Do China’s nature reserves only exist on paper?

National parks were introduced as a new conservation model but are struggling against political, economic and bureaucratic obstacles

After China’s first nature reserve was established in 1956, their numbers grew to 19 by 1965 and 481 in 1987. In the 1990s the numbers increased  rapidly, until there were more than 2,000 in 2004 and 2,500 in 2007, covering almost 15% of China’s total land area.

By 2010, the country had 2,541 nature reserves, 208 national scenic areas and 660 national forest parks. The eight largest, all found in Gansu and Qinghai provinces and the Xinjiang and Tibetan Autonomous Regions, encompass an area approximately equal to the remaining reserves.

Most nature reserves in China fall into the 
International Union for Conservation of Nature‘s Category VI classification of managed protected areas, which are supposed to allow for community use. Most also follow the United Nation’s Biosphere model of dividing parks into strictly protected core areas; buffer zones where controlled commercial and subsistence land use is allowed; and research or experimental zones.

Though many scholars stress the extent to which communities are part of China’s nature reserves, Richard Harris, in Wildlife Conservation in China, notes that the 1994 Nature Reserve Law prohibits people from entering core zones, as well as prohibiting timber harvests, livestock grazing, medicinal plant collection, and crop cultivation within reserve boundaries. These strict measures are immediately followed by the caveat that other local laws or administrative regulations may supersede them.

What’s happening on the ground

According in Harris, the fact that the protection of the reserves doesn’t take precedence can be attributed to the fact that the 1994 regulations were aspirational in character, and reflect "an ideal of biodiversity protection that no local administrator was expected to fulfill.” Indeed as of 2004, between 1.25 and 2.85 million people were believed to be residing within core zones of nature reserves around China. Many protected areas are
“paper parks”, with at least one-third lacking staff, management and funding. The Nature Reserve Law of 1994 did nothing to remove control of the land under protection from the government that was managing it when it became a reserve. Moreover, except for national-level reserves, it failed to provide a guaranteed source of funding for reserve administration and staffing. This has led to a situation in which reserve managers’ primary goal has become revenue generation rather than biodiversity conservation.

The rush to designate nature reserves of all kinds from the 1990s onward
can be attributed in part to China’s desire to win recognition on the global stage, and to deregulatory strategies that have allowed local governments to play an active role in their designation – often in the hopes of achieving the administrative status, political rewards and tourist income that can accompany reserves.

This has led to reserves with little significant biodiversity value, or that are too small to be ecologically viable. Furthermore, the existence of protected areas rarely trumps the lucrative opportunities presented by satisfying China’s large resource demands. Mining operations have been developed in even the highest level protected areas, including in Shangri-la and Deqin in Yunnan province as well as the Sanjiangyuan reserve in Qinghai province, often by companies that are either state run or with close ties to highly placed state officials, and
against the wishes of local residents.

As in other parts of the world, nature reserves in China have often taken away community access to resources. Many reserves were established on land that had already been allocated to individual households under the Household Responsibility System. After a nature reserve is established, local people are sometimes charged a fee for the right to continue traditional practices (such as cardamom cultivation),
negatively impacting their livelihoods. In other cases, households are resettled, and may fail to receive compensation packages, or encounter difficulties establishing new livelihoods, cultural disruption and coercion.

A local problem?      

Despite clear evidence that nature reserve ineffectiveness in conserving biodiversity is often political-economic in origin, there is a strong tendency among policy-makers, and sometimes natural scientists, to blame local people. 

One widely cited study showed that rates of habitat loss and fragmentation in the Wolong Nature Reserve in Sichuan province accelerated after the park was established, becoming more severe than conditions outside of the reserve. The authors state that “local people in the reserve were the direct driving force behind the destruction of the forest and the panda habitat”. This familiar narrative of blaming local people contradicts the study’s own finding of the role played by tourism, which has been a major driver of logging.

In some cases, local people are directly responsible for environmental destruction within reserves, whether as direct acts of everyday resistance against the loss of their access to resources, in reaction to a general perception of being left behind by the benefits of development, or because formerly effective forms of community management have been replaced by weak state enforcement.

In his study of the reintroduction and conservation of the South China tiger in three nature reserves in Fujian province,
Chris Coggins, a lecturer at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in the United States (US), discusses the considerable antipathy that local residents harbour toward the reserve because of their lack of participation in the planning process. Ironically, traditional local practices such as the maintenance of fengshui forests and the burning of the landscape likely benefited tiger habitat more than recent policies that have increased bamboo forests.

There has also been a study
of peasant resistance to the enclosure of livelihood resources in the Caohai nature reserve in Guizhou province. A significant area of Caohai Lake was drained to reclaim land when farming was being run by an agricultural collective (the dominant system of farming in China from the mid-1950s until 1970). After decollectivisation the land was allocated to individual households, who were subsequently not informed of government plans to restore the lake in the early 1980s, a process that caused some households to lose more than 50% of their land. These households were not compensated and were still required to pay agricultural taxes on the submerged land. Peasants turned to fishing, trapping waterfowl, and reclaiming land, but these were criminalised by the new reserve, leading to violent confrontation between peasants and reserve staff. 

As a result, reserve staff welcomed a program by the US-based International Crane Foundation to provide microcredit and small grants programs, which greatly improved and transformed the relationship between communities and the nature reserve. Farmers have moved from beating up and attempting to drown reserve staff members to submitting peaceful petitions for compensation. The reserve itself has also become somewhat more responsive to local livelihood needs. However, rural residents still perform various forms of covert non-compliance such as fishing during the spawning season.

The establishment of Pudacuo National Park in northwest Yunnan in 2007
was supposed to introduce a new model of conservation in China. Intended as a market-based method to combine conservation with community participation by using tourism revenues to benefit both rural residents and the environment, Pudacuo National Park quickly became a site of contestation, as government units with conflciting mandates competed for prestige and control. A succession of shifting alliances emerged around efforts to set up Pudacuo and other parks.

Local governments competing to expand tourism economies have adopted the title ‘national park’ for upgraded attractions, but prioritised high-volume tourism and lagged on the active conservation management and resident involvement recommended in initial proposals.

Parks have ended up being an important source of revenue for local governments, but local residents typically receive less than 3% of park revenues. Though the national park model was introduced as a new conservation model with aspirations of addressing many previous flaws in China’s nature reserves, it has suffered problems stemming from fundamental differences in power and inequality. 

This piece is an edited excerpt from Yeh, Emily T. 2013. “
The politics of conservation in contemporary rural China.” Published in the Journal of Peasant Studies 40(6): 1165-1188