Abstract At the beginning of the new millennium, after a severe drought and destructive floods along the Yangtze River, the Chinese government implemented two large ecological rehabilitation and reforestation projects: the Natural Forest Protection Programme and the Sloping Land Conversion Programme. Using Landsat data from a decade before, during and after the inception of these programmes, we analyze their impacts along with other policies on land use, land cover change (LULCC) in southwest China. Our goal is to quantify the predominant land cover changes in four borderland counties, home to tens of thousands of ethnic minority individuals. We do this in three time stages (1990, 2000 and 2010). We use support vector machines as well as a transition matrix to monitor the land cover changes. The land cover classifications resulted in an overall accuracy and Kappa coefficient for forested area and cropland of respectively 91% (2% confidence interval) and 0.87. Our results suggest that the total forested area observed increased 3% over this 20-year period, while cropland decreased slightly (0.1%). However, these changes varied over specific time periods: forested area decreased between 1990 and 2000 and then increased between 2000 and 2010. In contrast, cropland increased and then decreased. These results suggest the important impacts of reforestation programmes that have accelerated a land cover transition in this region. We also found large changes in LULC occurring around fast growing urban areas, with changes in these peri-urban zones occurring faster to the east than west. This suggests that differences in socioeconomic conditions and specific local and regional policies have influenced the rates of forest, cropland and urban net changes, disturbances and net transitions. While it appears that a combination of economic growth and forest protection in this region over the past 20 years has been fairly successful, threats like drought, other extreme weather events and land degradation remain.