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24 Potential of customary forest resources management system for sustainable forestry - Gan Tingyu[33]


Based on a study conducted in two villages, one in the Baima township, Pingwu County, and the other in the Shanba township, Sopan County, Sichuan Province in southwestern China, the paper portrays and analyses customary forest resources management (CFRM) in these two villages, the historical changes, as well as the factors leading to these changes. These two villagers are situated in mountainous country and inhabited by indigenous people who are forest dependent. CFRM still exerts a significant role in community forest management in Shanba while it has disintegrated in Baima. This results from different internal social and institutional structure linkages to CFRM as well as external intervention and influence. It is shown from the historical perspective that CFRM might play an important role and must be made one of the inputs for sustainable management of forest resources. However, it is weak to external intervention as long as there is no appropriate internal mechanism within the community such as full participation, responsibility system, tenure arrangement, selforganization, etc.; therefore, it is not just simple rediscovery or recognition of CFRM. Some inherent elements that make CFRM move towards sustainable forest management should be focused on.


Sustainable forest resources management is being planned as the cornerstone of the government’s rural development and poverty alleviation efforts. Little examined in China is the idea that the current unsustainable forest use may be rooted in the conventional forest management supported over the years by government policies that led to the breaking down of the indigenous forest management systems that could have contributed to sustainable forest management. Such policies ignore the rights of tribal communities over their forest lands and reinforce the inequitable distribution of benefits derived from the utilization of natural resources. Therefore rediscovery of the indigenous forest management system starts to draw attention to pursuing sustainable forestry.

In China, major forest areas located in fragile upstream regions and occupied by ethnic groups are characterized by a diversity of culture, social systems, legal institutions and economies. Such is the case of Sichuan Province, which is located in the centre of southwest China and is one of the biggest agricultural and forestry provinces in China. Most of the rural people live mainly on agriculture, forestry, and animal husbandry.

Particularly, in mountainous and hilly areas, one-fifth of the total population live mainly on forestry since forests provide people with basic necessities to sustain their production and livelihood activities. Thus sustainable forest resources management in those areas is seen as the cornerstone of the government’s rural development and poverty alleviation efforts.

Sichuan is also one of the major provinces where a number of ethnic groups live. Among the major ethnic groups are the Yi, Tibetan, Tujua and Hui. In the long process of historical development and adaptation with the natural environment, they have formed their unique cultures and production systems. A sustainable manner for forestry resources management approach is observed in their traditional production practices, which are generally determined by their customary tenure systems in a great diversity of communal and individual controls over usage right of forestry resources. With the problems caused by deforestation and with the recent opportunity arising from decentralization as well as endeavours to explore ways for sustainable forest management, people have increasing awareness of customary resources management system (CRMS) contribution.

Based on a study that was conducted in two villages, one in the Baima township, Pingwu Country, and another in the Shanba township, Sopan County, Sichuan Province, in southwestern China, the paper seeks to portray and analyse customary forest resources management (CFRM) in these two villages. These two sites have complex characteristics: (a) they are mountainous communities; (b) they are inhabited by indigenous people; (c) they are forest dependent communities; (e) traditionally, the communities managed their resources based on CFRM, which still assumes a significant role in Shanba, while it has disintegrated in Baima. By describing CFRM in its current implementation and the historical changes in the two villages, the paper tries to find out how CFRM could contribute to sustainable forest management.


Brief description of the two villages

Located in the northwest of Pingwu, Sichuan Province of China, Yazhe Zhaozu is a village of Baima township and includes 4 hamlets with 100 households. Forest land, rangeland and farmland contribute major land resources of the village. Farmland is under collective ownership. Use right of farmland after 1982 was given to individual households. Although forest land is under state ownership, villagers may access to it for their subsistence needs and income generation. The major part of income comes from livestock raising and timberoriented activities. With the logging ban after 1998, cash crop planting and ecotourism business have become the options for villagers to substitute income from the previous timber-oriented activities.

Located at northern Sichuan, Mayi is the remotest village of Shanba township of Aba Tibetan-Qiang Autonomous Prefecture. Its elevation is 3200 m asl. Mayi village includes 2 hamlets and has 70 households with 486 people. Land resources include 10 612 ha of forest under village ownership, 3412 ha of rangeland and 100 ha of arable land that was contracted to households in 1983. Main crops are highland barley and lima bean. Livestock raising provides significant livelihood options to villagers. Livestock raised include cattle, goat and pig.

For the two villages, forest is an important resource for their livelihood. It not only provides basic needs such as fuelwood, fodder and timber for house construction, but also income generation. In Yazhe Zhaozu village non-timber forest products (NTFPs) contribute the major source of cash for most of the households. During the harvest season, 70 percent of the households are involved in NTFP collection.

Customary forestry practices in the two villages

Before 1956, the two villages managed their forest resources through their customary resources management system. This system consists of components that cover local beliefs, tenure arrangement, organization and regulation.

In Yazhe Zhaozu village, the Baima people believed that different natural gods governed different substances. These natural gods included the gods of fire, mountain, river, trees, etc. Therefore the forest was defined as the property of natural gods and no human was eligible to have a title over it. However, this sort of ownership was interpreted in practice as natural forest land and was accessed communally by all the Baima people. According to Pingwu Government (1998), mountains for fuelwood gathering, grazing, swidden and worship were common property. Individual use right was recognized under common ownership.

The regulation/code was made in order to manage community resources. The contexts were nearly related to all aspects of the community life. The major contexts included:

To guarantee implementation of the regulation/code, a community meeting was held on the 10th day after the Chinese New Year. The community took the time to review the implementation of the code in the past one year and made the preparation for the coming year. Anyone who violated the code would be penalized. The violator had to slaughter cattle or sheep to feast all the villagers and made the commitment to improve behaviour. If the violator persisted on the bad behaviour without any improvement, a strict penalty would be imposed on his/her being isolated from the society.

The headman of the hamlet played a significant role in organizing community meetings per year, formation of the rules for community life, implementation of the rules, organizing production, infrastructure construction such as roads and bridges, and conflict management.

In Mayi village, important natural resources like forest and rangeland also belonged to common property. The Field Management Team (FMT), an informal community organization, contracted the resource management. The main function of it was for coordination and resolution of problems like resource management, public security and conflicts, and helping to form village organizations. For instance, they organized forest patrols to protect wild flora and fauna. During the harvesting season, they tried to prevent outsiders to enter Mayi village. Every household was a member of the FMT. Generally, there were several FMTs in one village. The number of FMTs depended on the number of households. Every year, one or two FMTs were on duty in the village management work. Each household takes turn to serve as the leader of FMT.

Following rules and regulations agreed upon by the community members, the FMTs were authorized to tackle cases that violated the rules and damaged the resources.

This system did not change until agrarian reform started in 1951 across the country and democratic reform in 1956 in ethnic minority regions. This reform brought a big change in land resource tenure and management pattern. In Yazhe Zhaozu, the ownership of farmland and forest was tranferred respectively into that of collective and state-owned. Forest was managed by state logging agencies. In Mayi, farm and forest land became collective ownership managed by a collective. From 1956 to 1982 CFMS did not function in the two villages under the general political and economic structure, characteristic of centralization in China.

In 1982, another change in land tenure came to the two villages. Following the national policy of rural economic reform towards market economy, use right of land resources was allocated to individual households. However, since the forest within Yazhe Zhaozu still belonged to the state, the reform did not lead to changes for the villagers to control or manage the forest resource. After 1990, the policy was adjusted to speed up the market-oriented economy. In line with this was the further reform towards decentralization in decision-making over the use of forest resources. One aspect of the reform was that logging concessions were awarded to individual persons. The local elite grasped the opportunity to get logging concessions and fast became rich. Overcommercial logging and fast emergence of rich individuals induced the weakening of the traditional use and management of forest, creating significant changes in the society and belief system. As a result, the young generation may not have the same perceptions and aspirations of the forest resources as their elders. It is hard for the youths to refuse the benefits from forest activities that work against their traditional culture.

In Mayi village, the FMT was revived when the policy required usufructs of farmland and rights of forest management be allocated to individual households in 1982. Following the policy on farmland, the villagers did not agree that individual households manage the forest. They thought that better forest management could be achieved in the form of a collective forest under the FMT. A similar decision had been made in 1998 when the village carried out a policy of rangeland contract, which encouraged allocating usufructs of rangeland to households. The villagers retained the customary common use and management of rangeland. One of the reasons for the villagers to prefer collective management under the FMT was to give households with different labour force a certain degree of freedom in convenient access to resources according to their capacity. If the usufructs of forest or rangeland are distributed to each household based on its location, this will give those households with small labour force little choice to collect fuelwood or graze their livestock in near places, and this might cause conflict.

Comparative analysis of the CFMS in the two villages

(a) Common property is the basis of the CFMS. Before 1956, the tenure of resources in the two villages was common-based. Resource management in centralization or privatization discourages common property so that there is little room for the CFMS to play a role, such as we found in the two villages from 1956 to 1982 and in Yazhe Zhaozu after 1990. However, with the national policy on rural land resources moving towards decentralization after 1982, Mayi village has adjusted its implementation of individual land contracts and chosen the collective resource management under the FMTs in response to its CFMS.

(b) National institutional changes have exerted a strong influence on local resource management in the two villages. But the consequences of the CFMS are different. The CFMS resumed soon right after 1982 in Mayi while it disintegrated in Yazhe Zhaozu. The results came from different outside interventions. The major reason was the different tenure arrangements in the two villages since 1956. A big change took place in forest property of Yazhe Zhaozu from common to state ownership in early 1950. In Mayi village collective forest replaced the previous common property. Technically, this tenure arrangement should not substantially change the local control over their forest resources. Therefore, when rural economic reform towards decentralized decision-making commenced in the early 1980s, the villagers could exercise their right in adopting the CFMS again.

(c) Regulation or rule was effective in the two villages when the employment of the CFMS prevented damage to common property. Self-organization and full participation in Mayi could explain the positive role of the FMT in its resource management. Administrative support had shown the same importance in Yianzhe Zhaozhu where the headman of the hamlet or village played a significant role in promoting the CFMS.

Policy implications

(a) Sustainable resource management. A lesson from the two villages lists several key concepts fundamental to resource sustainability featured in the CFMS. These are: (1) participation of the people, (2) application of indigenous knowledge, (3) participation of local organizations and informal associations, and (4) cultural revival, if necessary. In all these key concepts, the involvement of the local people is built in and absolutely necessary.

(b) Indigenous knowledge. Indigenous knowledge is knowledge linked to a particular people in a particular place at a particular time. In Yazhe Zhaozu and Mayi, the local people are the only ones who possess this knowledge which has enabled them to manage their environment centuries before government policy began to intrude in the late 1940s. Outsiders must acknowledge this type of knowledge, which includes spiritual beliefs, cosmologies and world views, in order to understand how ethnic groups survive and manage their ecosystem for ages. Thus the traditional system of forest management may be more appropriate for achieving development objectives than supposedly modern reform systems. The customary tenure system is far from being an inflexible and inefficient system; in many instances it may be a highly appropriate form of land tenure, well adapted to particular environmental and economic conditions, and well suited to rural development programmes.

(c) Property rights. The issue of property rights is important for long-term occupation of the area. The local people have a claim in their own way to manage the forest land where they have been generally located for hundreds of years. Forest-dependent indigenous societies do not wish to gain only economic benefits as they utilize forest resources. They always have multi-objectives such as passing on their cultural and social traditions and preservation of the natural resources from generation to generation. Their customary property rights or tenure arrangement (such as common property) should be considered and respected.

(d) State support. It may not be sufficient just to simply rediscover and give recognition to the CFMS without consideration of changed external factors. Emphasis here should be placed on the key elements embraced in the CFMS that contribute to sustainable forest management. Support from state policies and institutions could help achieve the objective by integrating the objective of the state with the needs of the indigenous people. The government could give incentives and support alternative income generation activities by integrating the programmes into the community-based forest management.

(e) Decision-making and reforms. Decision-making in national policy is crucial in leading to any changes in the people’s forest management. It is important that the people themselves be adequately represented in the decision-making process. It is essential to encourage local participation in forest management. In order to achieve appropriate forest management, the government should improve the process of policy decision-making, implementation and evaluation.


Cheng, Jiaqi. 1995. The evolutionary history of Sichuan land and trees tenure and opinions about it. Forest land and trees tenure and social forestry, pp. 137-144. Chengdu, China, Chengdu University of Science and Technology Press.

Cleary, M. & Eaton, P. 1996. Tradition and reform: land tenure and rural development in South-East Asia. Oxford University Press. 160 pp.

Kummer, D.M. 1992. Deforestation in the postwar Philippines. Chicago, University of Chicago Press. 184 pp.

McCay, B. J. 1996. Common and Private Concerns. Rights to nature: ecological, economic, cultural and political principles of institutions for the environment, pp. 111-126. Washington, D.C., Island Press.

Pingwu Government. 1998. Documentary report - Ping Wu. 59 pp.

[33] Institute of Rural Economy, Sichuan Academy of Social Sciences, Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China; E-mail: [email protected]

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