Scaling Up Institutional Innovations for Rangeland Co-management in China

 Since its inception, the Regional Rangeland Programme (RRP) has aimed at triggering a process of continuous learning and collaborative decision making among stakeholders, from local herders to policy makers. The major aim of the rangeland initiative was to help create an environment where stakeholders (especially ICIMOD partners) can take over the co-management process initiated. In China, this goal was achieved thanks to the expertise and passion of the strategic partners.  

Scaling Up  

Rangelands account for over 40 per cent of the total land area of China. The importance of these resources in supporting socioeconomic development, preserving biological and cultural diversity and providing environmental security to China has gained increasing recognition. For example, one study put the total value of goods and services provided by ecosystems (the bulk being rangelands) on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau at USD 138.7 billion compared to USD 0.25 billion from the combined annual GDP from agriculture sector of Tibet Autonomous Region and Qinghai Province (data for 2009). The vast expanse of west China is acknowledged by national policy makers as ‘ecological shelters’ for China’s national security.  

As with the situation in other pastoral regions of the world, the management of China’s rangelands has been facing two interrelated challenges: degradation of rangeland resources and poverty of the pastoral societies living on these rangelands. A diversity of factors has contributed to this situation. Among them a common but fundamental cause is the lack of an enabling policy and institutional environment that allows the active participation of the pastoral communities in the management of the rangeland resources. It is against this background that in 2004 ICIMOD started to collaborate with Sichuan Grassland Sciences Academy (SGSA) to promote participatory management of rangeland resources in Hongyuan County of western Sichuan Province through the Austria-funded Regional Rangeland Programme (RRP) which was also implemented in another five countries of the HKH region.  

Aiming at promoting the ‘co-management’ of rangelands by all the stakeholders with the pastoral communities at the centre, ICIMOD provided SGSA with formal training, exchange visits, and networking opportunities to build the awareness and capacity of SGSA in adopting participatory approaches to conduct rangeland-related research, facilitate changes, and implement government-funded programmes. In addition, ICIMOD provided technical and funding support for SGSA to build the capacity of the stakeholders and involve the stakeholders  (e.g., herders, local government departments, and research institutions) in participatory action research, technology development, and policy change.  

With such support, SGSA piloted rangeland co-management practices in Mewa Xiang (Township) and Qiongxi Xiang of Hongyuan County. Herders, researchers, the business sector, and government departments were brought together to collect baseline information, analyse problems, identify solutions, and carry out action plans on ways to reduce pressures on natural rangelands (i.e., by promoting sustainable management, developing fodder production, improving pasture quality, promoting new grazing practices, and producing seeds for forage production), increase livestock outputs (destocking plan), test alternative energy technologies and pilot innovative governance for sustainable pastoralism. At the same time, ICIMOD supported SGSA to carry out policy studies/analysis and promote policy dialogue on rangeland issues.

With the facilitation of SGSA, herders in the pilot area organized themselves into rangeland user groups and associations to jointly manage their rangeland resources and coordinate seasonal pasture use at the community level. At a higher level, Rangeland co-management committees were set up, which had a representation from rangeland users, county government departments, business sectors, research institutes, and other stakeholders to address intersectoral coordination and conflict reduction. Regular round-table meetings were initiated by SGSA that included the participation of different stakeholders including government officers from provincial levels. A cooperative fodder production base was developed by herders and SGSA that produced and supplied seeds not only to local communities but also neighbouring counties to be used for forage cultivation and pasture improvement. New technologies of rangeland improvement (e.g., zero-tillage techniques), grazing management, animal breeding and feeding, livestock product processing, and alternative energy have been developed with the participation of the herders and widely adopted by the pastoral communities. A participatory monitoring and evaluation system was also set up through which local communities, research institutes, and decision makers could jointly monitor rangeland conditions to readjust timely management interventions.  

However, the achievement of this ICIMOD-SGSA partnership does not end with the development of new institutions and technologies. A number of key changes can be seen on the ground. One of the most important changes is that ICIMOD partners including researchers and government officials started to accept the importance of community participation and to encourage collaborative action in managing rangeland resources. It has facilitated a better understanding of the socioeconomic and environmental realities of rangeland ecosystems and generated a greater awareness of integrated and participatory approaches among a variety of actors, from local communities to researchers and policy makers. 

“Through the implementation of these activities, a platform for co-management of rangeland resources was established, co-management concepts and approaches promoted and applied, capacities of stakeholders enhanced, and new modalities for participatory rangeland management developed. The most salient feature of the ICIMOD-supported RRP in Hongyuan is that it provided opportunities for herders, researches and policy makers to discuss pastoral development issues on an equal-footed basis. In the process of co-management, all stakeholders worked together to analyse problems and identify solutions acceptable to all sides. By this way, it has introduced new ideas and approaches for rangeland management. It (RRP) was among the earliest attempts in the Tibetan pastoral areas to introduce new models of rangeland resource management with huge success and tangible achievements. Even though the project itself ended several years back, we are still impressed by the approaches and achievements of the project” (Zebai, ex-Head of SGSA). 

The policy makers of China were equally impressed by the achievements of the RRP. The demonstration site received frequent visits by leaders from Prefecture and Provincial departments. In 2012, SGSA successfully got funding support from the Chinese Central Government to implement a Community-based Ecologically Pastoral Development Programme in the Tibetan Plateau to scale up the co-management concepts, modalities and technologies successfully piloted in Hongyuan into five provinces of western China (Sichuan, Yunnan, Tibet, Qinghai, and Gansu).  

“This new programme is more like an extension of the ICIMOD-supported RRP. We want to expand what we have learned from RRP in Hongyuan to other pastoral areas of western China to benefit more people.  

Success factors of the programme are to have the following major elements in programme design and management. 

  • Creating mechanisms and platforms for equal participation of stakeholders
  • Paying more attention to policy issues in rangeland management
  • Building the capacities of communities
  • Adopting holistic and systematic approaches
  • Making full use of traditional knowledge (Zebai, ex-head SGSA). 

With this programme, the impact of the RRP has sprung out of the two townships of Hongyuan County to reach a much wider region covering more than 2 million square kilometres of rangelands and a pastoral population of nearly 10 million located at the upper reaches of several major rivers of Asia.  

In recent decades, the Government of Chinese has invested hugely in the sustainable development of its vast pastoral region. The funding support from ICIMOD through RRP is miniscule compared to that contributed from the government. However, the new concepts and institutional approaches introduced by the RRP have without doubt broadened the options available to policy makers for more efficient use of the national investment and more sustainable utilization of the rangeland resources.