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2022-12-20 09:13:28

For centuries, Beijing’s flatlands have been a thriving habitat for local wildlife. A patchwork of maize fields, shrubs, and grass encircling and intermingling with the city, the area is a haven for a huge variety of animals: from frogs, snakes, and lizards, to wild cats, hedgehogs, and dozens of different birds.

But this biodiversity is now in danger of disappearing completely.

The threat is coming from an unexpected source: a local tree-planting campaign. Since 2012, more than one-third of Beijing’s flatlands have been destroyed to make way for artificial forests — a drive known as the Beijing Plain Afforestation Plan.

Unlike the capital’s spectacular mountain scenery, the value of its drab-looking flatlands are often overlooked. Many locals refer to the area as huangdi — wasteland — and authorities believe the land can be put to better use. Turning the “wasteland” into forests, they claim, will provide Beijingers with more green spaces close to home, support biodiversity, and improve the city’s air quality.

The plan, however, has met with deep skepticism from scientists and environmental groups. For many, afforesting the capital’s flatlands would be a tragic mistake — one that destroys a rich, millennia-old ecosystem and devastates local wildlife.

“By putting in forests where they do not belong, afforestation not only falls short of achieving environmental benefits, but it also brings harm to the native ecosystem,” Hua Fangyuan, a conservation ecologist at Peking University, told Sixth Tone.

A patch of scrubland in Yanqing District, Beijing. Courtesy of Terry Townshend

A patch of scrubland in Yanqing District, Beijing. Courtesy of Terry Townshend

Trees are good

Tree-planting campaigns have a long history in Beijing. It started with an initiative launched in the 1950s to restore the forests that once covered Beijing’s mountains. From the late 1970s, Beijing was also included in the Three Norths Shelterbelt Forest Program — a huge tree-planting drive designed to shield northern Chinese cities from dust and sandstorms and check the advance of the Gobi Desert.

These early campaigns transformed the local environment. Today, the forest coverage rate in Beijing municipality stands at over 40%, up from 1.3% in the 1950s. Most of the forest is located in the capital’s mountainous areas.

But afforesting the flatlands is far more problematic. Unlike the mountains, where the forest is the original ecosystem, the flatlands are not suited to sustaining large numbers of trees.

By putting in forests where they do not belong, afforestation not only falls short of achieving environmental benefits, but it also brings harm to the native ecosystem.

“Beijing flatlands are not a naturally forested landscape,” says Zhang Shen, a former project coordinator at the Shanshui Conservation Center, a nonprofit that works on conservation issues in China.

Most of the flatlands are located on the floodplains of local rivers, according to Zhang. Until the rivers were channeled in the 1950s and ’60s, the area would flood regularly. Forests cannot gain a foothold in such an environment, as floods can drown trees and prevent forest cover from growing, he adds.

Man-made forests, moreover, tend to be incapable of supporting a wide variety of wildlife. Naturally regrown forests are a mosaic of different species of trees, shrubs, and other plants of varying ages and heights, creating a complex, three-dimensional environment. Planted forests cannot recreate such complexity, and thus provide much fewer habitats for animals.

“Vegetation structure and species composition in artificially planted forests tend to be very simplistic,” says Hua. “But research has established very strongly that vegetation complexity is a direct predictor of how much biodiversity can be supported in a habitat.”

In Beijing, the forests are particularly inhospitable, because of “design problems” built into the city’s afforestation campaign, Zhang says.

Scientists stress that when planting a forest, it is crucial to attempt to recreate the complexity of a natural forest. But in Beijing, trees tend to be planted in straight lines, evenly spaced out.

“It’s the easiest way for the workers — we have 100 trees per hectare, so we plant 10 by 10,” says Zhang.

Similarly, many projects ignore official guidelines that state different tree species should be mixed together to create a more complex environment. Instead, the artificial forests often end up becoming patches of monocultures.

“The good thing is that the species planted are native — for example, poplars, Chinese scholar trees, Chinese thuja,” says Zhang. “But this patch is all one species, then this patch is all another species.”

Finally, Beijing’s strict fire prevention regulations mean that the forest floors are unusually bare. Neat lines of trees often stand on barren ground like “soldiers on parade,” Zhang says.

“All the dry grass, fallen leaves, and branches are removed, and animals such as mammals, insects, and reptiles lose their habitats,” he says.

A view of an afforestation project in Sunhe Township, Chaoyang District of Beijing. The trees planted are all pagoda trees. Courtesy of Zhang Shen

A view of an afforestation project in Sunhe Township, Chaoyang District of Beijing. The trees planted are all pagoda trees. Courtesy of Zhang Shen

A ‘complete ecosystem’

The artificial forests, meanwhile, will be replacing a rich ecosystem that is integral to Beijing’s natural landscape, Zhang says. Despite their plain appearance, the maize and bean fields that cover much of the flatlands have a claim to be part of the capital’s cultural heritage, he adds. Many of them have existed as long as the 3,000-year-old city itself.

Over the course of millennia, animals and people have learned to live side by side on the flatlands. The area is a “complete ecosystem,” Zhang says, where apex predators like wolves roamed until as recently as the 1970s. Even today, smaller predators such as racoon dogs and Amur wild cats find “plenty of resources” — prey to hunt and places to live — on the flatlands, he says.

The flatlands are also a vital resting and feeding stop for migratory birds: Millions of larks, cranes, buntings, pipits, warblers, rubythroats, parrotbills, quail, and accentors pass through the capital each year, says Terry Townshend, a Beijing-based conservation economist. Many other bird species, such as pheasants and partridges, breed on the flatlands.

Then, there are the large variety of insects that live on the flatlands, many of which play crucial roles as pollinators. On one small patch of scrubland near his home in Shunyi District, Townshend says he counted 11 species of dragonflies, seven different species of bees and butterflies, as well as various beetles, moths, and wasps.

Sometimes, it’s even possible to catch a glimpse of a great bustard — the world’s heaviest flying bird — foraging on the patches of scrubland between the high-rise buildings in Shunyi, Townshend says.

In the past, large numbers of bustards — which weigh up to 18 kilograms and have a wingspan of over 2 meters — used to stop in Beijing during their migration from Siberia and Mongolia to South Asia. Some birds would spend the whole winter in the city, feeding in the maize fields.

But these days, bustards are becoming a rare sight in Beijing: The tree-planting campaign has now all but destroyed the bird’s habitat.

Great bustards forage in a field in Tongzhou District, Beijing, 2021. Courtesy of Song Dazhao

Great bustards forage in a field in Tongzhou District, Beijing, 2021. Courtesy of Song Dazhao

Measuring the destruction

In Tongzhou District, on the eastern side of Beijing, the damage inflicted by the afforestation plan is already clearly visible. More than 33,000 hectares of man-made forest have been planted here over the past decade, covering 34% of the entire district, according to official data.

The disappearance of the open fields has led to a dramatic fall in the number of great bustards overwintering in the area, Song Dazhao, founder of the nonprofit Chinese Felid Conservation Alliance, tells Sixth Tone.

Only around two square kilometers of agricultural land that is suitable for bustard habitat remain, Song says. This year, only one great bustard spent the winter in Tongzhou.

There are now few records of several grassland and scrubland species.

“This species is not suited to forests,” says Song. “They are very timid birds and need large areas for safety. Wintering bustards feed on fallen corn and beans, and try to stay as much as possible in the center of the fields. They need a safe distance of 250 meters from the edge of the field.”

Data collected by Beijing’s birdwatching community show that a number of other species living on Beijing’s flatlands have fallen in numbers over recent years. Chinese birders upload information about their sightings — including the species, location, date, and number of birds — onto a public website, allowing conservationists to track how different bird species are being affected.

“It is telling that there are now few records of several grassland and scrubland species,” says Townshend.

The decline of some species has been staggering. In 2005, birders logged around 1,000 sightings of Asian short-toed larks per day in Yanqing District, on the western side of Beijing, Townshend says. This year, there were just 61 recorded sightings of the bird — not per day, but for the whole of 2022.

There is little hard data on the loss of biodiversity among non-bird species, but Shanshui Conservation Center is trying to remedy that. Since 2020, it has been running a study in Yanqing District, where local authorities invested over 500 million yuan ($71 million) to create 3,200 hectares of man-made forest between 2016 and 2019.

Lapland longspur feeding in Wild Duck Lake reserve, 2020. Courtesy of Shanshui Conservation Center

Lapland longspur feeding in Wild Duck Lake reserve, 2020. Courtesy of Shanshui Conservation Center

Wild Duck Lake, a reservoir and water bird reserve in Yanqing, used to be surrounded by swathes of maize and corn fields. But the authorities have been paying local farmers a 110 yuan per hectare subsidy to transform their fields into forest.

So, in 2020, Shanshui started paying the farmers to keep planting maize and corn. Rather than gathering the harvest, the farmers knock the crops down and leave them in the fields for birds to feed on.

Twenty-seven hectares of crops have been planted around Wild Duck Lake so far, Zhang says. This is allowing Shanshui to collect data to directly compare the biodiversity of the agricultural land with the land that has been turned into artificial forest.

The group hopes it can use this data to show the authorities that afforestation projects directly lead to biodiversity loss.

Changing minds

Convincing local officials to change course, however, will be easier said than done. Tree-planting campaigns are considered a national priority in China. Central authorities have set a target of achieving a 26% forest coverage rate by 2035, and each local government is expected to contribute toward this goal.

But Zhang insists there is hope. He points out that Chinese policymakers have abandoned similarly destructive practices in the past.

“I think in the future they will recognize that open habitats have importance,” says Zhang. “There used to be a lot of afforestation of wetlands, but most have stopped now because authorities have recognized that wetlands are important habitats.”

Hua cites the example of China’s coastal mudflats, where millions of migrating birds feed. Mudflats also used to be called huangdi — wasteland — and many of them were destroyed as part of redevelopment projects. But a campaign eventually led Chinese authorities to strengthen protections for mudflat ecosystems in 2018 — a move that Hua considers “an amazing development.”

Sixth Tone contacted the Beijing Municipal Forestry and Parks Bureau for comment on the design and implementation of the Beijing Plain Afforestation Plan, but received no response.

Townshend, meanwhile, says that public engagement will be key to saving the flatlands. Campaigners need to focus on helping people understand why these “scruffy-looking” habitats are important, he says.

“We must educate the public that these are unique, biodiverse habitats that support their own ecosystem and species,” says Townshend.

Editor: Dominic Morgan.

(Header image: An amur wild cat is pictured at Wild Duck Lake reserve, in Yanqing District, Beijing, 2019. Courtesy of Chinese Felid Conservation Alliance)