The so-called 'win-win' strategy was able to reduce damage to the environment, and promote ecological restoration, by improving the livelihoods and incomes of poor residents, the study has shown.

"This example of a win-win approach, which achieves environmental restoration through economic development, can be a model for other regions around the world," said Shixiong Cao of the Minzu University of China.

Attempts to improve ecologically fragile regions often face what's known as the poverty trap, in which poverty leads to environmental degradation, and environmental degradation leads to poverty. Typically, a lack of alternative sources of income forces poor residents to engage in unsustainable activities such as deforestation, which in turn reduces the productivity of the land and makes residents poorer still.

Tackling the poverty trap is not always easy. For instance, farmers can be paid to leave an area so that the land can be reforested, but once the subsidy ends those farmers will have no choice but to return to their unsustainable practices. The answer, says Cao, is a win-win strategy: one that balances the needs of the poorest people who will be affected by a policy with the need for ecological conservation.

Such a strategy has gone into effect in Changting County. In 1985, the county reformed property rights by allocating forested land to individual farmers, but those farmers did not protect the environment as expected, and over the following decade areas of severe soil erosion spiralled by 100%. In the late 1990s, Cao was invited to advise on a new programme that took the needs of residents into account.

Together with colleagues at other Chinese institutions, Cao has now analysed the consequences of that revised programme, using statistical regression to explore the relationships between key ecological indicators - vegetation cover, soil erosion and number of plant species - and various natural and socioeconomic factors.

The researchers found that residents' livelihoods and ecological restoration were indeed intertwined. A boost in rural net income could account for 12-24% of a rise in vegetation cover, fall in soil erosion and rise in species number, and 14-23% of an expansion of fruit tree orchards.

Other aspects of the strategy bore fruit, too. An encouragement to raise livestock indoors has allowed manure to be easily collected, reducing the money individuals spend on fertilizer. Similarly, the implementation of methane-generation facilities has reduced the need to harvest wood for cooking and heating. The analysis also showed that lengthening roads significantly reduced soil erosion, by concentrating traffic along one path.

The researchers believe that the win-win approach could be a model for elsewhere, although they stress that natural and social factors differ from region to region. "For the approach described in this paper to prove effective in other regions, planners and restoration managers in each region must first identify the most important factors that they must account for in their planning," they conclude.