Once crippled by rampant deforestation, this Chinese village organized to reinvigorate the landscape, and raise the quality of life, through sustainable forest management.
Entering Xinqi (新岐), a small settlement near the Burmese border in southwestern China, is an experience unlike arriving in any other Chinese village. Surrounded by lush green mountains, the village immediately makes an impression with its use of natural stone rather than concrete for the houses and pavements; roofs are adorned with traditional-style grey tiles; a large water catchment in the centre of town helps villagers weather the dry season. Wandering through its alleys reveals plenty of pretty buildings and a temple full of murals and well-crafted wooden furniture. But most surprising of all are its people.
Most Chinese villages are deserted because men of working age leave the elderly, the women and the very young behind to take care of farming chores while they seek employment in cities. Yet Xinqi is alive. Various forest-product industries have kept a working population at home and the streets are pleasantly buzzing with activity. On a corner, music is drawing elated crowds to a van, where a man promises to make photographs for a little cash. Men are carving furniture near a seemingly ancient sawmill and, nearby, after extracting camellia oil, large machines are pressing the residue of the seeds into cakes for premium soap producers all over the nation.
Local response to government policy
Xinqi has mostly itself to thank for this happy situation. After suffering massive deforestation during the Cultural Revolution in the ’60s, the community set up collective forestry farms to manage forested land, resisting and overriding later government reforms to divide the forests among individual households. After internal debate, benefits from the forest harvests were either distributed among villagers or invested in public goods. With the income from timber, Xinqi built a school, a clinic and roads, and arranged social insurance for all. All while the forest continued to expand.
The village’s successful forest management attracted further government investment in its forests. Farmers were encouraged to participate in the Sloping Land Conversion Program (SLCP). This government program subsidizes farmers for replacing their farmland on sloping land with forests, in order to prevent landslides and to safeguard water sources. The villagers formulated a plan to participate, found consensus on it, and took on the responsibility and labour costs for tree plantation and management tasks while the SLCP funds were used to compensate farmers for the cropland they gave up. When the forest started yielding products, the villagers agreed that farmers would reap 70% of the benefits and that the village committee would invest the remaining 30% in public goods. Everyone benefited and the forest continued to grow.
Today, Xinqi is a pleasant village that reaps the benefits of its grassroots decision to manage and live off its forests. It produces furniture and other timber products as well as non-timber forest products. Examples include but are not limited to honey, walnuts, mushrooms, camellia oil and traditional soap ingredients. Where farms have not been replaced by forests, they often apply tree intercropping techniques where the trees fertilize and stabilize the soil while regulating crop humidity and moisture. Additional income is also now expected to be generated from eco-tourism. A guesthouse with lots of wooden features and a view of the mountains is being constructed for that very purpose, in response to crowds coming to enjoy the natural beauty of the forests.
The village committee, presided over by men who never went to school past the age of 14, can pat themselves on the back.
Challenges and the way forward
While Xinqi is a great example of successful local forest management and the positive outcomes of government policy, it isn’t as rosy a picture everywhere. Comparing Xinqi with Pingzhang (平掌), a Bai and Yi minority village located in Baoshan Prefecture between the Nu and Mekong rivers, shows that government policy has had varying results in various places. Top–down implementation of the SLCP in Pingzhang has resulted in low survival rates of exotic tree species and villagers argue that the crops they replaced were worth more than the compensation received from the SLCP. Earlier forest tenure reform, which allocated forest land to individual households and which Xinqi’s population resisted to its benefit, caused ambiguity about ownership and led to overharvesting and more deforestation in Pingzhang. While overall forest cover has increased, the village isn’t doing as well, with more villagers rating the government programs as unsuccessful.
Researchers, therefore, see government programs more as opportunities that local reception tips towards success or failure. They recommend that the government reform its institutions across the country’s socio-ecological system with local dynamics in mind when formulating policy.
This story borrows heavily from the work of Dr He Jun (何俊), researcher at the World Agroforestry Centre in Kunming, China. Read more at He J. 2012. Decentralization of Forest Management in Southwest China. PhD thesis. Norwich, UK: School of International Development, University of East Anglia. His work has also been published in the journal Forests.
This post was a contribution from the World Agroforestry Centre blog. Learn more about the work of the World Agroforestry Centre here.
Sander van de Moortel is a multi-lingual, freelance writer and communications specialist. Until recently, he was the communications officer for the World Agroforestry Centre’s East and Central Asia Region, based in Kunming, China.