Turning Over a New Leaf in China’s Forests A massive redistribution of land-use rights aims to boost afforestation and sustainable forestry.

In Reports

PINGZHANG, CHINA—In this impoverished mountain village of 1680 people, Qian Jinfa’s house is like a palace. His clean courtyard home with its sanded wooden doors and freshly painted walls stands in contrast to the grim, single-room cement dwellings of his neighbors here in western China’s Yunnan Province. The 42-year-old farmer—whose name consists of three characters meaning money or wealth—took advantage of reforms granting villagers across the nation tenure rights, or limited private use, of forests. Qian leased 5.3 hectares from neighbors—most of whom, like him, are members of the Yi minority group—and combined that with 1.3 hectares of his own land. He then felled about 300 of the tallest pine trees, plowing over $11,000 from timber sales into his home renovation. “Now that I have a certificate for my land, I can just go to the county seat and sell the trees,” he explains.

Qian’s get-rich-quick scheme might sound like a conservationist’s nightmare. But for Su Yufang, deputy director of the Kunming Institute of Botany’s Center for Mountain Ecosystem Studies, it is precisely the opposite. For decades, much of the forest surrounding Pingzhang, as in other parts of China, was collectively managed. In practice, that meant state-owned timber companies and local officials wielded control—and ecology suffered. To encourage stewardship, the provincial government in 2006 granted villagers the right to determine the type of forest-use rights they preferred. In Pingzhang, they voted to convert most of the village’s forest to individual tenure, allowing households to use plots for 70 years. For Su, the key element in Qian’s story is not that he cut down pines, but that he left many trees standing—and that he planted alder, which fixes nitrogen in the soil. Now Qian’s main complaint is the recent appearance of squirrels, which eat walnuts on his patch of land. It doesn’t concern Su: “That’s a sign the forest is getting healthier,” he says.

Last week’s Rio+20 sustainable development conference in Brazil pledged to protect the world’s forests by promoting secure land tenure. Many conservationists were disappointed that the nonbinding declaration left an opening for conversion of natural forests to industrial use and building infrastructure. But China has already implemented substantial tenure reforms, and no other country’s efforts may prove more critical. In sheer numbers, China leads the world in new forest cover: It has added roughly 40 million hectares since the late 1970s, an area roughly the size of Paraguay. Much of that increase has come from plantations of fast-growing Chinese fir and eucalyptus, favored by loggers. Management of older and more diverse forests critical for ecosystem stability, meanwhile, is suffering as the economy booms, demand for timber explodes, and villagers flee to the cities for jobs.

Tenure reforms aim to revitalize China’s rural economy while throwing a lifeline to tattered forest ecosystems. The reforms allow villages to determine tenure rights in the roughly 60% of China’s forestland that has been collectively owned for decades, affecting about 100 million hectares and some 400 million people. It is the largest action of its kind in recent history, according to a 2010 report from the Rights and Resources Initiative, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C. New provisions extend farmers’ use rights from 30 to 70 years and permit them to mortgage plots, transfer rights to corporations, and freely make decisions about planting and harvesting.

“To allow the local villagers to think about what they want to do is a very big step forward,” says Heinrich Spiecker, director of the Institute for Forest Growth in Freiburg, Germany. Others caution that the reforms create the potential for forest fragmentation and complicate the task of sustainable management. “The ownership reform has generated a lot of debate,” notes John Innes, dean of the faculty of forestry at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

Early signs suggest that the reforms are boosting land productivity and forest cover. In 2011, researchers at Peking University’s Environmental Economics Program in China surveyed nearly 300 villages across eight provinces, interviewing 10 to 20 households in each village. The researchers found that timber harvesting in village land managed by individuals had doubled, from an average of 70 cubic meters per village in 2000 to 160 cubic meters in 2010, according to the survey’s lead investigator, Peking University forestry expert Xu Jintao. In the meantime, tree planting rose. “That’s exactly what you want,” says Andy White, coordinator of the Rights and Resources Initiative. “There is growing evidence that people will plant when their rights are secure.”

Reclaiming the land

Across the developing world, indigenous groups are pushing for collective forest tenure to gain more control over lands they historically occupied. China’s approach to collective rights is a different story. Before Mao Zedong came to power in 1949, forestland in China was largely held by households. After the revolution, historical claims were ignored: “What Mao did was force people to farm collectively,” White says.

China’s forests suffered. By the late 1970s, large swaths had been stripped of timber. State-owned companies stepped in to manage the remnants, which gave villagers little incentive to look after the land. In Pingzhang, village leader Bi Guang says farmers stood by as the forest became barren, then grazed livestock on the depleted land. “What was everyone’s was really no one’s,” Su says.

In the early 1980s, China began to loosen restrictions, dividing up agricultural communes and granting farmers land rights. Reform-minded officials in the State Forestry Administration, hoping to do the same with forestland, launched an early round of tenure reassessment. Resistance proved fierce. It wasn’t just the timber industry, Xu says: “The wood-processing sector, the shipping sector, and the sales sector were all state-owned. If you revised forest tenure, the farmer could have sold timber to anyone. And the industry would have fallen apart.” And officials feared villagers might start a clear-cutting frenzy. After a few years of seesawing policies, the reforms were halted.

By the late 1990s, villagers in Fujian, now China’s largest timber-producing province, refused to cooperate in conservation efforts. “The system was collapsing,” Xu says. The turning point came in Fujian’s Hongtian village, where farmers had stripped about one-third of its forest. In 1998, local leaders decided that the only way to protect what was left would be to empower the villagers.

As Hongtian loosened controls, Guangyu Wang, then director of finance and economics in Fujian’s forestry department, watched with interest. He had done a fellowship at the Pacific Northwest U.S. Forest Service; unlike its Chinese counterpart, it did not take orders from the timber industry. Wang and his colleagues “realized the government should separate forest management from the timber business,” recalls Wang, now an expert in sustainable forest management at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. That approach succeeded in Fujian: “More farmers put work into the land,” Wang says.

Fujian’s reforms later got support from central government officials, who had grown concerned about social instability in the countryside and hoped to promote self-sufficiency in timber. They also realized that healthier domestic forests would be good for China’s carbon balance, Spiecker says.

Conservation cash.

Qian Jinfa funneled a portion of his timber revenue into tree planting.


Tenure reforms appear to be strengthening forest stewardship. An earlier round of the Peking University survey found that in 2006 and 2007, villages that adopted tenure reform planted an average of 17 more hectares of forest than those that did not. Firewood collection also decreased.

Yet the reforms are expected to create some problems. In dividing forests into smaller parcels, the new policy may complicate fire prevention and other management tasks. Sustainable forestry is “difficult to implement at very small scales,” Innes says. Others say that the government must repeal a quota that restricts logging in natural forests, put in place after Yangtze River basin floods in 1998. Although designed to protect forests, it has curbed enthusiasm for conservation. “If you don’t give farmers rights over timber production, then you don’t have a lot of incentive for farmers to plant trees,” Xu says. Another pressing issue is ensuring that land-tenure rights are protected. Local fiefdoms may brush them aside, leaving room for abuse. For instance, in Guangxi Autonomous Region, Stora Enso, a Finnish paper company, signed a contract with a county government. The county agreed to provide 40,000 hectares of forest by late 2010 that the company would convert to eucalyptus plantations for a paper mill, according to a study funded by the Rights and Resources Initiative and Rural Development Initiatives, a nonprofit in Eugene, Oregon. Local officials then bullied farmers out of their forest-use rights, the study alleges. In one village, armed police showed up with bulldozers, sparking a violent clash.

The spice of life

Leaving villagers to their own devices is fine, experts say, as long as they adopt sustainable forestry. That’s a tall order. “For a farmer it is much easier to plant one species,” Spiecker says. Eucalyptus and Chinese fir are popular in part because villagers understand the market for their timber, even if they are not wise ecological choices. “That is really an obstacle,” Spiecker says. “The individual prefers to have a simple, monoculture forest.” To demonstrate the advantages of variation, researchers from the Center for Mountain Ecosystem Studies planted a multipurpose forest just up the road from Pingzhang in 2006. They peppered Chinese pine stands with native species such as candle birch (Betula luminifera); Michelia floribunda, a type of magnolia; and alder. Today the forest has a dense canopy. “You can tell the soil is better than what’s over there,” Su says, gesturing to a preserved section of the original forest, which looks like a tree farm.

Multipurpose forests are catching on at experimental stations in China (Science, 31 July 2009, p. 556). But convincing locals to carry the torch is a greater challenge. In Pingzhang, leaders discourage planting eucalyptus while encouraging investment in nontimber agroforestry species like walnut. One slogan says, “It’s better to have lots of walnuts than lots of sons.”

“The key word is education,” Spiecker says. Knowledge about sustainable forestry is “available worldwide,” he notes. “The question is how to get this information to the people.” Small forestry associations could help. But that will come in time, Spiecker says: “All of this has to develop. It cannot be started from scratch.”


First published in Science | AAAS.



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Mara Hvistendahl
Mara Hvistendahl is a contributing correspondent at Science magazine and the author of Unnatural Selection, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Mara has written for The Atlantic, Harper’s, Scientific American, Popular Science, The Wall Street Journal, and Foreign Policy. A longtime correspondent in China, she now lives in Minneapolis.