Documentation:Open Case Studies/FRST522/2020/Assessing the Conservation Concession Agreement model in Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve, Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, Qinghai, China

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China has been attempting to increase its conservation presence over the past 20 years and establishing a new national park system. The beautiful Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau is the Yangtze, Yellow, and Lancang River headwaters and home to wildlife such as snow leopard and wild yak. However, grassland degradation had not yet been fundamentally suppressed; vegetation coverage was still declining in regional areas. Now the Chinese government opens its first national park in 2020, Sanjiangyuan National Park. This largest pilot program can ensure the national ecological security. The park has been experimenting with co-management models and ecological migration to broaden community participation and improve people's livelihood. In 2006, Cuochi village and the bureau of Sangjiangyuan nature reserve signed the conservation concession agreement. Moreover, The central government believes the ecological migration is the tool for protecting critical ecosystems, eliminating poverty, and developing the economy. This research seeks to examine the effectiveness of the conservation concession program and ecological migration program in Sanjiangyuan Nature reserve. The lessons learned from this case study offer improvement to existing national park regulations and implementations.

Keywords: Sanjiangyuan, Conservation concession agreement, Ecological migration.

Qinghai-Tibet plateau


Qinghai province

Qinghai is China's fourth-largest inland province located in the northeast of the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, and subdivided into two prefectures and six autonomous prefectures. What makes the region unique is the beautiful plateau landscapes that consist of mountains, canyons, and basins[1]. More important, the Qinghai Lake watershed is the headwaters of the Yellow River and Yangtze River[2]. The region's complex terrain formed the grassland and the watershed that provide multiple ecosystem services and functions to local communities, downstream people, and wildlife such as snow leopards, yaks, and other livestock[3]. However, complex biotic and abiotic drivers and processes result in the Qinghai-Tibet plateau degradation. Vegetation coverage was still declining, and the grassland degradation had not yet been fundamentally suppressed[4]. Comprehensive research and various management approaches are needed to conserve the grassland ecosystem.

Ethnic Groups

Qinghai province contains over 37 recognized ethnic groups[5]. Han Chinese predominate in Xining and Haidong, Tibetan, Hui, Tu, and other ethnic minorities are mainly live in autonomous prefectures. The population of Tibet is 5.4 million. Tibetan communities mostly live in highlands and mountainous countries, and they live in the Tibet Autonomous Region, Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces. For this case study, Cuochi is an entirely Tibetan village[6].

The implementation of autonomous prefectures aims to enhance equality, unity, and mutual assistance among different ethnic groups. The rights of ethnic groups were written in the Constitution of the People's Republic of China and Law of the People's Republic of China on Regional National Autonomy (Article 4, 2001Amendment). Ethnic Groups can manage their internal affairs in their autonomous area independently and enjoy the right to formulate self-government regulations and separate regulations[7]. Ethnic minorities have been increasingly expanding their political influences. In 1985, 60% of government functionaries were members of minority ethnic groups. Tibetan and other minority groups hold the principal positions in the governments at all levels by now[5].

Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve

Sanjiangyuan National Park

Sangjiangyuan national park located on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, it is China's first national park in Northwest China's Sanjiangyuan area, over the jurisdiction of 12 villages and towns, 53 administrative villages. Sanjiangyuan National Park known as the source of the Yangtze, Yellow, and Lancang rivers, covering a total area of 123,100 square kilometers. It is subdivided into three parts: The Source of Yangtze River park, the source of Yellow River park, and the Lancang River park. Over 50% of the park areas ensure national ecological security by providing water regulation as core in the eastern part[8], soil conservation as core in the central region, and sand fixation as core in the western part[4]. In terms of biodiversity, the Qinghai-Tibet plateau is home to 210 mammal species, 12,000 plant species, and it is famous for rare species such as wild yaks and snow leopards[9][10]. The plateau has 17 out of the total 18 types of grasslands in China. At the same time, The Sanjiangyuan National Park covers two internationally important wetlands, which are located in the core area of the nature reserve[9]. seven national important wetlands listed in the National Wetland Protection Action Plan, and two national aquatic germplasm resources reserves.

Land tenure arrangement and Institutional arrangement

Land tenure agreement

The underlying title to all land in China belongs to the state, including uncultivated land in mountains and other remote areas[11]. Given that Sanjiangyuan national park covers large areas and contains many villages with different land tenure, community and national park are likely to have conflicts. Separating ownership and the land use right, then partly transfer rights become the key[12]. Sanjiangyuan nature reserve bureau has the right to manage and use the land, and the local county government can local county government any decisions [what are you trying to say?]. The bureau of Sanjiangyuan nature reserve devolved authority over the management right to Cuochi villagers during the conservation concession program. Now the Cuochi Village has stewardship of the 2,440 km^2 land[13].

Major transformations timelines:

  • Traditional nomadic pastoralism for at least 5000 years. Grassland is a common pool resource[14][15].
  • 1949: Tribal feudalism ended, Qinghai overtaken by the communist people’s liberation army.
  • 1951: Establish the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Region (at the special district level). The autonomous region under the jurisdiction of Many, Nangqian 2 counties. Yushu County area by autonomous region direct jurisdiction
  • 1955: The Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Region was renamed Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, which has jurisdiction over six counties, Namely, Chengduo, Nangqian, Zhiduo, Zadoi and Quma Lai.
  • 1958–1978: Collectivism. People’s Communes established. the Tibetan tribes or communities owned grassland[14].
  • 1978- present: The state introduced a household responsibility system—Quasi-privatization of land and privatization of livestock[15].

Conservation Concession program

Conservation concession is an initiative that was developed by the Center for Applied Biodiversity Science at Conservation International (CI), and it aims to reconcile resource protection with development[16]. The approach's foundation is the mutual agreement between national authorities and local resource users on protecting the ecosystem for long-term benefits. The government or investor would pay the management cost to the local community. The conservation concession agreement signed by the Cuochi and the bureau of Sangjiangyuan nature reserve in 2006 draws the boundary of the village's land. It ensures the only legal title within the area. Cuochi had tenure and natural resources conflict with other surrounding communities in the past, where poachers from other townships came to Cuochi village to hunt wildlife[6]. The conservation concession agreement specified the community's management rights[13]. Cuochi villages have been voluntary practicing conservation for a long time. Mountains are culturally significant to the villagers, and protect the land and wildlife is rooted in their culture[17]. The agreement recognized their conservation efforts and allowed them to preserve the bonded connection with the land continually.

Cuochi villageres

According to the agreement, Cuochi villagers are responsible for monitoring wildlife and patrolling. In exchange for carrying out management responsibilities, villagers received payments periodically (20,000 RMB (3170 USD))[13], health care, pieces of equipment such as satellite phone (Cuochi's only form of communication), and electric fencing to protect their property from the bear. The conservation concession ensures excellent transparency for both sides. The community will receive a certain amount of the money periodically, and it's tangible benefits that can benefit the village. Moreover, the agreement is written in contract form, and it has legal protection; therefore, the payments wouldn't be affected by any unexpected conditions. From the government's or investor's perspective, the agreement has well defined the management criteria, the conservation efforts are easy to map and monitor. Lastly, this market mechanism for conservation assigned a dollar value to the natural resources and the conservation efforts.

Ecological Migration program

Immigration from rangeland to towns in some village in the Sanjianyuan National Park

Ecological migration is the movement of people who live in deteriorating ecological environment. Ecological migration is based on the assumption that grazing activity results in grassland degradation. Theoretically, the mechanism is to prevent anthropogenic impact on the grassland ecosystem. In some areas, the reduction of livestock results in better grassland conditions and area expansion. Ecological migration can be categorized by voluntariness and the scale[18], divided into voluntary ecological migration, involuntary ecological migration, overall ecological migration, and partial ecological migration.

Government-led ecological migration originally refers to gathering a highly dispersed population and relocating people to a new town to minimize human impact on the fragile ecological environment they used to live in. Some scholars emphasize migration could achieve multiple objectives[17]; people's prosperity should not be ignored. In China, headers, ethnic minorities often live in rural areas and under the poverty line; therefore, the policy provides an opportunity for poverty alleviation. The National Development and Reform Commission's Institute of Land Development and Regional Economics refers to ecological migration as the tool for protecting critical ecosystems, eliminating poverty, and developing the economy[18][19]. Ecological compensation is a vital part of the process. The central government is responsible for expenditure on negotiation with the eco-migrants, the government subsidies, including the new houses and monthly payments. The program helped herders move from nomadic production to large-scale and intensive industries[20]. Meanwhile, urban areas have more job opportunities, and employment is more diverse. The study shows the income of eco-migrants increased by 50%[20].People will be allowed move back to their land if the grassland condition improved. Usually the migration agreement between government and household is 10 years

Stakeholder and power analysis

Stakeholders Stakeholders type Main Objectives Power analysis
Cuochi Villagers Affected stakeholder - Cultural practices, self-education

- Improving livelihood

High importance,

Low influence.

Village committee and Friends of Wild Yak Affected stakeholder -Preventing poaching by organizing patrolling

-Outreach activities

-Snow leopard monitoring

High importance,

High influence.

The Bureau of Sanjiangyuan nature reserves Interested stakeholder - Maintaining biodiversity

- Grassland ecosystem security

- Watershed protection

Medium importance

High influence.

The Center for Nature and Society of Peking University Interested stakeholder - Exploring the species status and habitat

- Save biodiversity

- Traditional Tibetan culture conservation practice

Low importance,

Low influence.

Shanshui (NGO) Interested stakeholder - Connect the Tibetan TEK with the scientific community

- Connect the local community with policy-makers

- Connect the local community with outside society

Low importance,

Medium influence.

Plateau Perspectives (NGO) Interested stakeholder - Provisioning of social services including

health care and basic education

- Village clinic&school

Low importance,

Medium influence.

Cuochi villagers

Cuochi villagers have always been significant forces protecting the environment in the region. The research illustrated villagers' incredible awareness towards conservation, protecting the environment is rooted in the herders' heart. More than 90% of herders in Cuochi agreed that the most critical thing in their life is saving the surroundings, and It's the public's will to participate in nature practices. Further, more than half of the herders are overweight preserve environment than developing economy. However, before the agreement was signed, their influence was low because the public didn't recognize their efforts, and there is no legal framework authorized.

Village committee and Friends of Wild Yak

Friends of Wild Yak patrolling team

The village-level regulations were agreed upon to prevent illegal poaching from outsiders in 1998. The Friends of Wild Yak Association is a local force responsible for patrolling. Totaling three responsible teams patrol four times a year, each lasts for five days in the village's designated 17 zones. Meanwhile, the patroller also monitors the wild yaks and snow leopard population and report to the government conservation authorities. As a result, Poaching activities were greatly diminished. The FWY and village committee frequently hosts seminars and outreach to villagers to increase local awareness of protecting endangered species.


Shanshui conducted research and experiments to integrate Tibetan traditional ecological knowledge into the official national parks system, and then proposed the new management initiative to the authorities[13]. Shanshui foundation's object is to bridge the local community and outside society, providing alternative communication channels between different cultures. Tibetan religious and cultural backgrounds are unique. Informal institutions and traditional practices may seem strange to outside society and hard for mainstream society to appreciate. The NGO facilitates interaction, such as hosting seminars and tourism, to introduce Tibetan values and culture. One example is the Eye of the Community project[13], where teaches villagers to use cameras to video their lives and surroundings and then make documentaries for the public.

Plateau Perspectives and the Upper Yangtze Organization have been improved people's quality of life by provisioning social services. Unlike well developed urban areas, rural areas often lack basic education and health infrastructure. These two NGOs helped found the local school in 2000[21]. The village owns the school; therefore, they can decide whatever language and material they want to teach. Despite the education efforts, These two NGOs helped villages develop their healthcare system. Given that the country hospital is far away, it is not accessible for most of the villagers. Local leaders and the health bureau built the village clinic. Soon the clinic became the community center. Doctors and women's healthcare workers get trained through the Yushu integrated development project[21]. Western medicine is an excellent supplement to traditional medicine to diagnose and cure common diseases.

The Bureau of Sanjiangyuan nature reserves

The Sanjiangyuan National Park is under the jurisdiction of the central government. The bureau of Sanjiangyuan nature reserve is the local government agency that manages the national park. The department's establishment is to overcome the problem of "fragmentation" in law enforcement and supervision, where the existing management regime in natural resources management is unclear. The bureau has high power and medium interest. The management's objective is to maintain biodiversity and ensure ecosystem security and watershed protection[6]. Only 13 staff in charge of managing 152,300 km² of lands and the bureau seeks to divide management rights for better governance.


The Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau contains high biodiversity and attracts many researchers from various disciplines. The Center for Nature and Society of Peking University has developed the Rapid Biodiversity Assessment Program to explore the species status and habitat in the Sanjiangyuan region and save biodiversity. Another focus study is how traditional Tibetan culture prompts people's behavior to protect the environment. Resources serve a preacher that bridges the community and the outside world. However, their influence is relatively low.



The conservation practice is a win-win for local communities and the Sanjiangyuan reserve. The agreement shows the appreciation of the other religion and the cultural background and recognized the community conservation efforts. Government-led protection usually ignored customary rights and excluded the local people out of the conservation. The agreement shows the appreciation of the other religion and the cultural background and recognized the community conservation efforts. Furthermore, the arrangements draw the village's land's clear boundary and then ensure the only legal title within the area, which avoids conflicts between the landowners and the resource users.

The community becomes the main body of ecological protection, and broad community participation increases a sense of responsibility and effectiveness towards conservation. People now have the job title and the equipment to contribute. The FWY and villager committee provides bits of knowledge and recommendations for people who are not aware of grassland degradation so that they can participate. The data collected by citizen scientists will build the data capacity, provides a comprehensive and accurate assessment that benefit the future decision making. Unlike some other co-management models, people are not really in control of conservation decisions. The villager committee and FWY are involved in the decision-making process, and they will be consulted now when any decisions are needed. The combination of the conservation concession and ecological migration achieved ecological success: 6.3 million hectares of grazing land returned to grassland, both water regulation service and soil conservation service overall improved in SNP during the year 2000-2015[4].


Despite some grassland conditions improving by removing local residence in critical areas, the ecological migration program still shows very little improvement in some areas. For example, five families decided to move out of their traditional land with their livestock because the authority believes the grazing activities cause the yak population to drop. However, the wild yaks unexpectedly decreased in the following years[13]. With the absence of monitoring from local households, poachers can invade the areas.

The new home for eco-migrants in Miaomiao Lake Village

The major criticism of the ecological migration program is that the eco-migrants cannot adopt the drastic changes from pastoral livelihoods to urban life. Even though the resettlement improved social services such as basic education and health care, the overall living standard of eco-migrants is decreased. They have to face traffics, pollution, and cultural shocks.The officials failed to address the cultural difference. For example, toilets and showers were installed in the same bathroom in new houses, which offended the Muslims[22]. The government pays very little attention to the following policies. The migration leads to high levels of unemployment, and people are not able to find new jobs.

Future recommendations


  • Empower local communities by transfer management rights. Allow non-governmental organizations to provide technical support to the community and technical consultation for performance.
  • Scale up the new conservation model throughout the reserve. The central government should responsible for community coordination and supervision.
  • Consider diverse government subsidy options, help the local community develop small-scale business.
  • Government organize the conservation actions and supply sufficient equipment to local communities.
  • Develop a reasonable case by case concession and compensation standards.

Partition management

  • Stop assuming local communities are always the main causes of grassland degradation. Policies need to be evidence-based.
  • Providing social and environmental services for mobile Tibetan herders within their community, rather than relocate them in the urban area.
  • The relocation plan and compensation standards must be case-by-case to target different families with different household backgrounds and livelihood difficulties.
  • Develop strategies to help eco-migrants adapt to urban life.
  • Providing social and environmental services for mobile Tibetan herders within their community, rather than relocate them in the urban area.
  • Management strategies must be flexible. Apply different management strategies among ecosystem types, ecosystem services, and climate conditions


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