In China, de-collectivization of forest property rights yields mixed results

Context matters for effective policy implementation
In the Yunnan highlands on the border of southwestern China and northern Myanmar. Photo credit: Liu Jinlong

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There is no one-size-fits-all for effective forest tenure in China, finds a recent case study of two Chinese villages in Yunnan and Guizhou Province.

In the two villages, a national reform that de-collectivized forest property rights — distributing them to private individuals and households — resulted in mixed outcomes.

While many Chinese policymakers believe that de-collectivization improves the economy and that grassroots governance strengthens land tenure, researchers from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), and Renmin University of China (RUC), Minzu University and Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University, found that collective land management can be more successful than private ownership depending on a wide range of social and economic factors at the local level.

“China is too diverse to implement a single policy that works everywhere,” said Liu Jinlong, a professor at RUC in the School of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development. “It’s not just diverse ethnically, but there are many complex historical and economic factors involved. It can come down to local preference.”

The study serves as a template for policy makers, both in China and internationally, to consider local leadership and contexts when implementing forest management policies.

A move toward de-collectivization

Forest property rights in China have shifted over the years as national policymakers experimented with collectivization, which is characterized by group ownership, and de-collectivization, which is characterized by individual land holding and management.

Since the 1980s, the country has favored de-collectivization policies across many areas of governance as part of a strategy to grow the national economy. These actions give more flexibility to provincial and municipal governments, Indigenous groups and community organizations to self-govern. Limited self-governance has been pushed as a means to strengthen forest property rights, increase local autonomy, alleviate poverty and support sustainable development.

Some of these land reforms have led to economic success. For example, in 1981, the Household Responsibility System reform allocated land-use rights over collectively-owned farmland to individual households, which led to a surge in national agricultural production. The “Three Fixes Policy” three years later brought similar reforms to forest property rights. However it was not as successful as farm land management reform.

In 2003, a new national policy entitled the Collective Forest Property Rights Reform (CFPR) was implemented with the goal of allocating 95 percent of existing collective forestlands to individual households in each administrative village.

Households receiving land use rights under the CFPR can legally mortgage, inherit and “sell” forestland for a contract period of 70 years.

Uneven results

In spite of the uniform national policy rollouts, decision-making power in China is spread across many regional and subregional levels. This power structure can produce vastly different results.

“National policies can be interpreted very differently from what you expect,” said Louis Putzel, an associate scientist at CIFOR.  “In China, a village that has strong internal leadership can often maintain an alternate system and make a case for their own development that is separate from the national trajectory.”

While studying the two villages, researchers found that varying levels of social cohesion as well as different economic histories and local traditions produced uneven results in the implementation of the CFPR.

   Two Yi girls collecting Tricholoma Matsutake mushrooms in Nanhua county, Yunnan province, China. Photo credit: Zhang Renhua

Initiatives axed in Caiyuan village

In Caiyuan village, Guizhou Province, locals have a long history with private forest management. According to some sources, the region has been reliant on private commercial forestry since the Ming dynasty (1573-1620). This dependence on timber largely continues today.

Throughout China’s changing collectivization and de-collectivization periods, several new models of forest holdings emerged in Caiyuan, including family-held plots, shareholder and private tree farms. But the massive semi-privatization of land quickly resulted in unsustainable resource exploitation in some forest land where there are conflicts of ownership with other villages. Many landholders, worried about shifting policy regimes, quickly deforested their land allocations to ensure they got the most from their plots.

As a result, the government introduced logging bans in 1999 to preserve the remaining forests.

Shortly after the CPFR was implemented, several members of the Four-Liao tree farm — a private tree farm founded by group of four sub-villages in Caiyuan — were inspired to further de-collectivize, splitting the farm into family-managed plots. However, these actions re-kindled an age-old land conflict with a neighboring community, which claimed 20 hectares of the farm belonged to them.

The result was an increase in hostilities and unsustainable deforestation. Government officials, not wanting to be involved in the conflict, returned the farm to a collective holding between the group of four sub-villages.

“Higher-level officials were too far removed from the conflict,” Liu said. “How can they tell communities how to solve their disputes?”

Liu and his colleagues found that the CPFR has not improved forest tenure security in Caiyuan. Instead, the back-and-forth between collectivization and de-collectivization has resulted in fragmented forest management, a lack of social cohesion and a need for outside policing to combat illegal deforestation.

Mushrooming solutions in Miheimen village

On the other hand, Miheimen village in Yunnan Province has a history of collective land ownership and shifting cultivation. Rather than relying only on timber products, the local community members have diverse livelihoods growing crops, raising livestock and harvesting non-timber forest products such as herbs and mushrooms.

As in Caiyuan, several new models of forest tenure emerged in Miheimen as a result of the national periods of collectivization and de-collectivization. However, the region’s reliance on non-timber products meant that more forests were preserved as spaces to harvest matsutake mushrooms and pine needles, among other things. Additionally, more trees were preserved as traditional temple forests, holy forests and closed forests for water collection.

“Miheimen village’s reliance on non-timber resources like mushrooms automatically changes the way in which the locals use their forests,” Putzel said. “Villagers are more likely to leave the forests intact if their livelihoods rely on such an ecologically sensitive product.”

In 1995, prices for matsutake mushrooms soared due to demand from the Japanese market. The sudden market surge increased harvesting rates and the number of individual harvesters. This caused the Kaimen Villager Group to feel that their access and benefit rights to the mushrooms were being violated by outside harvesters.

Much like the officials in Caiyuan, Miheimen officials did not want to be involved in local disputes. Instead, the Kaimen Villager Group decided to combine forces. Together, they strategically contracted portions of their individual land allocations to one family who could protect the mushroom harvesting grounds against outsiders. All group members paid a membership fee to participate in the mushroom collection, and all benefited equally from the profits.

   Tricholoma matsutake growth in forests in Nanhua county, Yunnan province, China. Photo credit: Zhang Renhua
   A Yi girl collects mushrooms in the forest Nanhua county, Yunnan province, China. Photo credit: Zhang Renhua

This model proved so effective that neighboring Villager Groups and communities copied it. When asked if the CFPR had changed forest management practices in Miheimen, villagers responded: “No, we do as before.”

“This is a case of a group who took their supposed ‘individual’ rights and got together as a group to manage things collectively,” Putzel said. “In the first case [Caiyuan Village] people responded to the new policy by all going their own way, and forest governance sort of fell apart, but in Miheimen, people adapted the policy with their own interpretations and local rules, resulting in improved forest management.”

Liu believes these findings illustrate the importance of relying on local leadership to set policy goals — both in China and internationally.

“Governments need to mobilize and encourage villages to take actions along their own paths,” he said.  “Of course, the government can support their development, but it is the communities who best understand how to manage local land.”

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