Ecological Protection and Livelihood Improvement in Ecologically Vulnerable Regions

  • ZHEN Lin 1, 2, 3 ,
  • XU Zengrang 1, 2 ,
  • CHENG Wuxue 4
  • 1. Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100101, China
  • 2. University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100049, China
  • 3. Key Laboratory of Carrying Capacity Assessment for Resource and Environment, Ministry of Natural Resources, Beijing 101149, China
  • 4. College of Geography and Resources Sciences, Sichuan Normal University, Chengdu 610101, China

Online published: 2022-07-15

Cite this article

ZHEN Lin , XU Zengrang , CHENG Wuxue . Ecological Protection and Livelihood Improvement in Ecologically Vulnerable Regions[J]. Journal of Resources and Ecology, 2022 , 13(5) : 759 -762 . DOI: 10.5814/j.issn.1674-764x.2022.05.001

1 Introduction

With the rapid economic growth in recent decades, humans have used and consumed natural ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable period of time in human history. Thus, ecological degradation has become increasingly significant around the world, especially in the ecologically vulnerable regions, and it remains one of the most serious problems facing society, which disproportionately affects the world’s poorest people. To combat this degradation, tremendous efforts have been made by the scientific community, decision makers, and practitioners around the world. From a policy perspective, the most recent representative strategies include the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (UNDER), which covers the period from 2021 to 2030 and marks a new era for ecosystem protection in ecologically vulnerable regions around the world. UNDER states that UN Member States shall make ecosystem restoration a mainstream component of their policies and plans at global, regional, national, and local levels. Similarly, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification proposed land-degradation-neutral (LDN) targets and the creation of synergies with sustainable development goals (https://www.unccd.int/actions/ldn-target-setting-programme). Thus, LDN and the associated global mechanisms will play key roles in achieving sustainable development goals. In line with the global considerations of land degradation and ecosystem restoration, the Global Land Programme (https://glp.earth/) has identified seven thematic priorities for land system research and elaborated a scientific plan and implementation strategy to guide its activities from 2016 to 2021, which has contributed signify-cantly to the development of land system science and the sustainable development of Earth systems. From the perspective of restoration approaches, many ecological restoration technologies (ERTs) and approaches have been developed and applied, and they have played a key role in restoring degraded ecosystems and mitigating degradation, especially in terms of soil retention, desertification, biodiversity loss, Karst desertification, and ecosystem degradation (https://qcat.wocat.net/en/wocat/). ERTs have evolved from single engineering technologies such as check dams to combinations of ERTs, such as biotechnology and agrotechnology, as well as new implementation approaches.
To reveal the results and effects of such restoration efforts, many studies have focused on the evaluation and assessment of the effects of ecological protection and restoration strategies, with a special focus on ecological and environmental effects, by analyzing the impacts of the restoration strategies on key ecological parameters and environmental components, as well as on economic benefits. For instance, agro-forestry has been used in Guinea, Jerusalem, Canada, and Sri Lanka with variable success. The Guinea short rotation coppice technology can achieve economic benefits of US $11 to US$20 per person per day. The soil water content in Jerusalem was improved to 24.6% by reducing the soil water loss by 34% to 89%, and the amount of soil erosion was reduced by 45% to 94%. However, the width of the intercropping areas reduced the restoration effect, so the high costs will require the selection of reasonable intercropping widths and matching them with suitable tree species. The soil organic matter content, available phosphorus content, and total exchangeable potassium content in Sri Lanka were increased by 22%, 20%, and 69%, respectively. In addition, forest leaf litter significantly increased crop (tea) yields, by 13% to 21%. The conflicts between soil and water conservation remain debatable in this region. Many studies in the Loess Plateau of China confirmed that the improvement of soil erosion control is achieved at the expense of water supply reduction. Newly planted trees usually consumed huge amounts of water compared with native plants. In addition, trade-offs and synergies between restoration practices and ecosystem services have received attention over the past several years. For example, studies in the severe erosion regions of China indicated that ecological restoration has generated substantial positive effects on several ecosystem services, such as increasing soil organic carbon and vegetation carbon sequestration and enhancing water purification. However, ecological restoration has caused significant soil moisture decline through transpiration, infiltration, and interception, which may result in a “dried soil layer”. Human livelihoods also depend on biodiversity. However, the manipulation of natural ecosystems through the removal or addition of species, manipulation of drivers, etc. changes the richness, evenness and dominance, as well as the composition and variation of biodiversity, across spatial and temporal scales.
In China, about 55% of the land area has been affected by degradation, thereby reducing land productivity and China’s ability to provide sufficient food to feed its large population. To deal with this problem, China began promoting ecological restoration in the 1980s, with the early practices dominated by human activities such as ecological reconstruction by building artificial ecosystems (e.g., artificial forests and wetlands), as well as ecological restoration through engineering technologies (e.g., dams), with less consideration of the long-term impacts on sustainable development. A 5-year research program funded by China’s National Key Research and Development Program and recently completed, under the title “The methodology and indicator system for assessing ecological restoration technologies and evaluation of global ecosystem rehabilitation technologies” (Grant number 2016YFC0503700), indicated that 405 different kinds of ERTs have been used at 1029 degraded sites across the country, and 227 of the ERTs (56%) were reconstruction technologies such as afforestation, wetland establishment, chemical sand fixation, terraced fields, and check-dam construction. These data suggest strong human interventions in degraded land and ecosystems. Of the remainder, 115 of the interventions (28%) were restoration technologies with moderate human interventions, such as soil improvement through fertilization, intercropping, reseeding grassland and forest, and water purification; while 44 (11%) were natural or semi-natural technologies, such as conservation tillage, rotational grazing, and breeding of local and salt-resistant plant varieties; and 19 (5%) were management approaches such as the Sloping Land Conversion Programme, relocation of communities from degraded land to land that is more capable of sustaining them, certification of natural reserves, and identification of areas that must be protected against socioeconomic development to preserve biodiversity. These findings indicate that the restoration of China’s degraded land and ecosystems has been dominated by human-centered technologies and approaches, with a relatively small contribution from natural solutions such as ecosystem protection to allow natural recovery.
Thus, there is a high demand for new restoration approaches and ERTs. Consequently, since China’s 2012 definition of the goal of establishing an ecologically sustainable society, the overall guidance for ecological restoration has shifted to more nature-based solutions. In line with this change in emphasis, the key principle for restoration has been defined as prioritizing resource conservation and environmental protection, while letting nature restore itself. Thus, the future selection and application of ERTs will have to be done within the framework of prioritizing natural restoration, followed by artificial restoration as an auxiliary measure where necessary.
In addition, to ensure the scientific soundness of the selection and application of ERTs, government policies emphasize that the restoration technologies and approaches must be based on the detection of degradation and its degree, and on targets and standards for restoration. Restoration focuses on landscape-scale systems, such as the ecological protection and restoration of mountains, rivers, forests, farmland, lakes, grassland, ecological function zones, and key watersheds. The overall targets for the restoration in these areas will be the recovery of natural ecosystems, and the simultaneous improvement of socioeconomic development through the adoption of natural ERTs. Technology needs assessment, and the active participation of stakeholders are vital for identifying successful technologies and approaches that can be exported to or imported from other areas, and promoting China’s ecological construction.
Despite the great achievements in ecological restoration and associated impact assessments of the restoration technologies in ecological and environmental systems around the world, insufficient attention has been paid to the evaluation of impacts of restoration effort on the livelihoods of the people who have been affected on the one hand and the people who have influenced the implementation of the restoration programs on the other. This has raised concerns over the long-term sustainability of ecological restoration efforts. Therefore, it is necessary to explore the effects that the restoration activities have had on the livelihoods of the people, especially those who are living in the remote regions of the country.
The purposes of this special issue are to collect the researches done in the field of ecological restoration, as well as researches on the impact of restoration activities on the key components of human livelihoods in ecologically vulnerable regions in China and representative countries, in order to summarize the major restoration efforts that have been made over the past few decades and their associated impacts on livelihoods, and to explore the possible ways to balance ecological protection and livelihood development. Altogether, 17 papers are presented in this special issue, some of which were invited from the presentations made in the annual conference of the China Society of Natural Resources, and others were contributions from the authors at various institutions.

2 Key components in ecological restoration and livelihood maintenance interactions

Ecological degradation intensifies human-environment conflicts and adversely affects local residents’ livelihoods. Ecological restoration approaches include, but are not limited to, policy and regulation such as land use conversion, migration, payment for ecosystem services, establishment of national parks and natural reserves, etc.; as well as ERTs such as engineering, biological and agronomy measurements. These policies and technical methods have been playing key roles in restoring degraded ecosystems, enhancing ecosystem services and functions, and improving the habitats and niches of wild animals. Thus, for assessing livelihood impacts, it is necessary to start by identifying the factors that lead to the changes in the livelihoods. From the restoration perspective, these factors include the detection of degradation over time and space, investigation of ERTs and the measurements that have been applied for the restoration of specific sites, exploration of potential links between restoration activities and components which are essential for the livelihoods, and assessments of the impact that these activities may have on “making a living”.
Livelihood refers to a person’s “means of securing the basic necessities-food, water, shelter, fuel, and clothing-of life”, so it comprises the activities people do to earn a living. This definition encompasses the set of activities required to obtain these necessities by working either individually or in groups to sustainably meet individual and household requirements. In practice, the definition of “livelihood” differs among countries based on differences in their economic levels, social relationships and environmental conditions. In China, there is no standard definition, but for rural residents, the term generally refers to income-generating activities both on and off their farm. The concept of livelihood has gained wide acceptance as a valuable means for analyzing the factors that influence human living, well-being and impacts on the ecosystems that sustain them, particularly in the most impoverished and ecologically fragile areas in the developing world.
To secure the basic necessities and make a living, individuals normally find the most suitable livelihood strategies which include various behavioural strategies and choices, e.g., how people consume and preserve ecosystem services and goods to satisfy their needs. This has become a major consideration where the interactions between ecosystem protection and livelihood improvement are concerned, due to the fact that restoration policies affect the sustainable use of human, natural, financial, social and physical capital—all of which are important aspects of livelihoods. Specifically, restoration policy and technology affect the sustainable provision of goods and services such as food/fibre/fuel, fresh water, clean air, and waste recycling, as well as recreation from natural ecosystems. As a consequence, those who are affected by changes have to change their behaviour in order to cope with the changes. For instance, they may have to reduce cropping and grazing area, decrease the number of livestock, change food and fuel consumption patterns, seek non-farming income sources, etc. These changes exert influences on the household use of natural assets (primarily the land), their agricultural assets (farming and grazing activities) and their financial assets (income), and reduce their dependence on local resources, resulting in fundamental transformations of their lifestyles.
From a broad perspective, how to protect natural ecosystems, and how to promote socio-economic development remain as the country’s priorities and key considerations, and how to achieve balanced development between ecological protection and livelihood improvement remains as a key research question from the scientific research perspective. Among these questions, the common issues often operate in a certain region with location-specific situations, and conflicts can exist, more or less, between protection and development. For instance, in an ecologically vulnerable region, the implementation of restoration programs can cause a transformation of the major activities from agricultural production to ecological protection, leading to enhanced ecological functions but weakened economic functions of the ecosystems, and thus, sustainable livelihoods are at stake.
The conflicts between protection and development are understood as the conflicts between ecological systems and social systems through dynamic land transitions such as land use (human control) and land cover (biophysical control). In the social systems, population, social/economic structure, political/institution regimes, culture and technology, etc., influence land use patterns. As a consequence, key components in the ecological systems subsequently change, including biochemistry, biodiversity, water, air and soil, etc. Therefore, land transitions and interactions between land use and land cover will affect ecosystem health and functions, such as the provision of clean water, clean air, waste recycling, food/fibre/fuel, and recreation, leading to social challenges including poverty, conflict, social injustice, migration, consumption and health, as well as ecological challenges such as pollution, diseases, food/fibre/fuel shortages, overcrowding and ensuring a clean water supply. The combined effects of all of the above factors will affect the maintenance of substantial livelihoods.

3 About this special issue

This special issue is a collection of researches related to ecological restoration and livelihood improvement, which covers various spatial and temporal scales—from global to regional and country levels—and is organized into three parts. The papers in the first group focus on the evaluation of ecological restoration activities, including an overall review of ecological restoration technologies for desertification control, evaluation of sand fixing service in Inner Mongolia, salinization in the Yellow River, water provision service balance in Jinghe watershed, and ecological degradation in Laishihai area, as well as the factors involved in the occurrence of subsidence in Lahore City. The papers in the second group focus on the analysis of livelihood changes as a consequence of ecological restoration activities, which includes the main livelihood aspects such as food consumption pattern changes in Uzbekistan and Nepal, tourism activity in Yunnan Province, human settlements and the Tibetan wild donkey population in Tibet. The papers in the third group focus on the assessment of restoration impacts on livelihood, which includes the impact of relocation on the livelihoods in Tibet, urban green space and the supply-demand relationship of ecosystem services, livelihood transition and its ecological effects, as well as the impact on low carbon tourism. We hope that this collection will provide a scientific basis for future research and decision making on balancing the relationships between ecological restoration and livelihood improvement.