Documentation:Open Case Studies/FRST522/2020/Assessing the factors that led to the success of large-scale landscape restoration in Qianyanzhou hilly region, Jiangxi Province, China

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Qianyanzhou is located in China Jiangxi Province, city of Jian, Taihe County, Guanxi Town. Qianyanzhou is a typical subtropical red soil hilly area. The name of Qianyanzhou in Chinese refers to over 1000 household with smoke from kitchen their chimneys. A reflection to just how prosper the place once was[1]. Since 1982, Qianyanzhou, which has typical soil erosion conditions was selected the test base for ecological restoration of the southern hills.[2] The Chinese Academy of Sciences built the Qianyanzhou Ecological Research Station here after 6 years of inspection and preparation[2]. According to the station, researchers improved the soil, introduced improved varieties, and farmers plant forests on the mountains, grow grain under the mountains, grow fruits on the hillsides, and build ponds between the hills. Soil erosion has been brought under control, forest coverage rate in Qianyanzhou has increased from 0.43% to nearly 70% [3]. The success of Qianyanzhou mode attract great international attention. This article will focus on how a deserted land transformed to a pioneer of reforestation.

Intentions of the case study

This article will focus on how a deserted land transformed to a pioneer of reforestation. First is to understand how the issue isolated from social, ecological and economic perspective. Then analyzing the factors that lead to the success of large-scale landscape restoration in Qianyanzhou hilly region.

The climate and land

Qianyanzhou has a subtropical monsoon climate. Logging and unstainable farming started generations ago, far earlier then the formation of Chinese Government[1]. Locals faced severe Soil erosion in the hilly area. Situation was getting worse with the fertile red soil washed away, resulting in a decline in crop yields[1]. The land for farming getting thinner. On sunny days, the land was extremely dry and hard as copper; on rainy days, under the impact of rain, it becomes sticky and soft and easy to lose[4] . Low mountains, wide hills, and large terrain with poor soil result in unfavorable natural conditions for the development of rice planting in this area. Local people of Qianyanzhou faced poverty, many families left to seek opportunity in bigger city. Population dropped significantly[4]. Low population was also the reason why Qianyanzhou was selected for the science project. The scientist team wish to have minimum impact to local people as the research begin. Secondly, the land in Qianyanzhou was owned by the government, allowing easier access and control of the land [5].

Political background

The great leap forward, timber used to heat up and melt all kind of metal objects such as pan and shovel

The term community management dose not imply in Qianyanzhou before 1983[5]. Very little crops can survive. There were no corporation operating in the area and no governance oversight to the region. The region was deserted and received no attention for governance. Unlike Canada where Province government have sovereignty to crown land over federal government[5]. China government system is power centralized, very little control is extended to local government (National assembly of the PRC, 2020). There was much issue that the central government deemed more important at the time before 1983. Qianyanzhou was only one of many regions with severe deforestation and soil erosion. It is worth mentioning, although we know the reason of deforestation and soil erosion, it is hard to point fingers at who is responsible. Before 1949 when the current Chinese government was founded the region was already on a path to lose its original ecosystem from many generations ago[1] .

On top of that, Qianyanzhou suffered further landscape damage since 1958. The party leader of China was aiming to production of 10.7 million tons of steel from the nation[6]. A long-term goal designed to catch up and surpass with United Stated and British in the output of major industrial products such as iron and steel within 15 years (Also kown as The great leap forward movement)[6]. The entire nation focused on steel and iron production, which wasted many human resource, natural resource and government found[6]. In Qianyanzhou what was left of the forest was logged for steel and ion production. The general public did not have basic science knowledge on what type of timber is suitable for steel and iron production. There was a lack of guidance towards which location has the required condition to iron and steel production. Timber was used to heat up and melt all kind of metal objects such as pan and shovel, even though many timbers cannot heat the metal to its melting point.

Social actors and their rights[5]

During the 1970s to 1980s, the were only 7 household left living in Qianyanzhou. The social actors therefore being an extremely short list of local people. After the current government claimed sovereignty in 1949, The first national forest law in 1979 focused on preservation of forest resource and sustainable development with many ambiguity and technical problems. In 1984, the forest law was adjusted with more clarification on land use and ownership, the new law protects the stakeholders of the forest by clear punishment to illegal activities against their benefits. Most importantly, allowing privatization of forest for individuals and groups. The new law also introduced clear procedures of national land to private land transition and regulations to land tenure. These rights to the local people were fundamental for their economy growth later on.  

Qianyanzhou Ecological Research Station[7]

The development of Qianyanzhou is closely tired with Qianyanzhou Ecological Research Station. According to the Station Director, the station was founded in 1983, its predecessor was a test site established by the Southern Mountain Scientific Expedition Team of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The task of Qianyanzhou Station includes completion of CERN's observation, research and demonstration goals through long-term accumulation of experimental observation data [do you mean CERN on the Franco-Swiss border?].

The station objective [7]

  • Achieve rational use of natural resources such as water, soil, gas, and natural resources and regional sustainable development
  • In-depth experimental research on energy and material transport and conversion mechanisms,
  • Model establishment and spatial scale conversion methods in the region
  • Combining the theories, methods and methods of geography, ecology, and remote sensing to study the structure and function of agro-forestry ecosystems,
  • Carry out experiments and demonstrations of ecosystem optimization management models and supporting technologies

Qianyanzhou Station occupy about 204 hectares of experimental land with independent property rights. After 7 station director's term of office, the station today contains advanced multidisciplinary test site including:

  • A comprehensive observation site for farmland ecosystems
  • Paddy field carbon-nitrogen coupling process test site
  • Carbon flux observation site of the mid-subtropical plantation ecosystem
  • The soil respiration observation site of the mid-subtropical plantation forest
  • Conventional Meteorological Observatory
  • Farmland Nutrient Balance Observation Field
  • Precipitation transfer and artificial irrigation experiment site
  • Biochar input experiment site
  • Nitrogen deposition simulation of forest ecosystems site
  • Ice and snow disaster recovery experimental site
  • Rural non-point source pollution test site

Over more than 20 years of long-term research, the station has showed practical approach in the regional comprehensive agricultural system development result. The efficient transition of landscape cannot happen without the date and experiment support of this station [7].  

Qianyanzhou mode

“Woods on the hills, ponds between grass and hills, and fish and fruit food in gentle slope valleys”

Current photo of Qianyanzhou

One important information to know is that Qianyanzhou landscape restoration is not restoring the landscape to its original state. The new landscape is based on agroforestry system which focus on forest function and food production. New tree and plantation species were introduced during the process, these changes were proven necessary for the local people need and environment requirement[4]. The new landscape of Qianyanzhou is far more functional with contribution to Sustainable Development Goals. In Qianyanzhou the develop goal was to connect economic grow with forest function. In other words, using agroforestry to lead local people out of poverty. Qianyanzhou mode in simple words means s positive relation between economic growth and forest function growth, where economic growth equals ecosystem transformation. Local people of Qianyanzhou focused on food forest plantation such as orange tree, they were one of the first group of people to achieve ten thousand RMB income in China[1].  

Before Qianyanzhou Ecological Research Station was created, local farmers and government already tried to regrow trees by themselves. Sadly, nothing they grow can survive pass summer season. As mentioned earlier, summer season was very dry with the soil turning hard as rock. The root of new plantations was still not deep enough to support itself. The drought destroyed several attempts of restorations by the local.

With Qianyanzhou Ecological Research Station Scientist data collecting, they point out that the amount of rainfall is well enough to support tree plantation. The key point is to keep the water in the soil for summer. Their first approach was to build water reservoir, holding all the rainwater from spring[4]. With additional water resource, the new seedings can survive pass the first summer. After surviving the first summer, the new seedings was able to grow root deep enough to support itself in the next year, boosting the survival rate to almost 100%. With tress growing in the land, water and soil loss were significantly improved. Now with sufficient waster reserve, one-season rice was then planted into two-season rice. The food production continued on hillside[4]. On hillside, grass lands and orange trees were planted surrounding fishponds, this combination provide fertilizer for each other. Utilizing every bit of space to maximum economic growth. Qianyanzhou mode designed a purpose for every level of the altitude including farmland, hillside, and hilly land.

This massive project was not carried out by Qianyanzhou Station along but with the help of city government of Jian. The city government recruited local farmers in the area to grow tress or crop under the strategy of Qianyanzhou Station. Not only locals were paid in the process but most importantly understanding the scientific principle involving Qianyanzhou landscape. Government guidance has always been a critical element in forest management, the local people had the opportunity to understand why their previous attempt of tree plantation failed.

People may wonder how was the Qianyanzhou mode developed. For one thig, the plan of Qiyanzhou landscape restoration was not created during scientist meeting. In fact, lack of scientific guidance was one of the biggest challenges in the early phase planning. The scientist of Qianyanzhou station first attempt their propose in their experiential land. Massive data was collected during the experiment to understand what kind of tree species can be grown on the land. The priority was solving the issue of no plants to having plants, then the adjustment of plantation sericulture. Secondly, the challenge was interference from local people. Although Qianyanzhou hilly region was considered national forest, the local people and outside people had very little knowledge to what is national forest and what is private forest. From them they see what is grown near their village theirs to take. Many new trees grown by the station scientist were logged by locals. In regions like Qianyanzhou, infrastructure for heating is nonexistence, houses are still built using woods.

Obviously burning woods for heating or cooking is not sustainable. There needs to be a new way to heat up the village without harming the ecosystem just created by the station. The scientist of Qianyanzhou station created a plan to address this issue. As Qianyanzhou is located in the subtropical zone, there is an effective use time of biogas up to 9 months per year. The use of biogas can significantly minimize dependent of firewood. Furthermore, agricultural production benefit from the residues and wastewater of biogas tank as high-quality organic fertilizers. Under this plan, local people started cultivation of livestock, providing sufficient manure for biogas production[8].

Qianyanzhou mode changed the landscape from various perspective. The most noticeable changes can be seen as ecosystem and economic structure. As mentioned, the first step of landscape restoration was improving soil quality. Followed with plantation of agroforestry. Fully utilizing the space based on location difference for according plantation. From economic angle, the use of biogas reduced living cost for local people. Local people now have improved income with various product they grow or cultivate.  Both perspectives being a sustainable cycle for Qianyanzhou, allowing ecosystem and economic to grow simultaneously. The past 37 years, Qianyanzhou mode proved itself to be effective, logical and long lasting. The reforestation of Qianyanzhou has increased the total forest area of ​​China by 74.3 million hectares [these statements make no sense]. The forest coverage rate in Qianyanzhou has increased from 0.43% to nearly 70% [3].

Institutional/administrative arrangements

The social actors of Qianyanzhou is short list. For one reason, it was a remote deserted place with minimum household suffering from poverty. Common stakeholders such as private industries and NGO dose not have attention over Qianyanzhou. The only ones left was local people and local government. The word government here should be under an objective and specific scope. From center government in Beijing to province government, to city government, to county government and then township government each level has less resource and control from the previous (National assembly of the PRC, 2020). The success of Qianyanzhou mode is closely tied to government support. However, which level of the government should take this credit?

Asessment of governance

One government institution must be mentioned here, that is the Chinese Academy of Science. As mentioned earlier, the predecessor of Qianyanzhou Ecological Research Station was a test site established by the Southern Mountain Scientific Expedition Team of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Chinese Academy of Science is an institution directly under the state council of China. In other words, under the highest level of government in China (National assembly of the PRC, 2020). It is the highest academic institution in science and technology and the national comprehensive research and development center. Qianyanzhou project was initiated by Chinese Academy of Sciences, this institution selected Qianyanzhou. Providing experts and scientist team to direct the project. This critical step is the foundation of the Qianyanzhou mode. The local government, Jian government played the rule of corporation, coordination for the academy. Jian government by itself, cannot achieve the result we see today due to limitation on human resource and budget (National assembly of the PRC, 2020).

The message we can take away from here is that landscape restoration requires more than the support of local government. Indeed, of all stakeholders, local government has the highest influence as policy maker. However, for most of the countries across the world local government have limited human resource and budget to accomplish a transformation on a landscape scale. Especially, a county or township level government lack the scientific solution for a long-term project like the Qianyanzhou project. Community member of the forest should realize the difference between management and transformation. Management of the forest is the rule of local government, but transformation of the landscape requires participation from a higher level of the government system, sometimes up to the highest level of government in developing countries.

Qianyanzhou community forest early-stage before 1983
Qianyanzhou community forest today


China has always been an active nation to the contribution of SDG. The success of Qianyanzhou leads them step closer to achieving sustainable development goals. Goal 1: No Poverty, it is fair to say poverty is now history in Qianyanzhou, local people now have the luxury of modern house and private car due to their success in agroforestry.

Goal 6: Clean drinking water and sanitation facilities, today the soil no longer faced drought problem, Qianyanzhou people used to lack access to water supply but now water supply is enough for both soil and human. Goal 8: Good employment and economy Growth, following the success of Qianyanzhou mode local population started to grow. People no longer see Qianyanzhou as deserted land but an opportunity for success in business. Goal 12: Responsible consumption and Goal, Qianyanzhou no longer rely on firewood. Goal 15: Life on land, the new ecosystem in Qianyanzhou support the living of a long list of animal species that was not there before the project.

Forest functions in Qianyanzhou is one aspect that also benefit people from outside Qianyanzhou. Qianyanzhou station is equipped with open path eddy covariance, OPEC system. This system monitors carbon dioxide flux, latent heat flux, sonic sensible heat flux, momentum flux, and sensible heat flux. Long term observation over these date revel how forest change local climate even with extreme heat and drought weather. [7]The success of Qianyanzhou proves the methodology of agroforestry to be beneficial for economic and environment. More importantly, the experience of forest management can be shared with all over the country. United Nations awarded it the "Top 100" for global ecological restoration. The three-dimensional agricultural model of "woods on the hills, ponds between grass and hills, and fish and fruit food in gentle slope valleys" is now incorporated into China high school geography textbooks.

There is a similar concept of food forest raised by Robert Hart, a pioneer of forest gardening in the UK. He explained food forest management as 7 layers[9].

  • A canopy layer that consists of tall fruit and nut trees.
  • A lower tree layer of dwarf fruit and nut trees.
  • A shrub layer of fruit bushes such as currants and berries.
  • An herbaceous layer of culinary and medicinal herbs, companion plants, bee and poultry loving plants.
  • A ground cover of edible plants that function as a living mulch.
  • A rhizosphere layer that consists of root crops.
  • A vertical layer of vines and climbers.

This system classifies different functions base on the ground height of a forest group. Each level is planted with a specie that can maximize edible fruit; higher plantation also provides shelter to lower ones. This system is also a mature system to guide forest function management. One hidden connection with Qianyanzhou mode here is the participation of locals. Both systems attract participation of local people due to the profit return of food forest product. The participation of local people allows the landscape restoration to be done on a bigger scale and shorter time for the local government. There was no evidence to suggest any conflicts between local government, Qianyanzhou research station and local people.


Timeline of Qianyanzhou

Landscape restoration is a topic that every country government and its people care about, there are still many challenges globally towards landscape restoration. The large-scale landscape restoration in Qianyanzhou hilly was experimental approach with all data and science knowledge gathered during the research project. The two key factors leading to the success was the legislation of National Forest Law, and development of Qianyanzhou mode. We see a completely different landscape today in Qianyanzhou. Qianyanzhou research station learned so many experiences in this process, from management to forest knowledge. The achievement in Qianyanzhou shined a light to many other locations on the world facing deforestation, poverty, soil lost. A strong proof that proper use of science and correct forest management can reverse landscape and ecosystem. The principle behind the success is not rocket science, yet the world today still face deforestation in many areas. We can see the importance of high-level government participation in this story, local government may be limited with human resource and founding to initiate the change, support from higher government level is necessary. Original scientist from Qianyanzhou station summarize Qianyanzhou mode to “woods on the hills, ponds between grass and hills, and fish and fruit food in gentle slope valleys”. Qianyanzhou proved how agroforestry can support achieving SDG goals. With great international attention to the region, Qianyanzhou is now developing Qianyanzhou mode 2.0, it is unclear what exactly this will involve, but Qianyanzhou is now signing a series of cooperation agreements with the Jiangxi Provincial Party Committee and the Provincial Government to advance their responsibility in building a better landscape for China and the world.

References and citations

  1. Xu, Z. & Xu, W. (2020). From desert to oasis, the three-dimensional agricultural miracle of Qianyanzhou. Invest in agriculture.
  2. Qianyanzhou Red Soil Hilly Comprehensive Development Test Station. Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences Copyright.2009
  3. Bo, J. & Yu, X. (2010). Optimal Management of Ecosystem Based on Observation and Experiment. ISBN: 978-7-04-030528-9
  4. Zou, J., Liu, W., Wang, J., Wang, T., Li, C., Ding, L. & Bao, X. (2018). A Study of the Qianyanzhou Mode in a Subtropical Red Soil Hilly Region of China. Journal of Resources and Ecology. 10.5814/j.issn.1674-764x.2018.06.008
  5. Xiong, Y. (2014). In 1958, the nationwide steelmaking: blast furnaces everywhere in China outweigh the gains. China Social Science Net
  6. China Government Network. (2020). National assembly of the PRC.
  7. Liu, D. (2017). Biogas technology and ecological agriculture. ISBN 7557623061, 9787557623067
  8. Zhao, Y. (2019). [In front of my house] Qianyanzhou in front of my house. Voice of China
  9. Hu, L., Liu, Q., Yan, B. & Zhu, J. (2016) Composition and Structure of Plant Communities in Qianyanzhou,Jiangxi Province under Ecological Restoration. Forest Research, 2006, 19(6): 807-812.
  10. Li, C. (2005). The History of Chinese Forest Legislation and the Amendment of "Forest Law" 1000-5692(2005)01-0114-05
  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Zhao, Yayun (2019-09-10). "[In front of my house] Qianyanzhou in front of my house". Voice of China. Archived from the original on 2019-09-11. Retrieved 2020-12-11.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Fu, Bojie (2010-11-15). Optimal Management of Ecosystem Based on Observation and Experiment. China: Higher Education Press. p. 152. ISBN 978-7-04-030528-9.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Zou, Jingdong (2018). Journal of Resources and Ecology. China: Science Press. pp. 654–662. ISBN 1674-764 Check |isbn= value: length (help).
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Xu, Wen (2020-11-25). "From desert to oasis, the three-dimensional agricultural miracle of Qianyanzhou". Invest in agriculture. Archived from the original on 2020-11-25. Retrieved 2020-12-11.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Li, Ce (2005). "The History of Chinese Forest Legislation and the Amendment of "Forest Law". Journal of Zhejiang Forestry College. 22(1): 115.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Xiong, Yuping (2014-08-17). "In 1958, the nationwide steelmaking: blast furnaces everywhere in China outweigh the gains". History of Metallurgical Industry. Archived from the original on 2014-08-17. Retrieved 2020-12-11.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Qianyanzhou Red Soil Hilly Comprehensive Development Test Station. Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences Copyright.2009. from
  8. Liu, Dejiang (2017). Biogas technology and ecological agriculture. Beijing: Beijing Book Co. Inc. ISBN 7557623061.
  9. Tobias, Long (2017-03-08). "The Seven Layers of a Forest". Permaculture Research institute. Archived from the original on 2017-03-08. Retrieved 2020-12-03.

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