This is a case study of community forestry on the Dai community in Xishuangbanna, which is an ethnic minority in China. Dai people have unique water cultures relying on the forest. They have used their traditional knowledge to conserve forests around their villages for more than a thousand years. Nevertheless, the frequent changes in land tenures and policies, as well as economic reforms and development have stroke their traditional ecological values.

This study aims to interpret the values of indigenous community forest management by Dai people, and challenges faced with by the full implementation of community forestry; with possible approaches addressing these issues.



Geography and Climate

Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture. By CIA via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture is located at the southern-western corner of China, as a part of Yunnan Province. The area of the Prefecture is about 19,700 km2, consisting of one city, Jinghong and two county cities. Jinghong is the seat of Xishuangbanna, villages of the study are mainly located at and around Jinghong. Xishuangbanna belongs to the tropical monsoon climate with a long summer and no winter. [1]There will be dry seasons and rainy seasons every year. The rain season is from late May to late October, while the dry season is from late October to the late May of the next year. The precipitation in the rain season is accounted for more than 80% of the annual precipitation. Because tropical climatic conditions occur over a small proportion of China's landmass, there are very limited lowland old-growth tropical forests with high biodiversity, and most of such a type of old growth is located at Xishuangbanna. The forest ecosystem and biodiversity in Xishuangbanna’s forest have a both nationally and globally significant. Xishuangbanna is included in the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspots and contains over 5000 species of vascular plants, comprising 16 percent of China's total plant diversity. Xishuangbanna has accounted for 36.2%, 21.7%, and 14% of China's birds, mammals, and reptiles, and amphibians occur in the region, respectively.[2] In light of the ecological importance and uniqueness of Xishuangbanna’s forests, forest management in this area is not only concerned by the central government in China but also receives attention worldwide.

Dai indigenous people

Representatives of the Dai indigenous people. By Brücke-Osteuropa via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

There are 56 ethnic groups in China, with Han Chinese has the largest population, and other are minorities. Xishuangbanna has a diverse composition of the population from various ethnic groups, including Dai, Han Chinese, Hani, Yi, etc. Dai indigenous people hold the largest proportion, for about 30% of Xishuangbanna’s population. [1]Dai people mainly live in plain areas at lower altitudes. Each plain is called “Meng” in Dai’s language. There will be several villages living at and around each “Meng”. Dai people live by a traditional agricultural system relying on forest and rice cultivation with a unique traditional forest management.[3]

Indigenous forest management

There is a quote in Dai cultures “Where there is a forest, there is water; where there is water, there is food; where there is food, there are people.” The quote interprets traditional thinking of Dai people, considering the forest as the keystone of a human society[4]. There are several ways of how Dai people preserve the forest, intentionally and unintentionally, merely to acknowledge Long forest, setting rules on Long forests and other harvesting behaviors. These are all unwritten customary rules as the consensus of all villagers.

Long forest

Each village would choose two specially preserved areas of forests around the village, “long man” and “ba-hei-ao” as the two components of a “Long forest”

All resources from a Long forest are sublime and inviolable, including timber, water bodies, all kinds of fauna and flora. Therefore, harvesting, logging, and hunting are strictly prohibited. Such regulations make the Long forest resemble a conservation area way before the concept of conservation emerged, and imply an erratic conservation behavior by Dai people because they are incentivized by traditional religious belief.

Before 1958, the total area of Long forests in Xishuangbanna was about 1000 km2, which could account for 1/3 of nature reserves in China in 1999. Dai people had successfully preserved the forestland for more than a thousand years until 1958’s Great Leap Forward, which blindly took the productivity as priority ignoring the holding capacity of the land.Other traditional management: in addition to preserved Long forests, there are other unwritten, customary laws in every village to regulate the use of forest resources to achieve sustainability.[5]

Harvesting rules

These are regulations set to preserve forests and achieve a sustainable use of forest resources, as an intentional conservation behavior.

Ecosystem services of Long forest

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) gives four categories of ecosystem services, provision, regulating, supporting and cultural. The ecological and cultural importance of Long forests under traditional management by Dai people will be examined based on these categories. 

Dai bamboo house-inner structure. By Daderot via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.


Provision service is the he direct provision of timber and non-timer products from forests, like water, food and firewood.[6]

Plant species Availble parts
Artemisia argyii Levl. whole plant
Alocasia macrorrhiza

(Lim. ) Schott

stem and root
Helicia erratica Hook. F fruit
Citrus auranticum L. fruit
Alstonia scholaris (L. ) R.Br whole plant


Regulating service refers to the benefits obtained from the regulation of ecosystem processes such as climate regulation, natural hazard regulation, water purification and waste management.[6]


Supporting service is the importance in the ecosystem, for example as the habitat for species or provides sites for pollination.[6]


Cultural service refers to the non-material benefits like spiritual enrichment, recreation and aesthetic values.[6]

Tenures and policies

Changes to Xishuangbanna’s forest tenure system are mostly tenure-related policies originated with the central government, especially before the early 1990s. [7]So the timeline will base on policies implemented by the central government, extracting those important tenure changes, forest policies and the development of indigenous people’ s rights on the site.


Current tenure forms

Because a traditional Long forest is a forestland around each village instead of a particular area, the composition of tenures on Long forests is very complex and lacking clear records of each village. Reference to previous case studies, there are three legal forms of tenures of a Long forest:

A point to note is that the real meaning of individual or collectively “owned” forests is lacked in China. Essentially, the collective forest ownership and freehold ownership is a concession. Because the forest administrative in China states that forests are collectively owned by all Chinese citizens. Villagers have the use rights to decide what to plant and what to cultivate on the land they have been allocated. They would have to follow statutory laws given by the government, for instance, the logging quota, instead of the customary laws they build themselves. The land is ultimately owned by the States. For the collective forest, the concession is usually 70 years; the community could apply for a renewal when the concession is expired.[7]

Stakeholder analysis

Affected stakeholder

An affected stakeholder is considered to have an innate connection with the land and earn their living by the land and will be affected directly, hence have a high interest

The village committee chair of each Dai village has high power and a high interest because they have the right to hold meetings and negotiate with the States. They are most engaged in the decision-making process compared with other villagers and have a certain level of power affecting the decision-making, as the representative of all villagers.[8]

The elders in the village have high interest but low power. These people usually have more traditional knowledge and beliefs. They have learned the skills of how to manage the forest and have more fear and respect to the sacred forestland hence a high interest. But as normal villagers, they have little power in decision-making.

Some young people and farmers preferring cash crop farming have a relatively low interest and low power. Although they might also grow up on the land, they have a weaker belief, or even don’t believe in the traditions at all. Some might place economic benefits above the forest and land preservation and show little care for the forest. Hence they might show a low interest in forest preservation although they are affected stakeholders. As common villagers not involved in the committee, they also have litter power in decision-making.[3]

Interested stakeholder

An interested stakeholder is considered to have an interest in the land but will not be affected directly, usually outside the community hence have a low interest.

Forestry department of the central government: The ultimate body who decide forestry policies. As mentioned in the tenures part, Chinese forest tenures change upside-down, following the order of central government. Hence the central government has a superior power in occupying the forest. But since they are remote in Beijing and rarely have interactions with Dai villagers. Prefectural forestry department is very similar with the central government, might show more care with some Dai governors, but there are very few ethnic minorities in the government at higher positions, so still with a relatively low interest .[7]

As stated in the description, the ecological importance of Xishuangbanna’s tropical forests has drawn global attention. And in the past decades, there are various NGOs visiting, funding and collaborating with local government with the forest management, including the Center for People and Forests (RECOFTC), World Wildlife Fund (WWF); Global Environment Facility(GEF), Chinese Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation(CBCGDF). They have an interest in preserving forests and Dai cultures but they are not directly affected hence a low interest. They might have a certain influence on the government and provide guidelines of community forestry, they are rarely involved in the decision-making or policy implementation process hence a low power.[8]

Academia, specially Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Sciences in this case has a similar case with NGOs. But the Botanical Graden might have a relatively higher interest because it is located at Xishuangbanna and local researchers might care more about the forests. Similarly, they could provide research and be referenced by the decision makers, but they couldn’t change policies without government’s permission. 

high power low power
high interest -village committee chair/members Elders with traditional knowledge and religious belief 
low interest -prefectural forestry department

-Central government/forest department of the states

-Younger villagers

-farmers preferring cash crop farming



Issues with community forestry

1. Centralization of forest ownership

As interpreted in the tenures part. Though there’re various forms of tenures, the ultimate ownership of the land belongs to the States. Strict regulations are also given on the owner’s behaviors. Essentially, the collective forest is more like a long-term concession. In order to expand the authority of forestry departments, the government has assigned considerable power to them for managing forests. The predominant power of forest departments has restricted the rights and functions of local government. However, governors usually have very limited field experience or understanding with the rural socio-economy and local communities’ needs, hence the interactions between forests and human beings are rarely considered when proposing or implementing new policies. The centralization of government gives Dai people very limited rights although they collectively “own” the forest. [7]

2. Lacking trust

Forest tenures and rights of Dai indigenous people have changed very frequently in the past half century as demonstrated in the timeline above. This instability results in villagers’ distrust in the government and less willingness to collaborate. At the same time, the government also lacks a confidence that indigenous people could manage the forest well and are unwilling to decentralize the right of making regulations by villagers themselves. [8]

3. Conflict with economic development

During the economic reform, local farmers were encourage to occupy more forestland and cultivate more cash crops to increase economic development. Forests generally contribute from 10 to 70 percent of communities livelihoods, but the revenues from forest resources account for less than 5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). What villagers gain from the forests could not support their income, and they tend to plant more cash crops to increase their revenue. A leading example is the rubber plantation, which have led most severe forest degradation among all crops. Rubber is easily grown but has a high market price. More Dai people started to plant rubber to increase their revenue. Villages started to have rubber gardens of as a concentrated area cultivating rubber for the whole village in 1990s. Some villagers logged the community forest illegally, using the land as private rubber gardens.[9]

4. Limited power of NGOs

Although various NGOs are showing an interest in Dai people and forests in Xishuangbanna, they are merely funding and advising on the project established by the government; while many of the social forestry projects don't cope with villagers’ interests. The direct interaction between Dai villagers and NGOs is insufficient which makes the NGOs lack an in-depth understanding of the situation and couldn’t give a more plausible approach.[8]

5. Descending knowledge

As mentioned, the Great Leap Forward and the Economic Reform has led to severe deforestation in the past decades. The traditional Dai agricultural system relied on forests and rice cultivation has been stroke. What Accompanied with deforestation, is the gradual loss of traditional knowledge of forest management and agriculture owned by Dai people. In the history, Dai people had an intentional regulations and unintentional behaviors, protecting Long forests to preserve forests. The loss of these behaviors deteriorate deforestation, which forms a undesirable positive feedback loop that deforestation and descending knowledge are affecting each other continuously. 


Under the current forest administrative system, it is impossible to change the policy entirely to let Dai people own and manage Long forests independently. But some actions could still promote community forestry, which enhances the collaboration between villagers and the government, as well as balancing between local people's benefits and forest conservation.


The Long forest has a very similar situation with the Jozani forest case in Zanzibar, where a minority traditionally owns and manages the land, and the forest has a global significance in biodiversity. Therefore, a similar approach could be proposed.[10]

Dai Water Festival. By Takeaway via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0

In the Jozani case, a national park has been established where villagers and the government manage the park and share the revenue together. In this case, because Long forests are dispersed small areas of forests, it’ hard to build a national park. However, Xishuangbanna Tourism Bureau could cooperate with Dai people, to construct various small tourist attractions including a Dai village and the Long forest around it, where rules and regulations are set by the government and the village committee. The government could establish a document listing these regulations, which converts the traditional unwritten laws of Dai people into statutory laws.

Dai cultures and traditions, the mysterious tropical forest and archaic tropical plant species could be the attraction. For example, in Mandan, which is a Dai village developing local tourism successfully, many households have held small businesses to provide hoteling for tourists using their own house, [5]the unique bamboo house. Dai people could also be guides to lead tourist visit tropical forests, and involved in their traditional agricultural activities and festivals, like the water festival.

With an increase in revenue, Dai people would be more willing to preserve the forests. The collaboration could also build the trust between villagers and government.

Other approaches


  1. 1.0 1.1 Xishuangbanna administrative office. (2018, June 20). Xishuangbanna Information. Xishuangbanna Government. Retrieved from
  2. Cao, M., Zou, X., Warren, M., & Zhu, H. (2006). Tropical Forests of Xishuangbanna, China. Biotropica, 38(3), 306-309. doi: 10.1111/j. 1744-7429.2006.00146.x
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Chen, J., Li, Q., Liu, H., Xu, Y., &Xu, Z. (2007). Investigation of traditional forest resource management of Dai people in Xishuangbanna. Journal of Anhui Agricultural Science, 35(19), 5844-5866. Retrieved from
  4. 4.0 4.1 Li, H., &Yan, Y. (2016). Xishuangbanna, Yunnan: Protecting the "green pearl" on the tropic of cancer. Xinhuanet. Retrieved from
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 Liu, L., Wu, Z., &Xu, H. (2001). The tradition and its changes of natural resources use in a Dai village in Xishuangbanna. Chinese Journal of Ecology, 20(4), 42-45. doi:10.3321/j.issn:1000-4890.2001.04.012
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Biodiversity Information System of Europe. (2010). Ecosystem services. BISE. Retrieved from
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 Zheng, B. (2006). Changes and trends in forest tenure and institutional arrangements for collective forest resources in Yunnan province, China (Forest Policy and Institutions Working Paper 14). Rome: Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 8.6 8.7 8.8 8.9 Colchester, M. (2003). Community forestry in Yunnan (China): The challenge for networks (Learning from international community forestry networks: China country study). Bogor: Center for International Forestry Research.
  9. Zhang, L., Kono, Y., Kobayashi, S., Hu, H., Zhou, R., & Qin, Y. (2015). The expansion of smallholder rubber farming in Xishuangbanna, China: A case study of two Dai villages. Land Use Policy, 42, 628-634. doi:10.1016/j.landusepol.2014.09.015
  10. 10.0 10.1 Menzies, N. K. (2007). Chapter 3: Jozani Forest, Ngezi Forest, and Misali Island, Zanzibar. In Our forest, your ecosystem, their timber: communities, conservation, and the State in community-based forest management. New York: Columbia University Press.
  11. Liu, H., Xu, Z., & Chen A. (1998). An assessment of the impacts of land Use on plant biodiversity in Xishuangbanna, China. Acta Phytoecologica Sinica, 22(6), 518-511. doi 10.3321/j.issn:1005-264X.1998.06.006

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