Sustainable Development in the Tibetan Areas 2000

Presentation for 9th IATS Symposium, Leiden - Holland, June 24th -30th, 2000.
(Do not publish without the permission of the author)

Sustainable Development in the Tibetan Areas of West Sichuan
after the Logging Ban
By Daniel Winkler, Kirkland, WA


In this presentation, I will discuss some of the recent developments in the Sichuanese administrated Tibetan areas focusing on forest resources and other related natural resources, such as non-timber forest products and fruit and nut trees. These resources often provide very important cash income for the rural population, who traditionally relies on subsistence herding and farming.
Most recent changes in connection with the Natural Forest Conservation Program (NFCP), such as the logging ban, as well as its reforestation and watershed restoration initiatives are having far reaching impact on Ganzi and Aba Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures (TAP). Furthermore, NFCP is being integrated in the `Develop the West' drive, which is still being formulated, emphasizing infrastructure developments in Western China. All these policy changes are being initiated on central or provincial level.
The local administrations are trying to cope with the harsh reality of the logging ban, and the constant flux of newly formulated policies. However, besides causing economic hardships these new policies offer also the opportunity to advance sustainable development of natural resources.


I will start out by giving some background information on the NFCP and the region's forest industry. In late summer of 1998, devastating floods along the lower Yangtze received worldwide media coverage. The assumption that the floods were caused by upstream deforestation helped advancing forest protection in China. The government reacted by initiating the Natural Forest Conservation Program. This is commonly referred to as `the logging ban', as all timber harvesting in the Yangtze headwaters has been banned since September 1, 1998 and its first phase will be in effect until 2010. NFCP also includes a major reforestation and slope vegetation restoration component. However, all the details of NFCP are still being worked out by the Natural Forest Conservation Program Center, State Forest Administration in Beijing. In this context, Chinese premier Zhu Rongji also toured several Tibetan areas including the east of Aba Prefecture in the fall of 1999. Presently, NFCP is being integrated in the national `Develop the West' (xibu kaifa) program, which is also still being formulated, emphasizing infrastructure developmentssuch as road and communication improvements. Its aim is to reduce inequality between Han China and its western hinterland populated by `minorities'. The central government plans to invest ¥ 110 billion yuan (US$ 13 billion) during the next five years on environmental restoration projects in western China.


The forest industry
Over the past 45 years the forestry industry developed into the economic backbone of Sichuan's Ganzi and Aba Prefectures as well as other areas in the forest region of the southeastern Tibetan Plateau. In West Sichuan the local Tibetan administrations, which are among the very poorest in the whole of China, earned badly needed funds through timber sales. Often the timber industry provided up to 70% of the local cash income. The forests were regarded as an inexhaustible resource. However, easily accessible forestlands were depleted within a few decades. The opportunity to establish a sustainable forestry was missed.


The ban of commercial logging finally halted resource overexploitation. However, the ban is having a strong impact on local administrations, people, and industries. Since last year, the central government is substantially supporting reforestation efforts in the region. Still there is a great need for technical assistance in the nursery and reforestation sector to optimize forest restoration and to integrate more ecological forestry approaches. Here international cooperation can be of great benefit.


Impact on local people and administrations  
At first the logging ban did not directly affect most farmers and herders whose existence is still based on traditional subsistence production. The state run logging operations failed to integrate the local people. However, now the sweeping reforms are impacting them too. Firewood collection is getting harder, some forests being closed off, logging debris becomes scarce. Construction wood extraction is also being halted in many places; local timber prizes are increased dramatically this year. In connection with the NFCP has also a slope revegetation program. Agricultural areas on slopes need to be revegetated, be it as pastures or as orchards. The government is reimbursing farmers with 200 ¥ per mu (3000 ¥/ha) over the next 5 years. This clearly aims at restoring the Yangtze catchment, due to the present construction of the Three Gorges (Sanxia) Dam, the world biggest construction project.      


Furthermore, restrictions on grazing reforestation areas could seriously reduce available grazing areas. The Sichuan government announced the closing off of nearly 9 million hectares to livestock grazing, that is one third of West Sichuan's area. Although grazing slows or prevents forest regeneration, so far many forest bureaus tolerate grazing reforestation plots, since restrictions have great potential for stirring up nasty conflicts. For example, locals in Litang County told me that clearcuts are some of their best grazing areas and that it would take serious government pressure and full financial compensation to stop them from grazing. Successful reforestation requires the cooperation of local herders. As long as the financial gains for locals are limited to occasional manual labor, we will not succeed in keeping livestock out of reforestation plots. Forestry bureaus need to integrate locals and share logging benefits. As long as forestry is not a reliable source of income, locals will not be willing to forgo grazing on reforestation plots.


The logging offered to them some extra income opportunity, which is now being replaced by reforestation activities. For example, in Sertar County increased reforestation offers now more income opportunities than the previously logging, which was carried out by a provincial unit. However, most long-term forest workers are Han Chinese, many of them are now working as planters. Their employment is still a major issue for the provincial administration. Local people are also affected by the fact that their local administrations lost their main source of income. Now, limited funds for infrastructure development, such as the education system, which defies comparison with any Han Chinese area, become even scarcer. Also construction and maintenance of secondary roads - often former logging roads, which secure market access for rural people, will be a major problem without timber money. Counties are hit hard by the loss of logging revenue, the region's former main source of fiscal revenue. For example, Barkam County reports a reduction of 12.3% of its GDP in 1999 in comparison to the previous year due to the logging ban. Lü Zhi, WWF China, reports that the revenue in Songpan County was reduced by 64%.
The annual local cash income decreased by ¥ 150 per person, roughly 10% of their annual income. Also, in recent years, some counties developed timber-related industries other than sawmills, which only consumed a small fraction of the annual cut. Barkam's Snow Mountain Furniture factory had to close last year, since it has run out of timber. Local officials have expressed the wish that the timber for these industries within their counties should be excluded. Each county should have a certain allocation of timber for local commercial processing. This suggestion is feasible, since the ban on transport of raw timber would not be undermined.


Only since the 1990s, reforestation has been carried out on a somewhat wider scale. In general, the whole forest regeneration sector is still developing. Presently, there is a shortage in seedling supply; prices went up by 30% in Ganzi Prefecture between 1998 and `99. Without money from timber sales, funds for reforestation and nursery development need to be supplemented by government agencies and other outside sources. Although, there are some very productive forestry nurseries like Luhuo (Tibetan: Drango or Draggo), many counties are not able to produce enough seedlings for themselves. Luhuo nursery, the most productive nursery in the region, produces annually 3 million seedlings, however presently there is a demand of 6-7 million seedlings. Furthermore Luhuo, just like Litang and other nurseries, produces only one conifer species, spruce (Picea balfouriana) for reforestation of cold temperate subalpine forests. Spruce is preferred due to the higher value of its timber and its resistance to disease. However, the forests that had been cut contained a high percentage of fir (Abies squamata) and also sometimes some larch. The present attention given to the protection of natural forests offers the opportunity to diversify the species base in reforestation in order to minimize potential biodiversity loss in restored forest ecosystems.
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. Unfortunately, the nursery sector is still very much part of the state forestry system. However, private enterpreneurship is slowly emerging, as observed in Barkam.      


Now, I will present on the opportunities the logging ban could offer.


The logging ban offers the opportunity to manage forest ecosystems more ecologically. Unfortunately, the total ban prohibits small-scale introduction of sustainable forestry including improved logging techniques. It seems irrational to waist 13 years, which could be used to experiment with ecologically appropriate and culturally sensitive forest management. Presently, this approach is only discussed for the World Bank forest conservation and rural development project in Songpan County. Their project area will be exempt from the logging ban. It is hoped to prove that villagers are capable of managing their forests and producing timber. Hopefully, this approach will be successful and result in policy changes that will lead to the integration and empowerment of local Tibetans in the forestry sector.


Leaving the forestry sector behind, we will look at the opportunities to focus development initiatives on other sustainable natural resources.
Fruit tree cultivation, especially apple, pear, walnut and Sichuan pepper (Prickly ash) has also produced promising results in the warm valleys of Eastern Tibet. Walnut and Sichuan pepper have the great advantage of not being sensitive to transportation and requiring a minimum of maintenance and no irrigation once established. So far, fruit tree cultivation is still rare in more remote valleys. Presently problematic is a change of consumer preferences, Fuji apples and Asian pears fetch a multiple of the old varieties, whose prices have plummeted.


Also, it seems that the Chinese market is getting closer to saturation. In Barkam County, fruit production contributed 20% towards the GDP in the early 1990s. In 1998 it was down to 10%. Through the introduction of new varieties it is hoped to reclaim former sales.


Fruit trees can be planted in agricultural areas, which are already fenced. However, trees need extra fencing when livestock is grazing the harvested fields. Curiously, in Tibetan areas, it is not livestock that gets fenced in but everything, which needs to be protected from livestock! Also, locals requested many times that degraded areas around settlements should be restored with orchards rather than conifer plantations.  
Another beneficial `fruit tree' is seabuckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides, shaji, sTar-bu), a small native tree that can fix nitrogen from the air. It tolerates drought, flood, and extreme temperatures. Seabuckthorn berries and seeds have great nutritional and medicinal value. The berries are extremely rich in Vitamin C. A tasty juice can be extracted from the berries, which is been produced and marketed in Aba Prefecture. Berry collection offers income for people in remote areas, beyond the climatic limit of apple and walnut growing. In addition, seabuckthorn is a great plant to fight erosion and restore overgrazed badlands.


 Increased international trade has promoted private initiatives, most evident in the culinary and medicinal mushroom trade which caters to lowland Chinese, Korean and Japanese consumers.
In the last decade this trade has exploded, totaling over 100 million-Yuan annually. According to the latest news, the central government is imposing export limitations for mushrooms. If local prizes will go up or down is still unclear. In the 1990s, income from mushroom gathering became more important to many households than the benefits from the forest industry. For example, in Litang's Kyangba/Junba district 60% of the locals' cash income was provided by mushrooms, mainly pine mushroom (Tricholoma matsutake - Songrong), which grows in summer in subalpine evergreen oak and in pine forest, and caterpillar fungus (Cordyceps sinensis - Yartsa Gonbu, Chongcao), a grasslands fungus growing in early spring on pastures.


Areas of concern in the mushroom trade are the uncertainty of sustainable harvest rates, there are no conclusive scientific studies yet regarding harvesting schemes and techniques, and the great annual fluctuations in natural fungi production and resulting out of this fluctuations of world market prizes.
Furthermore, local Tibetans collect medicinal plants used in Chinese and Tibetan medicine. Most important species are FritillariaRheum, Astragalus, Gastrodia and many others. However, nearly all the packaging and marketing is done in the lowlands. 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. Also, most medicinal plants are collected from the wild. Medicinal plant cultivation will create new income sources and reduce the pressure on wild populations.  

The region's potential for nature-based tourism is being developed in some places. A regional management plan is still missing in West Sichuan. Presently, the development is left to tour operators and investors, whose main interest is quick profits. Locals often lose out.
The provincial administration is focussing their tourism and conservation efforts only on sites in the `Panda corridor' reachable within a day from Chengdu. Beyond the Panda corridor, tourism and especially conservation is absolutely initial. Conservation is in the hands of the forestry administration, which is not trained to carry out conservation. For example, in Litang County wildlife conservation is in the hands of the forestry police, its deputy director having a background in policing. Spotting wildlife bigger than a marmot is a sensation, besides a few areas, which still have some wildlife. International assistance is badly needed to advance the cause; central or provincial funds for conservation hardly reach the Tibetan areas. So far, all preserves only exist on paper; there are no conservation programs beyond any hunting rules.

To Conclude
The nature of the present programs seems to be very positive. The logging ban is only the beginning. A `time-out' to rethink the situation and establish a base for truly sustainable management. Unfortunately, it will take many decades until the forests will have recovered. Still, the ban offers the opportunity to diversify an economy, which was based on mining its forest resource.     


The problems will be in the details of implementation. Only time will show, if all these centrally initiated programs will actually benefit the local population or rather dictate another sacrifice for the motherland. Policy makers are far removed from the sites these reforms are impacting.


The nursery sector, non-timber forest products, fruit trees and other sustainable resources will receive more attention and will hopefully be developed to improve the local income base. Matching funds from international aid organizations can be of great importance. Technical assistance can support the development of ecologically better adapted reforestation and resource management integrating local communities as much as possible. The value of the forest ecosystem as watershed has finally been recognized in present policy formulation. The development of the non-timber forest products will establish further the value of the forests beyond their sheer timber value.


All in all, the above mentioned industries are presently not able to generate the necessary revenue to compensate the losses occurring due to the logging ban. It is evident that these impoverished economies will have to face a new dependency on subsidies, which in the long run hopefully will contribute to a broadening of their economic base and make sure that other natural resources will be developed sustainably for the benefit of the local population.


Thank you very much for your attention!

Last edited on Sun, May 20, 2012, 1:04 am