Professor Elizabeth Robinson blog from China

Professor Elizabeth Robinson in ChinaMay 2016

Here is Professor Liz Robinson's latest instalment from her sabbatical in Beijing, China.

Field visit:

Hosted by Zhejiang Agriculture and Forestry University, I have taken the opportunity of being back in China to visit the forests in Zhejiang province. This visit gave me some new insights into the differences between the forest tenure reforms that have been enacted in Tanzania and China, and opened an exciting opportunity for collaboration with the faculty there, particularly Professor Wang Lei and Dr Wu Weiguang.china9

Tanzania's focus has been on how to protect its forests from excessive degradation and encroachment without harming the livelihoods of local communities that have traditionally been dependent on forest resources. Tanzania's forest tenure reforms have devolved management rights and sometimes ownership rights to local communities, but not to individual farmers. In contrast, throughout China, forest tenure reforms have emphasized devolution of rights to the individual. China's farmers have been allocated areas of forest that they manage individually, whilst the state often retains rights over areas of both "economic" and "ecological" forest. In general, farmers have been found to increase both timber revenues and the extraction of non-timber forest products such as fuelwood, relative to the situation where the forest was managed by collectively.

china10In Zhejiang province there is little anthropogenic pressure on the state owned and managed ecological forests, and in parallel farmers have successfully increased their revenues dramatically, focusing on bamboo, pecan nuts, tea, and increasingly ecotourism. Yet though there is a general feeling that forest tenure reforms have been successful in their aims, in Zhejiang province there is insufficient understanding of the ecological impact of the reforms. I presented a paper at a seminar at Zhejiang Agriculture and Forestry University that demonstrated how we need to measure success of forest tenure reforms according to a set of particular criteria that encompass ecosystem services at the landscape level, including both use and non-use values, and the impact on livelihoods. The framework I presented resonated with the faculty at the university, and we plan to collaborate on exploring how the forest tenure reforms have affected ecosystem services provided by both the ecological and the economic forests, whether state or individually managed.

china12This trip was very much my "bamboo" trip. I was privileged again to see pandas in a nearby reserve enjoying some fresh bamboo shoots; most of the forests I visited are dominated by bamboo; and bamboo featured prominently in many of the local dishes that I was introduced to.

Tropical Biodiversity Conference:

I've spent the past week back in China, as an invited speaker at the Conservation of China's Tropical Biodiversity conference, hosted by Duke Kunshan University, linked to Duke University in the US. Though little of China is situated in the tropics, it is an area rich in biodiversity, yet relatively under-studied. One recurring theme that I was particularly interested in, across a wide variety of presentations across a spectrum of disciplines, was the need to understand and change behavior if we are to successfully conserve the world's rich biodiversity. The status quo, where people across the globe have prized ornaments made from ivory, hunted species for their supposed medical benefits, or gather resources unchecked from a nearby forest, is unsustainable. Urban and rural populations are growing, the demand for resources gathered from the wild has increased, whilst the habitats where these resources are found are shrinking and fragmenting. For the loss of species and global biodiversity to be slowed, even if not halted, changes in behaviour are needed across the board, from those living closest to reserves whose livelihoods are directly affected, for better and worse, when efforts to conserve resources are introduced, to those living far from the resources who purchase endangered species, creating the demand others to supply that market, often illegally. Speakers and conference participants addressed how to nudge the general population into contributing more to conservation causes; how to create incentives for resource-dependent populations to value and benefit from conserving rather than extracting from their natural resource base; to what extent we can to rely on "carrots" and "sticks" to change the behaviour of all those involved in and affected by species and biodiversity loss. The first day of the conference however, focused on conservation biology and ecology, and animal rather than human behaviour. Dr. Luke Gibson from Hong Kong University presented work on how animal species are affected by fragmentation, and in particular how they respond to forest edges, whether due to a river or agricultural expansion. Following the theme of animal behaviour, Professor Wang Linfa showed evidence of why bats in Australia have expanded south, changing their behavior in response to habitat change, with potentially devastating effects on human health. My own focus is on how to create incentives for people living near to reserves to change their behaviour, to reduce or eliminate their dependence, whether legal or illegal, on extracting resources from nearby protected forests. I consider both "carrots", such as alternative livelihood opportunities or payments for ecosystem services provided by an intact forest, and "sticks", such as forest patrols and fines and imprisonment for those caught violating forest laws. My presentation sparked a discussion of whether local communities can rely on "social fencing" - a sense of collective responsibility to protect a commonly held and used resource - alone, or whether and under what conditions formal deterrence, "fence and fine", is also needed. If outside pressures are removed from a reserve - such as people living some distance from a reserve coming to the area to hunt or extract illegally and sell at a distant market - social fencing is more likely to be successful. But even so the community as a whole must benefit from conserving rather than using the resource. Aleah Bowie, a PhD student from Duke University, focused on a very different aspect of changing behaviour, taking a "conservation psychology" perspective. She undertook an experiment that showed that how much people in various countries contribute towards conservation charities depends on how requests for donations are worded. Wording that suggested that humans are responsible for the loss of species, and so should now be responsible for protecting them, elicited greater contributions than wording that simply asked for contributions, and wording that encouraged empathy. We also had energetic discussions on how to change the behaviour of people who purchase items made from illegally hunted animals, such as elephant tusks and pangolin scales, creating the demand for others to hunt endangered species that continues today in many countries.


November 2015

November was a busy month which she shares with us in two instalments. The first talks about the Environment for Development Conference in Shanghai, while the second features her first field trip - to Yushu, in the Tibetan Autonomous region.

November in Beijing:

After a relatively uneventful October in Beijing, November was a busy month with the Environment for Development annual meeting; the Environment for Development (EfD)/Peking University "Policy day"; a fieldtrip to the Tibetan Autonomous Region, and my first environmental economics lecture at Peking University.

The annual EfD conference was hosted in Shanghai this year. It brings together many of the brightest and best environment economists to present their applied economics research, to network, and to plan new collaborative research proposals.

china3 The breadth of presentations stretched from wildlife management in Southern Africa through to the study of energy transitions, and climate smart agriculture. Professor Jo Albers presented research that I have been involved with, into improved management of marine protected areas in Costa Rica and Tanzania. She highlighted a lack of attention in the literature to elements of fisheries management that are critical in low and middle-income countries, including the relatively high costs of patrolling and enforcing regulations and thus the reality of incomplete enforcement of these regulations; the implications of protecting resources in low-wage societies; and incorporating and understanding the implications of imperfect labour and product markets.

Yuanyuan Li, a PhD student, presented her research into China's forest tenure reforms, exploring the extent to which the reforms have led to more efficient forest management - one of the key aims of the policy.

china4 The policy day focused on pollution and forests. I attended the morning session, which addressed China's well publicised pollution, and returned in the afternoon, as a panel member discussing the management of China's forests.

I focused on the clear differences between China and Tanzania's approaches. China has devolved much of its forest management to the individual household, whereas devolution in Tanzania stopped at the community level. It is not yet clear whether there is a "best" one-size-fits-all approach, but no doubt there are lessons to be learned from both approaches depending on the different benefits that the forests offer with respect to timber and environmental services, the scope for "elite capture", and issues of equity and access.

My colleagues at Peking University, the University of Dar es Salaam, and I will explore this in more detail, in a new piece of collaborative research between the Tanzania and China EfD centres.

I will write soon to update you on my first fieldwork trip at 4,700 metres on the Tibetan Plateau.

china5 In other news, I am British, so I have to mention the weather! In my first blog it was the pollution - which as some of you pointed out to me, was featured again on the BBC. This time it is the lack of Autumn, of which we had barely two weeks, with the leaves just starting to change colour, when we were hit by an unusually early November snowfall and suddenly, we were plunged into winter. The snow is just starting to melt as temperatures are creeping up above freezing.


Fieldwork at fifteen thousand feet:

In November, along with colleagues from Peking University and the Environment for Development Initiative, I visited the Tibetan Autonomous region to learn more about the livelihoods of the local nomadic population, who have traditionally grazed their yak herds year round, moving between summer and winter grazing lands, and who, for a few months each year, harvest the high value and totally bizarre caterpillar fungus.

china6 Yushu, where we landed, may not be an "authentic" Tibetan town. The original was decimated by an earthquake in 2010 that killed thousands, flattened buildings, and left 100,000 people homeless, and the town has since been completely rebuilt. But flying into Tibet, the altitude is certainly authentic. Whilst Yushu is "only" 3,700 metres, some of our group rapidly succumbed to the effects of altitude, whilst others felt invigorated by the clean mountain air and full of energy to learn more about the area's important and unique ecosystem and the people whose livelihoods are directly dependent on it.

My frequent co-author, Prof Jo Albers from University of Wyoming, and I, along with Prof Xu from Peking University, a number of his PhD students, and other colleagues from the Environment for Development Initiative, listened to the stories of local women and men telling us about their livelihoods, and how they share a landscape with bears and other wildlife. These communities have always lived in close proximity to wildlife, managing the grasslands sustainably. However, this delicate balance may be changing.

china7 First, successful efforts to increase the protection of wildlife species may be leading to an increasing number of human-wildlife conflicts. Villagers showed us different approaches they are taking to protecting their homes from bears, including the use of barbed wired fences, but they remain fearful, especially for their children.

Second, the Tibetan plateau is the source of many of China's major rivers, including the Yangtze, Yellow and Lancang. To protect this ecosystem, many herding communities have been resettled and allocated individual areas of grazing lands. The impact of these activities both for the ecosystem and for the local communities is controversial.

Third, the region appears to be warming as a result of climate change. This is most likely to be having a negative effect on grazing lands, and is resulting in rising snowlines and more extreme weather conditions.

china8 For a resource economist like myself, there are many exciting opportunities for research, such as gaining a better understanding of the institutions that govern the management of these commons; or in working with ecologists to develop bio-economic models of these complex human-ecological systems, that can contribute to the improved management of this unique landscape. I am particularly interested in learning more about the human-wildlife conflicts as described by the Tibetan herders that we met; and how best the region's renewable resources, whether grasslands or the caterpillar fungus, can be managed.


October 2015

In this post, Elizabeth Robinson, Professor of Environmental Economics at the School of Agriculture, Policy, and Development, writes from Beijing, where she is spending a sabbatical term as a Visiting Professor at Peking University's National School of Development. This is the first in a series of reports that she will be sending back to the University of Reading.

Elizabeth writes …

I arrived in China mid-August, fresh off the 28-hour train from Mongolia. This is my first "report back" with some initial observations - one of which is the surprising lack of pollution!

A little bit of background:

The idea for this sabbatical originated during the summer of 2014, when I was chatting with Professor Xu Jintao from Peking University at one of many environmental economics meetings that we both attend.

A formal invitation followed, the timing of which was ideal as it co-insides with The Environment for Development Initiative's annual meeting (China, November 2015) - a project that I have been associated for many years.

Jintao and I have worked together before. Most recently on my book, Forest Tenure Reforms in Asia and Africa, published by Routledge, and are now discussing the possibilities of undertaking some comparative research into forest tenure reforms in China and Tanzania.


First time in China:

This is my first visit to mainland China, and I am very excited to be living in Beijing. Getting here was a challenge. Do not under-estimate the logistics of work permits, visas, and finding schools for your children. My thanks to Jintao for helping with the logistics and funding, to SAPD and to my colleagues back in Reading for their continued support.

What will I be doing in China:

My main activities here at Peking University will include working with Professor Xu on forest management issues; teaching a course on environmental economics in developing countries to undergraduate students at the university; and more generally building relations with the university. I am also excited to have the opportunity to give some graduate seminars relating to the applied modelling that I use in my own research.

So what of the pollution?
When I was arranging my sabbatical the pollution was a recurring topic raised by most people and I did start to wonder, as Beijing is often in the news for its dreadful air quality. So I was rather surprised when we arrived in the city to blue skies, and the air continued to be relatively clear and clean.

How come?

Well, in preparation for the country's 70th anniversary celebration of the end of the second world war, the government had temporarily shut many of the factories around Beijing, and introduced an alternate-day driving policy. When the date was odd, cars with number plates ending in an odd number could use the roads, when the date was even, cars with number plates ending in an even number were on the road.

This was great for me, as the air was cleaner and the buses moved faster, but it was trickier for my colleagues who usually commute to work by car. Is this the best solution to reducing traffic congestion and the ensuing pollution? Would congestion charging, as we have in London, be a better approach? Would it be more efficient? Would it be less equitable?

Click here for the Environment for Development China's research into policy options to reduce Beijing's traffic congestion and related air pollution. Now that the celebrations are over, the smog and the traffic are back! We are still getting some sunny and relatively smog-free days, but I have been warned that as winter comes, more coal will be burned, and the pollution will only get worse.

Last week saw the start of the university term, the undergraduates are back on campus, and soon I will be doing some teaching, sharing with Professor Xu a third-year undergraduate course on Environmental and Natural Resource Economics in Developing Countries. In my following posts from PKU I will write more about teaching at Peking University; my first insights into the similarities and differences between forest tenure reforms in China and Tanzania, where I lived and worked for almost five years; and the joys of not having to battle the M4 each day getting between my home in London and my office at Reading.

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