Social Forestry in China?

Social Forestry in China?

Janet C. Sturgeon, DFES Candidate


Spurred on by the problems social forestry has faced in arranging for local management of forests, I decided to look at a village forest management system in China where villagers own shares in the forest. My experience with social forestry programs and reading in the literature had convinced me that even when social forestry seems to take hold, local leaders often derive most of the benefit, and poor people most of the cost, of these systems (Fortmann 1988). Had the share-holding system in China solved the problem of maintaining equity in the distribution of benefits?

Sanming Prefecture in Fujian Province, China was declared a national experimental reform site for forestry in 1987, based on seven years of experience with a village share-holding management system to promote forest production and protection. The Sanming Municipal Forestry Committee is proud of its reforestation success in Sanming. The forested area is over 30% greater now than in 1981, and the area is still increasing. Production forests on village collective land are managed by village organizations, with villagers owning shares in the standing forests. Village forestry organization comes under the township, county, city and provincial levels of the forestry department.

My interests in looking at the Sanming system were three: to find out to what extent this system is truly managed at the village level; to get a sense of whether the share-holding system, which is fairly sophisticated, is based on historical precedent in this area; and to discover if the system represents a negotiation of policy between local people and the government.


To answer my questions, I used interviews, archival research and village visits. The interviews were with forestry staff at the prefecture, county and township levels. The most valuable materials were reports and local histories from the prefecture forestry department. I also visited the library of the Forestry College in Nanping and the Provincial Library in Fuzhou.

Forestry department staff arrangedfor me to visit six villages in three counties. In each county I talked with county and township level forestry staff, and in each village I had discussions with the elected local forestry committee. I was also able to interview, in their homes, three to five households in each village. In all cases these were semi-structured interviews based on a series of questions that I had discussed in advance with my research companions. We would then follow up with questions related to the particular characteristics of the system in each village.


History of Property Rights in Forests

Forested areas have undergone rapid redefinitions of property rights and levels of management since the Chinese Revolution in 1949. Before 1949, forest property in Sanming was divided among landlords, lineages, and the government. In Youxi County, for example, landlords held 30% of the land, lineages held 40%, and the government held the remaining 30%. In landlord/tenant relationships, 60% of the profit from the trees went to the planter and 40% to the landlord.

During land reform in the early 1950s forest areas were redistributed to the government (13.8% of forest area), townships and villages (22.2%), and the remaining 64% to peasant households. Through collectivization (1956) and the establishment of communes (1958), peasants lost the personal use and management of forest land except for plots around the home and land for personal needs, where peasants grew fruit trees and pines. From 1966 to 1976, with the Cultural Revolution, peasants’ personal use trees became “tails of capitalism”, or evidence of an inappropriate attitude toward property. Even personal use trees became property of the commune, and in angry response to this step, local people cut many trees (Sanming Linye Zhi).

In 1979 and 1981, early in the economic reform period, the State Council established policies to protect forests and promote production, with a general principle that whoever planted and protected trees had right to their use. Under this very broad guideline, the Fujian People’s Government began to establish property rights in forests. They faced a climate in which peasants feared further changes in property rights and party officials feared further chaos (Sanming Linye Zhi).

At that time there were debates nationwide as to whether forest land should be allocated to individual households in the same way as agricultural land. The head of Fujian Province and the head of forestry in Sanming, a close friend of Deng Xiaoping, thought that the nature of forestry, with its long rotation period and long period of risk, was unsuitable for management at the household level (Wang 1994). What evolved was a system of unified management of village collective forest land, with shares in the forest distributed equally to all household members. In 1984 the State Council approved share-holding organizations as a means for managing collectively-owned production forests. At that point Sanming decided to expand the area under collective shareholding management, a system that now covers the whole prefecture (Sanming Linye Zhi).

Share-Holding Forest Management

So much of the literature and excitement about Sanming is devoted to the share-holding forestry system that it is surprising how few forest villagers make their living from forestry. The income from forestry supports the share-holding organization, village roads, schools, power lines and so on, all of which, since the production responsibility system was initiated, villages must provide for themselves. In this sense, forestry supports the whole village.

Apart from the collectively-owned land (jitishan) managed by the village, individual households are allocated field land (tian di) and freehold land (ziliushan), based on household population at the time of allocation, for contracts of 15 to 20 years. On the field land, villagers grow rice and a variety of vegetables. Many households interviewed sell vegetables and some also sell grain for part of their income. On freehold land, households plant some combination of bamboo, citrus trees, tong and tea oil trees, tea and tobacco. From the bamboo, households derive income from both the dried bamboo shoots and bamboo culms. Some villagers also rent collective land, on which they may plant bamboo, fruit trees or fir trees. The products of field lands and freehold land can either be used by the household or sold.

Figure 1. Rice on field land (tian di) and bamboo on freehold land (ziliushan), Fujian Province, China.

For the collectively-owned production forests, the Sanming Forestry Committee decides the annual cut for the whole prefecture. This cut is then allocated from the county to the township forestry stations, and finally to the share-holding organization in each village. Members assured me that they decide what kind of trees to cut where and how the cut will be made. They also decide what kind of trees to plant where, choosing among Cunninghamia lanceolata or Pinus massoniana. If they allow natural regrowth, a mixed hard-wood forest will regenerate.

When I asked how much villagers receive in dividends at the end of the year, the amount varied from about 20 to 105 yuan (one US$ currently = 8.63 yuan). There was usually some confusion over the answer, because at the same time of year villagers must pay an education fee, a security fee, a peasant household tax, a fee for families with someone in the military, a fee for road construction, and a tax on agricultural production. It was not clear whether the 20 yuan was the household’s dividend before or after fees and taxes. In one case villagers mentioned an airport construction fee for a facility they will surely never use. Villagers said taxes were too high, especially taxes for producing trees.

Historical Precedents

Although some village leaders in Sanming claimed there was no forest management before 1949, others I interviewed said that there were share-holding forestry companies in the 1930s and 1940s. Two older foresters mentioned that beginning in this century, there were mu shan hui: companies to manage the felling, transportation, and sale of timber. These timber suppliers were share-holding management companies that moved logs from Sanming to Fuzhou by river to be sold to Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and other ports in Southeast Asia (Zhang 1994).

In the Provincial Library in Fuzhou I found management documents from two mu shan hui dating from the 1930s. These document the share-holding arrangements between the forest manager and the timber company in the sale of timber.


From these interviews and observations, I made the following conclusions regarding my three research questions.

Does the share-holding system represent true village-level management? The answer is mixed. Villages can decide what kind of trees (within a limited range of species) to plant and where. They are locked into a production forestry system, although they can choose— to a certain extent—where to sell their timber. Villages cannot decide, though, to change to an agroforestry system on their collective land. And the amount to cut each year is decided for them. Although in many ways beneficial to villagers, the system is largely designed to meet the production and reforestation goals of the Sanming Forestry Committee.

For historical precedents, the evidence about the mu shan hui suggests that local people had experience with share-holding operations related to forestry. Further research is needed to determine how closely the current system is modeled on previous share-holding companies.

Regarding negotiated policies between local people and the government, the History of Forestry in Sanming, the gazetteer of the municipality, recounts that in 1983 investigation teams found a share-holding system and a unified contract management system in local villages, and decided to combine these into one system. This story needs further investigation, but close study of the period from 1981 to 1987 would probably reveal a sequence of negotiations between local people and the municipal government, with the State Council approving plans after they were already implemented.


In each village it was clear that some households were faring much better than others. Some households lived at a subsistence level whereas others had built new houses, invested in cottage industries, and bought large TV sets and other appliances. My hypothesis is that some households at the time ofland allocation in the early 1980s had a more favorable configuration of family members by age and gender. For example, a household with a middle-aged father and two or three sons old enough to plant trees could have taken rapid advantage of freehold land for bamboo, orange trees or other perennials. Quick production and sale of products would have generated funds to invest in other ways, leading to rapid increase in household income. Households with female heads or lacking labor power would not have fared nearly as well.

At a larger scale, it was clear that areas along the railroad and near larger cities in Sanming received the bulk of attention from the forestry department, and were experiencing the most rapid economic development. In these areas new shareholding systems were emerging to link production, purchasing, and resale of timber products. There were also new share-holding companies to rent cars and other vehicles needed by the forestry department. While forestry staff were excited about these developments, and remarked on the flexibility evident in the system, I experienced uneasiness at the growing disparity in incomes between rapidly developing areas of Sanming and those more on the margins. It is unclear to me how this increasing stratification among areas will influence the willingness of villagers to participate in forest protection and production when wealthier areas receive a much greater share of the benefits.

Following my stay in Fujian I spent a week an Nanjing Forestry University, where I was able to read Paul Chandler’s dissertation, Ecological Knowledge in a Traditional Agroforest Management System among Peasants in China (1992). Chandler looked at indigenous knowledge of Cunninghamia lanceolata cultivation among peasants in Fujian Province. Through hundreds of years of practice, these peasants have found conclusively that C. lanceolata in monoculture cultivation cannot grow for more than three rotations. In mixed hardwood stands, however, C. lanceolata can be grown indefinitely. Chandler points out that forest scientists in China have come up with the same findings. The implications of this limitation for the Sanming system are rather serious, since monoculture C. lanceolata forms the backbone of forest production.


The Sanming village forest management system, although it does not solve problems for social forestry worldwide, offers some interesting property arrangements. Where the forest land is collectively owned, and the income from forest production supports the infrastructure of the whole village, villagers certainly have an incentive to manage well both forest protection and production. The increased stratification among villagers resulted from different ability to use and profit from land allocated to the household. From the collective forest, though, the distribution of benefits seemed reasonably equitable.


This research was supported by the Tropical Resources Institute, the Yale Program in Agrarian Studies and the Yale Council on East Asian Studies. I am grateful to Nancy Peluso for thoughtful advice on designing this study, to the Sanming Forestry School for hosting my visit and to the Sanming Forestry Committee for arranging for my research.

Literature Cited

Chandler, Paul. 1992. Ecological Knowledge in a Traditional Agroforest Management System among Peasants in China. Seattle: University of Washington. Unpublished dissertation.

Fortmann, Louise. 1988. Great Planting Disasters: Pitfalls in Technical Assistance in Forestry. Agriculture and Human Values, Winter-Spring 1988.

Sanming Linye Zhi (Gazetteer of the History of Forestry in Sanming). Available from the Sanming Forestry Committee.

WangHuaiyi. 1994. Personal Communication. Director, Forestry Economy Research Office, Sanming Forestry Committee.

Zhang Hexie.1994. Personal Communication. Former head of forestry for Youxi County.

Citation of Original Article

Sturgeon, J.C. 1994, Social Forestry in China? TRI News 13, 38–40.