In order to fundamentally improve the rapidly worsening ecological conditions in China, since the 1998 extreme flood disaster, the central government took “mountain enclosure with tree plantings, land conversion from farming back to tree planting” as key measures for disaster relief and rehabilitation as well as river system management. In order to gain experiences and improve policies, since 1999 some representative sited were selected to carry out pilot trials of land conversion from farming back to tree planting. By the end of 2001, earlier or later 20 provinces (autonomous regions, municipalities directly under the central government) and Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps had conducted pilot trials. In 2002, based on success of the pilot trials, the land conversion program was fully incepted. The yearly progresses are described below.
In 1999, three provinces of Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu led took the lead to experiment on land conversion from farming back to tree planting according to the policy of ”converting farming land to forestland, mountain closure for forest restoration, subsidy with food and contracted individual’s responsibility”. A inspection organized by the State Forestry Administration indicated that the three provinces completed 0.448 million ha of land conversion in total, of which 0.3815 million ha were tree plantings in converted lands and 66,500 ha were tree plantings in barren mountains and wastelands suitable for growing trees.
In March 2000, approved by the State Council, pilot trials of land conversion were formally started in 188 counties (municipalities, districts, flags) of 17 central and western provinces (regions, municipalities) and Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps The total area of pilot trials allocated by the central government was 0.8721 million, of which 0.4046 million ha were tree plantings in converted lands and 0.4675 million ha were tree plantings in barren mountains and wastelands suitable for growing trees. In addition, a total of 28,000 ha of land conversion were allocated to the program regions of the Beijing-Tianjin-Tangshan sandstorm control from the sources in Beijing, Hebei, Shanxi, and Inner Mongolia. On September 10, the State Council issued “Some advices on better implementation of pilot trials of land conversion from farming back to tree planting (State Council  24)”.
In 2001, some areas with severe water loss and soil erosion, and damages by wind-blown sand such as Dongting Lake catchment, Poyang Lake catchment, Danjiangkou Water Reservoir area, Hongshuihe River reservoir area of the cascade power stations, Yan’an of Shaanxi, Hetian of Xinjiang, western Liaoning prone to sandstorms were included in the pilot trials, the land conversion program was extended to 224 counties (municipalities, districts, flags) of 20 central and western provinces (autonomous regions, municipalities directly under the central government) and Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps. The yearly total task of the pilot trials was 0.9833 million ha, of which 0.42 million ha were plantings in converted lands, and 0.5633 million ha were plantings in barren mountains and wastelands suitable for growing trees.
On January 20, 2002, the land conversion program was announced in full start at a televised natal working meeting on the land conversion program. On April 10, the State Council issued “some advices on further improvement of policy measures for land conversion from farming back to tree planting (State Council  10)”. Tasks of land conversion were allocated to 25 provinces (autonomous regions, municipalities directly under the central government) of Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongjiang, Anhui, Jiangxi, Henan, Hubei, Hunan, Guangxi, Hainan, Chongqing, Sichuan, Guizhou, Yunnan, Tibet, Shaanxi, Gansu, Qinghai, Ningxia, Xinjiang and Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps with a yearly total of 5.7287 million ha in 2002, of which 2.6467 million ha were plantings in converted lands and 3.082 million ha were plantings in barren mountains and wastelands suitable for growing trees.
In 2003, the “Regulations of land conversion from farmland back to forestland” formally came into effect. The central government allocated land conversion tasks to 25 provinces (autonomous regions, municipalities directly under the central government) and Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps with a total area of 7.1334 million ha, of which 3.3667 million ha were plantings in converted lands and 3.7667 million ha were plantings in barren mountains and wastelands suitable for growing trees. Local governments overcome the negative impacts by the outbreak of SARS and carefully enforced the “Regulations of land conversion from farmland back to forestland”, through intensified implementation of tasks and responsibilities and strengthened program management, all tasks were fully completed.
In 2004, according to new conditions of national economic development, the central government made structural and adaptive adjustment of the annual task of the land conversion program, and the focus of the land conversion program was shifted from large-scale implementation to consolidation of achievement. Tasks were allocated to 25 provinces (autonomous regions, municipalities directly under the central government) and Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, with a total area of 4 million ha of land conversion, of which 0.6667 million ha were plantings in converted lands and 3.3333 million ha were plantings in barren mountains and wastelands suitable for growing trees. On April 13, the Office of the State Council issued “a notice on improvement of food subsidy for land conversion from farming back to tree planting (State Council  34)”, the material subsidy with food to farmers was changed to cash subsidy in principle.
From 1999-2004, the total area of land conversion comes to 19.1655 million ha, of which 7.8862 million ha were plantings in converted lands and 11.2793 million ha were plantings in barren mountains and wastelands suitable for growing trees. Currently, the tasks allocated by the central government have been basically completed, some provinces, autonomous regions have exceeded the allocated areas. And inspections conducted at various levels indicated that the quality of the program was good in general.
From 2000-2004, the accumulative investment by the central government was 74.803 billion RMB, of which 14.374 billion RMB were the subsidy for the cost of seeds and plant stocks, 121 million RMB were the cost of pre-program preparation, 6.285 billion RMB were subsidy for the living costs, and 54.023 billion RMB were subsidy for food cost.
The implementation of the land conversion program has changed the traditional farming model of barren land cultivation with food crop growing for many generations, realizing the historic transformation from deforestation for crop cultivation to converting farming to tree planting. The ecological conditions were effectively improved, facilitating addressing issues related farmers, rural areas and agriculture in central and western China.
1)Water loss and soil erosion control and desertification combating was accelerated, ecological conditions were significantly improved. The implementation of the land conversion program increased the annual national afforestation area of 4-5 million ha to more than 6.67 million ha for a successive 3 years, the afforestation area by the land conversion program in 2002, 2003 and 2004 accounted for 58%, 68% and54% respectively of the total area of afforestation in China, and in some western provinces (autonomous regions) accounted for more than 90%. The land conversion program adjusted the relation between human and nature, changed the farmers’ tradition of extensive cultivation, the implementation of the land conversion program greatly accelerated the soil erosion control and desertification combating, the ecological conditions were significantly improved. According to a monitoring report by the Yangtze River Management Commission, the annual volume of sediment discharge in 2003 at Yichang Station located in the upper reaches of Yangtze River reduced by 80%, and sediment discharge of major branches was lower than the average of many years. The average sediment concentration at stations downstream from Cuntan station reduced by 50-79%. Land conversion from farming back to tree planting was considered by scientists the main contributor to the reduction of sediment discharge in Yangtze River. From 1999-2004, the area of land conversion in Sichuan Province was 0.8053 million ha, the accumulative reduction of soil erosion was 267 million tons, an annual average of 53 million tons which accounts for 1/4 of the total annual quantity of soil conserved by forests in the province. The sediment concentration per cubic meter in tributaries Min River and Fu River reduced respectively by 60% and 80%. It is clear that the contribution of land conversion program was great to putting the ecological development into a critical stage of “destruction and improvement in balance”.
2)The structural adjustment of rural industries was largely accelerated. In the past, due to lack of sources for livelihood shortly after structural adjustment although people in mountainous and desertification areas were clear about the low productivity of sloping farmland and desertified farmland and willing to make the structural adjustment, the adjustment progressed slowly. The land conversion provided a longer transition period for the structural adjustment of rural industries, an excellent opportunity for structural adjustment of agriculture industries. The land conversion was taken by local governments as a key measure for addressing the issues of “rural areas, agriculture and farmers”, appropriate structural adjustment of land uses and farming practices, extension of multiple models of development and management, e.g. ecological forest-grass, forest-fruit-medicine, forest-bamboo-pulp, forest-grass-husbandry, and tree-cash crop intercropping, combined tree planting and animal husbandry, industry supporting, intensified development of ecological industries and recycling economy, all have promoted structural adjustment of agriculture industries. According to the conception of “expanding fruit industry, developing animal husbandry, exploring greenhouse cultivation, pushing forward processing industry and driving service industry”, in combination with the land conversion program, Yan’an municipality achieved increases in food production and farmer’s income while farmland area actually reduced.
3)The integrated capacity of food production was secured and improved. After land conversion form farming back to tree planting, due to ecological improvement and transfer and concentration of production elements, the pattern of agriculture production shifted from extensive to intensive management, leading to the guarantee and improvement of integrated capacity of agriculture production in program regions and the middle and lower reaches of Yangtze River and Yellow River. In the past several years, the national average unit area food production reduced by 3.67%, and the national total production reduced by 15.9%, whereas in western region the unit area food production increased from 3,728 kg/ha in 1999 to 3,951 kg/ha in 2003, and the total food production reduced only by 6.3%. In Guizhou, Gansu provinces, Liangshan Prefecture of Sichuan province, Chifeng Municipality and Wulanchabu League of Inner Mongolia, food production was increased while farmland area declined. Meanwhile, the land conversion program adjusted the structure of land uses, converting farming lands unsuitable for growing food back to tree planting was favorable for harmonized development among agriculture, forestry and animal husbandry. The land conversion program also largely promoted the development of forest resources of fruits, woody foods and oils, and pasture resources, not only increasing effective supply of foods but also adjusting and optimizing food structure.
4)Farmers’ income was largely increased. Firstly, the subsidy for food provided by the government made direct increase of farmers’ income. By the end of 2004, the land conversion program made 30 million households and 120 million farmers obtain direct benefit from the governmental subsidy for food, a farmer could get more than 600 RMB of subsidy on average. According to a survey on rural household by the State Statistic Bureau, the average rate of per capita income increase of farmers in 2003 was higher in western region than the national average, and higher of households who conducted land conversion than those did not. Secondly, benefit from land conversion program became an important income source for farmers. In some locations with good natural conditions, in combination with the land conversion program, development of ecological economic industries such as forest and bamboo, forest and fruit trees, forest and tea, and animal husbandry, increased the income of farmers. Currently, most economic forests established by the land conversion program have not entered the peak period of fruit production, and the contribution of land conversion program to income increase of farmers is likely to grow. Thirdly, the transfer of surplus rural labors to non agriculture industries and diversified economy was promoted, reducing the farmers’ reliance on sloping farmland and desertification land. According to a survey on hilly areas in Sichuan Province, every 0.2 ha of land conversion can have 1 labor transferred. About 2 million labors in the hilly areas and the basin surrounding areas of the province were transferred due to the implementation of land conversion program, creating an annual income of about 10 billion RMB from labor services. Fourthly, the land conversion program steadily helped the poverty alleviation of farmers, largely addressing the issue of farmers’ re-impoverishment due to disasters, and playing an important role in poverty alleviation and economic development in the new age.
5)The fundamental change of ideology and awareness of grass root cadres and the masses was promoted. The implementation of land conversion program significantly enhanced the ecological awareness of grass root cadres and the masses, particularly in western region cadres and the masses more recognized that the worsening ecological conditions was the main cause for poverty and that ecological improvement is the only way out to change their living conditions and lifestyle and the precondition for development and progress. Meanwhile, by implementing the land conversion program, all levels of government strengthened supporting measures such as farmland water resources, rural energy, ecological resettlement, captive livestock raising, and encouraging farmers converting farmland to forestland to develop ecological-economic style downstream industries and to engage labor services in cities, farmers’ production and living conditions were significantly improved, cadres and the masses in program regions can see the hope and opportunity to change the current status, resulting in fundamental changes of their conceptions on living, lifestyle and development. Some grass root cadres considered that the land conversion brought a new revolution to the rural areas in China. Practices proved that the decision of land conversion from farming back to tree planting by the central government was perfectly right, and the land conversion is a heart-winning program, which respects peoples’ willingness and reflects the modern concepts of “three representations”, i.e. the representations of development needs of advanced production forces, the progressing direction of advanced culture, and the fundamental interests of peoples. The program produced far reaching impacts on ecological construction and national economic and social development.