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China’s forest privatization move threatens pandas

Giant Panda.

China’s decision to open up collective forest for sale by individuals to outside interests will put 345,700 hectares or 15 percent of the giant panda’s remaining habitat at risk, warns a letter published in the journal Science.

The letter, authored by a team of researchers including scientists from Conservation International and Chinese institutions, says that China’s land tenure reform will open key panda habitat to logging and conversion by allowing collectively-owned land to be transferred or leased to commercial enterprises. The letter cites a recent case where a timber company purchased 15,000 ha of forest in Chongqing Province.

“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,” said co-author Russell Mittermeier, a biologist who serves as President of Conservation International (CI), in a statement. “Sadly, it would threaten to deforest, degrade or disturb up to 15% of the remaining giant panda habitat.”

“The reform contradicts the great steps the Chinese government has taken to conserve the giant panda in recent decades,” added Li Zhang, a scientist with Conservation International China. “The government has designated 63 panda reserves which constitute over 60% of the panda’s remaining wild habitat, improved the species’ endangered habitats by reforesting or restoring native forests and restricting human access to these, increased the number and capacity of forestry staff in these areas, strictly banned hunting of the species, and pioneered captive breeding techniques. As a result of these efforts, the official number of giant pandas in the wild has increased to nearly 1,600 from less than 1,000 in the late 1980s. It would be inexcusable to reverse this great achievement for these majestic creatures and our country’s recent conservation efforts.”

To counter potential loss of panda habitat, the letter proposes an “eco compensation” program that would pay local communities an annual fee not to lease or sell the land for certain activities.

The proposal is not without precedent, according to CI.

“Eco-compensation is a new conservation strategy in which the Government of China buys back development rights from local communities in order to secure the continued provision of ecosystem services,” explained a press release from CI. “As part of eco-compensation agreements, communities establish contractual management systems that emphasize participatory decision-making and co-management of natural resources.”

CI says China has already spent more than $100 billion on eco-compensation projects to buy back development rights from local communities. For pandas, the letter suggests a rate of $70 per year for 48 years, which would amount to a total cost of $240 million to stabilize the current area of panda habitat. It estimates that an additional $2.25 billion in payments could boost China’s panda population by 40 percent.

Zhang said that an “eco compensation” program could offer multiple benefits.

“An ‘eco compensation’ program would reduce this threat to the giant panda and their habitat, while fulfilling the intention of the forest reform to increase local economic benefits by buying back certain development rights from communities within panda habitat areas,” Zhang said in a statement. “It is our hope that the Government of China will issue eco compensation for these areas. However with the current collective forest tenure reform policy, another option would be that civil society purchases those collective forests to establish community protected areas through such conservation agreements with local communities.”

The giant panda is classified as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List due to habitat loss and hunting. The species has been driven to extinction in Vietnam and Myanmar. In China it’s habitat — old growth forests — has fallen by roughly 60 percent since 1950.

Biao Yang et al. Eco-Compensation for Giant Panda Habitat. Science 1 February 2013: Vol. 339 no. 6119 p. 521 DOI: 10.1126/science.339.6119.521

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