With families to support and little money with which to do it, millions of the world’s rural poor are forced to destroy their own backyards in exchange for a small income.
Now, in China’s Sichuan province, Conservation International (CI) and partner organization Shan Shui Conservation Center are helping communities work together to protect the valuable services that intact ecosystems supply, making it easier for farmers to provide for their families today without sacrificing the resources they will still need tomorrow.
A Vital Watershed
Outside of China, the mountain slopes and dense forests of Wanglang National Nature Reserve may be best known as the home of one of the world’s largest remaining giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) populations. However, there are also thousands of people in the reserve’s buffer zone who depend on the region’s trees, streams and species for their daily survival.
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One of the reserve’s most important benefits for the people of Pingwu County is its provision of fresh water, yet this water supply is threatened daily by human actions, including the dumping of untreated waste, contamination by chemical fertilizers and pesticides, deforestation for firewood and charcoal, and conversion of natural ecosystems to farming or grazing lands. It has been estimated that by 2017, declining water quality will lead to an ecological collapse and a water shortage for 28,000 people.
Since 2006, CI has been working in China, more recently with partner organization Shan Shui Conservation Center, in a collaborative effort with the Chinese government to establish a system of payment that provides income for locals to manage the reserve through conservation agreements. In 2009, a water fund was established in Pingwu County, creating a sustainable mechanism to provide incentives for upstream villagers to restore the degraded freshwater ecosystem and reduce their chemical use.
So far, three conservation agreements have been established in Pingwu County: the first with the Yujiashan Nature Reserve, a former timber concession that used the land until the 1998 logging ban and is now China’s first privately managed nature reserve; the second with Haoziping, a Han farming community; and the third with the Muguaxi community, a Han-influenced Tibetan village.
These agreements serve to compensate landowners for protecting the resources on their properties, giving them an economic alternative to exploiting their lands for much-needed income. The landowners are paid by downstream communities and businesses in Pingwu County who rely on the fresh water that is maintained by ecosystem protection. Supplemental funding is provided by the Chinese government, CI and partner organizations.
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Under each agreement, community teams monitor the ecosystems for illegal activities such as logging, poaching and unsustainable herb collection. The compensation also helps to fund activities such as: the promotion of beekeeping as a sustainable source of income; more sustainable agricultural practices; and the development of an award program for residents successfully protecting the forest and river headwaters.
Putting a Price on Nature
In 2007, CI’s Conservation Stewardship Program and Corridor Economics and Planning Program began investing in the Pingwu projects to further examine the role that ecosystem services play in the overall health of the local people and environment. Researchers are conducting surveys on the benefits of vegetation for freshwater conservation and carbon sequestration, as well as the role of biodiversity in healthy watersheds.
It has already been demonstrated that the benefits of preserving these ecosystem services outweigh the costs. For example, if the use of chemical fertilizers were to continue unchecked, water quality would quickly deteriorate and residents would have to pay ever-increasing fees for water purification.
In a country where most of the land is state-owned, conservation agreements can be a rare opportunity for rural villagers to have both the rights and the resources to manage the land and ecosystems where they live. As these agreements are established in new communities, the government will continue to work with CI and its partners, using this model to put power into new hands.
READ MORE: Freshwater, Biodiversity and People