Quakes don’t completely shake China’s environmental gains

A mountainside in China's Wolong Nature Reserve, damaged by the 2008 earthquake and subsequent landslides, is showing signs of recovery.

Oct. 25, 2010

The devastation of China’s 2008 earthquake was substantially lessened by environmental conservation programs for some of the country’s most fragile habitats, according to research published in a journal of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science this week.

Analysis of satellite imagery and field data by scientists at Michigan State University and in China show the quake – and the resulting landslides – affected 10 percent of the forests covering the mountains that are home to endangered species, including giant pandas. But it could have been worse.

“Conservation programs and natural disasters such as earthquakes are widespread around the world, but little is known about how they affect each other,” says Jianguo "Jack" Liu, director of MSU’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability. “This analysis is the first effort to quantify how much natural disasters affect conservation outcomes and how conservation programs reduce natural disaster damage and lessen human impacts.”

Analysis of Wenchuan County in the Sichuan Province, the quake’s epicenter, shows that expansive national conservation programs appear to have spurred significant gains in forest cover. Policies such as the Natural Forest Conservation Program and the Grain to Green Program have helped curb logging and farming in the area that includes the Wolong Nature Reserve, which focuses on giant panda conservation.

Even though thousands of acres of forests and topsoil were mowed down by earthquake-triggered landslides, the area still has more forest cover than before the quake, said Andrés Viña, CSIS researcher.

“Eight years of conservation gains were turned around by the earthquake – it wiped out a lot of forest land,” Viña said. “After the earthquake, 39 percent of Wenchuan County was covered by forest – but if it hadn’t been for conservation, our analyses show it would only have been 33-percent covered.”

Most people living in the Wolong Nature Reserve are ethnic minorities. Their way of life – which has included clearing delicate forests for farmland and chopping down trees for firewood and profitable logging – has been a challenge to a nation seeking to protect the area.

The quake's aftermath presents opportunities to encourage people living high in the mountains of the nature reserve to leave their damaged or stranded homes that are close to panda habitat by offering incentives to live closer to the main road.

“This provides an opportunity to further expand conservation efforts,” said Zhiyun Ouyang, director and professor of the State Key Lab of Regional and Urban Ecology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. “People can be encouraged to move down from the mountain if the government doesn't support rebuilding in ecologically sensitive areas, but instead offers incentives to build in areas where people can be a part of forest restoration and ecotourism.”

The article, which appears in AMBIO, was a collaboration between MSU, Harvard University, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Wolong Nature Reserve.

The research is funded by the National Science Foundation, NASA and the National Natural Science Foundation of China. Liu's research also is supported by MSU AgBioResearch.


Sue Nichols
Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability