The State Council, China's cabinet, issued a document Thursday to detail a national program on converting part of farmland into forest and grassland, marking the overall implementation of the program after a three-year trial.
The Chinese government has promised to give millions of farmers grain and cash if they give up growing crops on low-yield farmland and turn them into forests and grassland for the sake of the environment protection.
The document says the government would compensate farmers who stop plowing on erosion-hit land to make way for forests, grassland or wetlands.
Total investment by the government is likely to surpass 100 billion yuan (some US$12 billion) when the program is completed by 2010, making it one of the most costly attempts to restore China's ecology.
The compensation is based on as much as 2,250 kilograms of grain (in the south) or 1,500 kilograms (in the north) and 300 yuan (about US$36) each year for every hectare of farmland given up for forest, plus 750 yuan (US$90.69) per hectare in subsidies to purchase seedlings.
Farmers can get the compensation for as long as eight years, and will own the forests.
Although incomes of Chinese farmers vary in different regions, for those who have struggled to raise enough to eat on arid farmland for years, the policy provides an easy way to get rich and thus has been widely welcomed by farmers in poor areas, according to an official with the State Forestry Administration (SFA).
People have long cultivated the land recklessly, causing a vicious circle of soil erosion and poverty, says Zhang Hongwen at the SFA's Office for Conversion of Hill Farmland into Forest and Grassland.
Soil erosion in the upper and middle reaches of Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, the two biggest in China, has become rampant as the steep land cannot retain water. The tradition of local farmers to plow on slopes, the major landform in those areas, has made the situation worse.
More than two billion tons of soil are washed into Yangtze and Yellow rivers annually, making the region one of those most vulnerable to soil erosion in the world.
China is now capable of carrying out the grain-for-environment program thanks to adequate grain reserves, said the official.
China has banned logging in the upper and middle reaches of Yangtze and Yellow rivers since 1998 after devastating floods hit many parts of the country, which were closely linked to destruction of natural forests along rivers.
Trials of the grain-for-forest program was launched in 1999 in 224 counties of western provinces such as Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi.
By the end of 2001, more than 2.2 million hectares of hilly or sandy farmland had been converted into forests, grasslands or wetlands. Some areas have reported improvements in the environment since then, according to the SFA.
The overall program is to be carried out in 24 of 31 Chinese provinces starting from this year. About 75 percent of hilly farmland and 46 percent of sandy land in the upper and middle reaches of Yangtze and Yellow rivers will be covered by forests or grassland when the program is finished in 2010.
(People's Daily June 21, 2002)