Xiaodong Chen, associate professor of geography at The University of North Carolina at Chapel HIll, is the 2018-19 CURS Scholar-in-Residence. His research interests focus on coupled human and natural systems (CHANS). Chen studies how human activities affect the natural environment, how human livelihood may be changed due to changes in environmental conditions, what are complex interactions among components in human and natural systems and how human-environment interactions are influenced by policies. Learn more about his research at http://chen.web.unc.edu/

Below is a transcript of the video, Xiaodong Chen: Research on Coupled Human and Natural Systems

Hi, my name is Xiaodong Chen. I’m an associate professor at the department of geography here at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Tell us about your work examining the effects of conservation and development policies on food, energy and water systems.

My current research has been focusing on the impacts of payments for ecosystem services and the development of strategies on human-environment interactions in China. Payments for ecosystem services are a type of conservation mechanism that shape human activities to protect ecosystem services such as food, energy and water that we humans have taken from the natural environment. Compared to many other conservation mechanisms payments for ecosystem services are also often considered more effective because they provide the economic incentives directly to ecosystem services providers. So, this approach has been widely implemented in the United States, China and many other countries around the world. Currently in China there are two major payments for ecosystem services programs. One is called the Grain for Green program. That provides the subsidies to rural people to convert some of their cropland into forests. The other one is the natural forest conservation program. That protects natural forests through logging bans and also increased investment in monitoring to prevent illegal harvesting. So, in addition to these conservation efforts, because of the rapid economic growth in China there have been millions of employment opportunities, mostly in urban areas. Many rural people’s livelihoods are also affected by development strategies such as rural-to-urban labor migration and the participation in off-farm employment. So, within this context, we are trying to evaluate the impacts of these conservation programs and the development strategy on the dynamic interactions between humans and the environment.

What has been surprising about what you’ve found in your research?

One surprising, and also interesting, finding is that in addition to the conservation payment amount and the program duration, people’s participation in these conservation programs is also affected by peer pressure. That means people are more likely to participate in these conservation programs if most of their neighbors are also willing to participate. Another surprising finding is that as forests recover following these conservation programs, many wildlife populations rebounded. As a result, crop damage by some wild animals has been increasing. In fact, we found that a substantial portion of economic benefits that rural people received from these conservation programs was offset by the impacts of wildlife crop raiding.

What do you hope to learn in the next stage of your research?

So, in the next stage we will try to understand the impacts of these conservation programs and the development strategies, a variety of ecosystem services and address questions like – what change in the ecosystem services can be attributed to these conservation programs? What development strategies can affect human livelihoods and their environmental behavior that will ultimately affect the ecosystem services. We also plan to develop a systems model to simulate the long-term interactions among conservation and the development strategies, various human activities and different types of ecosystem services. So this systems model that we will develop can also be used as a laboratory to simulate human and environmental outcomes under different policy scenarios.

What your next steps in this research?

For the next step we are looking for funding to support our field research to measure change in the ecosystem services, and also conduct interviews with key stakeholders. We also plan to map dynamics in human activities and change in environmental outcomes. This data and the information will be used as inputs of our systems model that will be developed as a web-based tool, so that our framework and approaches will be useful for studies of ecosystem services in many other places around the world.

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