Community-based Conservation Spreading Fast in China

This is the first post in Human Nature’s three-part “From the Ground Up” blog series, which spotlights a few of the ways CI is scaling up our work to have the global conservation impact we need.

giant panda, Sichuan, China

A giant panda in China’s Sichuan province. In addition to wildlife habitat, China’s forests provide fresh water, wild food products, medicinal herbs and other benefits for communities. (© Rod Mast)

CI’s Conservation Stewards Program (CSP) bridges conservation and development through innovative conservation agreements developed in partnership with communities who own or rely on natural resources. Today on Human Nature, CI’s Eduard Niesten shares some good news from China: the district government’s adoption of the conservation agreement model.

The high mountains and deep valleys of China’s Lixian County — located in northwest Sichuan province — are home to the town of Mashan, a community of nearly 400 people.

Forests account for more than 50% of the county’s total area, providing fresh water, wild food products, medicinal herbs and other benefits for Lixian residents, as well as critical habitat for the giant panda and other species. However, these forests are threatened by clearing for agriculture, as well as unregulated hunting and collection of timber, mushrooms and other forest products.

To help empower communities to conserve these forests, CSP began working with Shan Shui — a local NGO that grew out of CI-China — to set up a conservation agreement between Mashan and the Lixian Forestry Bureau.

In a conservation agreement, a community makes commitments like patrolling forests and not hunting endangered species in return for a benefit package chosen by community members. This agreement allows conservation to compete against non-sustainable resource uses and motivates communities to become conservation partners. In Mashan, benefits included wages for community patrolling and investment in walnut trees and women’s handicraft production for the tourist trade.

I recently received an exciting update from my colleague Tian Feng, CSP’s regional manager for Asia, who reported that the conservation agreement model developed by CSP is spreading fast in Lixian County.

Changqing National Nature Reserve, China

Changqing National Nature Reserve in China’s Shaanxi province. Conservation agreements motivate people to protect their local landscapes in exchange for community-determined benefits. (© Trond Larsen)

In 2010, Lixian Forestry Bureau officials reached out to Feng and Shanshui to discuss expanding the use of CSP’s conservation agreement model based on the success of the program in Mashan. As the discussions went on, it soon became clear that this would not be possible for bureaucratic reasons.

However, several months ago when Feng and Shanshui officer Fengjie reconnected with the Lixian Forestry Bureau, they were told that the bureau ended up following their recommendations after all, and had begun implementing the CSP model in 2011.

Doing this meant changing the standard practice of making payments from the FEBCS — the Chinese central government’s Forest Ecological Benefit Compensation Scheme — directly to individual families. Instead, applying the CSP model involves an agreement with a community as a whole, making forest protection a collective responsibility.

Each community in Lixian County established a forest management board with a community bank account, and then decided how to divide FEBCS payments between community conservation activities and individual household dividends.

For example, the Lixian County government scaled up the existing conservation agreement with the Mashan community, who elected a five-member board that then hired two rangers to patrol the community’s forest area. The community allocated 20% of the FEBCS payments to the board, and the remainder as payments to households.

In 2011, the Lixian Forest Bureau issued payments to 88 communities throughout the county. Based on evaluations of conservation performance, payments were reduced for 31 communities where evidence was found of logging, hunting or destruction of reforested areas. These communities now have an opportunity to improve their performance so they can benefit from the next round of payments.

This news was a revelation: CSP’s investment in Mashan had led to nearly 100-fold replication! Now we are in a great position to amplify impacts even further. In fact, the management authority of the Baishuijiang National Nature Reserve (BNNR), where CSP and Shanshui developed a demonstration project with the community of Lizhiba, is considering scaling up as Lixian has done.

The BNNR is China’s largest giant panda reserve, and is surrounded by 170 communities. Establishing conservation agreements between these communities and the BNNR, funded by the FEBCS, would represent another enormous gain for community-based conservation in China.

The significance of the Chinese government using the CSP approach is tremendous. Its adoption helps demonstrate the effectiveness of conservation agreements and their impact on helping to conserve ecosystems and species while improving the quality of life for local communities. As more people benefit from these agreements, I am confident that their popularity will continue to grow.

Eduard Niesten is the senior director of CI’s Conservation Stewards Program. He has worked on conservation agreements in more than 20 countries in South and Central America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific Island region. Stay tuned later this week for the next blog in this series.


  1. Pingback: Two Distant Countries Face Similar Forest Protection Challenges — and Solutions | Human Nature - Conservation International Blog

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