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Taking the Reins

With community conservation gaining official recognition in China’s national park system, NewsChina looks back at the beginnings of this crucial environmental movement

By Wang Yan Updated Jan.1

Tibetan rangers patrol the source of the Yangtze River inside Sanjiangyuan National Park, August 26, 2022 (Photo by CNS)

As China develops its national park system, which centers around preservation of unique landscapes and conservation of biodiversity, the role of those who live in and around these areas is being reassessed, with particular attention given to how communities contribute to protecting their own environment. 
Indigenous communities have always protected many biodiversity hotspots using traditional, and more recently modern techniques of conservation. However, their contributions were usually ignored. It was not until the early 2000s that the international community reevaluated community participation in ecological conservation, realizing that community conservation is as important as mainstream government-led and Western science-dominated approaches.  

According to an article published in August 2017 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), indigenous territories make up 22 percent of the world’s land and sustain 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity.  

“Protected areas are one of the primary responses for maintaining biodiversity, particularly on land, but are deemed to be insufficient,” the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) stated in its 2012 report, The Global Environment Outlook: Environment for the Future We Want. “The exclusion of local communities from many states and private protected areas along with failing to fully acknowledge their role in safeguarding biodiversity remains a challenge to real progress,” the report said.  

The importance of local knowledge and local community involvement in biodiversity conservation has gradually gained global recognition. On many high-level occasions, including at the United Nations-led conferences of the parties of the three major Rio Conventions – on biodiversity (CBD), climate change (UNFCCC) and desertification (UNCCD), the role of communities has been a subject of unprecedented attention in the past decade.  

In China, establishing protective nature reserves, or the traditional “barricade model” of conservation was most prevalent. This model is controlled by governments and the scientific community, and excludes local communities. Tian Feng, a senior expert in community conservation in China, told NewsChina that the system of China’s protected areas resembles national parks in the US, also known as “enclosure protection,” which excludes residents and through relocation programs, settles them outside the reserve. According to Tian, this protection model has encountered huge dilemmas in many countries, often resulting in serious conflicts between the protection system and the community.  

Inside China, conservation groups started paying attention to the role of communities in the early 2000s. Their role in conservation is highlighted with the setting up of China’s national park system. 

Empowering Communities 
International environmental NGO Conservation International created the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and has put it into practice worldwide. CSP, according to Conservation International, works with communities who agree to protect their natural resources in exchange for a steady stream of compensation from investors. The aim of this program is to help conserve biodiversity while improving the quality of life for local communities.  

CSP adopts a conservation agreement model which links stakeholders, such as local governments, foundations and individuals, with communities that own and use natural resources. It offers direct incentives for conservation actions through a negotiated benefits package with communities.  

Conservation International introduced CSP to China in 2002 in cooperation with domestic environmental NGOs such as Shan Shui Conservation Center based in Beijing, Snowland Great Rivers Environmental Protection Association based in Qinghai and local governments in parts of Sichuan, Yunnan and Qinghai provinces, all rich biodiverse regions with strong local cultures in the west of China. In Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve in Qinghai, Tibetan herders were employed as rangers, giving them power to fight illegal poaching and other destructive activities in Cuochi Village, which is near the headwaters of the Yangtze River. A man known as Gama who was village leader at the time told NewsChina in 2013: “Under joint support from Conservation International and Shan Shui Conservation Center, we signed a conservation agreement with Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve Management Bureau. We set up a wild yak conservation organization formed by 45 members, all local nomads. We conduct patrols, monitor the wildlife and glaciers, record the temperature and collect garbage.” Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve Administration Bureau issued certificates to rangers from Cuochi. If the village achieves the conservation goals they agreed upon with the reserve, it is awarded an annual grant of 20,000 yuan (US$2,821). As the model proved effective, it spread to more areas. In fact, a decade after the wild yak conservation organization began, other herders in Qinghai started their own community conservation groups. As official certificates were issued to these self-motivated rangers, they became empowered to halt destructive activities such as poaching, mining, and littering.  

Feng Jie, a program officer from Shan Shui Conservation Center at the time, wrote an article published in September 2019 news portal The Paper which addressed the rights given to communities. “The community enjoys the right to protect and use the surrounding resources [habitats], the right to benefit from the operation and management of natural resources, and the right to restrain and restrict the use of resources within the community and reject users from outside the community, which is the foundation of the continuous participation of the community.” 

While out on patrol, a Tibetan ranger checks a wildlife camera set up at a spot where snow leopards, foxes, bears and other wildlife frequent, Sanjiangyuan National Park, August 16, 2017 (Photo by Wang Yan)

Success and Opportunities 
The success of community-based conservation in China finally gained recognition from authorities after two decades. China’s national park system officially endorsed such practices. The Overall Plan for Establishing a National Park System issued by the central government in September 2017 mentions “setting up coordinated community management mechanisms.” It states parks should “encourage the joint protection of natural resources around national parks through the signing of cooperative protection agreements with local communities” and “encourage the establishment of posts for ecological management and protection, and encourage residents to take part in national park protection and management and natural environment education.” In the plans for each of the five national parks that have already been designated, community-based conservation was highlighted.  

China has over 10 million residents living inside the boundaries of nature reserves, which is both a difficulty as well as a distinctive feature of biodiversity preservation in China. “Inside Wuyishan National Park [Fujian Province], tourism and rock tea have made the local communities rich and become a source of income for the local economy. However, livelihood activities and market forces have threatened the authenticity and integrity of the natural and cultural heritage of Wuyishan,” said Professor Liu Jinlong from the School of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development at the Renmin University of China in an article published on china.com.cn in mid-September 2022.  

Liu pointed out that in the other four national parks in China which are in much less developed areas, communities rely on natural resources to survive, and there is a larger gap between farmers, herders and local economic development than in the eastern [developed] region. “Over 75,000 residents live in and around the Northeast Tiger and Leopard National Park, which covers an area of 14,600 square kilometers. Sanjiangyuan National Park in Qinghai Province has a population of 64,600 who live off traditional animal husbandry,” Liu wrote.  

The large populations living inside these five national parks in China mean they cannot completely copy the practices of sparsely populated countries such as Canada and Australia to move indigenous communities out of designated national parks. “China must integrate culture and history into its national parks, which should highlight the historical and cultural view of ‘man being an integral part of attaining harmonious development with nature,’” Rose Niu, chief conservation officer at the Paulson Institute, a US-based think tank, told NewsChina in 2016.  

“Many of our domestic conservation organizations now realize that community livelihood or community governance is actually the top priority in the construction of national parks,” Yang Rui, director of the Institute for National Parks at Tsinghua University said during an online conference on May 18, 2022.  

“Therefore, we can see that for biodiversity conservation, the core issue of national parks lies in the governance of people, especially local communities rather than biodiversity itself. Local people should be self-motivated or encouraged to be so to adapt to and respect nature, and to coexist with nature in harmony,” Yang said. 

Core Rights 
Statistics released by the National Forests and Grassland Administration (NFGA) show that with subsidized financial support of 4.5 billion yuan (US$0.64b) to local authorities from the central government, by February 2018, more than 370,000 park rangers were employed nationwide. In Sanjiangyuan National Park which covers a vast area of 123,400 square kilometers, some 17,000 herders, one from each household, are employed as rangers, with each earning over 20,000 yuan (US$2,900) annually.  

On August 19, 2022, the NFGA released a draft version of the National Park Law to solicit public opinions. A special chapter is dedicated to community development in the law, and it clarifies that “The national park administrative organs shall actively involve community members, experts, scholars and social organizations to take part in the establishment, construction, planning, management and operation of national parks, as well as ecological protection, nature education, scientific research and other fields, and accept social supervision. The national park administrative organ shall... set up ecological management and protection posts and give priority to employing the indigenous residents within national parks as ecological management and protection personnel.”  

Professor Liu said in his article that the draft law recognizes the existence of the community in the core area of national parks, and the rights enjoyed by local communities to carry out livelihood activities inside the parks through legislation. He wrote that the local community embodies and informs the culture of the national park and will become crucial to biodiversity conservation in China. This, according to Liu, differs from most developing countries where contradictions between conservation and development remain, and it is also different from the pattern in developed countries such as the US, Canada and Australia which only grew an environmental conscience after already destroying indigenous cultures and natural ecosystems.  

“Communities have always been an integral part of the national park. This breakthrough marks the return of a holistic approach to the mainstream of the relationship between man and nature, and has great theoretical and practical significance,” Liu said.