Livestock Farming

Of course it figures I can only talk about Shanxi on this matter but here comes another (in my opinion) crucial aspect to afforestation in China:

When I was talking to my boss yesterday we were analyzing why afforestation in general has had such a low success rate of 20% in average. First we were talking about general major problems which are – for the most part – not human induced, like low precipitation, thin soil and increasing drought problems (ok, that‘s coal related but w/e).

But I was wondering why no natural recovery whatsoever has occurred ever since then. I mean we‘re talking about a province that once (ok, 3000 years ago) had 70% forest cover and now has depending on the sources you rely on between 13% and 20% forest cover (,, most due to massive afforestation projects. So is the land so degraded already that no other vegetation can establish itself? At least in the south where it‘s more humid I doubted that.

So pressing on the issue of human influence we eventually came to the topic of grazing. And what can I say? MAJOR, MAJOR problem. Cattle (牛) and sheep (羊)grazing is one of the most severe influences on forest restoration because they‘re biting off the new plants together with their shoots (kinda like hunting and rejuvenation in Germany for the foresters). Mr. Li told me that without this problem the average success rate of reforestation would be (assuming you don‘t make any dumb-ass plant choices like poplar in the 90s) around 80% – a total difference of 60%!!!!

So why in the world has nobody done anything about this problem??? Or have they?

Actually they did. Since August 2007 there is a new regulation issued from the government which prohibits grazing in forests and of course to-be forests. But as so often in China official law and reality are not exactly the same. That means just like trespassing streets is illegal and nobody cares the grazing regulation only worked in some parts of Shanxi. So consequently you might ask what makes it work?


The parts of Shanxi in which the regulation is working are those parts where the possible punishment (yes, it‘s actually weak enforcement opposed to no enforcement at all) seems worse than the monetary deficit caused by a smaller herd (you‘re forced to have if your animals are basically only allowed to graze in your backyard). That‘s mostly the case in parts of Shanxi where the people make their money through coal mining. Which also means it works if you let people have a choice.

Now I have been talking about this a little bit in the Green Great Wall post (I know it was too long, that‘s why I‘m repeating it right now) but a lot of the most important places to do afforestation is in the mountains since erosion tends to be a lot worse there – accordingly the benefits from regaining forest cover are extraordinary. But this is also where the poorest people in Shanxi are living – and their main source of income is the milk and meat they get from their animals. Farming, severely influenced by the erosion, kinda sucks and isn‘t very beneficial in large scale so livestock farming is basically their only way to survive. You take that from them and you take their job – the only one available. So no wonder they‘re not as strict with enforcing that new regulation.

So you might think as long as there is no rise in living standards (or complete abandonment of rural landscape) there will be hardly any chance for forest recovery. Well, there are other options but Chinese bureaucracy comes in the way of those solutions:

One idea would be to divide the land planned to be afforested into grazing land and forest. The thought behind that is that once grazing land would be established it would be easier for the people to follow law if they have alternatives. And since a lot of former cropland is to be afforested it is not like you would be cutting down forest for cropland. However, grazing land and forest are a bit different meaning they are in different departments. And that – at least in China – is a big problem since cooperation between the single departments proves to be kinda hard. So there would be a political journey previous to the actual change that might take up a couple of decades. It‘s also not helping that livestock farming and animals are also in a different department altogether. So we basically have three departments having to work together and it‘s gonna take a long, long time for that to work.

The only way I see any movement in that would be a monetary calculation of how much they‘re losing through the grazing problem each year. I mean not only is there a lot of extra-costs involved for afforesting the afforestation site again but also the on-going erosion keeps making agriculture economically unprofitable, wood production is not working and all the other negative effects are also contributing to a big minus you make every year. So getting those numbers through might be a solution to fix that (anybody in need of a Bachelor thesis?;)).

So all in all I think it‘s a more than crucial topic. So much money and effort is wasted, it‘s especially frustrating for the people working in forestry since it‘s essentially an easy-to-fix problem. It might be reasonable to say that reforestation like that is kinda pointless. First things first…