The world worries about the global environmental and social consequences of the policies of China and India, the world’s largest population and fastest growing economies. Comparisons of reforms and outcomes between China and India are ubiquitous in manufacturing, trade, agriculture and information technology. Less well known are the bold policy and institutional reforms China has initiated in the forest sector, with potentially far-reaching environmental and socio-economic consequences.
In both countries, forest land is the second largest use of land after agriculture. Critics allege that China’s rapid growth in demand for forest products has caused deforestation in the neighbouring South-East Asian countries and Russia. India’s import growth of forest products has been slower than China’s but also a cause of international concern.
Forest degradation has contributed to soil erosion, loss of watersheds and flooding, starting in the upper reaches of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers in China and from the upper reaches of the Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers in South Asia. Deforestation is also a culprit. Improving forest cover is increasingly seen as a way of trading in carbon. Millions of poor make a living out of forests. Biodiversity and the medicinal value of many indigenous plants offer huge potential to increase the value of forest products and services.
Chinese forestry is ahead of India’s in the race for poverty reduction, productivity growth, and environmental sustainability.
Its forest plantations on state and collective forest lands have increased forest cover by 35 million hectares since the 1970s to address consumer demand.
The programme of natural forest protection is achieving ecological objectives.
The sloping land conversion programme, known as the “Grain for Green Programme”, is creating alternative livelihoods for rural households engaged in marginal agriculture on mountainous lands. It provides cash and grain subsidies to households to move out of farming. Some 15 million farmers and four municipalities are participating, reaching half of the declared target of 14.8 million hectares.
China is seeking global experience in moving from state-owned and state-managed forests to privately-managed ones while maintaining state ownership of land. It recently gave long-term user rights to households of collectivized forest lands. Introduced as a pilot in the Fujian and Jiangxi provinces, the forest tenure reform is giving authority to households in forest management, while making trees collateral and assuring land transferability. Individual workers and managers of forest enterprises have been given user rights and management responsibility for some of China’s largest and richest forests.
But there are weaknesses in the Grain for Green Programme. Households have been poorly targeted, there is insufficient adherence to the sloping and degraded lands standards, the planting material distributed is of poor quality, and farmers have not been fully compensated to develop an alternative livelihood. And there has been political pressure to expand the programme even though local and provincial governments lack the capacity for implementation.
Preliminary survey results of the tenure reform in the provinces show positive results. Increased reliance on households to manage forests has led to increased planting, improved management and increased harvests.
India’s reforms, in contrast, have been timid and halting. When India introduced Joint Forest Management (JFM) of degraded forest lands in 1988, it was at the forefront. It involved communities in forest management in return for a greater share of forest produce. JFM covers 17.3 million hectares of forest land in 27 Indian states involving 85,000 villages, but implementation has been slow.
Policy pronouncements have not corrected the erosion of land rights of forest communities or assured their role in forest management. India is moving slowly in the areas of forest replanting on public lands, increased the voice of people in forest management, and in the privatization of forest industries.
Not surprisingly, outcome indicators are sharply different in the two countries. China’s forest cover has increased whereas India’s has remained stagnant. China’s productivity per unit of forest land has increased more rapidly than India’s. With vastly increasing income choices available to rural households, China has developed a thriving domestic market for timber and other forest products. By enhancing, clarifying and securing land rights, the proposed tenure reform of forest lands is meant to encourage intensifying forest production. The government will scale back and play a strategic role in fine-tuning policies and implementing them, and offering technical advice to increase forest productivity.
Uma Lele, a Ph.D. from Cornell University, retired as senior adviser in the World Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group and co-chaired a task force of the China Council on Environment and Development on Chinese Forestry. Professor Xu Jintao has a Ph.D. from Virginia Tech and is at Beijing University. Comment at email@example.com