Traditional approaches to ecosystem restoration have considered afforestation to be an important tool. To alleviate land degradation in China, the Chinese government has therefore invested huge amounts of money in planting trees. However, the results of more than half a century of large-scale afforestation in arid and semi-arid China have shown that when the trees are not adapted to the local environment, the policy does not improve the environment, and may instead increase environmental degradation. When precipitation is lower than potential evaporation, surface soil moisture typically cannot sustain forest vegetation, and shrubs or steppe species replace the forest to form a sustainable natural ecosystem that exists in a stable equilibrium with the available water supply. The climate of much of northwestern China appears to be unsuitable for afforestation owing to the extremely low rainfall. Although some small-scale or short-term afforestation efforts have succeeded in this region, many of the resulting forests have died or degraded over longer periods, so policymakers must understand that these small-scale or short-term results do not support an inflexible policy of large-scale afforestation throughout arid and semi-arid northwestern China. Rather than focusing solely on afforestation, it would be more effective to attempt to recreate natural ecosystems that are better adapted to local environments and that thus provide a better chance of sustainable, long-term rehabilitation.
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Vol. 39 • No. 4