Sichuan Province, China – Within the last year, both Zhong Junxian and Zeli Jiang Chu received offers that, at one point, they likely couldn't have refused.
Offered major money to cut down trees in their villages' forests, the men who once made money from the practice declined the offers.
"It was really perfect, it was good money," says Zhong Junxian, a member of the Haoziping hamlet. "But according to the agreement, I'd promised to protect this place, so I would not do it."
The men’s resistance to logging illustrates how agreements made just one year ago are evolving from contracts that are written to contracts that are put into practice. Zeli Jiang Chu and Zhong Junxian live more than 500 miles apart, but each are members of communities that signed pledges in the fall of 2006 to protect their forests. They did so in exchange for resources that would give them extra incentives to conserve.
Despite a massive 1998 logging ban, villagers in China's Sichuan province in desperate need of money sometimes succumb to accepting cash for their trees. Local communities also turn to their forests for non-timber products that will help ensure their livelihoods, inadvertently damaging the ecosystem in the process. To better protect the environment, Conservation International (CI) is helping people find economic alternatives to felling forests, gathering firewood and collecting herbs, and has facilitated agreements between local governments and villagers in three of China's communities.
To reconcile conservation and development, conservation agreements bring together authorities and local resource owners to protect natural ecosystems in exchange for a steady stream of structured compensation from conservationists or other investors. Financial mechanisms like endowments and trusts allow for long-term compensation; rigorous monitoring ensures the communities are making both environmental and socio-economic progress.
In exchange for conserving their forests, Zhong Junxian’s family and the others living in his hamlet receive about $4 US dollars, a significant amount of money in this region, from their local forestry bureau for each day they patrol their land. The forestry bureau also provides funding and support to the nearby Yujiashan Nature Reserve to bolster efforts that will help link protected areas together for plants and animals – like the Endangered giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) – that roam the Mountains of Southwest China Biodiversity Hotspot.
In Dingguoshan, the incentive is more than economic. The village agreed to receive subsidies in exchange for conserving the forests, provided the forestry bureau and CI would also help them fill a pressing educational need. Villagers needed a teacher for their school.
"It's a kind of business," says He Xin, an assistant in CI's Sichuan office who helps develop the contracts. "We will negotiate. Sometimes we will fail to get an agreement. It's a kind of deal."
Once that deal is signed, community teams routinely monitor their forests, led by people like Zhong Junxian, to keep loggers, poachers, and mostly herb collectors at bay. The teams document where and which animals and plants they stumble upon, and provide that information to their forestry departments. CI equips them with GPS systems, monitoring worksheets, and training to help those teams safeguard their forests. That information also helps CI’s scientists better understand the biodiversity of this region and how agreements are helping protect it.
Both the village of Dingguoshan and the hamlet of Haoziping lie within or near targeted sites most in need of attention, known to conservationists as Key Biodiversity Areas.
In June, Zhong Junxian saw nearly 30 golden snub-nosed monkeys (Rhinopithecus roxellana) in the hills above his house. The primates are classified as Vulnerable by the World Conservation Union (IUCN). On his next scheduled outing, the team will check for traces of twin baby pandas spotted during the summer. The forests surrounding his hamlet are home to some of the panda's last remaining habitat in the world, and the latest sighting is an encouraging sign that protecting the land is not only helping pandas survive, but multiply.
Along day-long routes, Zhong Junxian says the work is arduous, but interesting.
“It’s hard, but the local villagers are familiar with the forest, so it’s okay,” he says. “To do this kind of work is very meaningful.”
Just one year into the agreement, challenges remain. Villagers have seen their nearby communities make money from the logging offers they've turned down, but they've also seen their neighbors caught breaking the law.
"The most difficult thing is that we don't know if this can work," said Feng Yue, a recent college graduate newly employed at Yujiashan Nature Reserve under the agreement. "It's a new mechanism."
Still, because rural areas of China are not privatized, agreements empower villagers for the first time ever with the right to protect and manage the land. As a result, they are upholding their end of the bargain.
When loggers approached Zeli Jiang Chu, who has led the village of Dingguoshan for 20 years, his answer was certain.
"In our forest, no. Absolutely not," he recalls telling the prospective buyers. “We have a right to stop you and if you want to do it, I can inform the forestry bureau and the police.”