Special Issue: Urban and Rural Governance Toward Sustainable Development Goals

Rocky desertification poverty in Southwest China: Progress, challenges and enlightenment to rural revitalization

  • ZUO Taian , 1 ,
  • ZHANG Fengtai , 2, * ,
  • ZHANG Junyi 3 ,
  • GAO Lei 4 ,
  • YU Shijie 1
  • 1. School of Tourism Management and Services, Chongqing University of Education, Chongqing 400067, China
  • 2. School of Management, Chongqing University of Technology, Chongqing 400054, China
  • 3. School of Geography and Tourism, Chongqing Normal University, Chongqing 401331, China
  • 4. CSIRO, Waite Campus, Urrbrae, SA 5064, Australia
*Zhang Fengtai (1979-), PhD and Professor, specialized in ecological resource management and high quality development. E-mail:

Zuo Taian (1984-), PhD and Associate Professor, specialized in soil and water conservation and desertification combating. E-mail:

Received date: 2021-11-15

  Accepted date: 2022-04-02

  Online published: 2022-09-25

Supported by

National Social Science Foundation of China(20AJY005)

National Natural Science Foundation of China(41901214)

Natural Science Foundation of Chongqing(cstc2021jcyj-msxmX0963)

Social Science Planning Program of Chongqing(2019YBGL075)

Social Science Planning Program of Chongqing(2021SZ27)

Humanities and Social Science Program of Chongqing(19SKGH132)

Scientific Research Project of Chongqing University of Education(KY202125C)

Regional Tourism Research Centre of Chongqing University of Education(2021XJPT07)


Rocky desertification poverty (RDP) refers to rural poverty triggered or exacerbated by rocky desertification, which deprives farmers of opportunities for improving their financial conditions through agricultural production. As China implements strategies including building a moderately prosperous society, targeted poverty alleviation, and rural revitalization, issues concerning RDP have become the work foci for the Chinese government and research hotspots for Chinese academic circles. This paper provides a thorough review of the history, progress, challenges and prospects based on decades of RDP studies in Southwest China. First, we review the origin, definitions and historical development trends of RDP. Over nearly four decades, research on RDP can be framed as four stages: start-up, poverty alleviation and ecological reconstruction, rocky desertification comprehensive control and green development. We find that RDP research progress appears to be directly related to the Chinese government’s policy support and decision-making in mitigating RDP. Second, previous findings are reviewed and summarised regarding four research aspects: relationship exploration between rocky desertification and rural poverty, mechanisms of rocky desertification for exacerbating poverty, strategies for eliminating RDP and anti-poverty benefit evaluations of rocky desertification control efforts. Third, the remaining challenges are identified and summarised, including the challenges of conducting theoretical research on RDP and consolidating achievements in eliminating RDP. We find that while many achievements have been made in the study of RDP in recent decades, the completeness and systematism of the theoretical system remain weak, and the guidance for empirical research is still insufficient. Finally, this research is fundamental in achieving rural revitalization in rocky desertification areas. The key to eliminating RDP lies in scientific rural transformation development. Given that the karst ecological environment in the subtropical zone is fragile, these regions should build a new rural regional economic system, abandon extensive and predatory development that sacrifices the environment and resources, and promote the transition from backwards development modes to high-quality and sustainable development. This paper will contribute to the current understanding of the issues of RDP, provide theoretical support for the realization of rural revitalization in rocky desertification areas and provide other countries with China’s experience in poverty alleviation.

Cite this article

ZUO Taian , ZHANG Fengtai , ZHANG Junyi , GAO Lei , YU Shijie . Rocky desertification poverty in Southwest China: Progress, challenges and enlightenment to rural revitalization[J]. Journal of Geographical Sciences, 2022 , 32(7) : 1357 -1382 . DOI: 10.1007/s11442-022-2001-x

1 Introduction

Rocky desertification is a land degradation process that changes a karst area covered by soil and vegetation to a rocky, desert-like landscape. It has occurred in various countries and regions, including the European Mediterranean and Dinaric Karst regions of the Balkan Peninsula, Southwest China on a large scale and, alarmingly, even in tropical rainforests such as those in Haiti and Barbados (Jiang et al., 2014). Rocky desertification causes not only ecological problems but also serious social problems. Its negative impact on the local economy may not be apparent when land resources are abundant. However, in Southwest China, where the population density is already high, the expansion of rocky desertification has added pressure to people’s lives (Jiang et al., 2014; He et al., 2019), causing severe poverty that is difficult to tackle (Wang et al., 2003) and exacerbating the poverty level of residents who depend on agricultural products (Wang et al., 2019a). With the implementation of measures such as building a comprehensively prosperous society, targeted poverty alleviation and rural revitalization in recent years, scholars have come to realise that rocky desertification poverty (RDP) is a significant obstacle hindering China’s poverty alleviation efforts. Correspondingly, RDP has become a hotspot issue for the Chinese government and academia.
Rocky desertification is one of the four geological/ecological disasters in China (i.e., rocky desertification in Southwest China, soil erosion in the Loess Plateau, red soil in the hilly region of Southeast China and desertification in Northwest China) (Yang, 1995). Thus far, scholars have carried out extensive literature reviews on the concept and causes (Jiang et al., 2014), control technology (Jiang et al., 2009) and control projects (Xiao et al., 2014; Zhang et al., 2021b) of rocky desertification as well as practical experiences of poverty alleviation in rocky desertification areas (Cheng et al., 2017; Zhao et al., 2021). Very few reviews have introduced the study of RDP in China by summarizing the development trends, research findings and remaining challenges. These, however, are of great significance for researchers and laypeople to understand the history of RDP and its development. RDP is a unique poverty type in China. Questions regarding what makes it unique, what findings have been made by researchers and how research hotspots have changed with time must be answered. Introducing China’s experience in eliminating RDP and scholars’ research findings in this field is another goal of this paper. Therefore, based on previous research findings (Zuo, 2014; Zuo et al., 2021), we carry out an in-depth and systematic review of China’s RDP research, including its conceptual connotations, historical course, critical achievements, challenges and solutions for implementing rural revitalization. These review results are likely to provide theoretical guidance for China to consolidate its poverty alleviation achievements and scientifically implement a rural revitalization strategy (RRS).

2 Research progress

2.1 Definitions

Since it was first discovered, rocky desertification has been closely connected to rural poverty (Yuan, 1997), and relevant issues have been regarded as research priorities of China’s academia (Wang and Li, 2007). In the 1980s, several Chinese researchers found space coupling between the karst distribution zone and rural poverty zone in Southwest China. This unique poverty type has since attracted attention from scholars, who have proposed the terms mountainous poverty (Chen and Ming, 1986; Xu and Qin, 1988), karst poverty (Zhang, 1995) and karst mountain poverty (Cai, 1996) to explain local poverty issues from the perspective of karst geology, landform and geographical location. There was no clear definition of RDP until the beginning of this century. Xiong et al. (2002) proposed the term RDP in 2002 and pointed out that ‘rocky desertification plays a significant role in the formation of poverty, and rocky desertification and rural poverty are like twins’. Hu (2006) proposed the term rocky desertification interactive poverty in 2005 and pointed out that ‘the rocky desertification hinders the economic development by reducing available resources and thus leads to the poverty. Due to the poverty, the resource is overexploited, and the ecological environment is damaged, and the rocky desertification habitat is ruined’. Dan (2011) proposed the term rocky desertification accumulative poverty in 2011 and noted that ‘due to the rocky desertification, the economic gap between the rocky desertification areas and the surrounding areas were widening’. Zuo (2014) explained the concept of RDP in 2014, and he pointed out that ‘RDP is only one of the types of rural poverty in karst areas, which is a unique type of poverty-stricken Southwest China’. Zhao et al. (2020) stated that a weak economic foundation is a common characteristic of rural areas in karst areas and that ecological vulnerability plays a decisive role in rural spatial differentiation. Here, we argue that RDP is a very typical and unique type of rural poverty in Southwest China, as rocky desertification deprives farmers of opportunities to improve their financial conditions through agricultural production.

2.2 Development trends

The historical trends for RDP mitigation policies and research are framed as four stages and described below.
Stage 1: Start-up
In the mid-1980s, exposed basement rock led to a large-scale rocky hill landscape in the mountainous karst regions of Southwest China, which drew attention from karst geologists. Yuan (1997) was among the earliest scholars who adopted the term ‘rocky desertification’. He pointed out that the rocky desertification areas in Southwest China are faced with the significant challenges of getting through geological/ecological disasters and eliminating poverty. Obviously, from the beginning, rocky desertification and rural poverty were understood to be two closely related phenomena (Figure 1). In April 1988, the State Council designated the upper reaches of the Yangtze River as the key protection area for soil erosion and identified the lower reaches of the Jinsha River and Bijie Prefecture, the Southern Gansu and Southern Shaanxi areas, the middle and lower reaches of the Jialing River, and the Three Gorges Reservoir area as the key control areas of the first stage of the Yangtze River Soil and Water Conservation Program. In the same year, China’s No. 3356 Project of WFP was launched in the Zhijin and Nayong counties of Guizhou Province, focusing on afforestation, terracing slope cropland, road construction, skills training and grass planting for animal husbandry. More researchers began to explore the issue of rural poverty in rocky desertification areas in their studies (CAS, 2003; Xu and Zhang, 2014). Although theories on the correlations between rocky desertification and rural poverty were accepted by academic circles, quantitative analyses were few (Xiong et al., 2002).
Figure 1 Rocky desertification in the karst area of Southwest China: (a) landscape of the rocky desertification in Puding County, Guizhou Province, in 2014 (photo by Fengtai Zhang); (b) two farmers ploughing the poor land in Puding County, Guizhou, in 2014 (photo by Fengtai Zhang); (c) landscape of rocky desertification in Shizhu County, Chongqing Municipality, in 2020 (photo by Taian Zuo)
Stage 2: Poverty alleviation and ecological reconstruction
In 1994, China adopted the Seven-Year Program for Lifting 80 Million People out of Poverty. In the same year, the Chinese Academy of Sciences published ‘Advice on Sustainable Development and Poverty Alleviation by Science and Technology in Southwest Karst Mountainous Areas’ (CAS, 1994). In 2001, the Tenth Five-Year Plan of National Economy and Society Development of the People’s Republic of China was issued to restore the original landscape and alleviate the rocky desertification in Yunnan Province, Guizhou Province and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. For the first time, rocky desertification appeared in a national plan (SC, 2001). Subsequently, the 11th, 12th and 13th five-year plans (2006-2020) included rocky desertification control as a national objective.
In addition, China launched a series of programs for ecological protection, including the Yangtze River Soil and Water Conservation Program, the Yangtze River Shelterbelt Program, the Natural Forest Conservation Program and the Grain for Green Program (Chen et al., 2012; Miao et al., 2015). Although these national programs were not specifically directed at rocky desertification areas, they played an essential role in improving the ecological environment in Southwest China. During this period, research that integrated correlation analyses and spatio-temporal coupling analyses emerged in the domain of rocky desertification and rural poverty. However, few studies touched upon the actual issue, e.g. the process, mechanism, driving force and practical analysis of RDP. Most of the studies concentrated on the concept (Li et al., 2004; Li et al., 2016), site conditions (Wang et al., 2004), causes (Yan et al., 2012), impact (Jiang et al., 2016), distribution (Ying et al., 2014; Wang et al., 2019b), evolution (Yang et al., 2011), and control countermeasure of rocky desertification (Su and Zhou, 1995).
Stage 3: Rocky desertification comprehensive control
In 2007, the State Council approved the Comprehensive Management Framework for Solving Rocky Desertification in Karst Areas (2006-2015), which was formulated by the National Development and Reform Commission. In 2008, the State Council designed and implemented a rocky desertification comprehensive control program in 100 pilot counties. There were 200 key counties in 2011, 300 key counties in 2012 and 314 key counties in 2014 (Jiang et al., 2016). In 2016, the Thirteenth Five-Year Construction Plan of Comprehensive Control Project of Rock Desertification in Karst Area once again designated 200 counties located in contiguous impoverished areas as key control areas. The experience summary of such rocky desertification comprehensive control projects became a research hotspot (Huang et al., 2008). As the program proceeded, the driving mechanisms and program benefit evaluations became new research hotspots. Much of the research concentrated on the assessment of the achievements made during the Stage I control program and the necessary measures to be taken for the smooth implementation of the Stage II control program (Jiang et al., 2016). The State Forestry Administration distributed the Indicator Framework for Evaluating Benefits of Rocky Desertification Comprehensive Control Program in Karst Areas (State Forestry Administration, China [2009] No.172) in July 2008. If the environmental protection projects do not allow for farmers’ livelihoods, the achievements will be unsustainable (Zhang et al., 2016a). A series of assessments on the rocky desertification comprehensive control projects were performed (Xiong et al., 2012; Zhang et al., 2018).
Stage 4: Green development
In 2015, China officially put forward the concept of green development in the Fifth Plenary Session of the Eighteenth National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. The Thirteenth Five-Year Construction Plan of Comprehensive Control Project of Rock Desertification in Karst Area clearly put forward that green development should be the basic concept of rock desertification control in 2016. Major decisions, including ecological civilization construction, building a moderately prosperous society, targeted poverty alleviation and RRS, were put forth in the Eighteenth National Congress and have since been implemented. Both the ‘Opinions of Accelerating Ecological Civilization Construction’ and ‘Opinions of the State Council on Implementing RRS’ decided ‘to keep carrying forward the program of rocky desertification comprehensive control’. According to the results of the third rocky desertification monitoring conducted in eight provincial-level regions of Southwest China (SFA, 2018), the area of rocky desertification decreased by 19,300 km2 between 2011 and 2016, and the whole poverty-stricken population decreased by 38.03 million between 2011 and 2015, with the poverty rate dropping from 21.1% to 7.7%. Additionally, China, as one of the signatory countries of the SDGs, designed and implemented several national sustainability policies to promote Ecological Civilisation and Beautiful China (Bryan et al., 2018; Sun et al., 2018). Now, China is in the transition from poverty alleviation to rural revitalization. Its most important task is to consolidate its achievements in poverty alleviation. Thus, it is necessary to integrate green development into RRS in rocky desertification areas.

2.3 Previous research findings

2.3.1 Relationship between rocky desertification and rural poverty

Quantitative analysis on relationship research is mainly performed in two ways:
(1) The correlation coefficient between rocky desertification indicators and rural economic indicators is calculated, and the economic indicators that play a significant role in the rocky desertification are determined. Xiong et al. (2002) carried out a correlation analysis and comprehensive comparison analysis of rocky desertification and rural poverty. According to the research findings, rocky desertification is significantly correlated with the arable land per capita, crops per capita, rural net income per capita, poor population, economic density and ratio of primary industry but irrelevant to the indicators of regional economic output. Wang (2010) discussed the relationship between population, poverty and rocky degradation and found that poverty incidence and population size are negatively correlated. Such a correlation is significant. Moreover, the index of poverty is positively correlated with the index of seriously degraded land area.
(2) The spatial correlations between rocky desertification and rural poverty are measured by introducing the spatial coupling method. Spatial coupling refers to the consistency of spatial distribution between rocky desertification and rural poverty (Tong et al., 2003; Barbier, 2010). Yuan (2008) pointed out that 49 counties with rocky desertification areas between 300 and 700 km2 in Southwest China belong to poverty-stricken countries, while 21 counties do not have poverty problems. The ratio of poverty to non-poverty counties was 2.33:1. Huang and Wang (2010) pointed out that 39 of 50 of Guizhou’s national-level impoverished counties are located in rocky desertification areas. Wu (2016) pointed out that 166 of 592 key counties identified as national-level poor counties in China have conducted a rocky desertification comprehensive control program.
Quantitative analysis of their relationship shows that there is internal interaction between rocky desertification and rural poverty. To some extent, the mechanism of how rocky desertification affects rural poverty can be revealed (Olivia et al., 2011) and the economic indicators closely related to rocky desertification generally described. For example, there are significant correlations between rocky desertification areas and the net income per capita in rural areas. However, it is difficult to describe how rocky desertification affects rural net income per capita. Therefore, it is necessary to study the mechanisms of rocky desertification exacerbating rural poverty.

2.3.2 Mechanisms of rocky desertification exacerbating poverty

The key to eliminating RDP is understanding the mechanisms of rocky desertification exacerbating poverty, so such mechanisms should become a research emphasis. The previous research findings can be summarised into four aspects.
(1) The theory of a vicious poverty- population-environment cycle emphasises that excessive population pressure is a driving factor of RDP (Figure 2). If productivity remains low, poor people will enlarge their population size to increase labour and income. Due to backwards technology and predatory agricultural production, rocky desertification becomes severer, and the space needed for survival decreases. Then, due to reduced land productivity and the deteriorating karst ecological environment, the farmers are trapped in poverty once again (Liao et al., 2006). Cai (1996) pointed out that productivity is low in a fragile ecological environment; farmers have to increase their labour and exploit the local natural resources in a predatory way. This leads to a vicious cycle of environmental fragility, poverty, population increase, resource plundering, ecological degradation and further poverty.
Figure 2 The vicious cycle of rocky desertification exacerbating poverty
(2) The environmental Kuznets curve theory has been adopted to explain how rocky desertification interacts with rural poverty. The curve reveals a typical relationship between income and environment (Grossman and Krueger, 1991). Early economic development is achieved at the cost of the ecological environment. With the development of a rural economy, farmers enhance their environmental awareness, and the ecological environment improves. Regarding the RDP in Southwest China, the curve changes are reflected at the peak value of the inverted U curve. The key is to reduce the peak value and the slope of the curve. Hu et al. (2009) deduced the process of the interaction effect between rocky desertification and rural poverty and pointed out that the curve does not reach the turning point.
(3) Influencing factors of rural economic development have been introduced to identify the reasons for poverty in rocky desertification areas, including the location conditions, geomorphology, ecological environment, population size (qualities), urbanization level, industrial structure, infrastructure, traffic construction and policy orientation (Bisaro et al., 2014; Yu et al., 2015). Currently, this is the theoretical foundation most commonly used for poverty alleviation projects (PAPs) in Southwest China.
(4) Emphasising the attributes of the land and ecological degradation of rocky desertification, the specific action mode and process by which rocky desertification exacerbates poverty can be deduced. As land degradation occurs, the area of arable land decreases and becomes rocky (with exposed rocks) (Li et al., 2009), and the soil fertility declines (along with soil erosion) (Xie et al., 2015; Tang et al., 2019). This eventually leads to crop failure. Meanwhile, as ecological degradation occurs, the ecological system becomes less stable and more fragile to disasters such as soil erosion and drought (Xu et al., 2011; Li et al., 2014; Chen et al., 2016), and the planting costs increase. In other words, land and ecological degradation affect resource endowment, reduce the output of agricultural products, increase production costs and reduce farmers’ incomes. If the current agrarian production mode continues to exist, farmers may become trapped in poverty. Conversely, accurate, timely and effective adjustment of the agrarian production mode could improve the economic level and alleviate poverty (Figure 3). This theory has one major characteristic - an emphasis on people’s subjective initiative.
Figure 3 The process of rocky desertification exacerbating poverty

2.3.3 Strategies for eliminating RDP

The primary purpose of the current research is to eliminate RDP; this is the foothold for combining theory and practice. Strategies aiming at eliminating RDP have drawn much attention from government and academic circles (Xu et al., 2013).
The Chinese government attaches much importance to the rocky desertification in the karst areas of Southwest China. Plenty of governance programs (see Section 2.2) have been conducted at the national level to improve people’s livelihoods by compensating farmers. Driven by these programs, farmers are willing to take intervention measures for sustainable development of the land. Moreover, some of the rural population has moved to the cities and taken up non-farming professions, not only increasing family incomes but also reducing ecological pressure on the land (Bryan et al., 2018). Since 2018, the strategy of targeted poverty alleviation in rocky desertification areas has been effectively conducted. According to the strategy’s requirements, relevant measures directed at each person, household and village should be taken based on the characteristics of each poverty area, poor farmers’ circumstances and local circumstances.
In addition, researchers have put forward specific measures and advice for rocky desertification control from multiple perspectives, including geomorphology, geological structure, land use, rocky desertification grade and socioeconomic conditions (Bai et al., 2013; Sadeghravesh et al., 2016). Several effective control modes have been suggested, such as the Dingtan Pepper mode in the karst gorge area (Figures 4a and 4b), Puding mode in the karst peak cluster area (Figures 4c-4f), Liupanshui Sanbian mode in the karst tectonic basin area, Bijie Wuzidengke mode in the mid-to-high mountainous regions, Xichou mode in the karst valley area, Guohua stereoscopic agriculture mode in the peak cluster depression area and Tiandeng mode in the peak forest plain area (Du et al., 2019). These rocky desertification control measures share a common characteristic - they are designed to combine rocky desertification control projects (RDCPs) with PAPs, emphasising both ecological benefits and farmers’ livelihoods. However, due to the significant differences in the background conditions of each model, key technologies need to be developed, and the government plans are varied at all levels; thus, successful control modes are not widely popularised.
Figure 4 The effective control modes of rocky desertification in the karst area of Southwest China: (a) and (b) the Dingtan Pepper mode in Zhenfeng County, Guizhou Province, in 2015 (photo by Junyi Zhang); (c)-(f) the Puding mode in Puding County, Guizhou, in 2015 (photo by Fengtai Zhang)

2.3.4 Anti-poverty benefit evaluation of RDCPs

An anti-poverty benefit evaluation falls under the research category of project benefit evaluations. It is necessary to assess the impact of projects on improving the living standards of local farmers as well as to summarise the relevant technical and economic activities and learn lessons from the experience. The benefit evaluation of an RDCP is generally carried out via considering the ecological, economic and social benefits of the strategy (Cheng et al., 2017). The research findings of ecological benefit evaluations include biological diversity benefits (Zhang et al., 2015), land and soil conservation benefits (Deng et al., 2016), soil fertility improvement benefits (Li et al., 2016; Di et al., 2019), land quality improvement benefits, ecological safety benefits (Liu and Li, 2012) and carbon sink benefits (Song et al., 2017; Jiang et al., 2019). Anti-poverty benefits are generally considered evaluation indexes of the socio-economic benefit evaluation system. Wang et al. (2005) compared the economic data before and after an RDCP, pointing out that considerable achievements were made as great ecological, economic and social benefits were gained; in detail, the rural net income per capita increased by 344 Yuan, and the illiterate population decreased by 37.9%. Zuo (2010) evaluated the economic benefits by introducing indicators such as the rural net income per capita, poverty occurrence rate and absorption of laborers. Du et al. (2016) set up an evaluation indicator system including the rural net income per capita, labour productivity, poverty incidence, Engel coefficient and illiterate population.
Facilitated by such policies as building a moderately prosperous society and targeted poverty alleviation, several research findings concentrating on the evaluation of poverty alleviation benefits have emerged (Zhen et al., 2017). Taking the Nongla control mode as an example, Pang (2019) summarised the experience and effects of green poverty alleviation, which is a new direction for poverty alleviation in China; she put forward that the key to this strategy lies in ‘taking the ecological environment protection as a strategy for poverty alleviation’. Luo and Huang (2015) evaluated the poverty alleviation performances of three tourist attractions in terms of the poverty degree, development potential and environmental conditions, pointing out that eco-tourism poverty alleviation could be a new strategy for rocky desertification areas.

3 Challenges

3.1 The challenges of theoretical research on RDP

3.1.1 The unclear boundaries between RDP and poverty in rocky desertification areas

Three conclusions can be drawn upon generalising the previous research findings: (1) by comparing rocky desertification areas with non-desertification areas in terms of their economic levels via the spatial coupling method (Section 2.3.1), the close connections between rocky desertification and rural poverty can be confirmed. However, it is poverty in rocky desertification areas that has been proved rather than RDP. (2) Regarding the research findings concerning the mechanism of rocky desertification exacerbating poverty, both Sections 2.3.2(2) and 2.3.2(3) explain poverty in rocky desertification areas but not the RDP. (3) In the practice of poverty alleviation, the government blindly increases asset investment and GDP while ignoring the fragility of the karst ecosystem. As a result, PAPs are disconnected from RDCPs. The possible reason behind this phenomenon is that the decision-makers focus on the poverty in rocky desertification areas rather than the RDP.
There are many influencing factors for the poverty in rocky desertification areas, including natural resources, population pressure, infrastructure, industrial structure, natural calamities, urbanization level, technological level, cultural background, education, location and policies (Safriel, 2009). RDP is caused by land and ecological degradation in mountainous karst regions. In other words, RDP is only a type of poverty in rocky desertification areas. It refers to poverty resulting from the deprivation of local farmers’ partial development opportunities due to rocky desertification in karst areas when their local economic development relies on agricultural revenue. Only by defining RDP and identifying its characteristics can researchers better grasp the mechanism of rocky desertification exacerbating poverty, clarify the specific means and processes, and design RDCP measures to finally eliminate RDP.

3.1.2 The theoretical foundation lags behind control practice

It is necessary to enhance the research on the dynamic monitoring, evolution and interaction mode of rocky desertification and rural poverty. The main reason behind the decrease of rocky desertification areas is that the Chinese government has attached great importance to the rocky desertification problem, energetically implementing many ecological construction projects (Jiang et al., 2016). However, a majority of these ecological construction projects have not been targeted at restoring rocky desertification, instead adopting measures such as water and soil conservation, hill closing for forestation and forest planting. It was not until 2008 that China officially implemented a rocky desertification comprehensive control program. In addition, the fundamental studies of rocky desertification are incomplete, and the current understanding of the essential rule of RDP is inadequate. As a result, control measures are one-sided, superficial and regionally restricted. In a humid subtropical climate, rocky desertification is essentially different from generic desertification and salinization. Excessive human activity is the main reason for rocky desertification. Thus, it is necessary to highlight the social characteristics of rocky desertification and improve the study of RDP.
In addition, it is far from sufficient to study the theories of RDP at only the mesoscale and macroscale levels. Instead, targeted studies should be conducted based on field surveys. The driving mechanism of rural economic change varies in different dimensions. At the macroscale level, rural economic changes are driven by regional economic development; at the mesoscale level, they are driven by agricultural structure adjustment and scientific progress; at the microscale level, they are mainly driven by preferential policies and technical promotion (Xiong et al., 2005). Farmers are the most essential microscale subjects in rocky desertification areas, and their economic behaviour determines the results of RDCPs (Pang and Ran, 2019). Farmers’ production behaviours, such as land investment, planting decisions and new techniques, have far-reaching influences on the sustainable development of arable land (Cai et al., 2014). Strengthening multi-scale research would not only verify the mechanism of RDP but also supplement the current studies at the mesoscale and macroscale levels.

3.1.3 The disconnect between RDCPs and PAPs

Rocky desertification and rural poverty are the most prominent issues in the karst areas of Southwest China. Thus, RDCPs and PAPs should be integrated to effectively tackle RDP. However, these project types are disconnected (Li et al., 2005; Cao et al., 2015). The primary goal of an RDCP is to improve the ecological environment, such as by increasing the biomass, reducing soil erosion and improving soil fertility (Cao et al., 2020). Currently, several control projects have fairly simple strategies, such as changing slopes into terraces, reforestation and hill closing for forestation. However, these places lack new economic growth points. Once the ecological construction projects are completed, the ecological compensation will be suspended immediately, and some farmers will still observe traditional farming methods. As a result, ecological protection becomes unsustainable, and the ecological system still faces degradation. Farmers’ concern for the ecological environment is positively related to their dependence on ecological resources. As such, it is crucial to develop compensation policies, create new jobs and provide job training to help households construct new alternatives to returning to their old livelihoods (Zhang et al., 2016b).
Tremendous achievements have been made in poverty alleviation in China, considerably reducing the poverty-struck population (Liu et al., 2017). These achievements are inseparable from rapid economic growth. However, according to the environmental Kuznets curve theory, when the effect of a PAP in terms of regional economic growth reaches a low level, rapid economic growth and heavy investment will play an insignificant role in the later stage (Chen, 2009). Therefore, dynamic interaction between RDCPs and PAPs should be induced. Moreover, to realise poverty alleviation, the mechanism of RDP should be studied, and the types of RDP should be classified (Ren and Gao, 2010). Only in this way can anti-poverty strategies be made accordingly. Finally, emerging industries in line with RDCPs should be cultivated to achieve a gainful situation between RDCPs and PAPs (Chen et al., 2018).

3.1.4 Missing post-project evaluation

According to previous research findings (Section 2.3.4), although fruitful results of anti-poverty benefit evaluations of RDCPs have been found, the time nodes for evaluation mainly focus on making a comparative analysis of the ecological, economic and social levels before project implementation and during project acceptance. However, the poverty alleviation benefits of an RDCP cannot be fully demonstrated within two or three years after project acceptance. In particular, new economic growth points take longer to test. When RDCPs are implemented, the local economy develops rapidly due to funds and policy incentives. However, it is unclear whether such economic growth will continue after the removal of funds and policy incentives, and it is unknown what local farmers’ livelihoods and planting patterns will be. Partial researchers neglect the lasting impact of RDCPs after a project’s acceptance. Thus, the anti-poverty benefit evaluation of RDCPs has not yet been elevated to the theoretical level of post-project evaluation. Of course, there are still many difficulties in post-project evaluation research. Apart from gathering actual, accurate, continuous and comprehensive data, the computing scale of the evaluation indicators should be consistent (Liu et al., 2018).

3.2 The challenges of consolidating achievements in eliminating RDP

3.2.1 Fragile natural backgrounds and serious ecological problems

The steep slopes, serious terrain cutting, broken surfaces and vulnerable ecological environments in mountainous karst areas bring about many challenges for local farmers (Guo et al., 2016). It can be seen from Table 1 that the topographic reliefs in Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangxi, Sichuan and Chongqing in Southwest China are 2.696, 1.398, 0.586, 3.529 and 1.310, respectively (You et al., 2018). Topographic relief is an important factor that influences the spatial distribution of vegetation and ecosystem regulation function (Li et al., 2022). Moreover, it significantly influences the urban spatial structure, land quality, green land road system and construction cost (Gao and Diao, 2010; Guo et al., 2016).
Table 1 Terrain, slope, soil erosion and rocky desertification in Southwest China
Province Terrain Slope Soil erosion Rocky desertification
Highest altitude
Topographic relief Slope >15° (km2) Proportion (%) Average slope (°) Area (km2) Occurrence rate
area (km2)
Rocky desertification area (km2)
Yunnan 6740 2.696 247,300 64.46 20.19 102,140 25.92 108,600 23,520
Guizhou 2900.6 1.398 86,700 48.50 16.08 47,710 27.08 121,200 24,700
Guangxi 2141.5 0.586 99,100 40.71 13.84 38,880 16.37 81,700 15,330
Sichuan 7556 3.529 295,500 60.60 20.26 111,040 22.58 69,100 6,700
Chongqing 2796.8 1.310 43,100 51.48 17.35 25,450 30.89 30,100 7,730
The land on steep slopes has the characteristics of slow soil formation, thin soil layer, soil depletion and easily disturbed vegetation systems. Such land is prone to a series of ecological problems and environmental disasters during land use changes (Zhang et al., 2012). According to China’s soil erosion bulletin in 2019, the soil erosion area in rocky desertification regions was 248,600 km2, accounting for 23.52% of the total land area (1,067,000 km2). According to the third rocky desertification monitoring bulletin in 2018, the rocky desertification area was 100,700 km2, accounting for 9.4% of the total regional area. Specifically, Guizhou, Yunnan and Guangxi presented with the most serious rocky desertification areas of 24,700, 23,500 and 15,300 km2, respectively. Limited by the vulnerable ecological environment, traditional planting industry, forest industry and animal husbandry are local farmers’ most important income sources. As a result, these provincial-level regions have weak and vulnerable ecosystems against external risks, poor anti-disaster abilities, few economic sources for farmers, and limited material and capital accumulation.

3.2.2 Continuously decreasing cultivated land and abandoned farmland

The quantity and quality of cultivated land are closely related to the local natural background and economic development level. In the karst area of Southwest China, the quantity and quality of cultivated land influence not only the local economic development level but also the stability of the local ecosystem (Zhang et al., 2020). According to national land use change survey data and land use grid data (Yuan et al., 2021), the cultivated lands in Southwest China shrank to different extents from 2009 to 2018, with the exception of slight growth in Sichuan Province (Table 2). Generally speaking, the cultivated area in the five provincial-level regions listed in the above table decreased continuously. The relative variation ratio of the cultivated land area in Guizhou, Guangxi and Chongqing was higher than one, i.e., higher than the regional average level (Zhao and Tan, 2020). Specifically, the cultivated land in Chongqing decreased the most by 65,900 hm2, and the relative variation rate of the region reached 3.65. Additionally, the bulletin of the national cultivated land quality level in 2019 reported that the cultivated lands in the karst areas of Southwest China were generally of poor quality, except for some gentle dams between the mountains. In particular, there were extensive cultivated lands ranging from Levels 7 to 10 of land quality in the Wumeng Mountain area and Wuling Mountain area of Southwest China. Yellow-brown soil and limestone soil are the dominant soil types in these regions, accompanied by acidification, shallow layers, gleying, a small water holding capacity and low vegetation coverage.
Table 2 Overall variation of the cultivated land area in Southwest China from 2009 to 2018 (km2)
Province 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2018 Amplitude of variation Relative
variation rate
Yunnan 62,439 62,401 62,335 62,249 62,198 62,075 62,085 62,078 62,118 -321 0.70
Guizhou 45,625 45,662 45,607 45,522 45,483 45,401 45,374 45,302 45,167 -458 1.36
Guangxi 44,305 44,247 44,215 44,143 44,195 44,103 44,023 43,951 43,884 -421 1.28
Sichuan 67,199 67,201 67,356 67,321 67,351 67,342 67,315 67,329 67,254 55 0.11
Chongqing 24,384 24,429 24,497 24,513 24,563 24,547 24,305 23,825 23,725 -659 3.65

Note: data are obtained from land use change survey.

With the rapid development of the non-agricultural economy, the opportunity cost of farming is increasing continuously, and farmers are obviously apt to abandon their farmland (Luo et al., 2019). Abandoned farmland is not only related to local land use and sustainable development policies but may also cause food insecurity (Chen and Zheng, 2018). Zhang et al. (2019b) pointed out that the rate of farmland abandonment in karst regions is higher than the national average level. Specifically, the rate of farmland abandonment reached 61.1% in Shuicheng County, Guizhou, and also exceeded 40% in Tiandong County, Guangxi during 2010 to 2017. These two counties ranked at the top in terms of the rate of farmland abandonment. Wang et al. (2020) noted that the farmland abandoned in Xifeng County, Guizhou, was concentrated in rocky desertification regions, accounting for more than 95% of the total farmland abandoned. Most abandoned farmland is mainly in potential and light rocky desertification areas with thin soil layers. The farmland abandonment problem in rocky desertification regions has become an important challenge in the sustainable development of rural regional economic systems.

3.2.3 Rural development talent shortage and rural hollowing

In the crucial stage of poverty alleviation, the karst regions in Southwest China acquire strong support from the state and all sectors of society. However, they cannot completely rely on external support in the rural revitalization stage. Instead, rural areas should train local talent teams and trigger local endogenous development momentum (Zhang et al., 2021a). The rural endogenous development momentum system is a new urban-rural relation system that views farmers as the subject, farmers’ demand as the orientation, national decision as the guidance and external assistance as the support (Wu and Zhang, 2018; Liu and Li, 2020). The karst regions in Southwest China must not only train and improve the abilities of the relative poverty population, entrepreneurial leaders and grass-roots cadres but also introduce abundant managers and technicians into rural construction (Liu and Yang, 2020). These regions are facing poor performance in talent training, talent introduction, talent retainment and rural elite recognition due to their low local economic development level, backwards education level, lagged rural industrial development, vulnerable ecological environment and considerable labour force transfer (Mao and Zhang, 2021).
Rural hollowing is the main representation and key internal cause of rural system decline (Zheng et al., 2020), and population loss is the direct cause of rural hollowing (Yang et al., 2013). From 2009 to 2018, the rural population in five karst provincial-level regions of Southwest China decreased by 31.22 million, and the rural population in Sichuan decreased by 10.38 million (Table 3). The rural population in Guizhou decreased by 7.74 million, and the regional relative variation rate was 1.4, showing the highest amplitude of reduction. As karst regions are key areas of poverty alleviation relocation, the relocation population size was unprecedented. From 2011 to 2016, the population of poverty alleviation relocation areas in Yunnan, Guangxi and Guizhou reached as high as 2.81 million. Ma(2020) carried out a field survey and pointed out that the proportion of young migrant workers in some rural areas in Yunnan, Guangxi and Guizhou reached as high as 37.3%, resulting in the serious issue of rural hollowing. Many villages have become elder and stay-at-home-children villages.
Table 3 Variations of the rural populations in Southwest China from 2009 to 2018 (million people)
Province 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 Amplitude of variation Relative variation rate
Yunnan 30.17 30.01 29.27 28.28 27.89 27.47 26.87 26.23 25.59 25.21 -4.96 0.79
Guizhou 26.63 23.01 22.56 22.15 21.77 21.04 20.47 19.85 19.32 18.89 -7.74 1.40
Guangxi 29.52 27.61 27.03 26.44 26.04 25.67 25.39 25.12 24.81 24.52 -5.00 0.82
Sichuan 50.17 48.07 46.83 45.61 44.67 43.71 42.92 41.96 40.85 39.79 -10.38 1.00
Chongqing 13.84 13.55 13.13 12.67 12.37 12.09 11.78 11.40 11.05 10.70 -3.14 1.09

Note: the population data in 2010 were inferred from the demographic census of the year, while the population data in other years were revised from demographic census based on the annual population sampling survey.

3.2.4 Low industrial integrated level and lagged green transformation

Industrial development is the basis for effective connection between poverty alleviation and rural revitalization (Jiang, 2020). It is suggested to not only expand the existing industrial scale but also develop competitive and characteristic industries by collaboration with local resource endowments. By combining the geographic environment, resource endowment, historical culture and industrial basis of different regions, rural areas can avoid homogenisation and low-quality competition and construct development patterns of ‘one competitive industry in one village’ and ‘one competitive product in one village’ (Jiang, 2020). Karst regions have been focusing on primary industry development for a long time, resulting in small rural industrial scales, a low mechanization degree and weak rural collective economic development (Ma, 2020). Karst regions should also develop leisure agriculture, green food processing and agricultural product network marketing, try to extend the agricultural chain, and promote the integrated development of primary, secondary and tertiary industries (Liu et al., 2020b).
In the crucial stage of poverty alleviation, karst regions help local farmers eliminate poverty through the low-tech traditional planting industry, primary agricultural product processing and labour-intensive non-agricultural industries. Karst regions in Southwest China should adhere to green development rather than extensive and predatory development in the rural revitalization stage. In other words, rural industrial development should realise sustainable development based on green resource development and ecological environmental protection (Liu et al., 2020). At present, the green development level in the karst regions in Southwest China is generally lower than that in the economically developed provinces in Eastern China (Xiao and Xue, 2021). Based on the theoretical connotation of ‘ecology first and green development’, Zhou and Lin (2021) estimated the green development state and efficiency score in different provincial-level regions of China (Table 4). From 2007 to 2016, the state and efficiency levels of ‘ecology first and green development’ in five karst provincial-level regions in Southwest China were improving continuously, especially in Chongqing Municipality. In 2010, Chongqing successfully realised a transformation from a low-quality and low-efficiency development level (i.e. the green development state and efficiency were lower than the national average level) to a high-quality and low-efficiency development level (i.e. the green development state was higher than the national average level, while the development efficiency was lower). However, the other four provincial-level regions were at the low-quality and low-efficiency development level, showing great gaps among the developed provinces in eastern China.
Table 4 The level of green development in Southwest China from 2007 to 2016
Evaluation item Province 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
State score Yunnan 0.113 0.117 0.126 0.137 0.151 0.159 0.164 0.166 0.172 0.183
Guizhou 0.086 0.091 0.117 0.119 0.138 0.149 0.160 0.167 0.171 0.181
Guangxi 0.125 0.125 0.142 0.151 0.167 0.169 0.177 0.183 0.186 0.192
Sichuan 0.124 0.137 0.148 0.153 0.169 0.181 0.186 0.188 0.201 0.206
Chongqing 0.137 0.152 0.162 0.183 0.208 0.216 0.223 0.233 0.235 0.240
Mean 0.117 0.124 0.139 0.149 0.167 0.175 0.182 0.187 0.193 0.200
Efficiency score Yunnan 0.933 0.898 1.066 0.912 0.890 0.894 0.885 0.907 0.927 0.980
Guizhou 0.979 0.811 0.700 0.42 0.800 0.812 0.834 0.856 0.878 0.918
Guangxi 0.965 1.043 0.946 1.099 1.112 1.074 1.060 1.091 1.073 1.091
Sichuan 0.882 0.902 0.931 0.868 0.892 0.885 0.884 0.878 0.900 0.910
Chongqing 0.884 0.921 0.993 1.020 1.053 1.066 1.026 1.010 1.011 1.032
Mean 0.929 0.915 0.927 0.864 0.949 0.946 0.937 0.948 0.957 0.986

Note: the state score reflects the absolute level, and the efficiency score reflects improvements attributed to quantitative input.

4 Enlightenment to rural revitalization

Throughout the 21st century, China has carried out the strategies of balancing urban and rural development, new rural construction and RRS to solve problems related to agricultural, rural areas and farmers. The RRS was put forward in the Nineteenth National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. Subsequently, the State Council published the ‘Opinions on Implementing the RRS’ and the ‘Strategic Plan for RRS (2018-2022)’. The RRS has two purposes. First, it is designed to solve major problems, such as imbalanced urban-rural development, and second, it is meant to facilitate transitional development in a scientific manner and realise the functional perfection of the rural system (Long et al., 2019). Rocky desertification areas are key regions wherein it is challenging to implement China’s RRS. There are three reasons behind such difficulties. First, rocky desertification areas are typical ecologically vulnerable. These regions are characterised by ‘restricted’ development according to the plan of China’s major function-oriented zoning (Fan, 2007). Second, these areas have a population density of 207 person/km2, which is 1.5 times the average national population density and twice the theoretical maximum population density (100 person/km2) a karst region can bear (State Forestry Administration, 2018). Third, these regions comprise the largest areas of continuous poverty in China (He et al., 2019), consisting of several extreme-poverty areas. For these reasons, RRS implementation in rocky desertification areas is of great significance to enhancing regional ecological functions and facilitating the building of a moderately prosperous society.

4.1 A key but challenging part of RRS: rural transformation development

Following its reform and opening-up, China implemented the development strategy of cities first. As time went by, the city-centred urban regional economic system and rural-centred rural regional economic system were established, and a prominent urban-rural structure was formed (Ge et al., 2019). Driven by the dual structure of urban-rural separation and the city-first development strategy, many production elements, including labour, land and capital, became concentrated in cities, aggravating the imbalance of urban-rural development and expanding the income disparity between urban and rural residents (Xu et al., 2020). China thus put forward the notion of setting up a complete urban-rural integration system, insisting on developing rural areas first and implementing RRS to solve imbalanced urban-rural development and inadequate rural development. Urban-rural integration refers to changing the previous regional economic system characterised by urban-rural separation. It aims to deepen the all-directional and all-element reform in the rural economy. The key to and difficulty of such integration both lie in rural transformation development and the construction of a long-term mechanism (Long and Qu, 2018). Thus, timely facilitating rural transformation development, optimising the structure of the rural regional economic system and accelerating the growth of rural industries have become necessary for smoothly implementing the RRS.

4.2 A way to eliminate extreme rural poverty: rural transformation development

The RRS essentially aims to empower farmers and invigorate agriculture (Liu and Li, 2017). This is first an economic problem and then a social, cultural and institutional problem. Research on RDP has shown that rocky desertification affects resource endowment, reduces the output of agricultural products, increases production costs and reduces farmers’ incomes. If farmers stick to the existing agricultural production mode, they might become trapped in poverty. Conversely, with accurate, timely and effective adjustment of the agricultural production mode, the economic level could be enhanced, and poverty could be alleviated (Zuo, 2014). In other words, to eliminate RDP, it is necessary to implement scientific rural transformation development. Regarding past RDCPs and PAPs, fruitful achievements have been made in China. With the advancement of RDCPs, several rocky desertification areas with favourable conditions have gradually been controlled. However, it will be more difficult and costly to control other regions in the next stage. As some regions with favourable conditions have eliminated poverty, the difficulties of PAPs in the later stage will also increase. China is currently at the critical stage of building a moderately prosperous society. Thus, it is particularly necessary to classify the different types of poverty, define the scope, and deduce the mechanism, process and means of rocky desegregation exacerbating poverty to advance the scientific rural transformation development of Southwest China.

4.3 Rural transformation development of rocky desertification areas

4.3.1 Theoretical framework

Studies of the RRS should be based on the urban-rural integration system, explore the mechanism of rural transformation development and promote the transformation of traditional production means and lifestyles to high-quality ones (Long et al., 2018). As karst regions have an ecologically vulnerable environment, efforts should be made to set up an urban-rural regional economic system with mountainous characteristics and shift from the traditional modes of predatory development at the cost of sacrificing the environment to high-quality and sustainable development. The theoretical analysis model of rural transformation development not only clearly explains the relationship between RDP and rural transformation development but also interprets the interactions between resource endowment, the rural economy and rural transformation development. Thus, the model is conducive for revealing the human-land relationship characteristics in rural transformation development.
This study initially set up a theoretical framework for rural transformation development in rocky desertification areas based on the pressure-status-response (PSR) model put forward by the OECD. Figure 5 presents the relationship between RDP and rural transformation development. The difficulty of rural transformation development lies in the fact that the effectiveness of the rural transformation direction should be ensured by performing tests. This framework is created to answer two questions: (1) has the resource endowment been sustainably utilised in the process of rural transformation development, and (2) has the RDP been eliminated in the process of rural transformation development? Since strategies aiming at balanced, coordinated and integrated urban-rural development were first implemented in China, the pressure from resource endowment and the status of rural poverty have been continually improved as a whole. Meanwhile, as shown in Figure 5, reverse development has occurred in local areas or in partial stages, creating L1 and L2 (the pressure curves of conflicts between economic development and resource endowment) and L3 and L4 (the status curves of being stuck in poverty or eliminating poverty). There are two kinds of responses to the rural transformation strategies, corresponding to L5 (the response curve of negative rural transformation) and L6 (the response curve of positive rural transformation). Regarding the negative rural transformation, it can be seen that the transformation strategy is not suitable for the local resource endowment and rural economy and is not helpful to the rural transformation. By comparison, the positive rural transformation shows the transformation strategy is having positive interactions with the rural economy and pushing rural transformation towards a positive path.
Figure 5 The PSR-based theoretical framework for rural transformation development in rocky desertification areas

4.3.2 Resource endowment advances from predatory utilization to sustainable utilization

Resource endowment refers to the abundance of diverse production elements, including labour, land resources, ecological resources, capital and technology (Liu et al., 2019). It determines production costs and thus affects the direction of rural transformation development. The resource endowment in rocky desertification areas refers specifically to the internal and external pressures in tackling RDP. Owing to fragmented terrains and the low carrying capacity of land and soil resources, the lands suitable for urban construction in the rocky desertification areas tend to be scattered. Moreover, in these areas, it is only possible to build small cities, towns and central villages; large cities are quite impossible. Taking Guizhou Province as an example, there were only 47 flat regions (area >6.66 km2) suitable for city construction in the 1990s (Su and Zhang, 2012). In addition, due to the unique terrain and scattered distribution of towns and villages, the cost incurred in purchasing the same services in rural areas is higher than that incurred in plain regions. For example, the cost of expressway construction in mountainous karst regions is twice that in flatlands (Zhang et al., 2019a). Thus, scientific directions should be determined for rural transformation development based on local resource endowments, and the level of sustainable development in rocky desertification areas should be greatly enhanced.

4.3.3 Rural development modes advance from traditional to high-quality modes

An essential requirement of the RRS is to promote rural industries (Li et al., 2014). The path to rural industrial revitalization is high-quality development, which is the only way China can truly implement the RRS in a scientific, orderly and sustainable manner (Ye, 2018). The transition of dominant rural industries should be conducted in an orderly way judging from the evolutionary rule of the regional spatial structure and the industrial structure. It can be framed as four stages: (1) the stage of land renovation aiming at adequate food and clothing, (2) the stage of adjusting the agricultural structure to improve living standards, (3) the stage of adjusting the industrial structure to improve the quality of life (4) and the stage of constructing public services and facilities to offer equal welfare resources to urban and rural areas (Cao et al., 2019). Overall, a tendency towards agricultural mechanization and non-grain, non-agricultural and community-centred development can be observed. The rural transformation in rocky desertification areas generally belongs to the second or third stages, while some regions of extreme poverty are still in the first stage (Cao et al., 2019). As the transformation proceeds, farmers become less dependent on the land resources and gradually change their inefficient and backwards means of production and lifestyles to some extent. It is thus necessary to combine economic development with protection of the ecological environment and actively implement RDCPs. Additionally, efforts should be made to reasonably utilise the abundant climate, ecological and tourist resources in mountainous regions and develop high-quality industries, including efficient stereoscopic agriculture, agricultural product processing and rural tourism (Zhang et al., 2019b).

5 Conclusions

Southwest China’s karst regions are the largest areas of continuous poverty in China, and RDP has been attracting significant attention from the Chinese government and academia. This paper first reviewed the emergence and development of RDP, including previous landmark research findings and the timelines required for China to implement national RDCPs and PAPs. Then, the paper reviewed previous research findings in the literature and summarised the four research components of RDP. Next, the remaining challenges were identified and summarised, including the challenges of conducting theoretical research on RDP and consolidating achievements in eliminating RDP. Finally, the relationship between RDP and the RRS was discussed to build a theoretical framework for rural transformation development in rocky desertification areas based on the pressure-status-response model.
(1) The research on China’s RDP has undergone four stages since the 1980s, i.e. start-up, poverty alleviation and ecological construction, comprehensive control and green development. An interesting finding is that the research progress and Chinese scholars’ research findings appear to be directly related to the Chinese government’s major decision-making and growing policy support.
(2) Plenty of research findings have been produced in this field so far. Although geologists, ecologists, geographers, economists, rural economists, demographers and governmental staff have contributed copious information based on their research and educational backgrounds, RDP research is not without controversy. The theoretical system is still weak in terms of its completeness and systematism, and the guidance for empirical research remains insufficient. As China is at the critical stage of building a comprehensively prosperous society, it is necessary to strengthen the research on postproject evaluation after an RDCP is completed, summarise experiences, learn lessons and put forward suggestions to improve RDCP decision-making.
(3) The RRS is critical for China to solve rural issues in the future. The research on RDP has provided fundamental theories and support for implementing the RRS in the rocky desertification areas of Southwest China. Therefore, this paper discussed the relationships between RDP and the RRS and constructed an analytical framework for RDP and rural transformation. Lastly, it discussed two critical directions for the rural transition: a transition from predatory utilization to sustainable utilization and a transition from traditional rural development modes to high-quality development modes.
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