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Q+A: Community forests in China’s Sichuan province play a role in panda conservation

Students say research teaches important lessons for other regions
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Hand-painted tires depicting pandas decorate Guanba Village, Pingwu County, Sichuan, China. Photo credit: ShanShui/Xu Jing

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In the misty mountains of Pingwu County in China’s province of Sichuan, community forests could offer promising solutions to the dual problem of rural poverty and habitat loss.

A recent case study by Tian Yongzhen and Xu Chen — two international natural resource management students  at the University of British Columbia (UBC) — argues that Pingwu’s community forests and a blended approach to ecological conservation and poverty alleviation are having an impact.

In the area, forest plots are allocated to local families and professional collectives for a period of 70 years under China’s 1983 “household responsibility system.” These communities are allowed to collectively manage the allocations to support their traditional livelihoods, which include fishing, farming and logging.

However, in some circumstances, the students found that allocations were sold cheaply to large-scale building projects for resorts and weekend cottages due to economic shortfalls. Such development threatens the pristine mountain ecosystem, collective land management and benefit sharing, according to an article from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Finding joint solutions for development and conservation is key for a sustainable future.

For several years now, Pingwu — which boasts the nation’s highest density of wild pandas — has attracted attention from conservation non-profits, governments, Alibaba — a cloud computing business — and nature tourism as a valuable natural heritage site. Alibaba in particular has had a large hand in Pingwu’s recent development through its  Rural Taobao Strategy. The initiative aims to alleviate poverty by connecting rural entrepreneurs to urban markets using e-commerce platforms, which increases their user base. As part of the strategy, Alibaba also invests in infrastructure development and job creation in many rural areas.

These stakeholders support community forest management by working with the collectives to protect their lands or by investing in local products and supporting sustainable livelihoods, according to the researchers.

The convergence of these factors has made Pingwu a noteworthy model for community forestry in China.

Of course, the sudden influx of business stakeholders and tourism in the region could create other problems, the researchers noted. Alibaba recently came under criticism for its lack of initiative in switching to more eco-friendly energy sources, and numerous examples have shown increasing tourism could damage the environment if not managed wisely, according to The World Counts website.

Nevertheless, Yongzhen and Chen, who, since graduation, are hopeful this outside support will continue to build sustainable value chains in tourism, honey producing and smallholder farming, which empower communities to safeguard forest allocations and traditional livelihoods. However, much work would remain to achieve this goal on a national scale.

“China has developed rapidly in recent years, but there’s still work to be done to lift rural communities out of poverty while conserving our natural resources,” said Chen. “I think community forestry can accomplish those goals in both Sichuan province and in my hometown in Fujian province.”

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Yongzhen, Chen and their professor, Janette Bulkan, an associate in the Department of Forest Management in the Faculty of Forestry at UBC, responded jointly to some questions about community forests in Pingwu.

Q: How do you define community forestry?

A: There’s no one definition of community forestry. Fundamentally, it’s a type of land management in which communities or groups of people are recognized as having partial rights or full rights over a specific forest plot. This recognition can be official legal recognition or informal, customary recognition of their rights to that land. So community forestry is quite varied, but it fundamentally realizes that local communities have a deeper link to their territories and lands and that all forest values should be respected; we shouldn’t only value forests for the logs we can extract.

Q: Can you summarize the community forest management model in Pingwu, Sichuan province?

A: In Pingwu, people live very simply and do not have much money compared to people in more developed areas of China. Many villagers have sold their land cheaply to outsiders who wanted to build big houses or factories, which had a negative effect on the environment. In the last couple of decades, governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and private enterprises have become more involved in Pingwu to help the people improve their quality of life while also conserving their natural resources.

Alibaba Group’s e-commerce platform, Taobao, has also played a large role in facilitating sustainable value chains in Pingwu. In the past, honey producers could only market their products to nearby villages. Taobao allows honey producing collectives in Pingwu to use their e-commerce platform for free, so people from all over China and internationally can buy from them; this is part of Alibaba’s Rural Taobao Strategy to help alleviate poverty in China.

In the past several years, quality of life in the region has improved because of the value generation from ecotourism and e-commerce of local products. These improvements can help them protect the land for future generations.

Q: Why did you choose this case study?

A: We chose this case because we are bilingual, so we can use our knowledge to bring research that is published in Mandarin to English   who may be interested in China’s continued development. We can widen the amount of people who know about this and access many different journals in multiple search engines.

Q: Why is now a good time to study community forestry as a student?

A: This area of research is becoming more and more exciting, and it’s a good moment now to re-engage with local understandings and practices. There are many failures and shortcomings of traditional development models — not just in China but all over the world. Increasingly, people are finding it hard to ignore the common fate of global warming and biodiversity collapse; this is therefore an important moment to think about Indigenous methods of forest management that have been developed for thousands of years. Courses on community forestry and natural resource management at the local level should be of interest to everyone. No one discipline is going to solve the problems of the 21st century.

Q: What are the next steps for the Pingwu collective forests?

A: It is important for any community project to have more transparency in the direction of good governance so that local people who are giving the most to these projects are able to see how benefits are shared: Who gets what, and how are these benefits spent. We can say, “Oh, Alibaba is making great strides,” but they are also benefiting hugely. This needs to be clear. Alibaba and their subsidiaries including Taobao  are not just benefactors; they’re getting a lot out of local peoples. They’ve helped preserve the panda, but everywhere else natural resources are being destroyed by big companies including Alibaba.

In the future we need more humility and less of the overarching dominance of government and business stakeholders. The local people should have the right to say, “too many tourists, no more.” The goal should be to manage the land for the long term, not just get more money and market more consumer goods. Local rules and local people should have a big say in governance and the right to enforce rules. Tourism and cash flow are not the only metrics we should use to measure development in community forest scenarios.

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