A new study argues that reports claiming the tree cover increase currently taking place in China is misleading because they fail to differentiate between native forest growth and commodity plantations. Photo: Huangdan2060, CC BY 3.0 (click on image to access source)

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reforestation in China

Spot the planted tree

Reports on tree cover increase in China fail to mention commodity plantations is part of the increase

Story highlights

  • Study from 2016 showed Chinese policies have led to tree cover increasing over 1.6% of China
  • But study used the Food and Agriculture Organization definition of forest which combines tree plantations and native forests
  • This can mislead the public and leave questions on biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and human wellbeing

China’s efforts to restore forests after decades of destruction have been widely reported in the media. In 2016, researchers Andrés Viña and William J. McConnell with colleagues showed that Chinese policies have led to tree cover increasing over 1.6% of China. Forests are essential for climate regulation, soil and water conservation and enhancing biodiversity.

Centre researcher Tracy van Holt said, “The paper got a lot of media attention, but I noticed something: plantations weren’t mentioned anywhere in the article.”

This matters, argues Van Holt, because if the policy is to encourage tree plantations rather than native forests, then different ecosystem services result and this may affect human wellbeing. Biodiversity is often lower in plantations, the net amount of carbon sequestered is not always straightforward and water flow in plantation watersheds may diminish because plantations need a lot of water, says Van Holt.

“Wondering where in the article the tree plantations were referred to, I dug further and found that Viña and colleagues used the Food and Agriculture Organization definition of forest.” Defining “forests” is an active conversation in academia.

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Potentially misleading

The FAO combines tree plantations and native forests. “The researchers also used low resolution satellite imagery making it very difficult to isolate tree plantations from native forests.”

“By not clarifying what is meant by “forest”, the public was potentially misled,” says Van Holt. But by how much? Van Holt has analysed the media data and published her results in Science Advances.

According to Altmetric tool, which analyses social media, blogs and media articles relating to research papers, up to 783,000 people were misled. “We analyzed the tweets associated with the article and all 71 tweets referred to native forest returning—not one mentioned tree plantations.” “Out of the 19 news articles analyzed, plantations were mentioned 4 times and native forest terms were reported 41 times.”

“If it turns out that most of the tree cover is tree farms, then we need to know this. This is especially important because large “reforestation” efforts are underway. It is quite possible that instead of native forests returning that commodity plantations will be planted. What this means for biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and human wellbeing is unknown.”

Van Holt argues that if researchers and policymakers stop conflating native forests and tree plantations then “we may be able to identify which areas are most appropriate for plantations and where native forest should be restored”.


Van Holt and Francis Jack Putz classified the content of the 71 tweets available as of Friday, 15 April 2016, that linked to this article, which, according to Science’s Altimetric AQ5 tool, had an upper bound of 783,000 followers. We then recorded for the presence of tree cover (a neutral term that can include native forests and/or plantations), native forest (including forest conservation, forest cover, forest, forest recovery, reforestation, and forest regeneration), and plantation (plantation, tree plantation, tree crops, and tree farm) in the 19 news articles linked to Viña et al. (1). They also searched for afforestation and regeneration, although these terms are ambiguous.

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Published: 2017-05-22


Van Holt, T., Putz, F.E.2017. Perpetuating the myth of the return of native forests. Science Advances 17 May 2017: Vol. 3, no. 5, e1601768, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1601768

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Tracy Van Holt is an affiliated researcher, primarily working within the Global Economic Dynamics and the Biosphere Programme. Her research focuses on the social and behavioral dynamics or interactions of natural resource-dependent communities under different configurations of landscape and seascape change, market dynamics and spatial features.


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