The last time I was in China was in the fall of 2019, pre-pandemic, and my family went to the Qinghai-Tibet plateau (བོད་ས་མཐོ།, 青藏高原) for some light travel. The Tibetan plateau, standing at 4,500 metres of average elevation, encompasses most of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), Qinghai province (my family’s destination) and several other provinces in western China, as well as parts of India and Bhutan; it is considered the “water tower” of Asia, being the home for headwaters of many of Asia’s major rivers which provide freshwater to a fifth of the world’s population.
Driving about in the Tibetan grasslands—past highway signs written in English, simplified Chinese, Tibetan and Mongolian—feels like crawling about like ants on the roof of the world, under the dome of the sky. It really does feel like one is closer to the heavens there, closer to the hawks wheeling in the vivid blue; among the yaks which graze across the gentle rolling dun-green hills. Great mountains appear almost as a mirage in the distance, lost in clouds. When one is in Tibet the grasslands seem incredibly vast, appearing almost empty—until one looks near their feet and sees the furry brown pikas, and tiny blue wildflowers sprinkled across the hillside. Small white tents dot the landscape, amid the deafening silence.
Tibet is one region targeted under China’s nationwide afforestation agenda, which seeks to massively terraform the Chinese landscape to temper the impact of domestic carbon dioxide emissions and control the encroaching desert. At the same time Chinese industrial livestock agriculture, propelled by rapid urbanization since the 1980s and subsequent changes in Chinese diets, actively drives the ongoing deforestation of Brazil’s Amazon and Cerrado biomes for soy production, calling into question China’s environmental commitment with respect to its investment in countries along the Belt and Road network and forcing us to restructure how we think of carbon responsibility along its supply chains.
While there has been much ink spilled on the direct consequences of Chinese afforestation on ecosystems within China, there has been very little, if any, commentary which places Chinese afforestation efforts in strong and sharp juxtaposition to the deforestation which the Chinese agricultural industry actively drives in Brazil. This link has not been given enough visibility and attention. Outsourcing China’s soy production to South America obfuscates its responsibility for widespread deforestation, even as it hopes to promote “ecological civilization” within its own borders. Should we not be more critical of a state that claims to be an environmental leader yet merely pushes the consequences of its extractive economy beyond its borders? Regardless of how the current Chinese state tries to do “ecological civilization in one country,” what will happen as the world’s soy breadbasket becomes exhausted, or as supply chains begin to fail and break under the stress of global climactic change? Where can Indigenous and minority voices be heard, caught as they are in the crossfire of global food regimes?
Afforestation as a state-centered science
Still, Tibet is becoming greener. During China’s thirteenth Five-Year Plan period (2016-20), the TAR Forestry and Grass Bureau reportedly planted 9.8 million acres of forest; and Tibet was included among nine major ecological protection projects in June 2020, when China announced a 15-year ecological protection plan to expand national forest coverage to 26% and have 75% of recoverable sandy land under control by 2035.
Afforestation is considered the most natural and technologically straightforward of a palette of “negative emissions technologies” (NETs) which aims to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. On 22 September 2020, President Xi Jinping committed at the General Debate of the 75th session of the UN General Assembly that China would peak its carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality.1 Forests serve as carbon sinks by taking up carbon through photosynthesis, and a widely-cited 2017 study estimates that forests and other ecosystems which constitute cost-effective “natural climate solutions” (NCS) may provide more than a third of the total carbon dioxide reductions required to keep warming below 2°C until 2030.2 Land sinks created by afforestation activities will play a large role in China’s plans to reach their emissions reduction targets, according to a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ (CAS) Institute of Atmospheric Physics (IAP) in Beijing.
The history of tree planting dates back to the early years of the People’s Republic. The Three North Shelter program (三北防护林, also known as the Great Green Wall in Western media) was initiated in 1978 and consists of tree plantations in a vast arc across northern China, with a planned completion date of 2050. Both civilians and armies were mobilized to plant trees; a 1981 law suggested that every able-bodied Chinese citizen between the ages of 11 and 60 should plant 3-5 trees per year, and PLA troops numbering in the tens of thousands have been assigned to plant trees in 2018 for example. Officials at a press conference in December 2020 claimed that afforestation has helped lift more than 3 million people out of poverty, because over two-thirds of afforestation tasks were allocated to impoverished regions since 2018, particularly those considered part of China’s “frontier” in the north, northwest and southwest, which are also often the ancestral homelands of Indigenous national minorities (少数民族) such as Mongolians, Uyghurs and Tibetans as well as Hui, Dongxiang, and Kazakhs.3 Forests further control the desertification of China’s land, which most seriously affects the thirteen provinces and autonomous regions in the arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas of northern China as well as in Tibet; a Reuters video on afforestation efforts in Gansu province features Gansu residents who have been planting sweetvetch (花棒) for decades, speaking with pride about their family’s work to tame the desert.4
A rosy video from the South China Morning Post posted 26 March 2020 states—over drone footage of large, neat plantations and soothing instrumental music—that China is home to the world’s largest area of planted trees. This nationalist tree-planting, explicitly carried out in order to “master the desert” and “open up the wilderness”, serves as a form of exercising state control over what was previously considered barren wasteland, made legible for stands of neatly-planted trees—enforcing a legibility which is a central problem in statecraft according to James C. Scott. He opens his bookSeeing Like A State, a study of various failures of state planning, by tracking the development of scientific forestry in Prussia and Saxony from 1765-1800, as a subdiscipline of “cameral science” (kameralismus) whose overall goal was to render a centralized state administration of finances; his purpose in opening with the German forest-planting anecdote is to lay out how certain forms of state knowledge and schematic control are enabled by a narrowing of vision, and to then extend practices of forest management to those of urban planning, rural settlement, land administration and agriculture. In the German state’s “fiscal forestry,” a tree’s many possible uses were replaced by an abstract “tree” representing a volume of lumber or firewood that can then generate a monetary profit, turning the forest into a “one-commodity machine.” Similar patterns and rhetoric are being carried out in the contemporary Chinese case, where instead of treating trees as representing a certain fixed quanta of lumber to be eventually sold, they are treated as storing a certain volume of carbon or as fixing a certain square acreage of desert in service of the Chinese state’s larger environmental and political goals.
China’s decades-long tree-planting efforts have no doubt been effective in covering the country with more forests; forest coverage across the entire area of the country has reportedly skyrocketed from 12% in the early 1980s to 23.04% today.5 The satellite record corroborates the Chinese state’s claims.6 Smoking-gun evidence that this vast forest-planting work has had measurable impacts upon tempering atmospheric carbon dioxide was published in the the leading science journal Nature in Fall 2020, when researchers at the University of Edinburgh and the CAS IAP used collected flask air samples along with satellite observations to determine land carbon sinks over southwest and northeast China due to rapid afforestation over the past 30 years.7 They found that China’s land biosphere sink absorbed about 45% as much carbon over the 2010-2016 period than that which entered the atmosphere through Chinese anthropogenic emissions in the same period.
Nowadays afforestation work is carried out using modern technologies such as drones, planes, and motorcycles. The TAR’s first aerial afforestation project was carried out in summer 2020, covering more than 14,500 hectares of land with 119.3 tonnes of seeds by helicopter, including in the capital city Lhasa (ལྷ་ས) and the prefecture-level city Shannan (ལྷོ་ཁ།).8 Tibet has spent 20.23 billion RMB in ecological protection from 2016-20 according to local authorities, for projects which include afforestation, wetland protection and the construction of nature preserves. Forest coverage has reportedly exceeded 12% of the Tibetan region overall. For my own part in Qinghai, I saw some scattered small plantations of clearly human-planted tree saplings, as well as thick stands of conifers which appeared to have been planted in years past, blanketing the mountainside.
In the late-18th century German case, the relative success of scientific forestry led to the mass monocropping of Norwegian pine as well as the hegemony of German forestry science, which then led to steep declines in growth rates due to mismanagement of the local ecology. As Scott has shown, Germans invented “forest hygiene” to fix these errors, which effectively became a mildly whimsical effort to establish a virtual ecology, including the building of boxes to mimic woodpeckers’ holes and artificially-implanted ant colonies tended by schoolchildren. There are similar and real ecological risks arising from large-scale afforestation in China, in addition to slightly more theoretical concerns—in particular with regards to watershed and biodiversity protection.9
Afforestation can have unintended consequences in arid and semi-arid regions in particular, such as deterioration of soil ecosystems and decreased vegetation cover in northern Shaanxi province for example, where lowering the water table makes it harder for native grasses and other species to survive.10 The Tibetan Plateau as mentioned earlier is the cradle of many of Asia’s rivers, and political risks arise from the burden placed by afforestation upon Tibet’s water table as it may lead to conflict between regions that depend on river discharge originating from the plateau.11 In south-central Sichuan province it was even found, through a combination of remote-sensing analysis and household interviews, that farmers had been cutting down native vegetation in order to collect money for sowing non-native plants as monocultures in government programs such as the Grain-for-Green Program (GFGP) and the Natural Forest Protection Program (NFPP).12
How much more effective would German forest management efforts have been had German authorities planted native vegetation, following a philosophy of environmental management more in keeping with those practiced by Indigenous peoples the world over and communal forms of land tenure? After a manner, China and other contemporary countries which have enacted afforestation campaigns for carbon capture run the risk of retreading mistakes made by 18th-century Germany, as well as colonial forestry in French- and British-occupied Africa. The technocratic state, Scott explains, ignores the “vast, complex, and negotiated social uses of the forest” in order to wield forestry science as a cudgel backed by state power, in order to “transform the real, diverse, and chaotic old-growth forest into a new, more uniform forest that closely resembled the administrative grid of its techniques.”
In seeing trees as only devices in which carbon can be fixed, one is in danger of missing the point entirely—the planting of trees, or the burning thereof, as a mere adding-up of the abacus. To reduce the Tibetan plateau to square acreage upon which trees can be planted, for example, presents a dangerously narrow vision, missing the flora and fauna that fill out the rest of an ecosystem—hawks, yaks, wildflowers, pikas—as well as everything touched by human interaction within such an ecosystem, such as the land-management practices that Tibetan nomads have used in order to carefully tend to the delicate grassland ecology and avoid both overgrazing and grazing exclusion for thousands of years.13
China’s reforestation program has largely been treated as a resounding success regardless, allowing China to position itself as a leader in combating global climate change due to large-scale afforestation campaigns enacted within its borders, which simultaneously serve as colonial “improvement” of its frontiers.14 The CCP’s broader “ecological civilization” (EC, 生态文明) program, as codified in the CCP constitution in 2012, has drawn praise from foreign left intellectuals such as John Bellamy Foster, notable for his work on interpreting ecological crisis tendencies by way of a Marxian framework. He concludes in his essay “Marxism, Ecological Civilization, and China” (2015) that China is moving meaningfully to some degree towards sustainable development, in a manner distinct from Western-style ecological modernism, though these advances are still frustrated by China’s massive rate of growth. He further posits China is a potential ray of hope in the ecological transition necessary for human society’s continued survival in the Anthropocene, due to uniquely and forcefully forging “ecological civilization” as a state project.15 This assessment has subsequently been treated by other (mainland Chinese) scholars as a tacit endorsement of Xi’s ecological program and dovetails into pro-CCP positions which have become increasingly visibly staked out in the so-called left.16
Deforestation in the Amazon and Cerrado (but mostly the Cerrado)
Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, forests burn for the Chinese demand for soy. China is the biggest importer of soy in the world, and Brazil its biggest producer.17 Much of Brazil’s soy comes from the Amazon and the Cerrado, biomes being rapidly deforested for new soy plantations.
China does not produce enough soy to feed its own people. China’s own largest soy breadbaskets are in Northeast China (Heilongjiang province, where about half of China’s soy is grown), Inner Mongolia, and Henan province; the soy grown within China’s borders primarily go into products intended for direct human consumption such as soymilk and tofu rather than towards animal fodder as does 80% of global soy production overall. Even as local demand surges, China’s domestic soybean planting area is projected to decrease by 5.4% in 2021-22. And these regions’ soy production numbers are dwarfed by those from Brazil, which provides the vast majority of the soy that is crushed into the meal demanded by contemporary large-scale factory farming methods, originally pioneered in the United States, to feed China’s vast legions of poultry and livestock.18
Corn, as a source of starch for fodder production, can be replaced with other staple crops, but soy is irreplaceable as a source of protein and the livestock industry’s demand for it is inelastic; both supply and demand of it have increased. The United States was historically the world’s top soybean producer and exporter, but was overtaken by Brazil in the 2017-18 crop year. A weakening US-China trade relationship in addition to extreme weather events such as Hurricane Ida this past August have pushed China even further away from the rival supplier and towards South America for the soy imports it needs due to insufficient domestic production.19
In September this year, China canceled US cargoes due to export terminal damage along the Gulf Coast and instead booked a rare and costly soybean deal with Brazil for shipment in October and November 2021, buying four to six bulk cargoes of Brazilian soybeans. This was considered an unusual purchase during the United States’ typical peak export period. Additionally, China and Brazil’s beef trade constitutes the world’s largest import and export of beef; Brazil supplied 45% of China’s meat imports in 2020, and nearly 70% of the beef that was imported to China from Brazil in 2017 was produced on cattle pastures in the Amazon and the Cerrado.
The Amazon rainforest has some protection under Brazil’s environmental legislation, where the lesser-known cerradão forest—consisting of shrubby grasslands and short, dry-looking trees which also happens to exhibit the greatest biodiversity of any savanna in the world—does not. The neighboring Cerrado ecoregion, about half the size of the Amazon basin, covers 23% of Brazil’s land, but has relatively little protection under Brazil’s Forest Code, with an estimated 3% of the savanna under protection compared to 46% of the Amazon. In 2006, Cargill and other agribusinesses agreed to not purchase soy grown on land deforested within the Brazilian Amazon in a landmark voluntary agreement known as the Amazon Soy Moratorium (ASM); this agreement largely eliminated Amazon deforestation directly linked to soy cultivation but resulted in soy cultivation exploding in the Cerrado, which has then resulted in driving cattle ranching activities into the Amazon and causing a feedback-effect of mounting rainforest clearing.20
After clear-cutting of the tropical forest, the land becomes ideal for large-scale agricultural operations; when combined with mechanization and liberal use of herbicides, pesticides and industrial fertilizers, South American land becomes the cheapest in the world on which to grow soy. In 2018-19, the production in the Cerrado accounted for 40% of the 123 million metric tons of soy produced by Brazil. What was barely over a generation ago an almost-unbroken two million square kilometre mass of trees and bushes in central Brazil is now covered with fields of soybeans; more than half of the Cerrado has already been deforested through both legal and illegal means. A March 2021 report by Chain Reaction Research links key Cerrado deforesters to the clearing of more than 110,000 hectares of land in 2020, and places the blame primarily on agricultural expansion. They found that Cerrado deforestation in 2020 totaled 734,010 ha, a 13.2% increase over the previous year. CRR conservatively estimates that 28.3% of total Cerrado deforestation was linked to soy expansion alone, accounting only for farms with already-existing soy plantations.
Agribusiness’ primitive accumulation of what was and is Indigenous land has unfolded as a bloody conflict, leaving human and non-human victims in its wake. Indigenous groups such as the Xavante, quilombola (Afro-Brazilian descendants of escaped slaves who established quilombo settlements), and other traditional communities in the Cerrado often lack access to formal titles and deeds, and are not registered on official maps, testifying to the symbolic and literal violence of mapping and who is documented to have “legitimate” claim over land.21 Upon taking office, Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly said that the Amazon should be “open for business” and that “there will not be a centimeter demarcated for Indigenous reservations or quilombolas’,’ stripped the Indigenous agency FUNAI of its mandate to identify and grant title to Indigenous territories, transferring the authority to the Agricultural Ministry led by anti-Indigenous hardliners; and through weakened enforcement of environmental law encouraged criminal deforestation and armed violence against Indigenous forest defenders such as the Guardiãos da Floresta. While with one hand the Bolsonaro administration has deregulated agribusiness and promised to protect its forests at COP26 with the other, skepticism has already been raised at the actionability and enforceability of its plans to end illegal deforestation by 2028.22
In Brazil, China is buyer, trader, lender, and builder all at once, and Chinese soy imports have been explicitly linked to driving Brazilian deforestation through life-cycle assessments carried out to quantify the carbon footprint of Brazilian soy export chains.23 Between January 2016 and April 2020, Chinese institutions reportedly provided $15 billion in loans and underwriting services to companies which trade in forest-risk commodities in southeast Asia, Africa, and Brazil. Chinese companies and financiers operating in the soy sector in particular allegedly “demonstrate extremely limited awareness and action to mitigate forests-related risks with potentially grave consequences for [Latin American] forests,” as found by environmental nonprofit CDP in an analysis of the Chinese soy supply chain’s link to deforestation.24 None of the Chinese financial institutions linked to China’s soy supply chain identified in CDP’s report have assessed its capital exposure related to deforestation risks, nor have any of them developed policies to address deforestation.
Just as many rivers begin on the Tibetan plateau, many Brazilian rivers begin in the Cerrado: The head of WWF Brazil’s Cerrado program Michael Becker has called it the “water basket” of Brazil, as its soil acts as a sponge that stores enough rain in the wet season to keep springs flowing year-round. These are water supplies that are threatened by native vegetation loss. An estimated 13.7 billion tons of carbon are stored in the deep roots of the Cerrado’s trees, known as an “upside-down” forest as the roots are about twice the length of above-ground growth; but when tropical trees are cut down and burned, their stored carbon is immediately released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide which ends up generating about one-tenth of all climate-change emissions. As clear-cutting and burning of old-growth tropical forests progresses, scientists predict that they may flip into being net carbon sources rather than carbon sinks, accelerating a spiral of runaway climate change.25
Carbon here, carbon elsewhere
There are subtleties, to be sure, about the calculus of ecological responsibility that traffics the world’s shipping routes and supply chains, and many considerations in the China-Brazil trade relationship within the context of BRICS and along the free-market exchange of the Belt and Road. To say that Chinese forestry policy is hypocritical “greenwashing” on its face when juxtaposed with images of burning Brazilian forests would be reductive, as the implementation of NETs of any form becomes increasingly urgent to avoid some of the most catastrophic and devastating impacts of climate change, and one as simple and cheap as “simply” planting trees—native or not—may prove a saving grace in these last hours of impending climate disaster.
Tibet and Brazil are both classed as regions falling under the auspices of China’s Belt and Road foreign policy program, away from the Chinese imperial core: one within China’s legal borders, one without.26 Other vectors of the China-Brazil BRI relationship manifest themselves in infrastructure and mining projects, such as Chinese-funded railway projects in the Brazilian Amazon and in particular the Ferrogrão railway project, which is otherwise known as the Chinese-financed “grain train” for soybean export. What would a world look like where China is as committed to the environmental preservation of its trade partner halfway across the world, to which it has offshored its emissions, as it is to those lands within its own borders? Is it possible for the Chinese populace, so successfully mobilized to plant trees within their national borders, to unite in shared struggle with Indigenous peoples experiencing environmental violence half a world away? What would this solidarity look like? How can we forge a conceptualization of the global dispersal of responsibility and risk that empowers us to take strong and effective action towards our natural environments?
What would a world look like where China is as committed to the environmental preservation of its trade partner halfway across the world, to which it has offshored its emissions, as it is to those lands within its own borders?
China’s role in spurring on South American deforestation has not gone unnoticed, and the China-Brazil soy connection is increasingly becoming harder to ignore even by industry lobbyists. Liu Denggao, the former vice president of the China Soybean Industry Association, has called upon China to play a more active role in curbing soy-driven ecosystem loss in Brazil: “I have visited sites of deforestation in South America and seen primary forest burned to ash and ancient trees pulled from the ground by heavy machinery. The loss of forest and animal habitats is devastating.” Liu suggests boosting domestic soy production for direct human consumption, and rotating corn and soy crops in northeast China, which would result in consistently high yields. He points out that vast tracts of farmland in Russia and eastern Europe lay fallow, and Russia only exports 800,000 tons of soy to China when these exports could reach 20 million tons; therefore, developing soy cultivation in Russia would theoretically stabilize China’s soy supply and reduce pressure on South American rainforests. Otherwise, Liu offers only a mild rebuke of Chinese policy, that we must “rein in capital” and enact stronger laws to protect the environment, and he encourages developed nations to refuse soy associated with illegal clearing.
From China to Tibet to Brazil and further still to Palestine and Israel—where the Jewish National Fund has planted vast tracts of non-native Jerusalem pine in order to “make the desert bloom,” even as centuries-old West Bank olive groves go up in settler-ignited flames27—trees become political objects, activated by claims made upon the soil in which they are rooted. Curiously, afforestation (to tame the desert frontier) in China and deforestation (to “open up” the rainforest frontier, as cropland) in Brazil ultimately serve similar colonial aims: to dramatically change the nonhuman world according to political, economic or ecological will, in regions at capitalism’s periphery.
To return to Foster, it is perhaps somewhat ironic that he, as an advocate of China’s ecological-civilization program, has written extensively on Marx’s metabolic rift, the rupture in the metabolic interaction between humanity and the nonhuman world arising from capitalist agricultural production.28 In Volume III of Capital and the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Marx draws on soil science contemporary to his time and presents a critique of environmental degradation that presages much of present-day ecological thought. Capitalism’s metabolic rift unfolds through the town-country division of labor; in this case, the division between urban cores and virgin tropical forest rapidly being converted to agricultural land which becomes less productive over time.
In brief, “it’s not sustainable for capitalism to take care of the environment.”29 The unchecked and continued devastation of tropical forests baldly shows the failure of reforming global capitalist systems. Industry-lobbyist critiques like Liu Denggao’s do not go far enough to address the fundamental conflict of the ecological rift, riven by capitalist production, which makes itself most apparent at the macroscopic level of climate change.30 The reality is that mechanized agricultural production at industrial scale leads to massive changes in land use and violence against human and nonhuman subjects, that contemporary industrial agriculture is anathema to human and non-human thriving. To confront the massive challenge of restructuring global food systems and global ecologies, we need to radically reconsider how we think about environmental responsibility at scale—time scales, space-scales—which demands questioning a calculus of ecological devastation defined by national interests and boundaries.
Z Fang studied physics in a previous life. She is now trying to enter graduate school for geography.
Furthermore, the phrases “peak carbon emission” and “carbon neutrality” appeared in a Chinese government work report for the first time on 5 March 2021, delivered by Premier Li Keqiang at the Fourth Session of the 13th National People’s Congress.
Griscom, Bronson W., Justin Adams, Peter W. Ellis, Richard A. Houghton, Guy Lomax, Daniela A. Miteva, William H. Schlesinger et al. “Natural climate solutions.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114, no. 44 (2017): 11645-11650. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1710465114
For more about the Hui Muslim minority in Tibet, I suggest reading books such as Chinese Muslims and the Global Ummah: Islamic Revival and Ethnic Identity among the Hui of Qinghai Province by Alexander Blair Stewart (Routledge, 2016).
In early 2021, around March, Beijing was struck by heavy sandstorms from the Gobi desert; my aunt sent us videos on 14 March of a hazy orange streetscape from the window of her upscale Chaoyang District apartment, and another Beijing resident interviewed for the same Reuters video says “看到就觉得是世界末日了”—“it feels like the end of the world.”
As told by Liu Dongsheng to Xinhua News Agency. https://www.bjreview.com/China/202103/t20210326_800241586.html
Ren, Guopeng, Stephen S. Young, Lin Wang, Wei Wang, Yongcheng Long, Ruidong Wu, Junsheng Li, Jianguo Zhu, and Douglas W. Yu. “Effectiveness of China’s national forest protection program and nature reserves.” Conservation Biology 29, no. 5 (2015): 1368-1377.
Ahrends, Antje, Peter M. Hollingsworth, Philip Beckschäfer, Huafang Chen, Robert J. Zomer, Lubiao Zhang, Mingcheng Wang, and Jianchu Xu. “China’s fight to halt tree cover loss.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 284, no. 1854 (2017): 20162559.
A 2016 study analyzing the Vegetation Continuous Fields (VCF) product derived from MODIS surface reflectance satellite data found that forest cover has significantly increased in around 1.6% of China’s territory. Source: Viña, Andrés, William J. McConnell, Hongbo Yang, Zhenci Xu, and Jianguo Liu. “Effects of conservation policy on China’s forest recovery.” Science Advances 2, no. 3 (2016): e1500965. https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.1500965
A 2018 study analyzing normalized difference vegetation index derived from the NOAA GIMMS (Global Inventory Modeling and Mapping Studies) dataset found that forest coverage has indeed increased consistent with government statistics. Source: Liang, Lizhuang, Feng Chen, Lei Shi, and Shukui Niu. “NDVI-derived forest area change and its driving factors in China.” PloS ONE 13, no. 10 (2018): e0205885. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0205885
A MODIS-based image featured on NASA Earth Observatory and accompanying study from February 2019 shows that China alone accounted for 25% of global net increase in leaf area, though it only comprises 6.6% of global vegetated area. Source: Chen, Chi, Taejin Park, Xuhui Wang, Shilong Piao, Baodong Xu, Rajiv K. Chaturvedi, Richard Fuchs et al. “China and India lead in greening of the world through land-use management.” Nature Sustainability 2, no. 2 (2019): 122-129. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-019-0220-7.
The researchers found that the land biosphere over southwest China represents a sink of -0.35 petagrams per year, or 31.5% of the Chinese land carbon sink, while the northeast sink is more seasonal but takes up a net annual balance of -0.05 petagrams per year. For reference, a petagram is a billion tons; in comparison, China emitted 2.67 petagrams of carbon through fossil fuel use in 2017. Source: Wang, Jing, Liang Feng, Paul I. Palmer, Yi Liu, Shuangxi Fang, Hartmut Bösch, Christopher W. O’Dell et al. “Large Chinese land carbon sink estimated from atmospheric carbon dioxide data.” Nature 586, no. 7831 (2020): 720-723. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2849-9
Xiao, Yang, Qiang Xiao, and Xuefeng Sun. “Ecological risks arising from the impact of large-scale afforestation on the regional water supply balance in Southwest China.” Nature Scientific Reports 10, no. 1 (2020): 1-10. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-61108-w
In the first 25 years of China’s Three North Shelter program, most poplar trees which had been monocropped as a desert shelterbelt ended up dead or dying; later efforts were more successful in planting long-term forests but monocropping remains an issue. Large swaths of newly planted forests under programs such as the Three North Shelter Program and the Grain-for-Green program provide few habitats for China’s many threatened species of animals and smaller plants, threatening China’s biodiversity. Source: Hua, Fangyuan, Xiaoyang Wang, Xinlei Zheng, Brendan Fisher, Lin Wang, Jianguo Zhu, Ya Tang, W. Yu Douglas, and David S. Wilcove. “Opportunities for biodiversity gains under the world’s largest reforestation programme.” Nature Communications 7, no. 1 (2016): 1-11. https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms12717
Another 2011 op-ed by Jianchu Xu in Nature warned that impressive reports of increased forest cover in China are undermined by a focus on non-native tree crops that are unsuitable for local wildlife and damaging to ecosystem health in the long term. Source: Xu, Jianchu. “China’s new forests aren’t as green as they seem.” Nature News 477, no. 7365 (2011): 371-371. https://doi.org/10.1038/477371a
Cao, Shixiong, Li Chen, David Shankman, Chunmei Wang, Xiongbin Wang, and Hong Zhang. “Excessive reliance on afforestation in China’s arid and semi-arid regions: lessons in ecological restoration.” Earth-Science Reviews 104, no. 4 (2011): 240-245. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.earscirev.2010.11.002
Cao, Shixiong, and Junze Zhang. “Political risks arising from the impacts of large-scale afforestation on water resources of the Tibetan Plateau.” Gondwana Research 28, no. 2 (2015): 898-903. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gr.2014.07.002
Hua, Fangyuan, Lin Wang, Brendan Fisher, Xinlei Zheng, Xiaoyang Wang, W. Yu Douglas, Ya Tang, Jianguo Zhu, and David S. Wilcove. “Tree plantations displacing native forests: The nature and drivers of apparent forest recovery on former croplands in Southwestern China from 2000 to 2015.” Biological Conservation 222 (2018): 113-124.
Mu, Junpeng, Yuling Zeng, Qinggui Wu, Karl J. Niklas, and Kechang Niu. “Traditional grazing regimes promote biodiversity and increase nectar production in Tibetan alpine meadows.” Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 233 (2016): 336-342.
Tree-planting is also more literally used for CCP public relations photo ops on occasion.
Ren, Qiaohua, and Caisheng Lin. “John Bellamy Foster’s Ecological Marxism and the Enlightenment to China’s Ecological Civilization.” In 5th Annual International Conference on Social Science and Contemporary Humanity Development (SSCHD 2019), pp. 598-601. Atlantis Press, 2019. https://doi.org/10.2991/sschd-19.2019.121
The growing demand for meat in Asia, as one would have it, has also contributed significantly to the zoonotic transfer of viruses from animals to humans which is responsible for many recent major mass disease events. For more information see the most recent Chuang work Social Contagion (Charles H. Kerr, 2021) as well as the work of epidemiologist Rob Wallace who has shown how the factory farm becomes a hotbed for disease transmission.
Fuchs, Richard, Peter Alexander, Calum Brown, Frances Cossar, Roslyn C. Henry, and Mark Rounsevell. “Why the US–China trade war spells disaster for the Amazon.” Nature 567 (2019): 451-454. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-019-00896-2
This being said, farmers found loopholes through the ASM by, for example, moving soy onto former pasturelands which had already been cleared before 2008, and moving cattle pasture into newly slashed-and-burned rainforests cleared by Amazon land thieves.
Though a smartphone app has been developed that literally tries to put these communities on the map.
Bolsonaro was not present at COP26, nor was Xi Jinping.
Escobar, Neus, E. Jorge Tizado, Erasmus KHJ zu Ermgassen, Pernilla Löfgren, Jan Börner, and Javier Godar. “Spatially-explicit footprints of agricultural commodities: Mapping carbon emissions embodied in Brazil’s soy exports.” Global Environmental Change 62 (2020): 102067. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2020.102067
Hubau, Wannes, Simon L. Lewis, Oliver L. Phillips, Kofi Affum-Baffoe, Hans Beeckman, Aida Cuní-Sanchez, Armandu K. Daniels et al. “Asynchronous carbon sink saturation in African and Amazonian tropical forests.” Nature 579, no. 7797 (2020): 80-87. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2035-0
When I was in Xining in 2019 I visited the Qinghai Tibetan Medicine and Culture Museum (青海藏医药文化博物馆), home to the world’s longest thangka scroll painting, and observed several instances of the English wall text specifically mentioning “Belt and Road Initiative” (一带一路) by name in recently-installed exhibitions.
The connection is not so obscure as it might initially seem; during Brazil’s 1960s military dictatorship pioneers settled the Amazon jungle under the government slogan “A land without men for men without land”, eerily similar to another phrase commonly attributed to Zionist rhetoric.
Visiting the West Bank in spring 2019 on invitation of a close Palestinian friend, I had the chance to visit with one of her family’s friends who complained about the person who had come and razed the olive trees on their land, which had stood there since Roman times. “The different hands who have picked those olives […]”…I don’t recall the rest of what they said.
Foster, John Bellamy. Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature. NYU Press, 2000.
To quote Marx directly: “…large landed property reduces the agricultural population to an ever decreasing minimum and confronts it with an ever growing industrial population crammed together in large towns; in this way it produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself. The result of this is a squandering of the vitality of the soil, which is carried by trade far beyond the bounds of a single country…Large-scale industry and industrially pursued large-scale agriculture have the same effect. If they are originally distinguished by the fact that the former lays waste and ruins labour-power and thus the natural power of man, whereas the latter does the same to the natural power of the soil, they link up in the later course of development, since the industrial system applied to agriculture also enervates the workers there, while industry and trade for their part provide agriculture with the means of exhausting the soil.” From Marx, Karl, Friedrich Engels, Ernest Mandel, Ben Fowkes, and David Fernbach. 1990. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume III. London: Penguin Classics, 1993. 949-50.
Isabel Figueiredo, ecologist at the NGO Institute for Society, Population and Nature, qtd. in Greenpeace Unearthed.
Chuang, Social Contagion (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 2021).