In China, the Returning Farmland to Forest Program (RFFP) has afforested large areas, transforming land and livelihoods. By impacting vegetation cover, it may also drive spatial pattern changes across landscapes. Most studies have focused on time series data as a means to determine the effectiveness of the program, but there is a paucity of community-level comparative studies. Twelve communities in Northwest Yunnan Province were selected to test whether the RFFP changed landscape patterns by testing the following hypotheses: with (or without) the RFFP, forest and shrubland fragmentations would decrease (or increase) and farmland fragmentation would increase (or decrease). Remote sensing images from 2000, 2010, and 2014 were used to compare the differences in landscape patterns. Survey data from 421 households were used to examine the socioeconomic and ecological factors that affect the differences in landscape fragmentation across communities. The results showed that landscape patterns and fragmentation metrics were not significantly different between communities with or without the RFFP, regardless of the class or landscape level. These communities showed consistent patterns of change in their fragmentation parameters between 2000 and 2014, with forest fragmentation decreasing and the fragmentation of farmland and the overall landscape increasing. The regression models suggest these changes were affected by the local natural conditions, socioeconomic patterns, policy implementation, and farmer livelihoods, with the proximity to market towns and elevation being significant factors. The RFFP alone did not directly drive the changes in landscape patterns for the considered region. For the new RFFP to effectively contribute to reducing fragmentation, managers of afforestation efforts should carefully consider livelihoods and biophysical factors that influence changes in landscape patterns.
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