Course:FRST370/Community Forest Management in Tongdao Dong Minority Autonomous County, Huaihua City, Hunan Province, China

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This case study explores the community forest management in Tongdao Dong Minority Autonomous County, China. Given the fact that China’s central government grants autonomy to all minority groups, the pro-forest Dong culture with its relevant customary laws and practice is legally recognized, which has contributed to forest protection. However, it does not mean that the government authorities stay away from the community forestry. In fact, with China’s planning-for-everything regime, the government authorities, historically and currently speaking, always intervene in the forest management regarding both tenure and management arrangements. Some interventions have caused issues to the livelihood and long-term welfare of the local stakeholders. This wiki aims to uncover the complex interactions between the minority communities and the government authorities regarding the community forest management in Tondao county. Suggestions are offered at the end with the goal of dealing with the remaining issues.

Key words: Tongdao County; Pro-forest Dong Culture; Ecological Public-Welfare Forests; Tenure and Institutional Arrangements; Power Analysis of Stakeholders

Description of the community forestry case study

Figure 1. The location of the study site in China (created by the authors)

Tongdao Dong Minority Autonomous County (thereafter as Tongdao County) is located at the southernmost point of Huaihua city in Hunan province (Figure 1), China[1]. The total area of the county is 222,536 hectares[1], including 21 townships with a population of about 241,700. Since 77.9% of the population (188,284 people) belongs to the Dong minority[2], the county is designed as the Dong settlement with autonomy (self-management) given by China’s central authority to respect and reserve the Dong culture.

Tongdao County is forest-friendly. Based on the statistics provided by the county government, 78.1% of the total land area is forest land[1], and the forest coverage rate is 75.55%[3]. The non-timber forest products (NTFPs) such as fruits and medical plants are abundant. For instance, an existing study shows that the county is of 866 medicinal herbs that can be gathered for profit, including Ganoderma (Ganoderma Lucidum) that is very lucrative in the national market[4]. Since the forest ecosystem is well-preserved, the biodiversity is rich to have thousands of plants and animals, including 21 endangered species on the national list[4].

The ideal forest condition could be attributed to the pro-forest Dong culture and customs such as their religion-driven logging prohibition that has been well-practiced in the community[5][6]. However, it does not mean that the government authorities have no influence on the local forest management. For instance, a government-leading project named “Ecological Public-welfare Forests” is carried out in the county that affects Dong’s forest-dependent livelihood[1]. This wiki demonstrates the community forest management in Tongdao county influenced by the complex interactions between the Dong communities and the government authorities.

Autonomy as the legal recognition of minority customary rights and laws

It is well-known that China is a multiracial country that has 56 ethnic groups, but politically, culturally, and/or economically dominated and represented by the Han group as the ethnic majority. Given that each minority group has its own uniqueness such as value, history, language, and/or tradition, that should be respected and reserved, China’s central government decides to make their settlement autonomous, via the constitution, for cultural and customary practice and self-management onto the land[7][8][9]. That said, when a minority settlement is identified, the legal title and rights to the land are given to the minority group by making it “autonomous region”.

Even though the autonomy given to minority groups does not mean that all cultural practices and customary laws are statutorily codified in the national or provincial or regional law, it ensures that the external influence on their cultural practices and customary laws is minimized[8]. That said, autonomy can be seen as a legal recognition and permission of cultural practice and customary laws as long as there is no violation of China’s constitution. In addition, it could even provide an opportunity to legitimize them[9]. In some minority autonomous regions, the governments have already begun lessons learned from customary rights and laws of minority for local legislation[8]. With this fact, it is no doubt that the pro-forest culture, practice, and customary laws of the Dong minority in Tongdao country are legally recognized since China’s central authority gives their community autonomy, which contributes to the well-preserved forests described above.

Tenure arrangements

The history of tenure

Before 1951, the land in Tongdao county was mostly controlled by a few wealthy landlords[10]. Due to the land reform between 1952 to 1955, peasants were offered land titles and rights that once belonged to the landlords[10]. During this period, the land was either private-owned or state-owned land. However, between 1955 and 1957, an “agricultural cooperative movement” was led by the central government to transform the land from private to collective ownership[10]. A specially designed administrative unit named “People’s Commune”, that represented all local residents in theory but was controlled by the state government in reality, held the collective ownership of the land[10]. Since the Commune was controlled by the state government, the so-called collectively owned land was in effect state-owned. That said, the local stakeholders were dispossessed from their land due to the lack of private ownership. The Commune system was eventually abandoned in the 1980s due to the implementation of China’s Reform and Opening-up that provided a new tenure system across China up to today[10].

The current tenure since the 1980s

Since the Reform and Opening-up in the 1980s, two types of nationwide tenure have been institutionalized and codified in China’s constitution up to today, including “state-owned” and “collectively owned”. In Tongdao county, 99% of forest owned by communities, 1% owned by the state[11]. The state-owned forests across China are very much similar. They are only controlled and managed by the government with the right to exclude everyone[12]. That said, individuals, companies, communities, and other social bodies are not allowed to collect forest resources unless they have relevant licenses offered by the regional authorities[12].

An extremely large proportion of forests in Tongdao county is collectively owned. Based on the analysis of two governmental documents[12][13], it is worthy of knowing that the local stakeholders have the full bundle of rights (Table 1) listed below:

  • Access & Withdrawal & Extinguishability: the local community members have the right to decide the forest planting and management strategy based on their culture and livelihood and can freely sell the timber resource for profit[13].
  • Duration & Bequeathe: the communities naturally and unlimitedly own the local forests by customary and codified laws, and the local forests can be passed down generation by generation[13].
  • Exclusion: due to the strong influence of Dong Kuan (explained in the next section)– the customary laws of the Dong minority, local community members often form patrols voluntarily to push outsiders away from cutting or damaging the forest resources, especially the so-called “holy trees”[5][6].
  • Alienation: the Hunan provincial government sets forest agents to support local community forestry management regarding its policy and technology[13].
  • Extinguishability: local stakeholders must be compensated by codified laws if their forests are under land requisition by the state[12].

There is actually a third type of tenure named “household tenure certificates” (Ziliu Shan) in many parts of China, including the Tongdao county. It means that the property rights of the land, of which holding period is between 30 to 70 years, belong to an individual or household[12][14]. However, a scholar from Beijing Forestry University pointed out that it is just a special designation of collectively owned tenure, which the rights holders can apply from either regional authority or community council via a leasehold contract[15]. His argument can be backed up by the tenth clause of China’s constitution that clearly states that China is only of state-owned and collectively owned tenures, and Ziliu Shan is part of the latter[9]. Given the fact that Ziliu Shan is a part of collective tenure, in Tongdao county, its rights-holders receive all the rights indicated above.

Table 1: The analysis of the bundle of rights for the collectively-owned forests in Tongdao County

Access rights Withdrawal rights Exclusion rights Management rights Alienation rights Duration rights Bequeathe rights Extinguishability rights
Government Yes No No Yes (decision-making and oversight) No N/A N/A N/A
Rights-holding community members Yes Yes Yes Yes

(management implementation)

Yes Yes (unlimited) Yes Yes

Administrative arrangements

The government arrangements

In general, the government arrangement over China’s forests is complicated. As indicated above, in theory, communities have the full rights exercised over their collectively owned tenure. That said, communities, as the absolute management authority, can set up institutions and rules over their forests, especially in minority autonomous regions. Nonetheless, as the scholar from Beijing Forestry University pointed out that the statement is not necessarily true in reality because “local stakeholders’ property rights do not get themselves the decision-making or planning power on the forest land-use”[15]. He added:

“In China, everything must be accord with the state planning, and the government has the absolute power to decide the land-use…no matter is either on state-owned or collectively owned forest…For instance, if a community forest is planned to be a protected area by the government, although the local stakeholders may need to cut down trees for livelihood, they are not allowed to do so, and their management to the forest must be accord with protection as the planned land-use”[15].

Based on what the scholar said, although the state government legally recognizes communities’ property titles and management rights on their collectively owned forests, the decisions on their land-use and management purpose belong to the government authorities. In other words, communities can only have the rights to implement management and arrangement that must be in accord with government planning on the land.

Fortunately, the government land-use planning in Tongdao county is forest protection via a project named “ecological public-welfare forests” (explained in the discussion section below) that matches with the pro-forest culture of the Dong minority. Two government authorities – the National Forestry and Grassland Administration and the Ministry of Natural Resources, are the main players to evaluate the forest condition and work on the planning of the public-welfare forests and formulate regulations and laws to process the project[15]. The local communities are responsible for the management implementation of the project in accord with the governmental planning on their collectively owned forests[15]. For the remaining forests that are not classified as the “public-welfare forests” with government planning and decision, communities should receive full management rights on them based on their cultural practice and customary laws.

The community arrangements

The community administrative arrangements in Tongdao county are highly linked to the pro-forest culture of the Dong minority, resulting in many cultural practices and customary laws to protect their forests, especially for those that are not “public-welfare forests”. First of all, the Dong minority has been deeply attached to their forests where their life depends, and their attachment has played a positive role in restricting the over-exploitation of forest resources[6][16]. For instance, when NTFP gathering has been an essential part of Dong’s livelihood, only three to five villagers are allowed to gather in the forests per time. If the number of people in the gathering team exceeded the limit, they would stop joining consciously[6]. The limitation on the number of gatherers, as a customary practice, demonstrates Dong’s ecological awareness of the forest capacity.

Also, Dong’s religious belief, which is animistic, presents their strong respect for the trees around their communities[5][6][16]. In the eyes of Dong people, the near-community trees are the “holy trees” (Shen Shu) who have a soul and are the partners of God[6]. They thus believe that respecting and worshiping the “divine trees” as if respecting and worshiping the God who can protect them from disasters, diseases, and misfortunes[6][16]. A study points out another customary practice of the Dong minority that they never chop down trees near their communities but always walk far away to log and collect fuelwood[6]. Thus, the forest lands near the Dong communities are mostly well-preserved.

Even though Dong people pay so much respect to trees, logging to get timber resources as fuelwood for livelihood and as lucrative product for profit is necessary. However, they have had many customary laws to prevent deforestation from massive logging. For example, in the designed logging area of the collectively owned forests, the “mother” trees of any species must not be damaged to ensure the species sustainability[6]. Moreover, communities must change the designed logging area periodically to avoid clear-cutting of that place[6]. Huge fine will be applied to those (both insiders and outsiders) who conduct logging illegally[16].

The most significant community forest arrangement that represents the entire Dong minority is the formation of Kuan society, which can be traced back from time immemorial[6][16]. The Kuan society is of both “Xiao Kuan” organization and “Da Kuan” organization, in which the former is composed of neighboring villages of the same patrilineal blood relationship or intermarriage, and the latter is composed of many “Xiao Kuan” organizations[6]. Together, the “Da Kuan” organizations end up with the formation of a “Kuan” society that interconnects all Dong communities[6]. Due to the formation of Kuan society, many customary laws and regulations have been institutionalized and shared by all involving Dong communities to protect the entire communal forest in the county[16]. All the laws and institutions are inscribed on stone tablets located at each of the involving Dong communities and the protective forest lands to inform both Dong people and outsiders[6][16]. More importantly, given the solidarity and the power of the Kuan society, Dong’s customary regulations are supposed to be more recognized by the government authorities, which means that there may be a possibility to codify some customary regulations in the written laws.

Affected Stakeholders

Affected stakeholder means a particular group of people whose long-term welfare can be affected by activities that drive changes to their land where their livelihood is dependent[17]. Two affected stakeholders in Tongdao county discussed by existing studies are listed below:

  • Local residents: They, whether or not belonging to the Dong minority group, are no doubt affected stakeholders. They have multiple, and sometimes overlapping affected identities such as the Timber resource and NTFP producers and gatherers, and/or the owner of Ziliu Shan as farmer or logger. Their long-term welfare is dependent on the collectively owned forests, which are the source of their livelihood[3][6]. Activities such as massive logging or change in the tenure system would affect their accessibility to the forest resources. In existing studies, no obvious power differences between gender (male and female) and age (youth and elder) can be found.
  • Kuan organizations: The Kuan organizations can be seen as the confluent power of the pro-forest Dong culture with shared customary laws and regulations for forest protection[6][16]. If activities such as massive logging or change in forest tenure that are a direct violation to Dong’s customary laws and confrontation to the Dong culture take place, the meaning of the existence of the Kuan organizations will be driven to nowhere. Thus, the organizations can be seen as affected stakeholders.  

Interested Outside Stakeholders

Interested stakeholder means an individual, group, or entity that is interested in the forest resources but does not have a long-term dependency on the forest area[17]. The interested stakeholders in Tongdao county recognized from existing studies are listed below:

  • National authorities: the National Forestry and Grassland Administration and the Ministry of Natural Resource are no doubt interested stakeholders because even though they interact with the local communities for managing and protecting the forests in Tongdao county, they are responsible for the forest condition across China[18][19]. That said, their tasks are not only dependent on the forests in Tondao county.
  • Tongdao county government: It is an interested stakeholder because even though it is responsible for the forest management and protection in Tongdao county, they have other administrative responsibilities of many kinds such as education, infrastructure construction, poverty alleviation, and so many others[3][20]. That said, its overall responsibility is not only dependent on the forests in the county.
  • Illegal loggers[16][21]: They are the interested stakeholders as they are interested in the timber resources. They obviously have no long-term dependency on the forests in Tongdao county because they can always acquire timber resources elsewhere.
  • Resource buyers (not directed mentioned in existing studies but identified via their mentioning of timber value in national market][1][3]: the richness of timber resources and NTFPs in Tongdao county is attractive to a lot of national buyers, including individuals and companies. Again, they are listed as the interested stakeholders due to their interests in the resources but none of them is dependent on the forests in Tongdao county because they can always acquire what they need somewhere else.


In existing studies, there is nothing but one community forestry project in Tongdao county – “ecological public-welfare forests” (thereafter as EPF), which, by definition, aims to improve protect biodiversity, keep ecological balance, and improve forestry sustainability via afforestation on the government-planned land[1]. The scholar from Beijing Forestry University well simplifies the project that:

“regional government sectors such as Forestry and Grassland Administration or Ministry of Natural Resources are in charge of planning for EPF, which can be either on the state-owned territory or collectively owned land or individually owned forest…then local stakeholders will take the responsibility of afforestation…government pays a subsidy to stakeholders based on the hectares of their afforestation…”[15].

The EPF is actually a national project to be implemented across the country, but it is not uniformly carried out due to the consideration of different forestry status and financial situation in each administrative region. In Tondao county, 48,955.5 hectares of forest land are planned to be EPF, and 97.62% of the land is collectively owned[1]. That said, the EPF requires community management to succeed. However, the EPF is relatively failed due to two critical and related issues identified.

Firstly, the planning of EPF territory is not reasonable due to the lack of consideration of the wills of local Dong stakeholders[1]. As indicated, an extremely large proportion of the EPF in Tongdao county is planned on the collectively owned forest land. Nonetheless, as pointed out by the scholar, “if a forest land, whoever the tenure belongs to, is planned as a part of the EPF, logging and other activities that damage trees are strictly prohibited and afforestation is the only permissive action”[15]. That said, if a collectively or individually owned forest that is of fuelwood for livelihood or of timber resource for profit is involved in the project, the local stakeholders can no longer acquire the resources. A study shows that the land planning of EPF is only based on the decision of relevant government authorities, resulting in many conflicts between local communities/stakeholders and the government[1].

The government notices the economic loss of the local people as they may no longer acquire timber resources for sale. Thus, the government pays a subsidy to those who work on afforestation as the essence of EPF[1][15]. Yet, the government subsidy is significantly insufficient, which currently is only 146.25 RMB (equivalent to about 21 US dollars) per hectare of afforestation each year[1]. According to the statistics of timber price in 2013, the average timber value each year in the (collectively owned) commercial forest in Tongdao county is between 1,154 to 2,308 RMB (equivalent to about 183 to 366 US dollars) per hectare. In addition, the yearly lease value of forest land is ranging between 150 to 600 RMB (equivalent to about 23 to 95 US dollars) per hectare[1]. Given the fact that the subsidy is even lower than the bottom line of the yearly lease value (without the count of timber value), the economic loss is huge to local people, and cannot be covered. Currently, the two critical issues in Tongdao county have not well addressed, resulting in people’s lack of enthusiasm for EPF development[1].

Power analysis

This power analysis is about the importance and influence of each interested and affected stakeholders in Tongdao county listed in the above sections. Figure 2 demonstrates their importance and influence on the community forestry management.

Figure 2. Power analysis of the forest actors in Tongdao County (created by the authors) Note: The degree of the importance and influence to each actor is demonstrated by their distance to the corresponding axis -- X-axis = the degree of influence & Y-axis = the degree of importance.

National authorities, including the National Forestry and Grassland Administration and the Ministry of Natural Resource, are not important to the community forestry management because they are not directly managing the forests in practice. However, they are extremely influential due to China’s planning-for-everything regime[15]. That said, they have absolute power to plan and decide the land-use of the forests, which the practical management strategies of communities must be in accord with the planned land-use.

Since the illegal loggers and the national resource buyers have nothing to do with the community forestry management, they are not important at all. Nonetheless, existing studies shows their influence on the forests and the communities. For the illegal loggers, historically speaking, they caused damages to the forests that have to take time for recovery[10]. For the national resource buyers, they have the power to control the price of timber resources and NTPFs, which might make the local stakeholders the price-taker. In addition, since the resources buyers’ preferences represent of the need in the national or global market, local stakeholders may want to fit their production to buyers’ needs for a larger profit, resulting in the least forest diversity.

The local residents in Tongdao county are highly important to the community forest management. Given the fact that the autonomy is as the legal recognition or permission of their self-management based on the dominating Dong culture, they are definitely involved in the community forest management with many pro-forest customary laws implemented. Yet, as mentioned above, under the planning-for-everything regime held by China’s central authorities, they have no influential power to plan for the land-use of the forests, including for their Ziliu Shan.

The Tongdao county government is important because it works closely with the communities to actively deal with possible tenure conflicts[11] based on the written legislation with the consultation of Dong’s customary laws and has formed forest police to cooperate with the communities’ patrol to punish those illegal loggers and NTFP-gatherers[3]. The influence of the county government cannot be easily analyzed due to the lack of enough relevant information provided by existing studies. Thus, we arbitrarily argue that its influence is low since it does not intervene in the implementation of local customary laws for community forestry management.

For the Kuan organizations, they are unions consisting of all Dong communities with shared pro-forest culture[6][16]. That said, the Kuan organizations are as important as the local residents to implement the Dong customary laws for community forest management. More importantly, since they represent the voice of all Dong communities, they can be influential on the legal recognition of the Dong customary laws for better forest protection.


Based on the two widely discussed issues of the EPF project in Tongdao county, we offer some recommendations to solve the conflicts between the local communities/stakeholders and the government authorities:

  • Since the planning of the EPF is only based on the decision of relevant government authorities without the consideration of the local stakeholders’ wills[1], we suggest that the government authorities should begin the planning with a consultation to the local stakeholders regarding the topics such as compensation and/or (alternative) land restitution. Otherwise, the project becomes a form of land deprivation regardless of the livelihood and welfare of the local stakeholders. In short, negotiation between the government sectors and the local stakeholders is a must-do.
  • As mentioned in the discussion section, the current compensation is even lower than the bottom line of the yearly lease value[1]. Thus, we strongly suggest that the compensation should be at least equivalent to the yearly benefits that the local stakeholders could receive based on their profit models – forest land lease or commodity wood selling. Furthermore, compensation can be more than a subsidy directly given to the stakeholders. Strategies such as tax relief are acceptable as well. Also, since eco-tourism is being encouraged and supported by the government due to the well-preserved forestry landscape in Tongdao county[1][22], the government can compensate the stakeholders by providing more job opportunities such as a tour guide with professional training to help them.


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