•China’s sweeping afforestation did so with an until-now hidden cost to rural farmers.•Afforestation on cropland can intensify crop damage to nearby remaining land.•64 % of crop damage by wildlife in the study area was caused by the afforestation.•This cost may exist globally as similar policies have been widely implemented.•Future conservations should consider this cost to avoid unintended human burdens.
As global efforts to protect ecosystems expand, there is increasing concern about conservation costs borne by rural communities. To date, these costs have often been narrowly estimated in terms of foregone livelihood opportunities directly caused by conservation, while unintended human burdens that accrue with ecological gains from conservation are often ignored. As a first attempt to quantify this previously hidden cost, we estimated the impact of converting cropland to forest under one of the world’s largest conservation policies, China’s Grain-to-Green Program (GTGP), on crop raiding in a demonstration site using the matching approach. We found that GTGP afforestation was responsible for 64 % of the crop damage by wildlife on remaining cropland, a cost worth 27 % of GTGP’s total payment to farmers. Our study highlights that the conservation cost to communities through influencing human-wildlife conflicts can be substantial, which should be quantified and considered in global conservation efforts to avoid unintended burdens on rural communities.