Conservation has feedback – scientists learn to listen

Rice paddies next to forest

July 17, 2018

Scientists doing a deep dive into impacts generated by one of the world’s most sweeping conservation programs learn that policies over time generate lessons – if you know how to look for them.

In this month’s Ecology and Society, scientists at Michigan State University (MSU) closely examine how people and nature have fared in the two decades of China’s massive Grain-to-Green Program (GTGP).

The appeal of one of the world’s biggest forest restoration programs in part was that it gave some Chinese farmers a way to return cropland already being pillaged by wildlife back to forest and get compensated in the process.

What they find is that feedbacks – the reactions to the program’s actions – are often overlooked, but critical to understanding the life of a conservation policy. Understanding feedbacks can both keep the momentum going when a policy is successful and allow for reevaluation if goals aren’t being achieved.

“The feedback effects of conservation policies, especially long-term policies, change over time,” said Jianguo “Jack” Liu, Rachel Carson chair in Sustainability at MSU’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability. “It’s important to look at all aspects of a policy –that people and nature both near and far away are in play. The telecoupling framework, which considers socioeconomic and environmental interactions over distances, is useful in revealing a complete picture of how a policy such as payments from distant places for local conservation is playing out.”

As of the end of 2014, the GTGP has persuaded more than 120 million farmers in some 32 million households to return about 9.27 million hectares of cropland to forest and/or grassland across China. 

The group studied farmlands in the Wolong Nature Reserve in southwestern China, which is biodiversity hotspot and home to the iconic and threatened giant panda. In the beginning, farmers tended to return the least productive land to the forest. In Wolong, it was land that bordered the forest and was most susceptible to the foraging of sambar deer, boar and hedgehogs. The GTGP was often a win for both conservation and the farmers. More land was returned to forest, and farmers had a graceful, profitable way to give up a losing battle with wildlife mauraders.

According to lead author Hongbo Yang, a PhD student at MSU-CSIS now at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, continued crop damage is a useful feedback from the conservation perspective of the GTGP, one that doesn’t stop when a farmer signs up. They’ve found that as the forest boundaries nudge further into farmland, the problems recur and now farmers are receptive to enroll more of their cropland in the program.

“Although our study is about GTGP in Wolong, similar feedback effects are likely to occur in regions where similar conservation programs have been implemented, such as the Conservation Reserve Program in the United States and the Common Agricultural Policy in Europe. Under these programs, croplands susceptible to wildlife damage are very likely to be enrolled and become vegetated. But the conversion of those marginal croplands to vegetated land may make it a new habitat for crop raiders and cause remaining croplands more vulnerable to crop raiding. This, in turn, may affect those programs themselves by making the remaining croplands more likely to be enrolled in the future, just like what happened in Wolong”.

Besides Liu and Yang, “Feedback of telecoupling: The case of a payments for ecosystem services program” was written by Frank Lupi, Jindong Zhang and Xiaodong Chen. The work was supported by the National Science Foundation, MSU, Michigan AgBioResearch, and the National Natural Science Foundation of China.