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Community participation in the management of nature reserves: experiences and lessons from China

Q. Lai

Qingkui Lai is in the Centre for Community Forestry Studies, Southwest Forestry College, Kunming, China.

Experiences from nature reserves in southeastern Yunnan Province, China, provide lessons for improving co-management for more effective integration of natural resources conservation and local community development.


Effective management of nature reserves depends on partnership with communities living in or adjacent to them; these Miao (Mong) inhabitants of a village in the Daweishan reserve depend on the reserve resources for their livelihoods
(Photo: Q.LAI)

To protect conservation targets effectively and achieve the goals of reserve establishment, reserve management needs to build partnerships with the communities living within or nearby nature reserves and to address their needs for forest resources for their livelihoods. Co-management approaches have been developed to integrate natural resources conservation and the subsistence and development of local communities.

In China, since the beginning of the 1990s, co-management has been accepted by research institutes and adopted by government agencies responsible for natural resource management as a preferred approach to the management of nature reserves. However, the practice of co-management in China inevitably encounters problems of various kinds, deriving from differences in social, economic, cultural and historical contexts as well as in understanding and experience. Yunnan, one of the provinces with the richest biodiversity and most numerous nature reserves in China, has pioneered co-management since the 1990s. This article examines some of the achievements and problems in several national nature reserves in southeastern Yunnan Province and proposes measures for improvement from the perspective of sustainability and community development.


Co-management is an application of community forestry concepts in forest resource and nature reserve management. Its underlying premise is that to conserve forest resources and manage nature reserves effectively, it is essential to give sufficient consideration to the needs of the people living within and around the forest or reserve (Western and Wright, 1994). Other related terms with a similar meaning include "forest co-management", "participatory management", "collaborative management", "facilitated management" and "partnership management".

Community participatory management of nature reserves should comply with the goal of reserve establishment, namely, to conserve the biodiversity harboured within the reserve. Reserve management should benefit local people and satisfy their needs for forest and related resources (Western and Wright, 1994), by:

• formulating master plans on the basis of the practical situations of the reserve;

• formulating clear management objectives for different zones of the reserve on the basis of related government policies and the requirements and status of the specific conservation targets;

• formulating adaptive management plans suitable for community participation;

• strengthening inventory and research on the species of fauna and flora occurring in the nature reserve;

• strengthening the institutional capacity and developing the human resources of the communities in and around the nature reserves, and promoting exchange of information and experiences among reserves;

• strengthening awareness building throughout society to promote the establishment of adaptive policies, attract financial support and encourage people's participation.

In the Daweishan reserve project, discussions with community members and reserve staff contributed to the formulation of rules and regulations for the management of forest resources, which have been incorporated into the village rules
(Photo: Q.LAI)


Some achievements

Benefits to local communities. Before China initiated a logging ban in 1998, more than half of the villagers living around Wenshan State Nature Reserve earned their income mainly by harvesting timber and bamboo from the collective forests and nature reserve and selling them in the markets, especially in the autumn and winter. After the logging ban came into force, the villagers living around the reserve lost their sources of income and were reduced to a life of extreme poverty. Most of the villagers did not earn enough to buy food and clothing or to pay school fees, with some children having to interrupt their schooling as a result.

Since 2000, a co-management approach called integrated community management planning has been developed in the communities around the nature reserve, supported by both prefecture and county governments. The implementation of co-management has helped improve the living standards of nearby communities, for example through the planting of fruit-trees, and has provided other benefits such as the introduction of biogas stoves to overcome the problem of fuelwood shortage.

Easing conflicts between the reserve and the adjacent communities. The difficult situation arising from the introduction of the logging ban in Wenshan State Nature Reserve aggravated conflicts between the reserve and the adjacent communities and made it more difficult to manage the nature reserve and the surrounding collective forests. The implementation of co-management not only provided benefits to nearby communities, but also remarkably reduced forest-related illegal activities. The conflict between the nature reserve and the communities has been considerably eased. The villagers' enthusiasm for forest management has been mobilized, and this has permitted the recovery of the vegetation and wildlife resources of the forests that are under co-management.

Shifts in the mandates, responsibilities and functions of reserve management. Co-management has triggered changes in the government agencies managing the reserves. To involve communities actively in reserve management, to conserve the plant and wildlife resources of the reserve effectively and to implement co-management activities successfully, it was necessary to redefine the functions and responsibilities of the county- and township-level agencies managing the reserves.

Community development and technical extension functions have been added to the responsibilities of reserve management. Tasks such as patrolling, guarding and law enforcement, previously the main functions of the management offices at the county level, have been delegated to the management stations at the township level or forest guards in villages. The management offices at the county level have expanded their duties to embrace community development services and collective forest management; they are now mainly responsible for supervising law enforcement, mediating conflicts, providing technical service to the adjacent communities and coordinating activities among related departments.

Establishment of reserve management regulations. A community participatory reserve management project was carried out in Daweishan State Nature Reserve with support from the Ford Foundation and a small grant from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) from 1998 to 2001. With the participation of reserve staff and community people, the project formulated or improved a series of rules and regulations for the management of forest resources in the nature reserve and its adjacent communities. With full respect for the local customs and habits, reserve management rules and regulations have been incorporated into the village rules of the related communities.

Community acceptance of co-management. Through research, demonstrations, training, study tours and awareness-building activities in nature reserves such as Daweishan and Wenshan and their adjacent communities, community people are becoming increasingly interested in co-management approaches and in the work of the researchers and the reserve staff. Through these activities, most of the villagers have realized the importance of forest conservation and reserve establishment, and this has helped improve the relations between the reserve and the adjacent communities.

Some observations

Multiple approaches should be sought to satisfy the needs of the community for forest resources. As most nature reserves in Yunnan are located in remote areas with inconvenient transport, poor information access and a developing economy, people living in and around these nature reserves are extremely dependent on the reserve resources for their livelihoods. The establishment of the nature reserves reduced the land available to them and severely limited their sources of subsistence and their scope of economic activities (Lai, 1997). Comprehensive approaches including measures for fuelwood conservation, poverty alleviation, sustainable economic development, environmental protection, technical services and capacity building must be adopted to satisfy the needs of the villagers for wood and non-wood forest products from the reserve for their economic and cultural development activities.

Demonstrations, training and awareness-building activities in communities in and adjacent to
Daweishan State Nature Reserve have interested people in co-management

(Photo: Q.LAI)

Co-management should be fine-tuned to suit local conditions, guided by uni fied management plans and scenarios. Even within the same nature reserve, areas that differ physically, socio-economically and culturally can still be identified. In management, these areas should be treated differently, and management plans and rules need to reflect the differences (Lai and Wang, 1998). At the same time, the physical, social and economic conditions of an area may be subject to changes, and management requirements will change accordingly; therefore, the management must be revised in a timely way to suit altered conditions.

Benefits from co- management projects in Yunnan Province have included the construction
of biogas pits (pictured) and introduction of biogas stoves to deal with fuelwood shortage

(Photo: Q.LAI)

Partnership and cooperation in nature reserve management must be broadened. Experience has shown that the efforts of the agencies responsible for reserve management are not alone enough to complete the necessary tasks. Partnership should be sought with local communities, government agencies in such sectors as forestry, agriculture and livestock management, and institutions providing technical support and services such as universities and research institutions. Practical cooperation and equality among partners should be sought as much as possible for effective joint management, equitable benefit sharing and community development.

The participation of women in reserve management also requires increased attention. Many forest products such as fuelwood, fodder and non-wood forest products are collected primarily by women, and women thus have an important role in ensuring the conservation and sustainable use of forest resources.

Co-management should be implemented in a gradual manner, should focus on practical results and should be based on the willing participation of the villagers. The experience of the demonstration programmes in the two villages adjacent to Daweishan State Nature Reserve suggested that "seeing is believing" should be the basic principle in promoting co-management (Lai, 1998). At the same time, the expected results can only be achieved if co-
management is developed in a gradual manner and with full consideration of the will and receptiveness of the villagers.

Issues still to be addressed

Inadequate approaches to community poverty. To conserve the forest resources of Wenshan State Nature Reserve, the Wenshan County government contracted households from 11 villages immediately adjacent to the reserve as forest guards. General households were paid 100 yuan (US$12) and village heads 200 yuan (US$24) per month. In this way, the county government has helped meet the villagers' urgent need for cash. There appears to be no similar practice elsewhere in Yunnan, and perhaps not even in the whole country.

Contracting forest guards and offering monthly salaries should not be a controversial issue, but it may have disadvantages. The regular cash payments provide a stable income for the villager forest guards, but they may result in financial difficulties for the local government. The government of Wenshan County, for example, has invested almost US$73 000 each year in joint forest guarding, an investment that can hardly be maintained by such a poverty-level county in the long term. In addition, the 100 or 200 yuan monthly payment has been described as hardly enough for the monthly living cost of a middle school student. Reliance of the villagers on this scant income source may encourage them to miss opportunities for real development.

The practice of hiring local forest guards has in some way sharpened the conflicts between the nature reserve management agency and the communities. People from villages not covered by the programme have complained that they should have the same opportunities and treatment as the other 11 villages because their conditions are similar. In retaliation, some of them have resorted to more serious illegal harvesting of reserve resources. A leader from the Wenshan Nature Reserve Bureau reported that even though many villages are enjoying monthly subsidies and biogas pits have been constructed, the villagers still turn to the nature reserve, stealing trees for commercial purposes and collecting fuelwood and non-wood forest products.

Ineffectiveness of relocation as a means of solving the conflicts between the reserve and the communities. Throughout the world, it has been a common practice to facilitate reserve management by relocating people to eliminate the conflicts over land uses, resource management and conservation between the reserve and the adjacent communities. Surveys in Wenshan, Nangunhe, Gaoligongshan and many other nature reserves in Yunnan suggested that relocation may be a good way to address the problems of the reserve (e.g. illegal harvesting) (Lai and Wang, 1998), but that relocating villages or villagers often leads to social, economic and cultural changes which can easily result in social problems. Adapting to the new environment is difficult for the villagers and sometimes makes their lives even harder. Meanwhile, after relocation of the villages or villagers, the area of the nature reserve may expand. The expanded nature reserve is sure to have new boundaries and new villagers nearby who are likely to treat the reserve resources in the same way as the relocated people. Thus, the same problems may remain.

Since most nature reserves in Yunnan are located in remote areas with a developing economy, comprehensive approaches are required to meet the local villages’ economic needs while conserving forest resources
(Photo: Q.LAI)

Need for conformity of policies and regulations. In discussions and surveys, villagers and forest guards often expressed frustration that different policies and regulations were applied in the same nature reserve. For example, Daweishan State Nature Reserve is located in Pingbian and Hekou counties, and the two counties differ greatly in their management of planting of Amomum tsao-ko (a valued spice and medicinal plant) and hunting activities in the reserve. The different regulations have created difficulties in law enforcement for the forest guards and reserve staff and have aggravated the conflicts between reserve management departments and the communities (Lai, 1998). Even if a nature reserve administratively crosses several counties, prefectures or provinces, it would be preferable if the same management mode could be applied. Management offices or stations in different administrative areas should strengthen their exchange and cooperation to formulate and implement unified management policies and to minimize conflicts among the different departments.

Importance of a "buffer zone" in sustainable forest management. The term "buffer zone" refers to a certain area outside the boundary of a nature reserve. Communities adjacent to a reserve undoubtedly are more involved in managing, using and developing the forest and its resources than communities further away from the reserve, and they thus have a more direct impact on the protected wildlife and plant species and their habitats. Therefore reserve management departments and local government should give special attention to the communities in the buffer zone and their land use and land development practices.

One issue to be addressed is the development of plantations by the communities adjacent to the Daweishan Nature Reserve. Since the 1980s, driven by economic interests and the need for timber, communities in both counties around the nature reserve began to create large-scale plantations of Chinese fir (Cunninghamia lanceolata) and to plant cash crops such as pineapples, bananas and rubber trees (Hevea brasiliensis). To do so they removed the original secondary shrubs. Plantation management has greatly promoted the rural economy in the local area. However, if such plantations are developed without general planning giving consideration to biodiversity conservation, not only will the extension and regeneration of the protected species be limited outside the nature reserve, but the reserve will also become an isolated island among the plantations, which can cause new conflicts and problems.

With due consideration to the needs of the villagers for forest resources and economic development, detailed studies are needed to determine how properly to define the role of the "buffer zone".

Need for defined functions and roles of reserve management agencies and governments. Technical services, natural resource management, fuel-efficient stove construction and rural development used to be, and in the author's opinion should be, the responsibility of the functional departments of government. If the work scope of the reserve management agencies is to be expanded to cover the adjacent communities and their duties are to be extended to cover these issues, then what is the role of the functional departments? The functions and role of the reserve management departments need to be clearly defined to prevent overlap.


Based on the above discussion, the following preliminary recommendations are proposed.

• Unified or comparable policies and regulations need to be formulated and implemented across the administrative boundaries of nature reserves.

• "Buffer zone " management should be considered and carefully planned, and corresponding integrated land use plans should be developed based on the physical conditions, plant and animal species present, social and economic conditions and the adjacent communities' need for and use of natural resources.

• The functions and role of the reserve management departments in community development and community forest management need to be clearly defined.

• The capacity of the adjacent community for integrated management (including social, economic and resources management) should be enhanced. The role of women in the management of nature reserves and related resources should also be strengthened.

• Channels should be set up to ensure exchange between the nature reserve and communities, and incentive systems for community participation in reserve management should be further developed.


Lai, Q. 1997. Conflict management and community forestry: a case of the Nangun River Nature Reserve, Yunnan, China. Proceedings, Workshop on Conflict and Collaboration in Community Management of Forestlands. Honolulu, Hawaii, USA, East-West Center.

Lai, Q. 1998. Community-based income generation and bio-diversity conservation: a new challenge of integration of conflict management into forestry policy. Proceedings of a Satellite Meeting to the XI World Forestry Congress. Rome, FAO.

Lai, Q. & Wang, L. 1998. Problems in participatory management of forest resources conflicts. Journal of Southwest Forestry College, 18(2): 91-96. (In Chinese)

Western, D. & Wright, R.M. 1994. Natural connections: perspectives in community-based conservation. Washington, DC, USA, Island Press.

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