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.
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.