Entering Xinqi (新岐), a small settlement near Tengchong and the Burmese border in southwestern China, is an experience unlike arriving in any other Chinese village. Surrounded by lush green mountains, the place immediately impresses with its use of natural stone rather than concrete for the houses and pavement. Roofs are adorned with traditional-looking grey tiles, and a large water catchment feature in the center of the village helps residents weather the dry season. Wandering through the alleys reveals plenty of pretty buildings and a temple full of murals and well-crafted wooden furniture. But most surprising of all are its people.
Most Chinese villages are deserted as men and women of working age leave the elderly and the very young behind to take care of farming chores while they seek employment in larger cities. Yet Xinqi is alive. Various forest product industries have kept a working population at home and the streets are pleasantly buzzing with activity. On a corner, music is drawing elated crowds to a van, where a man promises to take photographs for a little cash. Men are carving furniture near an ancient-looking sawmill and elsewhere, after extracting camellia oil, large machines are pressing residue from the seeds into cakes for premium soap producers all over the nation.
Xinqi has mostly itself to thank. After suffering massive deforestation first during World War II and again during the Cultural Revolution, the community set up collective forest farms to manage the land, resisting and overriding later Chinese reforms to divide forest among individual households. After internal debate, benefits from the forest harvest were either distributed among villagers or invested in public goods. With the income from timber, Xinqi built a school, a health clinic, roads, and arranged social insurance for all. All while the forest continued to expand.
The village's successful timberland management attracted further government investment in its forest. Farmers were encouraged to participate in the Sloping Land Conversion Program (SLCP). This government program subsidizes farmers for replacing their farmland on sloping land with trees in order to prevent landslides and to safeguard water resources. The villagers formulated a plan to participate, reached consensus, and took on the responsibility and labor costs for tree plantation and management tasks, while the SLCP funds were used to compensate farmers for the cropland they gave up. When the forest began yielding products, the villagers agreed that farmers would reap 70 percent of the benefits, and that the village committee would invest the remaining 30 percent in public goods. Everyone benefits, and the forest continues to grow.
Today, Xinqi is a pleasant village that reaps the benefits of its grassroots decision to manage and live off its forests. It produces furniture and other timber products, as well as non-timber forest products. Examples include but are not limited to honey, walnuts, mushrooms, camellia oil and other traditional soap ingredients. Where farms have not been replaced by forest, they often apply tree intercropping techniques where the trees fertilize and stabilize the soil while regulating crop humidity and moisture. Additional future income is expected from eco-tourism. A guesthouse with lots of wood features and a view of the mountains is being constructed for that very purpose, and the forests attract crowds searching for natural beauty.
The Village Committee, presided over by two men who never attended school past the age of 14, can pat themselves on the back.
Editor's note: This article is based on 'Decentralization of Forest Management in Southwest China', a doctoral thesis submitted by Jun He (何俊) to the School of International Development, University of East Anglia, in October 2012. The thesis has been selected as a 'seed' — evidence of good practices for man and mountain in the Anthropocene, for the Mountain Futures Conference, which will be held March 1-4, 2016, in Kunming.