrid governance and public-private collaboration have allowed for more integrated approaches involving different stakeholder groups, including local governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), environmental organizations, land-owners, companies and investors. This cross-sectoral strategy has brought new dynamics to China’s rural and peri-urban landscape.

Various researchers have described how the participation of multiple actors and the application of market-based instruments facilitated a transition from state-centered to polycentric governance in forest landscape restoration. Hexing Long highlights the Conversion of Cropland to Forest Program (CCFP) and the Sloping Land Conversion Program (SLCP) illustrate this transition.

The CCFP (1990-2000) put a strong focus on regional diversification and local governance. Subsidies were provided to farmers to “retire” their croplands and convert them into forestland, which led to the largest conversion of cropland to forestland the world has ever seen. Cross-sector networks were created, to allow for horizontal cooperation at the local level. Combined with forest tenure reform and new digital banking technologies, CCFP allowed for rural modernization and financial inclusion of rural household across the country as demonstrated in the research of Kun Zang and colleagues.

The SLCP was launched in 2001, and continued to subsidize farmers for“retiring” and restoring degraded croplands. Decision-making was further devolved to the local level, and vertical networks were created to strengthen local democratic institutions and enable village administrations to better control their own resources for sustainable use, according to researcher Jun He. Although the impact differs from place to place, the promotion of local autonomy has had a positive impact.

Innovative financial instruments provided monetary incentives for farmers to diversify their livelihood strategies, crop yields were enhanced, farm sizes reduced and forest areas enlarged.


Apart from these large-scale national programs, there has also been a growing number of local level projects, such as the restoration of the Miyun watershed.

As described by Van Ham and colleagues, the Miyun watershed is the main source of water to China’s capital Beijing. Initiated by the city’s government, this ambitious project has been implemented in close collaboration with rural (upstream) and urban (downstream) inhabitants, water dependent private companies, international NGOs and the municipality itself.

The basic principle of the project is that water users (companies and urban citizens) pay for the restoration of upland forests, while inhabitants of the uplands undertake the work. Restoration is implemented through a range of practical options, which serve ecological purposes but also provide alternative livelihood options for rural dwellers, such as fruit trees, commercially interesting timber trees, apiculture, horticulture and other remunerative activities.

A multifunctional restoration model was developed, which is currently being implemented in many of China’s mega cities suffering from increased water stress.


China’s latest initiative to restore degraded landscapes is the recently introduced national park policy. In contrast to most national park policies in the world, China’s national parks will not be led by conservation goals alone, but aim to combine biodiversity conservation, human wellbeing and economic growth. National park creation will be based on the idea of restoring large natural ecosystems and habitats of iconic species such as the giant panda, while aiming to combine ecological protection and sustainable development.

Development and construction with the potential to hurt ecosystems will be prohibited in the national parks, and practices such as mining, discharging pollutants or poaching will be illegal. Residents in the core regions of the national parks would be gradually relocated, but residents outside of core regions would be permitted to stay, and assisted to further develop their livelihoods without harming the environment. The overall aim is to develop sustainable livelihoods through the creation of rural employment, according to Du Caicai in a blogpost on Caixin.


So far, little is known about the practical implementation of this new national park policy, but it would be an excellent opportunity for further research, to see how win-win options can be created without compromising the lives and livelihoods of local people. Challenges may arise from the complex administration of large eco-zones stretching across different jurisdictional and covering multiple land uses with the risk of creating competing interests and conflict over space.

This will require new capabilities of park management and staff in areas of stakeholder collaboration, negotiation and decision making, conflict mitigation and spatial policy integration; capabilities which they currently may not have because they are generally not included in the curricula of natural resources management education.

Capacity development of existing management and staff may therefore be urgently needed, to enable them to cope with new challenges. Also a review of the curricula of forestry and natural resources management education institutes may need to be revised and developed in order to cover the multiple competences that future national park management and staff may require.



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