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Transforming Conservation in China with ‘Land Trust Reserves’

A view of the steep mountains and tree covered ridgelines of Laohegou Nature Reserve, Pingwu County, Sichuan Province, China. Photo credit: © The Nature Conservancy (Nick Hall)
A view of the steep mountains and tree covered ridgelines of Laohegou Nature Reserve, Pingwu County, Sichuan Province, China. Photo credit: © The Nature Conservancy (Nick Hall)

By Charles Bedford, The Nature Conservancy’s Regional Managing Director, Asia Pacific Region, and Dr. Jin Tong, The Nature Conservancy’s Science Director, China Program

In 2012 in China, the 27,325-acre Laohegou Land Trust Reserve, was designed to link several existing reserves in Sichuan’s Pingwu County—home to golden snub-nosed monkeys, Asian golden cats and the highest density of endangered giant pandas in the world.

But the Laohegou Reserve is significant not only for protecting the plants, animals and waters within its borders. It also signifies a new type of conservation, one modeled off the tools The Nature Conservancy has been using to protect 120 million acres over the past 60 years: the land trust and conservation easement. In the translation of “land trust” and “conservation easement” from English to Chinese, we ended up with a new term: “land trust reserve,” or she hui gong yi xing bao hu di.

The Conservancy helped launch the Laohegou Reserve and is currently working with local Chinese foundations and NGOs to establish a total of five land trust reserves. Our long-term goal is to catalyze China’s land trust movement, working with partners to establish 10 reserves by 2020 to protect and restore China’s most important lands and waters, while also providing sustainable livelihoods for local communities and creating a mechanism to finance long-term reserve management through private contributions.

Photo © Charles Bedford
Photo © Charles Bedford

Charles Bedford, regional managing director for the Conservancy’s Asia Pacific region, sat down with the Conservancy’s China program science director Dr. Jin Tong to talk about implementing this new strategy in China and testing its success.

Charles:

What is the added value of the Conservancy’s approach to introduce land trust reserves to China?

Jin Tong:

The Chinese government has established more than 2,700 nature reserves throughout the country, covering 15 percent of China’s land. But most of those reserves were established “opportunistically” instead of through systematic planning, so many ecosystems and endangered species are still not officially protected. For example, even for giant pandas, an icon for China, almost half of their habitat has no form of protection.

A second problem is that many existing nature reserves are plagued by obscure land tenures and regulations, funding shortages, lack of conservation expertise and conflicts with local economic development.

We think privately-managed reserves can help to address these challenges by providing a supplement to the current nature reserve system. Private land trusts have become one of the most effective strategies for conservation in the world, and efforts to conserve nature on private lands are on the rise in more than 70 countries across the globe.

Charles:

Until recently, China has been largely left out of the private land conservation movement – what changed?

Photo © Jin Tong
Photo © Jin Tong

Jin Tong:

Unlike in the United States, lands in China cannot be owned privately. Rural land ownership is layered—the government owns all land, with some groups and individuals having long-term rights to use and manage lands. However, the right to manage lands was not available to conservation groups in the past.

Recently, regulatory shifts in China have opened up a space for civil society and conservation NGOs to step in. In 2008, the Chinese government clarified forest property rights, enabling management rights to be transferred or leased to outside enterprises, including conservation groups. Now the government is looking for partners to shoulder the burden of conservation and to diversify funding, and the rapid growth of the Chinese economy and growing prosperity of its citizens makes it possible for private citizens to support conservation financially.

Charles:

As an international NGO, how can the Conservancy play a role in land conservation in China?

Jin Tong:

In 2011, the Conservancy worked with a group of our China Board members to officially register the Sichuan Nature Conservation Foundation (SNCF), now known as the Paradise Foundation, in order to serve as the land rights holder and funding vehicle for the land trust reserves in China.

Then, in 2012, Sichuan’s Pingwu County government signed an agreement to hand over the management rights to a 27,000-acre tract known as Laohegou to SNCF. Laohegou is the first land trust reserve in China, and its subsequent formal recognition as a nature reserve by the government ensured the legal protection of a stunning natural wonder.

In addition, with the success of Laohegou, the Paradise Foundation is now the Conservancy’s close local partner in promoting the development of land trusts as a form of managing protected areas across the country.

Charles:

How did the Conservancy select Laohegou as the country’s first land trust reserve?

Jin Tong:

The Conservancy’s China blueprint pointed to Pingwu County of northeastern Sichuan Province as a priority for biodiversity conservation. Pingwu County is the home to one-sixth of the world’s giant panda population.

Then, based on a scientific analysis, we selected Laohegou as our first pilot site in Pingwu. Laohegou is one of the key corridors for giant panda populations, connecting two existing national nature reserves that support pandas. We estimate that nearly a dozen giant pandas live on the reserve, along with other endangered animals such as Sichuan snub-nosed monkeys, takin and musk deer.

Giant panda at the Chengdu Panda Base in the suburbs of Chengdu in Sichuan Province, China. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Nick Hall)
Giant panda at the Chengdu Panda Base in the suburbs of Chengdu in Sichuan Province, China. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Nick Hall)

Charles:

As a scientist, how are you helping to show whether our land trust reserves work?

Jin Tong:

In Laohegou, we’re working with a new nonprofit that we helped create, Laohegou Nature Conservation Center, to perform monitoring and research that will document whether Laohegou actually is supporting pandas and biodiversity in general. At the start, we realized that a lack of knowledge of the current status of biodiversity within this area was an obstacle to making sound conservation strategies and to showing whether they are successful.

So, we collaborated with top-level research institutions such as the China Academy of Sciences and Peking University to conduct broad baseline surveys of plants and animals. Reserve staff are now implementing an ecological monitoring program to track key species and help evaluate the effectiveness of our conservation actions.

Charles:

What are some of your key findings so far?

Jin Tong:

After two years of thorough field work, we have catalogued 975 plants, 730 insects, 5 coldwater fishes, 15 amphibians, 19 reptiles, 188 birds and 18 large mammals. This includes some rare and endangered species like the grey-crowned crowtit and the Asiatic golden cat. We also recorded other interesting findings by using camera traps, such as a panda eating a takin corpse. Previously, people thought pandas were only vegetarian!

It is still too early to conduct a quantitative evaluation of Laohegou’s conservation effectiveness. However, the positive changes in the management of this area are obvious. The most prominent effect is that the conservation status of this area has been legally upgraded from “ecological public-welfare forest,” a status that only contemplates timber harvest, to an official “nature reserve” that protects the whole ecosystem.

Charles:

How do local communities play a role in conservation at Laohegou?

Jin Tong:

A unique character of nature reserves in China is that around 60 million people live in and around these reserves, so it is essential that we involve these communities so they will support conservation.

At Laohegou, the community relied on hunting, fishing and collecting mushrooms or herbs in the reserve for income. Our goal is to help the community develop an “eco-friendly” rural area with alternative, sustainable income sources.

For example, we’re helping pilot households produce organic agricultural products such as peanuts and eggs and we’re connecting them with external high-end markets in exchange for agreeing not to harvest natural resources within the reserve. Already 68 households are participating in the process, and in 2015 they earned an extra US$2,000 in income per household. We also set up a community education fund using part of the revenue earned from a honey industry inside the reserve to provide scholarships and subsidies for students within the village.

A view of Old Creek river cascading through the steep forest valleys of Laohegou Nature Reserve, Pingwu County, Sichuan Province, China. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Nick Hall)
A view of Old Creek river cascading through the steep forest valleys of Laohegou Nature Reserve, Pingwu County, Sichuan Province, China. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Nick Hall)

Charles:

How will your science inform our work to create land trust reserves beyond Laohegou?

Jin Tong:

Since Laohegou, the Conservancy has worked with our partners to establish five land trust reserves and we hope to expand to 10 land trust reserves in the next few years. To do this properly, we first want to make sure that the new reserves are in the right places, so our site selection is being guided by our conservation blueprints for the country, which show the most important places to protect.

Second, our studies at Laohegou will help us understand how our protection, patrolling and enforcement work increase the ecological function of the land, and we will analyze our work with the community to investigate the benefits to people. By documenting both the benefits to nature and to people, we can make the case for new land trust reserves to local governments and show neighbors what’s in it for them.

Charles:

Tell us about one of our newer land trust reserves—the one you are most excited about.

Jin Tong:

Caohai reserve in northwest Yunnan Province is a unique alpine wetland lake that provides habitat for about 10,000 migratory birds in the winter within an area of only 220 acres. It hosts one of China’s largest populations of the rare and beautiful purple swamp-hen. Caohai is also important for nearby local communities, providing irrigation for the surrounding 1,700 acres of farmland and clean drinking water to a community population of 20,000. The major threat to this site is the conflict between people and birds over the water and fish. Finding a balance between those needs is a very challenging but interesting task for us!