China's efforts to conserve and grow its populations of endangered giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) are at odds with its own changing forestry policies, which could damage or destroy up to 15 percent of the pandas' habitat, according to conservationists writing in the February 1 issue of Science.

At the heart of the matter is a long-brewing reform of China's collective forest tenure system, which since the 1950s has put control of plantations and second-growth forests under local governments known as village collectives. As explained in a 2009 report from the World Forest Institute (pdf), the state owns all forests in China but villages can allocate the right to use small plots within collective forests to individuals and households, who harvest them for timber, firewood, food and medicine, all of which are vital to rural livelihoods.

Unfortunately, the collective forest system is no longer in synch with China's growing economy. The need for timber and paper has soared and state-owned forests (which are not under collective control) cannot keep up. For more than a decade China has been moving more of its logging operations into plantations instead of natural forests and importing more and more wood from other countries. About 50 percent of all lumber shipped worldwide is now destined for the Chinese market.

That leads us to the collective forest tenure reform. It will allow individuals to sell their forest-use rights to other private interests, a process that will allow large-scale commercialization in many parts of the country. The reform is currently a pilot project in 16 villages and could eventually affect 167 million hectares of forest in 20 provinces, including about 345,700 hectares of giant panda habitat representing 15 percent of the species' current range. "This change puts these vital habitats potentially under threat from commercial logging, increased collection of firewood and non-timber forest products by outside enterprises, and other commercial development activities," according to Russell Mittermeier, president of Conservation International and co-author of the letter in Science, in a prepared statement last week.

Most panda habitat is protected within 63 reserves, but Mittermeier and co-author Li Zhang, a scientist with Conservation International China, argue that the pandas outside those reserves could suffer under forestry reform. They propose extending China's existing forest ecosystem compensation policy—which has already compensated farmers $100 billion to convert farmland into forestland since 2001—to conserve giant pandas in currently unprotected forest areas. An investment of $240 million, they say, would preserve that 15 percent of giant panda habitat that would be affected by forest reform, while about $2.25 billion would help increase panda populations nationwide to 40 percent above their current level of 1,600 animals. As Zhang writes, this extension of eco-compensation would fulfill "the intention of the forest reform to increase local economic benefits by buying back certain development rights from communities within panda habitat areas." Mittermeier and Zhang are calling for either the Chinese government or "civil society" to make these investments.

Forest reform has a lot going for it. It could help raise thousands of rural farmers out of poverty and it has actually already helped increase forest density in some regions, according to a report last year from Resources for the Future (RFF)—not a bad accomplishment when deforestation is such a problem worldwide. But RFF also predicts that reform will pose regulatory challenges due to decentralization and make it hard to enforce logging quotas, which could quickly reverse that trend.

Other concerns still exist about collective forest tenure reform, including the fear of deforestation and of exploitation of rural farmers. Jintao Xu, a professor at Peking University, discusses some of the risks in this video.

China has done an admirable job preserving giant pandas and has increased the species's population by nearly 40 percent since the 1980s, but it would be a shame for this symbol of conservation to now suffer in the name of growing the Chinese economy.

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Photo: A giant panda at the Wolong Panda Reserve, Sichuan province, China. By Kate Barrett, © Conservation International. Used with permission