Litang Forest Use & NTFPs 2003

Published in: The Ecological Basis and Sustainable Management of Forest Resources (eds Z. Jiang, M. Centritto, S. Liu & S. Zhang). Informatore Botanico Italiano 35 (Supplemento 1), 2003




By Daniel Winkler




The enactment of the logging ban as part of China's Natural Forest Protection Project (NFPP) is strongly impacting Ganzi and Aba Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures (TAP) in Sichuan, where most counties depended heavily on logging income. Since the 1950s, timber exploitation reduced biodiverse old-growth forests by over 60%. This paper provides background on the NFPP and the logging industry; it also assesses the impact of the ban on local people and administrations. Based on a case study from Litang County some of the challenges and opportunities arising from this policy change are presented. Of central interest are reforestation, the nursery sector and the mushroom industry(Tricholoma matsutake and Cordyceps sinensis), which generates the largest share of local cash income. The ban offers opportunities to advance non-timber forest product (NTFP) harvesting, processing and marketing, and other sustainable resources, which have not received enough attention from development planners. NFPP also provides the opportunity to improve local environmental conditions through forest restoration. Furthermore, former and present forestry practices fail to integrate local people in the forestry sector, although this sector lends itself to community participation. To ensure long-term success of reforestation local communities need to derive substantial and reliable economic benefits from `their' forests.



Since the 1950s, the logging industry has served as the primary economic sector for the development of West Sichuan. The forests were viewed as an inexhaustible resource. The driving forces behind developing the logging industry were to deliver low cost timber to the timber deprived Chinese lowlands and to finance infrastructure development within the region. Li (1993) reports that West Sichuan's forest cover has decreased from 30% in the 1950s to 14% in the 1980s. This paper focuses on Sichuan's Ganzi (`Sino-Tibetan': Garzê) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (TAP), using Litang County as a case study (see fig.1: map). Most of the information presented has been collected by the author directly from forestry officials or natives in Ganzi TAP while consulting `The Bridge Fund' (TBF) on a forest conservation and reforestation project in Litang County. In the 1980s the logging industry provided up to 70% of the cash revenue of many counties of West Sichuan (Zhao 1992), which are among the very poorest in the whole of PR China. Easily accessible forests were depleted within a few decades. Often state procurement logging quotas were 2 to 3 times higher than natural increments. In addition, forestry bureaus produced timber for the free market, often just to balance losses incurred from quota timber sales (Zhao 1992). Consequently, annual harvest including local consumption was estimated to reach nearly 5 times the natural growth (Yang 1985) in neighboring Aba (Sino-Tibetan: Ngawa) Tibetan & Qiang Autonomous Prefecture (TQAP). In addition, until the 1990s reforestation after clear-cutting was a rare exception. In short, the opportunity to establish a sustainable forestry was missed and the logical consequence was either total resource exhaustion, as predicted by some (i.e. Zhao 1992), or substantial harvest reduction.


The Logging Ban as Part of the Natural Forest Protection Program (NFPP)
In August 1998, PR China issued a logging ban in natural forests as part of the Natural Forest Protection Program (NFPP). Although official national statistics of the Ministry of Forestry (MoF) report an increase of forest area of 8.2% (from 12% to 13%) with a standing volume increase by 1.42% between 1980 and 1988, an analysis based on provincial-level MoF data reveals that the amount of land in timber production declined by 1%, while the volume decreased by 10.3% in the same period (Albers et al. 1998). This loss of volume was especially attributed to logging of old-growth forests in remote areas. Before the ban in 1997, MoF carried out a study, which revealed the severity of the economic and ecological crisis in state timber forests, which were predominately old-growth forests. The study suggested phasing out logging of natural forests by 2010 and shifting timber production to plantations, which would be required to adhere to sustainable harvesting regimes (Harkness 1998). The devastating floods along the lower Yangtze in late summer of 1998 secured forest protection proponents the necessary political influence to implement serious counter measures. China is not alone in enacting a logging ban. In the 1990s full or partial bans on logging natural forests have become a common policy tool in Asia to combat high rates of deforestation and to protect critical remaining biodiversity. Natural forests have been withdrawn from commercial logging in all or parts of the Philippines, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, and China (APFC 1999).


Although the NFPP applies to 18 provinces and autonomous regions in China (Zhang et al. 2000), the focus of the logging ban is the headwaters of the Yellow River and especially the Yangtze. On the upper Yangtze, above the gigantic Three Gorges dam, which is currently under construction, all commercial timber harvesting in natural forests has been banned since Sept. 1, 1998 and will be in effect at least until 2010. According to China's National Bureau of Statistics the Chinese timber output plummeted 23.2% in the first nine months of 1999 to 16.64 million m3 (Xinhua, Nov. 14, 1999). The NFPP also includes a major reforestation and revegetation component to reduce soil erosion. In 1998 the central government invested 4 billion RMB, in 1999 6 billion RMB and in 2000 7 billion (US$ 875 million). Timber production from natural forests was reduced from 32 million m3 in 1997 to 29 million m3 in 1998 and 23 million m3 in 1999. In 2000 harvest is probably down to 14 million m3 (Zhang et al. 2000). According to Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, the overall budget for the five upper Yangtze provinces (including Yunnan and Sichuan) and Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), will be 120 billion RMB (US$ 14.5 billion); the government's goal is to increase their forest cover to 45% from the current 22% by 2020 (Xinhua, Dec. 23, 1999). The details of the NFPP are still being worked out. In fall 1999, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji was on a fact-finding mission in affected areas including Sichuan's Aba TQAP. He announced the following five aspects of the new government policy. First, the government will cover the financial losses of local administrations caused by NFPP. Second, the forestry sector including the timber enterprises will be reformed. It is crucial to provide re-employment of state forest workers as planters and to provide financial support for those workers who must be laid-off. Third, sloped farmland needs to be re-vegetated and/or afforested; the government will compensate farmland losses with grains. Fourth, it is necessary to develop and implement effective reforestation and forest protection. Fifth, demand for wood products needs to be satisfied and rural firewood dependency reduced. Zhu Rongji also emphasized that the economic structure in the region must change. Tourism, forestry and animal husbandry must be developed at a fast speed (Xinhua, Sept. 13, 1999). In 2000 the central government launched a major campaign called `develop the West' (xibu kaifa). Presently, NFPP is being integrated in the `Develop the West' program, which emphasizes economic development (i.e. mineral resource exploitation) and infrastructure improvements, such as road and communication improvements. Its aim is to reduce inequality between Han China and its western hinterland populated by other ethnic groups.


Presently, the logging ban is fully enforced and apparently is working in West Sichuan. While in June 1999 the roads where still jammed with trucks driving out the timber harvested before Sept. 1, 1998, already in October 1999 no more timber trucks from Sichuan were on the roads in Ganzi and Aba Prefecture. The only timber trucks encountered were from Tibet AR's Qamdo Prefecture. Although Tibet AR forest bureau had announced an interim logging ban for TAR in December 1998 (see Winkler 1999 & 2001), the logging has been resumed in the headwaters of the Mekong (Lancang Jiang / Dza Chu), Salween (Nu Jiang / Ngu Chu) and the Tsangpo / Brahmaputra (Yarlung Zangbo) but not in the three eastern TAR counties (Gonjo [Gongjue], Markam [Mangkang], and Jomda [Jiangda], all Qamdo Prefecture), which drain into the Yangtze. Qamdo (Changdu) and Nyingchi (Linzhi) prefectures of Tibet AR reportedly will implement an afforestation project at a cost of 300 million RMB with the help of the State Forestry Administration (Xinhua, Aug. 13, 1999).




The information and data contained in this paper, if not indicated otherwise, was collected by the author during six missions for The Bridge Fund - A Project of The Philanthropic Collaborative, Inc., New York - to Ganzi TAP and Aba TAQP between February 1999 and April 2001. The author is consulting TBF on forestry and natural resources related projects in the Tibetan areas of Southwest China, including a reforestation and forest conservation project in Litang County, Ganzi TAP. In general TBF's projects aim at bettering the economic situation of local people. In the process of project preparation, implementation and monitoring countless meetings were held with officials from prefecture, county and township administrations. In addition, project sites were visited and whenever possible local people were interviewed.




Litang (Tibetan: Li-Thang) County is located in the South of Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan Province, SW-China. Nearly 95% of its 44,336 inhabitants are Tibetans (all figures here: LOPD 1998). In 1994, Litang had a gross domestic industrial and agricultural output of 67.03 million RMB; agriculture's mix of farming and pastoralism contributed 70.3%. Grain production, mainly barley, was 7487 tons; total number of livestock was 341,372. The industrial output consisted mostly of gold mining (72 kg) and timber (56,600m3 including 3800m3 of sawed wood); government units run both sectors. The per capita income in pastoral areas was only 480.8 RMB. Litang County encompasses an area of 14,182km2. The county's altitude ranges from 2680m to 6204m, average altitude is 4200m, treeline is at 4400m. High-altitude grasslands alternate with deeply incised forested valleys. The climate is a temperate high mountain climate; over 80% of the annual precipitation (722mm in Litang town at 4017m) fall between June and September. The mean annual temperature in Litang Town is only 3.1ºC. In Kyangba Township (Pinyin: Junba Xiang, 3400m) it is estimated at 7ºC.


Litang's main ecosystems are grasslands (42%), shrublands (33%), forests (13%), alpine rock and permafrost region (11%) and agricultural land (1%). Forests are dominated by conifers (Pinus densata, Abies squamata, Picea balfouriana,Juniperus spp.) and oaks (Quercus aquifolioides). Presently Litang has a closed forest cover of 11.6% (standing volume 35 Mm3), however a total of 46% is classified as forest area, reflecting widespread forest degradation. Mostly secondary evergreen oak forests cover south-facing slopes (fig.3); their conifers have been harvested or destroyed by repeated fire. Forest fires are a common threat (see Winkler 2000 & 2001). In April 1999 several hundred hectares burned in Litang's Gawa Xiang.


Logging and Forest Tenure
All commercial logging was stopped with the enactment of the NFPP in late 1998. Litang produced between 45,000 to 60,000 m3 of quota timber annually since 1980 (see fig. 2). Annual timber consumption is figured at around 200,000m3, assuming a logging efficiency of 50% and including local firewood and construction wood consumption. Official figures for Litang report an annual firewood consumption of only 0.5m3 per person (LOPD 1997), whereas Han (in Li 1993) reports 1.22m3 from neighboring NW-Yunnan's forested high mountain areas. Including construction (0.28m3) and other household needs (0.21m3) annual wood consumption totals 1.71m3 per person. Besides being the county's main source of cash revenue, logging offered the opportunity of some extra cash income for locals. Commonly officials in Ganzi TAP quote that 20% of the locals' cash income is derived from manual labor in the forestry sector. However, most long-term forest workers are contracted from Sichuan's lowlands. Local employment has been restricted to mostly episodic, low paying manual tasks, such as logging, log transport, and slope clearing, which often coincided with agricultural work. Thus, these jobs are often not attractive to locals. Although rural households are depending on the forest resources (fig. 3), they are not dependent on the income opportunities from the logging industry. Their main livelihood is still based on the traditional subsistence herding and farming. Furthermore, in recent years their income was supplemented substantially by mushroom gathering, a much more lucrative activity (see below).


While LFB members stated that 95% of Litang's forests are owned by the state, LOPD reports that 82% are state owned and 18% are collective forests. Liu (1994) reports that 35.2% of Litang's forests are community owned collective forests (`jitilin'), 64.8% are county state forests (`xianguoyou'). These contradicting sets of data reflect the fact that, although local communities are de jure owners of some forest areas, their ownership did neither entitle them to forest management nor to profiting from state timber exploitation. Thus, the distinction between state or community ownership did not affect exploitation. In Litang, as elsewhere in West Sichuan, commercial logging has been a state monopoly, carried out by provincial or county logging enterprises (see fig. 2 & 4) under the supervision of the respective forest bureau. Communities are not entitled to exploit timber resources beyond their own subsistence needs. Removal of timber requires an application to the forest bureau, which usually would grant permission. Disregarding this process would cause fines (see Wen 1999). According to Sichuan Province's NFPP (SPNFPP 1998) locals will still be entitled to fulfill their subsistence need.


With the economic liberalization of the 1980s and the introduction of the household responsibility system elsewhere in China, a policy was instituted to transfer forest management decisions back to local communities (i.e. Tapp 1996, Albers et al.1998, Wen 1999). However, these changes have not reached Litang or other counties in the Tibetan areas so far. This is partially explainable by the absence of commercial timber extraction in most Tibetan communities before the 1950s. Yet, absence of commercial logging does not imply absence of traditional local forest management. Yan (1999) case study on traditional forest management in Gyarong (Pinyin: Jiarong) communities (Barkam / Ma'erkang County, Aba TQAP) clearly indicates otherwise, as does Luo's (1999) study from Deqen TAP (NW-Yunnan).


In comparison, the management of the pastoral sector has already been transferred back to households in Litang in the 1980s, yet without transferring land ownership back to local communities. Pasturelands are not privately or community owned, but de jure state owned, yet households have grazing rights. Recent policies are aiming at changing the ownership status of pastoral land in Litang. LFB officials were stating that clearly defined land ownership would result in an adaptation of herd size to the actual carrying capacity of the herder's pasture. However, the present settling of formerly mobile pastoralists is already accompanied by pasture degradation and erosion around their new homesteads, caused by all-year-round grazing of the fragile high altitude pastureland.


Reforestation and the Nursery Sector
In spring 1999, the first planting season after the logging ban enactment, considerable resources of Litang Forest Bureau (LFB) were tied up in removing timber cut the year before. There was no increase in the area reforested yet. No extra funding as part of the NFPP had reached Litang for the planting season. However, in spring 2000 LFB received 2.1 million RMB from the central government, out of which 1.5 million RMB were earmarked for reforestation of 733 ha. The overall reforested area in 2000 comprised 800 ha, out of which 67 ha were financed by The Bridge Fund. Reforestation efforts were clearly stepped up in all of West Sichuan in 2000. Increased reforestation efforts are causing a shortage in seedlings, which will last for another 5 years, since seedlings need 3 to 5 years before they can be planted out. In the past Litang bought 50% of its 1.5 million annually planted seedlings from outside sources, the other 50% were grown in Litang itself. 80% of the acquired seedlings were obtained from Luhuo nursery (Luhuo/Zhaggo County), Ganzi TAP's head nursery, which has an annual output of 3 million spruces. There is a demand for 5 to 6 million seedlings. Not surprisingly, prices for spruce seedlings increased by 30% to 0.21 RMB per seedling in 1999. Presently, Luhuo, just like Litang and other nurseries in Ganzi, produces only spruces (Picea balfouriana, P. retroflexa) for reforestation of cold-temperate subalpine forests, as outlined by prefectural regulations. Spruce is preferred due to the higher value of its timber and its resistance to disease, especially stem rot. North-facing slopes, which have been mainly exploited, contain a high percentage of fir (Abies squamata, A. ernestii) and sometimes some larch (Larix mastersiana).


The present paradigm shift in China away from perceiving forest as a sole source of timber to a multi-purpose ecosystem as expressed in the current emphasis on protection of natural forests offers the opportunity to diversify the species base in reforestation to minimize potential biodiversity loss when restoring forests (see also Harkness 1998, Studley 1999). Although, species diversification has not been integrated in new regulations in Ganzi TAP yet, officials seem receptive to the concept. However, prefectural forestry regulations require only the propagation of spruce due to its more valuable timber and disease resistance. So far, attempts to widen the conifer species base have failed in Litang County. Other major nursery species are poplar (Populus kangdingensis) used commonly around settlements and along streams and shrub willows (Salix spp.) for soil stabilization. LFB carried out a huge poplar plantation comprising tens of hectares on the grasslands to the West of Litang Town (4000m). The plantation failed due to livestock impact. There was no fencing. Smaller fenced in plantations succeeded close by. Pine (Pinus densata) is used for afforestation and reforestation in warm-temperate valleys, along the region's major rivers.


Fencing reforestation plots is very uncommon, due to its high costs. Moreover, fencing is only efficient when it is fully accepted by locals. One opening renders any fence worthless. As Peng Jitai (pers. comm. 1999) pointed out “Curiously, in Tibetan areas, it is not livestock that gets fenced in but everything that needs to be protected from livestock”. In Litang, instead of fencing, planters insert a wooden batten tripod around the seedling to protect it from livestock trampling and biting (fig. 4). Also sometimes seedling density is increased from 200 seedlings per mu (3000 per ha), the prefectural (and national) minimum requirement, to 300 - 500 seedlings per mu (4500 - 7500 per ha) to account for future losses from high grazing pressure. Also killed seedlings are being replaced in consecutive years. Evidently, high seedling densities substantially increase reforestation costs. However, in many places none of these countermeasures are being taken and seedling survival rates are substantially reduced. Also, sometimes the new emphasis on reforestation seems to spur irrational conifer planting on prime grazing areas along roads instead of carrying out reforestation on degraded slopes, which only have shrub vegetation left.


Reforestation, Grazing and Local Participation
The Sichuan government had announced the closing of nearly 90,000 km2 to livestock grazing, which equals a third of West Sichuan's area in August 1998 (Xinhua, Aug. 24, 1998). However, in Litang there have been no efforts to actually close off freshly reforested slopes. In early June 1999, while planting was underway, yaks were grazing the slopes. A point in case is Kyangba's Balong Valley (3700m, see fig. 5), which was clearcut in the early 1990s and reforested in 1993. In 1999, this north-facing slope was densely crisscrossed by livestock paths. Perennials well adapted to grazing (i.e. Hallenia, Gentiana), as well as a strong element of thorny shrubs (Berberis, Rosa), clearly indicated grazing pressure. The spruce seedlings were impacted by biting (goats) and trampling (yaks), although they had been protected by tripods when planted. Six years later most of the tripods had disintegrated. Very few seedlings displayed straight monopodial growth typical for conifers. Most seedlings, now about 10 years old, had reached only 30 to 40cm in height. It can be assumed that these slopes have been grazed before logging, since they are relatively close to permanent settlements. Other sites in more remote areas indicate less intense grazing. However, herders follow the logging roads and move their livestock into areas previously not grazed, often closer to their villages than the pastures above treeline. Some of these areas have been closed off successfully, after LFB destroyed logging road bridges.


When the issue of grazing of reforestation plots was brought up with locals in Kyangba, they informed the author that fresh clearcuts are some of their best grazing areas. It would take very serious government pressure and full financial compensation to stop them from grazing their livestock there. Not surprisingly, so far LFB tolerates grazing reforestation plots and clearly shies away from grazing restrictions. Disputes over grazing rights have great potential for stirring up serious conflicts, since the availability of grazing ground is the basic requirement for traditional livestock herding. Grazing disputes sometimes turn violent. This was the case over an unclear county line above Kyangba between Litang and Nyarong (Pinyin: Xinlong) County in fall 1999.


In the early 1980s, village committees selected individuals who were assigned as forest and wildlife guards. Local guards were paid an annual fee of 0.75 RMB per hectare. Initially this approach was perceived as successful by forestry officials. However, the rate has neither been raised nor adjusted for inflation. Thus, it is now not enough to secure the guards' dedication. Officials suggested the rate would need to be 5 - 10 RMB/ha/a. So far, no funds have been assigned to finance such an initiative for Ganzi's 1,870,000 ha of forest area.


LFB is trying to develop new strategies in their outreach program. LFB invited Buddhist leaders, many of whom hold positions within the local administrations, to participate in a TBF sponsored training on forest protection and reforestation. The Forestry Bureau is cooperating with these lamas to reach the local Tibetan population, who highly respect Buddhist leaders. Traditional Buddhist views emphasize the sacredness of all life, non-violence, and the importance of the forests for the well being of all sentient beings. Thus, they are perfectly suited to promote wildlife and forest protection. LFB hopes that this innovative approach will help popularize reforestation as well as wildlife and forest conservation with local people. This new approach will definitely enhance LFB's efforts to improve their outreach to local people.


In order to receive genuine local cooperation for successful and efficient reforestation and forest conservation it is crucial that local people derive clear benefits from these activities. Ecosystem services of the forests are not sufficient to bring about a change in the attitude of locals. Livestock herding is the base of their livelihood. From a herder's perspective there is no doubt, herd survival is more important than seedling survival, especially since in the long run seedlings will render grazing grounds useless. Herders will not forgo grazing clearcuts unless they will participate in economic terms in forestry. Only if these seedlings will present an investment in the future of their own community and secure direct economic benefits, will locals change their attitude. In Litang, TBF is committed to facilitate training for locals, so that they are better prepared to participate in the forestry sector. However, training locals as forest workers seems to some forestry officials a far-fetched idea, especially regarding the present surplus of forest bureau employees who used to work as loggers. LFB seems mostly concerned with providing employment for its former workers of the timber extraction units, which had to give up operation after the logging ban. Not surprisingly, discussing reforestation in Kyangba, villagers stated that they “rather plant fruit trees than conifers.” A local forest guard in Sertar County (Ganzi TAP) stated “`we like planting seedlings, but we are worried that they will grow into big trees and reduce our grazing area.” These statements are very logical, since under the present state forestry management there is hardly any direct economic benefit for local people. Reliable benefits would reduce the dependence of local economies on livestock herding with its negative impact on reforestation and forest protection. The benefits of the logging remained with government agencies. For example, Kyangba Township records from Oct. 1998 figure the direct income of locals (1847 people) from forestry at 8,700 RMB (only 0.49% of their overall annual income), while the county made at least 1.3 million RMB on Junba timber in 1997 (39 RMB per m3). Returns, such as infrastructure services, catered mostly to the needs of the logging industry and their workers, which were Han Chinese contracted from the Sichuan lowlands (fig. 4).


Thus, for successful reforestation it is paramount to reform the present policy and guarantee locals adequate economic benefits. So far, the concept of integrating locals into the forestry sector to assure their support for reforestation has not fully caught on in Litang and elsewhere in the region. Community forestry or local participation beyond simple manual labor input are currently neither practiced nor discussed. TBF is committed to facilitate training for locals, so that they can better participate in the forestry sector (fig. 6). Successful reforestation will not be achievable without assuring support from locals. Herders can only become stewards of the forests if forestry is part of their livelihood generation. Otherwise, the strategy of turning forests into pastures, practiced since time immemorial in Tibetan areas, will be continued (see Winkler 1998 & 2000) on an even higher rate with the unintentional support of the forestry bureaus.


NFPP and its Impact on Local People and Administrations
Having described the role of locals in the logging industry, it is not surprising that the negative impact on locals, whose existence is still based on traditional subsistence production, is not dramatic thus far. The income opportunities generated by logging are being replaced by reforestation activities. The logging ban offers the opportunity for reforming a non-integrated forest industry. Still, local people will be adversely affected by the fact that local administrations, be it on prefectural (diqu), county (xian) or township (xiang) level, lost one of their main sources of revenue. For example, the county revenue in Songpan (Aba TQAP) was reduced 64% (about 7 million RMB) in 1999, while locals only lost 13% of their income due to the logging ban (Lü 1999). However the loss of revenue on the county level will negatively impact maintenance and development of infrastructure, such as schools, medical facilities and roads, which are still lagging very far behind other rural areas in China. It is apparent that new dependency on outside financial support will ensue. Funds for reforestation alone will not be able to mitigate the fiscal crisis.


In addition, in the 1990s Litang county has developed a timber producing factory in Qionglai (50km SW of Chengdu), which produces floorboards and door frames with precision tools imported from Europe. These investments are now highly endangered, since Litang County can not supply its own timber anymore. Direct investments in timber processing facilities in remote counties such as Litang are otherwise marginal. However, a few counties developed timber-related industries other than sawmills, which only consumed a small fraction of the annual cut. All of these jobs are at risk, since timber has run out already. In Barkam (Pinyin: Maerkang) town (Barkam County, Aba TQAP) for example, Xueshan Furniture factory, which was started in the 1970s and had an annual output of goods of more than 10 million RMB, had to close down its operation in 1999. Over one hundred workers, who were hired on contract, lost their jobs completely. Another 50 `lifetime' employees have been retrained and now work as tree planters. Not surprisingly, several local officials have expressed the wish that the necessary timber for these few industries within their counties should be excluded. Each county could have a certain allocation of timber for local commercial processing. This suggestion is feasible, since the ban on transport of raw and sawn timber, usually monitored at timber check points at county lines, would be maintained. Transport of finished timber based products could be excluded. The development of local timber related cottage industries producing furniture, window frames, floorboards, etc. should be supported at least in a later stage of the NFPP. Such an industry could be effective in advocating sustainable harvesting rates, since local resource exhaustion would eliminate its economic base. High transport costs for importing timber would undermine its competitiveness due to its remoteness. In addition, the trucking industry, where many trucks are privately owned, and its related businesses, such as lodges, small restaurants, and improvised teashops, will be negatively affected by the logging ban.
Besides initiating a transformation of the logging industry towards sustainable forestry and catching up with reforestation, the logging ban offers the opportunity to focus development initiatives and business on other sustainable natural resources. Many of them have been managed sustainably in the past as part of land-use practices aiming at subsistence. Generating a cash income was not essential to survival. However, the collapse of traditional barter exchange, and the advent of consumer goods, created the need for generating a cash income, thus spreading market oriented production. Traditional subsistence management practices of natural resources are being replaced by market oriented management. Often, management based on indigenous knowledge systems, which had a certain degree of sustainability, is being replaced by more intense management, where knowledge of sustainability is not yet available. Here, cooperation between scientists, development planners and local communities is essential to ensure sustainability for future generations.




For centuries Tibetans have collected and traded medicinal plants used in Tibetan Medicine (TM) and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Many medicinal plants are used in both systems, however plants used in TCM dominate the market, since many more people rely on TCM than TM. The early western explorers Rockhill (1891), Bacot (1912) and Coales (1919) mention the export of medicinal plants from Tibetan areas to lowland China, often traded for tea. Coales (1919) reported on trade in Tachienlu: “The medicines exported are mainly rhubarb and other vegetable drugs for the Chinese market”.


Resources control, be it usage rights or ownership, are crucial factors in accessing and developing economic plant and fungus resources. While logging benefits stayed with government agencies, benefits from plant and mushroom harvesting, carried out mainly by locals, are staying with local households. The income from mushroom trade is currently more important to many households in the Tibetan areas than the benefits from the forestry industry. In Kyangba,Tricholoma together with Cordyceps are providing 60% of the locals' cash income.


Resource allocation for the development of this industry, which would enable households to realize even higher and more reliable profits, remains marginal in comparison to forestry or mining industries. One of the reasons that locals are able to profit considerably from this industry seems to be the fact that after the commune phase of the 1960s and 70s, government agencies returned the plant and mushroom trade to households. Otherwise government quotas would require households to sell certain amounts of gathered plants to government agencies for fixed prices, which are usually significantly below market prices (see Schwartz 1998). The downside is that households do not receive the necessary support to organize themselves in order to achieve a more powerful position in selling their harvest. Thus, a substantial part of the profits remains with a few intermediate dealers and goes to companies in the Chinese lowlands or abroad in East Asia. Only a fraction of the economic plants are currently packaged and marketed from within the Tibetan areas. The majority of plants are still `exported' as raw materials. Other than a few exceptions, the opportunity to establish brands within the area of origination has so far been missed. Resources need to be allocated to foster this process to boost local economies and maximize benefits for locals.  


Mushrooms Trade
Trade of caterpillar fungus (Cordyceps sinensis, fig. 7) and matsutake (Tricholoma matsutake [fig. 8] and T.bakamatsutake) is presently the most important source of cash income for local people. The culinary mushroom market presently focuses on matsutake, but there is a great variety, local sources indicate nearly 100 species, of other valuable mushrooms. Many of these mushrooms are also marketed in China. Only a few in other parts of the world. Traditionally the culinary mushroom market was dominated by Auricularia auricula (tree ear, Pinyin: mu'er). Dai (1994) reports an average harvest of 5,000kg before the mid 1980s. Currently king bolete (Boletus edulis) and other boletes (Boletus spp.,Leccinum spp.), chanterelles (Cantharellus spp.) are also being bought by some mushroom dealers, but their economic potential is not fully utilized yet. Hedgehog (Hydnum repandum), Scaly tooth (Sarcodon imbricatus), corals (Ramariaspp.), to name a few, are collected and sold for local consumption. In spring there is a market for morels (Morchella spp.) and basket stinkhorn (Dictyophora indusiata).


Cordyceps sinensis
Coales (1919) makes early mention of the caterpillar fungus trade: “The most interesting is the curious Chungtsao [Pinyin: chongcao] or insect grass, a dried caterpillar about 2 inches [5cm] long, which has been killed by a fungus of about the same length growing out of one of its segments [actually its head, see fig. 7]. It is supposed to be an excellent restorative to weak constitutions”. Yartsa Gunbu, as Tibetans know it, is a high-altitude grassland fungus parasitizing on the larvae of a small whitish ghost moth, Hepialus armoricanus (Dai 1994, Correction 2005: Hepialus is since the 1960s renamed Thitarodes, there are over 30 species on the Plateau). It occurs in alpine areas between 3000m to 5000m (Dorje 1995, Liu 1994), however most commonly between 3800m to 4500m. In Litang County, collectors are confined in gathering to their legal grazing grounds or to the forests they have usage rights for. Outsiders have to pay a fee to the local community for the right of collection. One group reported that they had to pay a seasonal fee of 25 RMB per person for Cordyceps gathering. Not surprisingly, there are also reports of conflicts between locals and unlicensed intruders.


The output of Cordyceps, which is collected in early spring in all grasslands across the Tibetan Plateau, is substantial. Estimates by local dealers and officials for the present annual harvest in Litang have ranged up to 5,000kg, representing around 5 to 10 million specimens. Their local market value is 10 to 15 million RMB in Litang. Even, if these production estimates are too high, they are not completely out of proportion. For comparison, according to Liu (1994), old statistics for Xikang Province report a Cordyceps harvest of 15,000kg in 1939. Between 1949 and the mid-1980s annual Cordyceps harvest ranged between 5,000 and 20,000kg in Ganzi Prefecture (Dai 1994).


Tricholoma matsutake
Many of the Cordyceps dealers also deal in Tricholoma matsutake. In the 1990s, the trade in culinary mushrooms has exploded all over the southeast of the Tibetan Plateau. The market is driven by Tricholoma (Pinyin: songrong), known in English as `pine mushroom', the translation of its Japanese name `matsutake'. It is Japan's most highly prized mushroom. It is also popular in lowland China and Korea. Matsutake is a forest fungus. In the forest region of the Tibetan Plateau, it grows in mycorrhyzial symbiosis evergreen oaks (Quercus spp. sec. semecarpifolia) in the montane level. Here its fruiting season is in summer.


Although local people store Tricholoma, it is most valuable fresh. Thus, Tricholoma requires quick transportation. Furthermore, the main market is in Japan and the trade is dominated by Chinese-Japanese joint ventures. In Ganzi Prefecture, some of these companies are now sending out refrigerated trucks to the hinterland, collecting the harvests on a daily base and bringing them to Chengdu. Also, in source areas such as Litang and neighboring Nyagchuka (Pinyin: Yajiang) mushrooms are sorted and stored in refrigerated warehouses before transport. For transport, ice is packed with the mushrooms. More refrigerated warehouses are closely located to the Chengdu airport, from where they are sent off by air to their market destinations. The recent rise in disposable cash income through the mushroom trade is most easily detected in a recent construction boom of farmhouses in traditional Tibetan style all over the distribution area. In neighboring Nyagquka County (Ganzi TAP), along the main highway, many farmhouses are being now mudded and even painted in color, both novelties for homesteads in the region. In addition, many farmhouses now boost satellite dishes on their traditional flat-roofs.


Until the 1980s, around 75t of Tricholoma were annually harvested in Ganzi Prefecture (Dai 1994), then the export market took off. For the 1990s, Lu (1998) reports an annual harvest of 400 - 500t for West Sichuan, generating an income of 4.8 - 6 million US$ for farmers and the same profit for the foreign trading companies. Local governments earn 0.7 -1.2 million US$ in resource charges and taxes. In the record year of 1998, 50,000kg (50t) of songrong were collected in Kyangba district's oak forests (pers. comm. Norbu, Kyangba headman). In an average year in Nyagchuka County 100t of Matsutake is harvested and exported. In 2000 mushroom checkpoints were established along the main highway in south Ganzi Prefecture. Nyagchuka County collected a 23% tax on Tricholoma in 2000.


The fact that annual fruiting fluctuates highly is problematic for local people. Many fungi have multi-annual fruiting cycles, and are very sensitive to a variety of climatic factors, especially quantity and timing of precipitation as well the temperature regimes. Consequently, matsutake is experiencing extreme price fluctuations within a collection area through the years. Price fluctuations are somewhat mitigated by the fact that there is a direct correlation between availability of mushrooms and its value. Thus, to a certain degree, low prices are compensated by abundance. However, price fluctuations are further enhanced by bumper harvests elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere, which affect the international market, often causing seasonal price fluctuations. Moreover, the market is also impacted by economic developments in consumer countries. The current economic crisis in Japan and other Asian countries has caused a slowdown in price development for gourmet mushrooms.


In 1999, a year with a relative poor harvest, 1kg of fresh local songrong was sold for 144-160 RMB in Litang town. In 1998, a record year in Litang, prices fell to their absolute minimum. In Litang town, 1kg sold for only 10-20 RMB. In Kyangba Xiang, mushroom dealers paid local collectors only 8 RMB/kg. Mushrooms are bought up by a handful of motorized dealers, who take the fresh crop to a main market place. The price increases between Kyangba and Litang (65km apart on a poor road) by 75%. This is very profitable business. The main market place is usually the county town, where mushrooms are bought by the international trading companies to be taken to the next airport.


There is no scientific evidence that present harvesting rates are either sustainable or unsustainable. Multi-annual fruiting requires long-term data collection. Lu (1998) reports that in the 1980s the yield of songrong was 1000t in West Sichuan, but that it has decreased to 500t in the 1990s. Some concerned local governments have reacted by initiating a rotating system of harvest. In this system, locals can only collect once in three years. However, Pilz (pers. comm.) estimates that even in intensively harvested areas in Oregon State, USA, 50% of the matsutake are consumed by wildlife, are not found, or become too mature or defective for commercial collection before they are found. Still, mechanisms should be established, such as minimum sizes and maximum age limits to ensure picking practices, which minimize negative impact on the sustainability of matsutake. In addition, forest health is a very decisive factor in matsutake fruiting. Afforestation and reforestation, if the appropriate tree species are planted, may lead to future matsutake fruiting, usually 40 years hence (pers. comm. Pilz). Many Tibetans can not participate or only derive reduced benefits from the current forest fungi trade, since wide areas have been deforested in the past to create pasture land or have been cut recently for timber production (see Winkler 1998).


Medicinal Plants
The most important medicinal plant parts collected in Litang are bulbs of Fritillaria spp. (TCM: Beimu), and roots of Rheum spp. (TCM: Dahuang) and Astragalus spp. (TCM: Huangqi). Rhubarb (Rheum) is a very conspicuous high mountain plant growing above 3700m. It is collected in Litang in October and November. In addition, great amounts of fritillary bulbs are collected in autumn. Astragalus root is dug in lower elevations in spring. Sustainability of present harvesting rates is not always secured, but since many of these plants have been collected over a long period, local collectors have established a harvesting regime, which allows plant regeneration. In Litang, all medicinal plants are collected from the wild, although some growing operations have developed elsewhere. Medicinal plant cultivation could create new income sources and reduce the pressure on wild populations. Furthermore, the present focus on the development and improvement of the nursery sector could also serve as a way for transferring horticultural skills for medicinal plant production. For example, conifer nurseries in Heilongjiang Province, NE China, improved their income substantially through ginseng (Panax ginseng) cultivation (Richardson 1990).


More income potential needs to be developed locally. Preparing a product ready for marketing and establishing brands would increase local profit margins and create job opportunities. So far, almost all the packaging, including canning, and marketing, be it in the mushroom or medicinal herb sector, is done in the lowlands. Only a small amount of mushrooms is dried clean enough to be sold in profitable outside markets. If the processing were carried out within the Tibetan areas, local communities would derive higher benefits.


Fruit and Nut Trees
Fruit and nut tree cultivation, including apple, pear, apricot, and walnut, has also produced good results in the region. Ganzi TAP forest bureau launched a fruit tree initiative in 2000. Walnut and apple production is especially suited for Litang's valleys below 3400m. Walnut has the great advantage of not being sensitive to transportation. Fruit and nut tree cultivation is still in very early stages in Litang. It is more common in other counties with better developed outreach programs, like Luhuo and Kangding. Fruit trees can be planted in agricultural areas and degraded areas often found around settlements. Villagers in Kyangba suggested that these degraded areas should be restored with orchards rather than conifer plantations. Another beneficial `fruit tree' is seabuckthorn (Hippophae spp., Pinyin: shaji, Tibetan: tarbu), a small deciduous native tree or shrub that can fix nitrogen. It tolerates drought, flood, and extreme temperatures. Seabuckthorn berries and seeds have great nutritional and medicinal value. A tasty juice can be extracted from the berries, which is being produced in Li County (Tibetan: Tashi Ling) near Barkam and marketed in Aba Prefecture. Extensive research has already been carried out in China (see Lu 1992). In addition, it is very useful to fight erosion and restore degraded lands. All these qualities make it a natural choice for environmental restoration. Also of interest is the deciduous tree Eucommia ulmoides (Pinyin: Dozhong). Its bark is used in TCM as well as an important source of latex for industrial use.




The logging ban finally halted resource overexploitation, but is creating economic hardships for government agencies and units, the administration and industries. It is evident that the impoverished local administration will have to face a new dependency on subsidies. Least directly affected will be the average farmer and herder household in Litang whose existence is still based on traditional subsistence production and who supplements its cash income through the `NTFP' sector. Economic liberalization and increased national and international trade have created the opportunity for locals to generate a substantial income through mushroom gathering.


The dominance of an often inflexible state sector, its focus on logging and mining for government revenue generation, in connection with bad communication, have slowed the development of sustainable ecosystem-based resources. Many of these economic activities fill niches and are only slowly becoming the target of development planners. Even a key industry such as forestry is just being transformed to economic and ecological sustainability through outside intervention. This seems belated, since forestry has been managed as a community based and sustainable industry elsewhere in China since the mid 1980s (i.e. Wen 1999).


Non-timber forest products, fruit and nut tree cultivation, and other sustainable resources will now receive more attention and will need to be developed to improve the local income base. Here, matching funds from international aid organizations can be of great importance. Technical assistance can support the development of ecologically better adapted forestry and natural resource management. Moreover, the development of NTFP will establish further the value of forest ecosystems beyond their timber value, before logging is resumed.


The ban is only the beginning, a `time-out' to rethink the situation and establish a base for sustainable management. The chance to establish a sustainable forest industry has been missed and it will take many decades until the forests recover, since it takes about 100 years for subalpine conifer forests to mature. Consequently, a logging ban of 13 years is only the beginning of forest restoration. The Natural Forest Protection Project's logging ban and its reforestation initiative offer the opportunity to reevaluate present management strategies creating the context to implement necessary reforms in forest management. Successful, efficient reforestation requires local cooperation on a participatory basis, reaching far beyond present manual labor inputs. For Litang County, it offers the opportunity to diversify an economy based on gold mining and logging. Now, the need for sustainable, locally based development of Litang's economic sectors is even more urgent. Last, but not least, the NFPP creates the opportunity to initiate truly participatory forest management, so that locals will finally benefit from the rich forest resources and regain some control over their resources.



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Fig. 1: Location of Litang County in the Southeast of the Tibetan Plateau. (D.Winkler)
Fig. 2: Timber waiting for transport from Molaxi's 20 ha clearcut in Kyangba's (Junba) Valley. The felling was carried out before the enactment of the logging ban on Sept. 1, 1998. (D.Winkler; 3900m, Litang, June 2, 1999)
Fig. 3: Village in Litang's Kyangba (Junba) Valley. A dead juniper tree is used for hay storage for yak calve winter fodder. Note the firewood pile. Above the homesteads evergreen oak shrub on fire prone south-facing slopes interspersed with conifer stands. (D.Winkler, 3700m, Litang, Feb. 9, 1999)
Fig. 4: Forest Bureau planters install protective tripods around freshly planted spruce seedlings in Kyangba's Molaxi Valley while a Yak grazes nearby. (D.Winkler; 3900m, Litang, June 2, 1999)
Fig. 5: Approximately ten-year-old seedlings in Kyangba's Balong Valley. Seedling growth is inhibited by animals biting off tops and shoots. Note the animal tracks crisscrossing the reforestation plot. (D.Winkler, 3700m, Litang, Feb. 9, 1999)
Fig. 6: Local Tibetan woman is planting spruce seedlings in Kyangba's Ranlong Valley. (D.Winkler; 3780m, Litang, May 1, 2000)
Fig. 7: Cordyceps sinensis fungi (3 cleaned and 2 uncleaned specimens) laying on a scale. (D.Winkler, Litang Town, May 27, 1999)
Fig. 8: Mushroom dealer weighing fresh specimens of Tricholoma matsutake at the mushroom market in Nyagchuka /Yajiang. (D.Winkler, Sept. 23, 2000)


Last Revised 12-2-2008
Last edited Mon, 01/06/2014 - 19:16