Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Development in Southwest China

University of Wisconsin-Madison NSF IGERT China Program

Trip report (Oct. 25-Nov. 12, 2003)

1. Rapid reconnaissance team
2. Characteristics of villages, households, and farmers interviewed
3. Cropping systems
4. Livestock systems
5. How people use the forest
6. Lessening the ecological footprint of the local population while increasing incomes through off farm income, education, and technology
7. Research Themes

1. Rapid Reconnaissance Team


Zhu Jianguo
Tony Ives
Wen Xiao
Jess Reed
Zhouqing Li
Bill Karasov
Annie Yang
Ed Friedman
Josh Posner
Ken Shapiro

Team approach:

  • Developed a common set of questions (see appendix I)
    --Description of farming system (crops, livestock)
    -How they use the forest
    -Off-farm income opportunities
    -Their vision for the future
  • Conducted one or two interviews in each village
  • Focus on livelihood concerns that impact the Baimaxueshan Nature Reserve, which was established in 1980's and recently (1998) expanded in WeiXi County .

Back to top


2. Characteristics of villages, households and farmers interviewed

Interviews were conducted in ten villages in Zhongdian, Deqin and WeiXi Counties (see Map)

Zhongdian County

Jidi (3100 masl)
Tumunan (3000 masl)
Jisha (3300 masl)

WeiXi County

Xiangguqing (2800 masl)
Xiachi (2600 masl)
Huaqing (2500 masl)
Kegong (2300 masl)

Deqin County

Dala (2200masl)
Dongshui (2300masl)
Baineng (3200 masl)

A total of 14 interviews were conducted in the 10 villages visited: two villages were rather large (>50 households) (Jisha, Ke Gong) and the remainder was small (10-20 households). The majority of the households included 5 to 7 people (one or two grand parents, two parents and two children). In two cases (Jidi and Ke Gong) the people interviewed were part of extended families that pooled resources. The majority of people interviewed were Tibetan. Only the village of Hua Quig was Lisu.

Back to top


3. Cropping Systems

Farms are small, and it appears that there is a bit less than 1 mu (667 m2) per person. Cropping area was generally 4-6 mu or about 1/3 ha (0.7 acres) per household. Common crops for the lower elevation farms (2200-2500 masl) are corn, rice and soybeans in the summer, and a winter crop of wheat on part of the farm.

The farms at higher elevations (2600-3300masl) don't plant rice but, in addition to corn, plant potatoes and turnips as summer crops, and barley, as well as wheat, as winter crops. Based on the interviews, we estimate the yields for these basic food crops to be 3,500 kg/ha for corn, 3,000 kg/ha for rice, 2,100 kg/ha for wheat and 1,500 kg/ha for barley. Potato yields were reported as 15-18 tons/ha. Other crops of importance include soybeans, walnuts, oranges and pomegranates on the lower elevation farms, and buckwheat, rape, chestnuts and apples at the higher elevations. Along the Yangtze River at Bansalan we saw the development of a new crop-table and wine grapes.

Interviews indicated that farmers rarely had grain for sale, and in fact we were told that some households in each village did not produce enough food to feed their families. Official statistics from the late '90's suggest it may be as high as one third of the households (reported in Xu and Wilkes, 2003). An adult (60 kg) requires about 225 kg/capita of cereal production, when combined with about 30 kg/capita of grain legume production to meet their basic calorie-protein needs primarily from plants. If we generalize the farm family to be 5 adult equivalents (4 adults and two children), farm size at 5 mu (with 3 mu that are double cropped), and an average yield of 200 kg of cereal equivalent/mu, one can estimate that about 70% of the agricultural production must go directly to meeting the family food requirements. This leaves only "30%" of the cropland production under good conditions to be dedicated to soybeans or fava beans, a household garden (vegetables, tobacco, spices, medicinal plants), a few fruit trees, and some planting of cattle feed (turnips, extra corn). The primary on-farm processing of food crops included brewing alcohol from barley and making tofu from soybeans.

Traditional inputs such as spreading organic compost, plowing with animal traction, planting local varieties, and hand weeding and harvesting dominate the crop production calendar. In the area we visited, swidden agriculture was not practiced. Although most farmers did not use chemical fertilizer, some were buying urea or an NPK mixture for their corn crop [about $11/bag (1 bag = 40 kg we think)]. It was interesting to note that the majority of farmers who did not use fertilizer primarily complained that fertilizer made the ground hard, and once it was used, they would have to keep buying it every year (is this fact or fiction?) In addition, growers talked about improved hybrids of corn (yellow kernel) and cold tolerant varieties of wheat and rice. Farmers suggested that these inputs could result in a 50% increase in crop yields. In Zhongdian County some farmers received fungicides from extension agents for their barley crop (perhaps as part of a package for marketing to a beer brewing company) and in Ke Gong a farming family did use insecticides on their rice. Near the Baimaxueshan Nature Reserve there was some research going on to intensify farming practices (modern inputs on wheat) and the creation of a revolving fund for buying inputs sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund with Global Environmental Facility funding (Bei Neng).

Back to top


4. Livestock systems

For all the farms visited, livestock were a crucial part of the farming enterprise. Unlike in eastern China where land is at a premium, much of northwestern Yunnan is a deeply dissected mountainous landscape resulting in vast areas that can only be included in the farming system via livestock grazing. There are five general types of grazing areas: 1) summer grazing on the alpine tundra above the tree line (4200 masl); 2) alpine meadows often resulting from historical burning in the forest; 3) the forest itself; 4) winter grazing on crop stubble and the village commons (usually found on degraded or poorly drained soils); and 5) the semiarid scrubland that surrounds many of the low-elevation villages along the Yangtze. All the farms visited had pigs (generally 2-5) and chickens (10-20). Small ruminants there were either goats (10-30) at the lower elevations or sheep (two farms with 30 each) at the higher elevations, and all the farms interviewed had cattle (<10). However our impression is that many families do not have cattle, especially in the lower elevation villages that had limited access to the forest and high summer grazing lands. At the lower elevations, most of the cattle were Bos taurus (ordinary cattle), whereas, at higher elevations the cattle were a mix of ordinary cattle, yaks (B.grunniens) and cattle/yak hybrids (Pinyon).


Livestock serve several purposes. In addition to an excellent source of protein (meat, eggs and dairy products), they are used for animal traction, their bedding and manure play a key role in maintaining cropland soil fertility and they are a source of much needed income. Although a beef market is just beginning to develop, a number of farmers sell cattle every couple of years (prices range from $180 to $400/head), while goats and sheep sell for $25-35/each. The cattle and small ruminants, however, require labor for summer herding at the distant alpine tundra, forest meadows and forest sites. This is developing into a constraint, and some farmers have either shifted to only ordinary cattle that stay near the farm, or they have developed mutual aid techniques and group animals into a communal herd (Jidi, Bai Neng, Hua Qing). Also several farmers spoke about livestock predation (sheep and cattle) by wolves and black bears. Apparently compensation for these losses is supposed to equal 30% of the animal's market value, but the funds have not been forthcoming from the Reserve.

The feed calendar for the large and small ruminants consists of about six months of summer grazing (May thru October) away from the home farm and then six lean months of grazing near the village. Farmers collect and store their crop stover (Lisu farmers, however, did not collect corn stover) as well as make hay from the village paddocks during the summer as well as collect palatable forest shrubs. In addition, they feed lactating cows and oxen some turnips and corn. Most of the large ruminants were less than 200 kg. in weight. These cattle would need about 900 kg. (dry matter in-take) during the six winter months. Crop residue production on our generalized farm (5 mu) would equal about 1600 kg/year. We saw few signs of livestock intensification with the exception of a large fenced area in Tumunan that was planted to artificial pasture and hayed intensively by the cooperating farmers (bluegrass, white clover, red clover, perennial ryegrass, timothy). We were told that in some cases animal numbers were increasing and high elevation pastures were declining in quality (shrub intrusion), as the herders were no longer allowed to expand the meadows or burn the grass.

Back to top


5. How people use the forest

In this visit we primarily focused on villages surrounding the Baimaxueshan Nature Reserve (see map 1). The Reserve is primarily in Deqin County (1700 Km2) and recently (1998) has been expanded to include parts of northern WeiXi County (500 km2). The Reserve is home to about 650 black snub-nosed monkeys. The interpretation of information mentioned below is made more difficult as the location of village forests, Reserve limits, rules in the Reserve, and forest land tenure rules were not clear. The Reserve includes about 7,000 residents, but villages along its perimeter with historical rights to the forest number in the hundreds. Within the Reserve there are core areas (where no interventions are allowed), experimental areas (where some timber cutting and NTFP collection is allowed) and then substantial buffer zones with relatively few restrictions. It was not possible to see clearly on maps the overlay of the Reserve and its land-use restrictions and the village forests. As a result we sometimes heard that the village cannot collect fuel wood in the Reserve (a core area?) and in others, there was a sense that the Reserve had only slightly limited their use of the forest (a buffer area?). Both descriptions are probably accurate and will probably change over the next 10 years.

Mushroom collection: The matsutake mushroom (Tricholoma matsutake) was collected in all the villages that were visited from mid-June until early October. Income from collecting varied greatly with some families reporting only $100 to $250 for the season and others as high as $1,500. Nevertheless, according to Xu and Wilkes (2003), NTFP collection accounts for 25-80% of household cash income. Families generally collect within the forest area belonging to their village, collect from sunrise to late afternoon before returning to their agricultural labors, and the most dedicated collectors allocate four or five days a week during the summer months to this task. (Those with less family labor, divide their time more equally between agricultural tasks and collecting). Fresh mushrooms fetch the best price (generally $3/kg, but occasionally as high as $50/kg) and they must get to Japan within 60 hours of harvesting. Middlemen come to the villages during the harvest season and quickly transport the mushrooms to Zhongdian where they are placed in cold storage and then flown to Shanghai and Japan . The villages at the higher elevations have a clear advantage in collecting mushrooms as they usually have rights to larger forest areas and are closer to the mushrooms. Other umbrella mushrooms are also harvested and sold by dry weight.

Medicinal plants : There is a wide range of plants and fungi that are collected in the forest and some are marketed. Some villagers indicated that they earn about $250/year from collecting in the forest and the highest value item is a fungus that colonizes insect larva (lepidopteran?)

Collection of fodder and bedding : All the farmers interviewed relied heavily on the forest products for their livestock and crop production systems. Parts of the forest are heavily grazed, palatable fodder shrubs are harvested for winter feed, and tremendous amounts of shrubs are cut and used as bedding, composted (about 6 mo) and then applied to the fields for soil fertility maintenance. We estimated 3-4,000 kg of shrubs/year (about 10-12 t fresh weight/ha) were transported from the hillsides and forest to the farms for composting. This would typically be more than 100 loads per year. Transfers of this magnitude indicate how important they are to the farming system, and undoubtedly have an important effect on forest under story biodiversity.

Fuel wood and construction timber: Fuel wood consumption in the highlands (>2500 masl) is nearly double that of farms at the middle elevations (1000-2500) and ranges from 20-30 m3/household/yr. In Deqin Prefecture alone it is estimated that 600,000 m3 of fuel wood is collected annually, primarily in oak forests. From the 1950's to late 1990's state logging companies' clear-cut and harvested fir, spruce and pine in NW Yunnan. Since the logging ban in 1998, local families can cut construction timber for building and repairing their homes but only with permission from the Reserve. The rule is one household in 30 can get permission to harvest construction timber each year. A Tibetan house, however, requires nearly 150 m3 of timber. It is estimated that in Deqin Prefecture , 960,000 m3 of timber is cut annual for local consumption by housebuilders. To put these numbers in perspective, at the height of the clear cutting by State lumber companies, 800,000m3 of timber was marketed annually in Deqin Prefecture (Xu and Wilkens, 2003). Ecologically, however, even more important than the volume of wood removed, is the difference between clear cutting (logging companies) and selective cutting (local communities)

Back to top


6. Lessening the ecological footprint of the local population while increasing incomes through off farm income, education, and technology

The team had the opportunity to discuss these issues with the Baimaxueshan Nature Reserve Director in Zhongdian (Xi Yingxiang) and Deputy Directors in Deqin (Xio Lin) and Tacheng (Li Hu), as well as a number of fellow scientists and villagers during our two-week field visit. The commitment of the Reserve to focus on conservation and livelihoods was very impressive. Some of the themes that they are promoting (along with other organizations-primarily NGOs) include intensifying farming activities near the villages (improved cropping and livestock rearing practices), reducing the dependence on fuel wood through improved stoves, biogas generation, and electrification, and the use of reinforced cement framed houses and fiberglass roofing panels to lessen the harvest of construction timber and wood for roofing shingles.

What follows are some additional observations:

Off-farm income options: During each interview we talked to farmers about off-farm employment. In more developed Zhongdian County it appeared that there were options to work in construction ($2/day) or with highway maintenance crews during the winter season. These options were less apparent to farmers in Deqin and WeiXi Counties . In several villages we encountered farmers who were also carpenters. Apparently it costs about $1,500 to build a Tibetan house and the carpenters earn $1.50/day plus three meals.

The Provincial and National Governments have high expectations that tourism will also create off-farm employment opportunities. With the exception of Jisha, however, none of the villages visited had any knowledge about developing tourism activities. It appears that for the moment, there are not any efforts promoting village participation in tourism activities around the Reserve.

Educational opportunities: Most of the villages we visited had a Primary School relatively near by, but attending Middle School would require the students to live in the Township Administrative village. The former cost about $10/student/semester and the latter about $30/student/semester. The High Schools are in the County capitals and cost about $350/student/semester. It seemed clear that relatively few families had much faith that formal education would help their children move off the farm into higher paying jobs in urban centers. In almost every case, only a handful of students had gone beyond primary school and of those that did, there were few examples of people finding work outside agriculture. The only vocational education school in the region was to train people to work in the tourist industry.

Remittances: Not surprisingly, in areas where few people can find off-farm employment, remittances appear to play little role in the local economy.

Energy, communications, infrastructure and markets: A number of villages did have electricity and in others, we saw hydrogenerators that were supplying energy to one or several houses. In most cases, in addition to supplying light, the electricity was used to run televisions. In all the villages we visited, we saw satellite dishes that received at least 10 to 15 local stations and in a number of villages cell phone towers. Perhaps most striking was the developing network of roads. From Zhongdian to Deqin and to WeiXi, the roads are paved and there are good dirt roads connecting the smaller villages to these main arteries. This combination of roads and communication systems has helped the development of the mushroom and livestock markets as middlemen can keep abreast of changing prices and location of needed products.

Back to top


7. Research themes

The Wisconsin team developed a small group of interdisciplinary learning team themes that could be addressed by Chinese and American scientists and graduate students in the upcoming years. Themes 1 through 6 were the output of the August 2002 Workshop in Kunming .

1. Biological geography and evolution of fauna and flora in the Hengduan Mountains

In this project the origin, differentiation, and adaptation of key botanical families to the extreme climates of Northwest Yunnan will be studied.

2. Interaction among fauna and flora in NW Yunnan

This project is made up of two important flora and fauna interactions. The first component focuses on the functional and particularly the nutritional ecology of the snubnosed monkey. The second component will look at the role of frugivors and seed dispersing fauna on the biodiversity of plant communities in the coniferous and broad-leaved mixed forest in Northwest Yunnan .

3. GIS database for research on biodiversity conservation and sustainable development in NW Yunnan

A GIS database will be constructed characterizing the spatial distribution of natural resources. This information will expand researchers' understanding of the patterns of spatial distribution of plants and animals over the landscape, and to evaluate the impacts of human activities on these patterns.

4. Application of biotechnology in alpine stockbreeding systems

This project will research the use of biotechnology (in vitro embryo production) to add efficiency in production of yak x ordinary cow hybrids that are productive and adapted to the harsh NW Yunnan environment.

5. Management of grassland to conserve cultural and biological diversity on the Eastern Tibetan Plateau

This project will focus on the processes of grassland degradation and develop strategies for the sustainable management and utilization of natural grasslands.

6. Forest and Land Policy: Their impact on incomes and biodiversity

This team would study current policies to (1) Assess the manner in which policies are interpreted and implemented at different levels of government; (2) How do the policies affect villagers' income?  (3) How do the policies affect conservation objectives?  (How might policies be improved?
Yunnan .

Themes 7 thru 10 were developed during the present trip to NW Yunnan (Oct. 25-Nov. 12)

7. Livestock in the forest: Impact on biodiversity and incomes

This team would look at a number of interrelated issues: 1) marketing of livestock and livestock products; 2) the role that large and small grazing ruminants play in forest biodiversity; and 3) the role of forage and bedding harvest in forest biodiversity and crop field soil fertility maintenance

8. Collecting Non-Timber Forest Products: Impact on biodiversity and incomes

This team would look at: 1) the biological issues of sustainable harvest of matsutake mushroom; 2) local forest tenure systems, Bioreserve regulations and sustainable harvesting; and, 3) the role of NTFP on family income and investment strategies.

9. Designing corridors for the snub-nosed monkey in the NW Yunnan

This team would look at re-establishing bridges between existing monkey populations through studying 1) the animal's nutritional ecology; 2) monkey social behavior; and 3) land tenure and income impacts on local citizens of changing land use patterns.

10. Education, Employment, and Emigration: Expanding off-farm income opportunities for the rural sector in NW Yunnan

This team will review the current situation and address the following questions: (1) What are the current enrollment rates, what are the costs, how do they vary across locations, how do they affect ability to attend?  (2) What are the employment and income potentials of greater education?  (2) What are the conservation implications of stagnant or greater emigration?

Back to top



Landscapes of Diversity. 2003. Edited by Xu Jianchu and Stephen Mikesell. Yunnan Science and Technology Press. The collection of papers presented at the 3nd Symposium on Mountain Mainland Southeast Asia . 608 pages

Jianchu, Xu and Andreas Wilkes. 2003. Biodiversity impact analysis in northwest Yunnan , southwest China . Biodiversity and Conservation. Accepted for publication March 19, 2003

Back to top

Back to Activities