China's tuigeng huanlin or “Returning Farmland to Forest” (RFFP) program has been widely praised as the world's largest and most successful payment for ecosystem services program, as well as a major contributor to China's dramatic increase in forest cover from perhaps as low as 8% in 1960 to about 21% today. By compensating rural households for the conversion of marginal farmland to forestland and financing the afforestation of barren mountainsides, the program, in addition to expanding forestland, aims to reduce soil erosion and alleviate poverty. This paper presents qualitative and quantitative studies conducted on the local implementation of RFFP in three diverse townships in Sichuan. We find the actual results to be more mixed than the official figures would indicate. Though there have been some positive results, we identify problems with site and species selection, compensation for land taken out of cultivation, shift of labor to off-farm activities, and monitoring of replanted sites, which challenge the ecological and economic impacts of these programs and reveal much of the effort of the program has been misdirected. We suggest that efforts are misplaced because of the top-down, panacea nature of the program, which in turn is a feature of Chinese bureaucratic management.
Environmental Practice 15:350–366 (2013)