Pulling together for plant conservation in China

As conservationists, we often face conflicting interests between conservation and development, and between nature and humans. It is something I see often in my work with nature reserves and local communities in China.

You might be surprised to learn that plants are often at the centre of such conflicts, and there are four main reasons for this.

Firstly, the direct use of endangered plants by local communities represents a direct threat to plant populations. The use of rosewood and conifers for timber, golden camellias and orchids for ornamental and medicinal uses, and cycads for ornamental value are all good examples of this.

Community monitoring. Credit: Lin Wuying/FFI

Community monitoring. Credit: Lin Wuying/FFI

Secondly, human disturbance and habitat destruction devastates the natural habitat of many plant species, which may lead to extinction for particularly endangered species such as Magnolia sinica, and some fir species.

Thirdly, natural resources are often exploited by outsiders for high profits, resulting in declines or local extinctions of many economically-valuable species, such as ornamental, medicinal and timber plants.

Finally, relationships between nature reserve managers, local communities and local governments can often be strained due to historical land disputes, weak regulations and ineffective communication – all of which can make the situation for endangered plants even worse.

The dawn of a new era

For staff in many of the nature reserves Fauna & Flora International (FFI) works with in China, one of the most painful daily headaches is how to deal with local communities.

More and more nature reserve staff have started to realise that it is not wise to simply force local residents to follow new regulations or implement outright bans on harvesting natural resources, as this often serves to exacerbate, rather than solve, the problem.

Reserve managers have begun to understand that people need to live and they have rights to use the forest – even if sometimes they go about it in the wrong way.

With this realisation, the reserve managers began to think that there must be a better way to do conservation together with local communities, rather than working against them all the time.

Lessons for the future

Often, however, we find that the situation has deteriorated so far that managers do not know how to solve the existing misunderstandings between themselves and the local people, or how to begin involving the local people in conservation in a way that ultimately should benefit the communities themselves.

In order to help nature reserve staff improve their ability to interact and work with communities, FFI’s team in China held a comprehensive training workshop in Nonggang National Nature Reserve, Guangxi at the end of last year.

Abies-ziyuanensis population monitoring. Credit: Lin Wuying/FFI

Abies-ziyuanensis population monitoring. Credit: Lin Wuying/FFI

We hosted 28 trainees from 21 nature reserves, two representatives from local NGOs, eight community representatives and two government officials at this workshop. Eight experts developed and led the training activities and shared experiences from relevant case studies.

The workshop sought solutions to the issues I have described above by addressing several different aspects.

Firstly, we had tutorials on tools for community interaction, such as how to involve local residents, how to run public education sessions, and how to carry out community surveys. These tools were targeted at developing skills to better involve local people in conservation activities, to build communication between all stakeholders, and avoid misunderstandings.

Part of the workshop also focused on sharing case studies. We heard from people working on tackling human-nature conflicts by raising conservation awareness in local communities and reducing the local demand for natural resource exploitation.

Community survey workshops. Credit: Lin Wuying/FFI

Community survey workshops. Credit: Lin Wuying/FFI

Another case study focused on seeking alternative sustainable livelihoods for local residents by providing technical support and small grants which allowed people to diversify their livelihood activities.

There were also a few case studies providing evidence of successful sustainable use of wild plants, including FFI’s case study of the sustainable use of Chinese caterpillar fungus and understory planting of medicinal plants project by Southwest Forestry University in Yunnan among others.

Practice makes perfect

The formal courses and the real-life case studies inspired both us and the trainees to identify different solutions to tackle the conservation issues facing many endangered wild plants.

These were then applied in the final session of the workshop, which was real community practice.

The trainees and experts were divided into three groups to interview three local communities near Nonggang National Nature Reserve. They were asked to apply the tools and knowledge they had learnt during the training sessions to collect background information from the villages, including information on people’s way of life, their way of using natural resources, and the conservation threats to particular plants.

After the interview, the trainees broke into smaller groups to seek solutions for the conservation issues they had identified with the communities. Each group then presented what they had found, and the solutions or ideas they came up with to address the conservation problems.

Group discussion in field. Credit: Lin Wuying/FFI

Group discussion in field. Credit: Lin Wuying/FFI

These mini presentations led to some very lively and heated discussions among all the trainers and trainees, and it was interesting that the community representatives we had invited also actively participated in the group discussions, providing their point of view, which was very helpful to balance the discussions!

As a result of this workshop, FFI decided to hold a special public event ‘Plant Conservation Day’, to present the issue of human-nature conflicts to a broader audience.