BEIJING, May 11 (UPI) -- A program to encourage sustainable farming in rural China has helped restore eroded land while producing economic gains for many farmers, U.S. researchers say.
The government program aims to return more than 37 million acres of cropland on steep slopes back to forest or grassland. Villagers are paid in cash and rice to give up farming and find new sources of employment, a Stanford University release reported Wednesday.
"It's a tremendously innovative program designed to address two critical problems -- securing the environment and providing economic opportunities for people in rural, desperately poor areas," said study co-author Gretchen Daily, a biology professor at Stanford.
In the1960s, farmers in China's mountainous western provinces began clearing vast stretches of land to make way for more crops, which helped feed a growing nation but also set the scene for disaster.
When record monsoon rains hit the region in 1998, soil from agricultural fields washed down the mountain slopes, killing thousands of people in the villages below.
The floods moved China to reconsider the wisdom of replacing forests with farms, especially in steeply sloping terrain.
In 2000, the government launched a campaign to reforest the countryside.
A study by Stanford and Xi'an Jiaotong University evaluated the land conversion program to assess whether it had reached its twin goals of improving the environment and battling poverty in rural mountain regions.
The evaluation of the sloping land conversion program will provide feedback to the Chinese government that will allow it to fine-tune the system for calculating subsidy payments in the future, Daily said.