In August I spent several energizing weeks in western China, visiting three landscapes with Professor Li Changxiao of China’s Southwest University, one of the country’s leading experts on landscape restoration and a Fellow of EcoAgriculture Partners. While these places each pose strikingly different landscape challenges, in all three the local governments are energetically struggling to devise integrated landscape management solutions and to mobilize partnerships with communities and the private sector to do so. This reflects not just one more new program, but rather is a central feature of China’s official new vision of becoming an “ecological civilization.”

This post originally appeared on the EcoAgriculture Blog. It is reposted with permission.

Shifting towards a national policy of eco-development

First, some background. As China pursued its vision of collectivist economic growth, including the Great Leap Forward, during the first decades of Mao’s rule, with massive industrialization and input-driven agro-industrial development, the environment received scant attention; natural resources were valued mainly as inputs to be exploited. By the end of the 20th century, however, the resulting environmental degradation had reached critical conditions, with wake-up calls to policymakers taking the form of damaging floods, landslides and sandstorms; loss of scarce agricultural lands due to salinization, depleted organic matter and contamination with toxic chemicals; water sources unsafe for human use; and chronic levels of air pollution in major cities hazardous to human health.

In response, starting in the 1990s many steps were taken by the government to address the symptoms of unsustainable development—waste clean-up, logging bans, payments to farmers to convert sloping landsto grass or forest, emission controls on pollutants and greenhouse gases, investment in renewable energy and large-scale land restoration programs. China’s government agencies have historically been highly ‘siloed’ with little cross-sector planning or implementation, so these environmental programs were largely on their own.

The new national government formed by President Xi Jinping has officially embraced a new strategy of sustainable development. Not only is the country committed to reach the global 2030 Sustainable Development Goals by 2020—a decade early—but also has embraced a new vision of China as the “ecological civilization.” The three civilian priorities of the government are to invest in the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative building the infrastructure for global trade networks within Eurasia and the Horn of Africa, to eradicate poverty, and to restore and sustain a healthy environment: they explicitly seek to accomplish these in an integrated way. When I asked the best way to translate “integrated landscape management” into Chinese, a group of local researchers suggested we use the language of President Xi to describe this new perspective: “Blue waters and green mountains make mountains of silver and gold.”

Mobilizing local action and innovation

This central government mandate has set off an urgent search for local development strategies that simultaneously deliver economic growth, environmental conservation and community incomes. Provincial and municipal political leaders are being held accountable for achieving these goals, and they are explicitly pushed to devise and use integrated approaches across agriculture, forestry, industry, water, tourism, energy and social development sectors.