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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 place immediately impresses with its use of natural stone rather than concrete for the houses and pavement. Roofs are adorned with traditional-looking grey tiles, and a large water catchment featuring in the centre of the village 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 as 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 larger 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 an ancient-looking sawmill and elsewhere, after extracting camellia oil, large machines are pressing the residues of the seeds into cakes for premium soap producers all over the nation.

Local response to government policy

Xinqi has mostly itself to thank. After suffering massive deforestation during the Cultural Revolution, in the sixties, the community set up collective forest farms to manage the forest land, resisting and overriding later Chinese reforms to divide forest among individual households. After internal debate, benefits from the forest harvest 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 forest. Farmers were encouraged to participate in the Sloping Land Conversion Program (SLCP). This government programme subsidizes farmers for replacing their farmland on sloping land by 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 benefits, 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 forest, they often apply tree intercropping techniques where the trees fertilize and stabilize the soil while regulating crop humidity and moisture. Additional income is expected from eco-tourism. A guesthouse with lots of wood features and a view of the mountains is being constructed for that very purpose, and the forests attract crowds searching for natural beauty. 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 all roses everywhere. Comparison with Pingzhang (平掌), a Bai and Yi minority village located in Baoshan prefecture between the Nu and Mekong Rivers, showed that government policy has varying results in various places. Top-down implementation of the SLCP in Pingzhang 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 forestland 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 quite as well, with more villagers rating the government programmes as unsuccessful. The researchers therefore see government programmes more as opportunities but point out that local reception is what tips the balance towards success or failure. They furthermore 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. Full citation of the work: He, J., Decentralization of Forest Management in Southwest China, Doctoral thesis submitted to the School of International Development, University of East Anglia, October 2012. His work was published in the journals Forests and Forest Policy and Economics.