Patterns of tree cutting and tree planting in Xiakou have everything to do with the broader political events and economic structures described in the historical essays; the patterns present a particular case study of farmers' involvement with the political movements. The when, where, and why of tree planting and tree cutting proceed from villagers' social relations, relations deeply affected by state policies and national trends. The cutting of a tree is an expression of an individual actor in the context of historically specific relations of production. Because trees are themselves part of the material conditions of production, the way in which they are managed is more than a symbolic reflection of how people think about their relationship to each other and to the land; 1

Other studies which look at trees as a metaphor for these relationships include van Beek and Banga (1992), Leach (1992), Van den Breemer (1992), and Ellen (1993, p.141).

 the existence or absence of trees will ultimately have real bearing on the future course of social reproduction itself.

This chapter will consider the proposition that in the Chinese context, the purposeful attack on traditional culture characteristic of the Maoist period and beyond was, in part, manifested as an attack on trees. It will explore the connections between the fact of economic hardship and tree-cutting, and it will look at current patterns of tree planting and cutting as a metaphor for people's view of their community and their own future by asserting that excessive tree cutting is associated with anomic tendencies in society. While these patterns of cutting have been clearly connected to government policies and other aspects of the specifically Chinese experience, tree cutting is also part of a more general 20th century pattern that has adopted a particular ideal of development as its central paradigm. 2

Ellen provides a useful discussion of how attitudes toward trees have changed with new economic opportunities in Indonesia (Ellen 1993).


In this essay we will review the historical periods introduced in the earlier chapters in order to detail the patterns of tree cutting and planting that people identified as particular to each period. In the Old Society trees were carefully managed. In the 1950s tree cutting slowly began to increase as the economy and society were reoriented toward "national construction." Tree cutting reached a climax during the Great Leap Forward, collateral damage in the confrontation with totalitarianism. During production team times "chaotic cutting" ( luan kan , luan fa ) was an endemic crime, a reflection of feelings of alienation, the economics of scarcity, and a vacuum of authority. On the eve of xiahu (1981 reform) localized cutting frenzies burst forth in a moment of ambiguity, as individual farmers broke with their communal past. Now in the late 1980s and 1990s tree cutting has settled into a pattern of "we steal from each other"-- a suitable epitaph for the disillusionment, greed, and lack of effective leadership which they feel characterizes the current period of transformation. While tree cutting has expressed the gloomy aspects of the different periods, tree planting has also been emblematic of shoots of hope. Some local collectives were effective at organizing tree planting to meet firewood needs. More significantly, since decollectivization the expansion of the area of natural forest is connected to the increased efficiency of the responsibility system, and new plantings of agricultural trees demonstrate farmers' resiliency and initiative in taking up new economic opportunities. We will attempt to give definition to the variety of current opinions on the topic of trees and change by presenting a series of case studies. The chapter will end with an exploration of the relationship between local ideas of good government and resource management.


Li Wanzhen was in her courtyard burning a small pile of grass. In the animal pen nearby her goat had just given birth and she burned the grass because, she says, smoke helps to clear out mucus in the lungs of the newborn animal. When we first asked her about the burning grass, she guessed that I, like other young people in the village, found it strange that she was burning grass instead of wood. "I often burn grass, even in my stove; we older generation people have different habits." She told how today everyone burns wood to do their cooking, but when she grew up in the Old Society, they had a different way of doing things. In the course of fieldwork we came to learn that in the Old Society Xiakou featured great forests and big trees, for which there were specific ideas of how they were categorized and how they were managed. That system and those trees have now all but vanished.

Although in the Old Society there were forests and trees all around Xiakou, they never cut the trees for firewood. Instead, they would burn in their stoves the tall grass called "fur grass" ( mao cao ) that grew under the trees and at the edges of the fields, supplemented with odd brush and crop residues. Wood was only burned for feasts, or perhaps if a family had visiting guests. Nevertheless, most families in the village had their own "mixed forest" land. These were "natural" mixed deciduous woodlands with a variety of trees including birch, chestnut, oak, cherry, walnut, acacia, pawlonia, and many more. While the trees in these forests were mainly self-seeded, they were also managed. The crooked and crowded saplings would be cut for fuel, and destructive vines kept down. On special occasions when a tree was to be cut, if there were no natural saplings ready to fill in the canopy, a choice tree seedling would be transplanted to the spot and established before the old tree was taken down. Mixed forests were thus allowed to mature while at the same time they provided brush-wood that could be burned in the stove, sold as firewood to Ya'an city for extra cash, or made into torches to use or to sell.

In the Old Society the edges of the cropland were lined with planted rows of trees, helping to demarcate property lines. The preferred tree for this purpose was the Chinese fir tree, but birch trees and acacia were also used. Fir trees were also grown in larger stands on steep hillsides and around grave yards. There are many varieties of Chinese fir in Ya'an, but in the Old Society, it was the "fragrant fir" species ( xiangsha ) that was preferred for such plantings. They were slower in growth than the cold fir and water fir varieties which are used more often today, but the quality of the wood of the fragrant fir is considered superior. They also had another advantage; unlike the other varieties, the fragrant fir will sprout from a cut stump. After a tree is harvested, the root will send up many young shoots. The bulk of these shoots can be harvested as brush-wood, while one or two of the shoots would be selected to replace the original tree that had been cut down. The big trees in the mixed forests ( zalin ), and those that used to be planted along the edges of the cropland ( biandi ) and on steep hillsides ( lindi ), provided timber for special purposes only. Regarding these trees the old farmers tell of an explicit ethic in the Old Society: if one cut a tree, one made sure it was replaced with a sapling.

In general, the habit was for families to cut at most one big tree at the New Year festival when they killed the New Year's pig, or when the family planned the feast for a marriage. In addition, a tree might be cut to add a room to house in an expanding family (more rare then), or to build new furniture for a daughter's dowry. Even here, however, they underline the greater frugality of days past. In the Old Society their houses tended to be very small 3

old "superstition" encouraged them never to build over one zhang plus in height, for if they went over that height it would be difficult to become rich.

 to conserve wood, and if they had extra money they preferred to buy more land rather than build a big house. Back then, they say, a tree was not cut unless it had reached climax growth and "would grow no larger;" whereas today when a sapling reaches a diameter of six or eight inches someone will cut it down. They point out that the cutting of climax trees was good for the forest since it was rejuvenating; not like today when cutting is destructive to young seedlings and to the forest generally.

In Xiakou the older people comment that their elders rarely sold timber. Even the opium addicts were noted for having sold off their families' forest land, but not the big trees from the land. This in spite of the fact that some market did appear to exist for timber. In the past, Xiakou was referred to as "Wu Dian Zi " meaning the "Wu's lodging house." This is because some of the Wus used to give overnight lodging to farmers from the distant villages of Shangli when farmers there made the long journey to Ya'an city. Farmers from these distant villages normally took a day and a half to walk to Ya'an city, and Xiakou presented an appropriate place to break their journey. These villages are quite remote and had very extensive natural forest lands. Farmers from these remote locations cut timber to sell and would carry the logs on their backs to market them in Ya'an city. One of the oldest men in Xiakou was said to have been a timber middleman in those times, managing the working of such logs into boards and reselling them. Nevertheless, the people of Xiakou, although much more convenient to Ya'an, claim that they never sold their own trees in this market.

In addition to mixed forest land and the trees planted on the edges of cropland, there were and are " feng-shui " trees, used in landscaping the areas along roads, and around houses and graveyards. In Xiakou they tend to be beech trees, maniu trees, and other trees that have a heavy stately appearance, but there are no strict guidelines as to variety. Rather, the feng-shui trees are a category of tree planted or self-seeded which are appreciated for their aesthetic and practical value in stabilizing and improving or channelling the positive energy flows, because the influence of such energy flows are considered essential determinants of a family's fate. Both feng-shui trees and long-lived agricultural trees were said to be planted by one generation for the intentional benefit of later generations who enjoyed the trees at maturity. On several occasions we heard people make mention of an old beech tree that used to stand at the back of Xiakou village. It was an important feng-shui tree for the village, and, although this tree has been gone for twenty-years, it still features prominently in people's memories.

In the past, as today, a wide variety of agricultural trees were planted and maintained by villagers in the area; the only difference between then and now is that in the past, it is implied, such trees were better protected and more respected. Trees planted in the region include grapefruit, orange, tangerine, peach, apple, and crab apple, medicinal trees grown for their bark (especially huang bei ), mulberry trees grown for the leaves, and several nut trees, the most important of which is chestnut. Many of these agricultural trees are today planted in house yards and in vegetable gardens, but even so, people complain that it is difficult to get the fruits from the trees before they are carried away by children. Bamboo is not cultivated in Xiakou, but in many other nearby villages it is, and for some villages it has long been a mainstay of their economies. A particularly important agricultural tree was and is a special palm whose trunk fibers are woven into padding for beds, pack-baskets and other items; whose leaves are used to make bindings; and whose roots can be eaten in times of famine. In the Old Society there was a saying about this palm tree that reveals the changing relationship of farmers to the land: "plant a hundred palms and your children will never have to sell their labor." Whereas the old ethic was to build one's fortune by keeping to the land and remaining independent, today young people are more often eager to get away from the land and join the market economy.

Old Society is remembered for specific practices that conserved forests and trees; the new society is remarkable for the fact that trees are usually cut when very small and the formerly rich mixed forest lands and border plantings have been "cut bald" ( kan guang ). Where the mountain slopes in the Ya'an countryside used to be a panoply of color as the various trees bloomed, turned green and then yellow in their time, now people comment that "the hills have turned red" as soil increasingly becomes exposed to the elements. Into the late 1960s people in Xiakou could still see wild jackals and leopards, a dozen species of deer, "forest cow," and wild goats; these are all gone now. Around Xiakou, the areas that used to be mixed forest have been replaced by grasslands, and the nutritious grasses among them used to feed goats; but more and more, worthless reeds and irises dominate. Some trees are still grown in the croplands, especially on poorer lands high-up, but significantly fewer trees are grown than before. Even the croplands themselves have shrunk in size due to the constrictions of roads and canals and to rock quarrying. While there has been some natural regeneration of seedlings and some plantings of trees in these grassy areas, tree leaves are preferred fodder for goats, so wild saplings are cut down early. Those who plant trees or cultivate orchards complain that trees and fruits are stolen before the proper owner can make his own harvest, so tree farming is considered a risky effort at best.

Against this background, it is quite remarkable to hear descriptions of what the area looked like in the Old Society and to recognize the affection old timers had for big trees. Older farmers emphasize the size and beauty of the trees that surrounded the village and covered the slopes. Descriptions of the natural landscape create a unique local identity for which there was obvious pride. "How big are your trees in America ?" we were asked. We gave a show with our hands of an average big tree that might have grown in my local woods and it was greeted with a "huh, nothing much, not like what we had."

What happened to destroy this old landscape and the conservative habits of its people? Why do people use more firewood today in a time of scarcer timber resources, when they burned grasses in a time when the trees were abundant? How did these changes unfold in the span of a single lifetime? To answer this question, tree cutting needs to be placed in its political, economic and most of all historical context.


The 1950s

Even before the Great Leap Forward people began to cut more trees than they had in the past. They say in the 1950s tree cutting was "encouraged by the government to help develop the collective economy." Ya'an city was then the capital of Xikang Province and the beneficiary of a policy that targeted "backward areas" for development. The government sent many people to live in Ya'an at this time. The agricultural department of Sichuan University was removed from its parent institution in the larger city of Chengdu and set up in Ya'an, and local public service bureaus were expanded. Because the Ya'an countryside had supplied its fair share of Red Army soldiers who now held positions of power in the central government, and because Ya'an had played host to an early communist rural soviet, the area was considered an "old revolutionary base" nudging it higher still on the list of priority areas for public works and development projects. After 1956 cutting trees would have expanded the black ink of the newly formed cooperatives, and additional supplies of wood were in demand for burgeoning public works projects. Nevertheless, tree cutting does not feature prominently in the memories of life before the Great Leap Forward, and the thick forests still stood.

The Great Leap Forward

All over Sichuan , people in the countryside will soberly gesture with their hands, pointing at vast tracts of land cut during the Great Leap Forward, particularly 1958 and 59. It has been frequently documented that large amounts of forest were cut in order to provide fuel for the "Backyard Steel Furnaces" that were the centerpiece of the absurd effort to raise in fifteen years Chinese steel production to levels surpassing England and the United States , but the story does not end there. Locals also speak of other reasons why trees were cut. Furthermore, having provided some picture of what people say the trees meant to them in the Old Society, the encounter with tree-cutting during the Great Leap Forward can, we hope, be seen more three-dimensionally.

In Xiakou the fragrant fir trees that bordered the cropland were cut and their roots dug out so they did not grow back. On the hillsides the larger plantations of fir trees were also cut down, as were some of the mixed forests on the lower slopes. The forest at the edges of the village were cut, and since then the village has extended houses onto this area. Perhaps most ominous in villagers' eyes was the cutting of the great fir trees that grew on the island in the river around the graves of the Wu ancestors. On the higher slopes the forest remained, and lower down individual feng-shui trees had been left standing.

These trees were not cut by outsiders, but by the people of Xiakou themselves. They did not have a steel furnace in Xiakou; they cut trees to meet targets given them by the commune. Whether or not the commune even tried to produce steel is irrelevant, because most of the logs cut for these targets were never collected; they lay on the ground and rotted. Nevertheless, locals are more likely to talk about all the trees cut for the cafeterias-- both their own cafeteria and the commune's-- than for steel production. During the Great Leap Forward "every day was a feast day," and they cut big trees to feed the giant woks used to prepare the great amounts of food needed to feed several hundred people at once. Big meetings that went well into the night had bonfires to help keep everyone warm. It seemed that every mass activity consumed massive amounts of wood, and the forest fell to fill the need. Perhaps there was a moment when they thought they might "invest" their trees as they invested their food in the great transformation the Great Leap promised, but they are quite adamant on one point: they were made to do it. Pam asked Wu Wenzhen how people felt when cutting the local trees, did they believe...? She answered with exasperation, "ah, you have not understood what I have told you about that! You could not open your mouth. You could not speak. The people did what the cadres wanted."

The direct impact of the Great Leap Forward varied greatly among the local villages. In Ya'an County villages exhibit a high degree of local variation due to geographical as well as political factors. The mountains rise so steeply that the main crop in one village is inappropriate for the very next village a few kilometers away. Some villages sit on public roads with convenient access to Ya'an; others require long walks of several hours on steep grades before they reach the public roads and government seats. Some villages have demonstrated ability to organize cooperative projects independent of higher government leadership, while others have a poorer record in this regard. The Great Leap Forward and the accompanying famine thus had a very different impact on these various villages.

In the Zhongli district, locals say that trees were not cut for the "backyard furnaces" and in most of that area the big forests were still standing in the early 1960s. This was because the new public road had not yet reached the area. It would not be correct, however, to say the Great Leap Forward did not effect their trees. In one very remote part of the area we visited, for example, a local farmer showed us a very large tract that was clear cut during the Great Leap Forward in order to fuel a small factory that produced Chinese medicine. He admitted the factory was a success in its own way, it had earned some money, but he was not happy about the incredible rate at which it had consumed the local trees. He considered it a bad mistake and a tragic loss.

Although most of the forest in the Zhongli district escaped from the Great Leap Forward intact, there was nonetheless a delayed impact of a more subtle sort. Because so many other areas were deforested during the Great Leap Forward, in subsequent years more outside people travelled to Zhongli in search of timber. After the houses in Xiakou burned down a second time in the 1970s, Wu Guangxing went to Shangli to buy trees for the rebuilding; Xiakou was not able to supply its own needs for timber. The people of Zhongli say cutting in their areas was particularly severe when outsiders came and took their trees (mostly for firewood) when the government ceased to function during the Cultural Revolution.

The way individuals view the landscape around them is a function of social conditioning. For people in Xiakou, the landscape is an element of dramatic importance to their sense of identity. When we first climbed Qian Jia mountain we were surprised to find that the local inhabitants greeted me in encounter after encounter with the simple question, "have you ever climbed a mountain as high as this one before?" People wanted to know about the geography in the land from which we had come. They see the economic conditions of their lives as defined by their being people from a "mountain district" ( shan qu ). Other basic life categories, such as gender relations, are also defined in terms of the landscape where men normally remain in their home villages after marriage, while women move from higher up in the mountains toward lower down the valley.

When people in this region describe their landscape, the markers to which they refer are heavy with cultural significance. Belief in feng-shui provides a dynamic framework for the relationship between humans and their environment. When Wu Guangliang sat down to provide a description of what his valley looked like in the Old Society, he began with a verbal map of where the different temples and shrines had been. Such temples and shrines tend to be situated on natural boundaries and places of prominence (ming tang), the specific configuration of mountains and water being of prime importance. The attention and importance attached to the quality of particular lays of the land heightens the sense in which every location can be considered unique. This sense of unique local identity is further developed by the temples and shrines dedicated to an endless variety of popular gods, from national historical heros with their narrative mythologies to local gods whose only defining feature is their association with a particular place, and by more personalized attachments to the graves of one's ancestors.

Trees play an important role in beliefs about feng-shui and thus are also a critical element in defining the local identity. After Wu Guangliang described the positions of the shrines and temples of old, he moved to a description of the placement of important feng-shui trees of the past. From a psycho-symbolic point of view as well as from an economic viewpoint, the tree cutting of the Great Leap Forward created a critical break with tradition; the doors were thrown open and people of necessity had to grasp for a new way. The change from a family-based to a collective economy had a tremendous impact on tree resources. The rules and social relations that had once underpinned sustained forestry disappeared along with the Old Society itself. The class relations which helped hold exploitation in check during the Old Society were reversed. As trees became public rather than private property, the incentive to conserve gave way to the incentive to exploit. With the apparent guarantee of a livelihood from the state, the "insurance" function of trees became unnecessary, obsolete-- even `backward' and selfish.

Local identity in the Old Society was constructed in no small part on the foundation of a particular landscape, and trees were significant in that landscape. With the Great Leap Forward, the old identity was shaken at its foundation. In a very concrete way, tree cutting expressed and galvanized a new identity for the people of Xiakou. Deforestation in the 1950s embodied the sacrifice of localism and local identity, characteristic of the Old Society, to the nationalism and national interests of New China. Trees were an integral part of the old economy and identity, and they were ripped out in an effort to create a new economy and identity. The effort did not just fail; it was catastrophic, and the results irreversible. With half the village dead and the landscape torn asunder, there was little comfort, and no point, in looking back.

The Production Team

During production team times tree cutting continued under somewhat changed circumstances. The cafeteria was discontinued and people went back to burning more crop residues and fewer big logs, although wood continued to be much more important in the cook stoves than before. Tree cutting went on in the name of national construction and people lump the Great Leap Forward with the production team in the extravagant way trees were cut throughout the period. The production team was better than the Great Leap Forward, however, since there was relatively more freedom of movement and the projects for which the trees were cut were better planned. Nevertheless, the production team heralded a new phase: the era of tree stealing. Since trees were no longer private property they were more poorly managed and watched over. The old system of family networks and tea house arbitration which had safeguarded them no longer functioned to protect them. Now with the village eating from a "common pot", intra-village conflict over the procurement and selling of trees became a distinctive feature of village stories from the period of the production team.

Two public works projects in particular effected the trees of Xiakou. The construction of the irrigation canals in 1965-68 and 1971-76 had a dual purpose: they allowed farmers in the villages below Xiakou to irrigate land that had formerly been rain fed-- that is, they created paddy out of dryland, and they channelled water to be used to generate electricity in the off-seasons. To build these canals, a large number of workers (over 300) including many "sent-down youth" came to camp on the hillsides above Xiakou where they remained for all those years. They burned a significant amount of wood in their camps, and locals now recall with regret how no one regulated these workers' tree-cutting.

While we have heard people in Xiakou praise this project as something good for farmers, nowadays one also finds resentment. In collective times the costs of this project were probably not so readily discernable-- all was a common property and the government assumed ultimate responsibility making sure people had food to eat and clothes to wear. Today people's relationship to the land is closer once again. The connections between the quality and quantity of the land and the welfare of a household's economy is immediate and tangible. The people of Xiakou now know they paid the price for the improvement of land and the provision of electricity for people who live downstream. The trees that were cut, the land through which the canal passes that was taken out of production, and the soil that has eroded as a result of leakages are their canal is their legacy. Downstream, where people are wealthier in any case, they get the advantages; in Xiakou they pay the costs.

A second construction project of the period was the building of the public road through to the Zhongli district. This project had an immediate impact on the trees, but the long run impact is perhaps even more significant. This project, managed by the transportation bureau, cut a lot of trees to widen the old footpath, which diminished both the cropland and forest land of Xiakou . The bureau took the trees they cut for the most part, but we saw in the production team chapter how local tensions were fuelled when some of the bounty found its way into the village. More important than the trees they cut in building the road is the fact that the new accessibility to Ya'an, in tandem with the developments taking place in that city, increased opportunities for selling wood and timber. Even today remote villages in the Ya'an countryside weigh the convenience of having a vehicle road to their villages against the depletion of local resources that they have learned will accompany such improvements. While locals come out solidly in favor of building public roads to their villages, they also have learned the trade off: a road means the government and outsiders will come and take resources away, and it means locals will sell more.

Besides the trees taken by the state, the production team period is rife with stories about individual villagers stealing trees from the collective forest and even from each other's houses. Even though the economy in this period was collective, extra wood could be used to expand a house (useful in attracting a good daughter-in-law) or build furniture (useful in making a good wedding for a daughter). In addition, firewood, whether consumed oneself or sold on the black-market to outsiders, could always make life more pleasant. The central irony was that while tree cutting on a private basis was prohibited, the government work units in and around Ya'an increasingly bought wood from individuals to fuel their industries. Times were hard and peasants were poorer and poorer as the collective system dragged on into the 1970s. Families, on the other hand, were becoming larger and larger as China experienced a baby-boom. From the production team chapter it should be clear how the issue of tree theft fed into intra-village conflict. On many occasions such tree cutting was explained to me in terms of the families having many young mouths to feed or sons to marry in times where few alternative incomes were available.

During the Cultural Revolution tree cutting became particularly severe in some locations. Tree cutting was associated with the general "chaotic" character of society at that time-- no one was in control managing basic affairs. In many areas people took advantage of the chaos to travel to other villages and cut trees with impunity. Because the order of the day during the Cultural Revolution was to destroy old cultural relics, emblems of China 's feudal past, the traditional forest reserves around local temples were particularly hard hit, but, as one story shows, some of the blows struck even closer to home.

Pam was visiting an older woman in the village trying to coax her into telling me about feng-shui . She was reluctant, wary from years of trouble over appearing "feudal." She began by asserting that life was all "hard work and bitterness," implying that she knew better than to think that where you build your house will determine your fortune in life. When Pam asked if there was a feng-shui expert in the village, however, she began to let her emotions show, "no we don't have anything here, nobody to manage anything ( meiyou ren guan, saze dou bu guan )." She then told her about a big and beautiful beech tree that used to be an important feng-shui tree for the village, until one of the young men of the village cut it down and sold it. Pam asked if anyone had raised an objection to his action and she replied,

who is going to raise an objection. He said, ` feng-shui tree, what is that? Who believes in that? It has no meaning.' Tell me who is going to raise an objection. This mountain here has been cut bald and no body pays attention, nobody stops it.

Her resentment today is still strong, but at that time raising objections opened one to accusations of being feudal, and so she didn't dare object.

During production team times villagers both watched and participated in cutting local trees, and if they regret the loss today, they also explain that it was due to factors beyond their control. The sense of alienation attached to those times is severe. Pam once asked some young folk if the team encouraged tree cutting in the 1960s so they all could get richer together. Too young to have the memories themselves, they still shared the bitter sense of unfairness communicated to them by their elders: "Huh! They did not give you a penny but you still had to cut the trees for them." In such an environment, it is not surprising that individuals illicitly sought to gain access to the trees for themselves. The system of management was loose and needs were dire so everyone was engaged in the theft to some degree; to not cut was to leave it for someone else to cut. Villagers feel that the fault lay with the system and with the higher leadership. While they did express disapproval of individuals whose cutting methods they felt went too far, they felt alienated by the production system itself, and by extension alienated from the land, thus it is not surprising that most sought to gain some small advantage from the disappearing trees they had once managed so well.

In the period 1976-1981 the practice of cutting trees for personal gain seemed to reach a peak. Officially still production team times, the collective economy had exhausted itself, and a new order struggled to emerge. The farmers were anxious to take up whatever new private opportunities for gain emerged, to lift themselves out of the collective poverty. As long as the collective system remained the formal organizing principle, the conflict between the emergent order and the old order would do battle on the landscape, and trees would remain the victims.

1976 was a watershed year which brought important changes to the villagers' lives. For our current purposes its significance lies in a serious food shortage in the area that signalled a de facto end to the collective economy, and a marked increase in tree cutting. For most people these things are remembered as loosely associated, but for some people the connections are more crystallized. Piecing together the various strands the story goes like this: 1976 and continuing to 1978 the crops did poorly and people were hungry. There were many children in the villages, and poverty had become so severe that there was little surplus to cushion the effects of a poor harvest. There were both natural and political antecedents to the hardship of that year. The weather had been bad, but there was also a campaign to crack-down on "capitalist roaders," a campaign to single out and criticize people who were said to focus on their individual or family economy at the expense of the collective, and thus sideline incomes had been curtailed. Mao died in 1976 adding a symbolic marker for change to the economic desperation that drove it. 1976 is the year in which Xiakou families began to earn cash and work points from rock quarrying, a new industry to the area at that time. There was also a small building boom, and the market for wood opened up.

Visiting a remote Shangli village, a middle aged woman said 1976 was the year that most of the extensive forests that surrounded her village were cut. "We had to cut them and sell them to feed the children. If we had not done that we would have starved. We had many young children and it was a hard year." In Xiakou team three a woman of about the same age said that in 1976 many of the remaining forests around Xiakou had been cut and made into charcoal for sale to government factories in Ya'an; "whoever cut kept the profit." A man in team two described how he survived that year by selling lumber to the "outsiders" who had arrived to staff a new factory just five kilometers down the road. They needed to build furniture for their new apartments and had rice coupons which they traded for the wood. Driven by hardship, and reinforced by the symbolism of a changing leadership, people boldly and eagerly began to break the old mold and trees provided an important source of capital with which they could begin. 4

for a detailed account of peasant assertiveness in this period see Kelliher (1992)


The period 1976-1982 was characterized by a prevailing mood of uncertainty and this uncertainty had critical repercussions for the trees. The formal reforms that took place in 1981 and 1982 were basically an official recognition of a fait accompli (Kelliher 1992). But in the process of reform and decollectivization, policy lagged behind changes on the ground; people waded in untested waters and the rules were unclear. From other counties in Sichuan , there are stories of competitive clear cutting that became particularly fierce in 1979. Reform was in the air and communal property was beginning to be divided. In some villages individual families competed with one another to cut the most trees the fastest. Seeing affairs were in flux, they sought to gain a profit from village lands before they become the private property of someone else.

Given the social conflict that characterised collectivization and the way in which space is traditionally used to reflect that conflict, we can see that a sense of "individual responsibility" for public resources is weak in China . Public resources have come to depend on authoritarian regulation for their well-being and if public resources are not formally and practically controlled, individuals are fools not to help themselves. Pam discussed the issue of individual responsibility and restraint with a local farmer who was also trained as an herbalist. He told her that in his training, an ethic of leaving behind some plants to ensure continued propagation, as in some herbal traditions, was not taught; he said that, "to leave some behind is to leave them for someone else to cut." This view of aggressive competition is a self-fulfilling prophecy; as long as people believe it to be true, it is true. It is this fundamental fact that leads to the Mencian conclusion that the management of common resources depends on good political leadership from the top.


For those who believe that clarifying private property rights are what it takes to ensure sustainable management of forest resources, the post-reform period has lessons to teach. 5

The debate over the "Tragedy of the Commons" [see (Hardin 1968) (McCay and Acheson 1987)] in exploring the idea that collectively owned resources are poorly managed, has encouraged an assertion that privatization is the key to better management of resources. Ash( 1991), for example argues that land in China needs to be more fully privatized to encourage further investments in the land. For the Indian case, Chambers, Saxena, and Shah (1989, p.208-211), and for Seram, Ellen (1993), have similar findings to the ones presented here; they emphasize the changing relations of people to trees and the recent erosion of old conditions/institutions which had helped to safe-guarded trees in the past, thus making it clear that mere devolution of control is not enough.

 In 1982 long-term land leases were given to villagers, and they now have stability in their tenure to individual plots. This is not, however, a return to the status quo of the Old Society. The tea house dispute settlements are gone, the expectations for economic development are greater, and the society, both in superstructure and material base, is changed. Although trees are recognized as part of an individual household's capital, tree-stealing is epidemic. 6 

In the Old Society, disputes did arise over the ownership of trees. For example, the trees that lined property boundaries might lean toward one person's property or another's, or as generations passed people would forget which family had actually planted them. In such cases, disputants would go to the tea house to have the matter settled. People note today that in the Old Society, theft of trees was handled much more seriously than today.

At Qian Jia mountain where some of the largest remaining local mixed forests still stand, income from wood is roughly equal to income from milk, and labor is the main limiting factor on timber income. Each person has an allotment of forest land and a limit to the amount they are allowed to cut each year. Men and women work together to saw the wood into boards and carry them down the mountain. Some families even hire carpenters to process the wood further into furniture and buckets. Families, it is said, do not pay attention to the limit set by the forestry bureau and will cut as much as they can manage. They also have difficulty turning away kin from other villages that come take of their more abundant mountain resources. Nor do members of the village plant the recommended four trees for each tree cut. They plant some but not much. In order to avoid detection of over cutting they often take trees from other people's allotments. There was little use of legal process and punishing fines, but one man told me they did have their own system: "If you catch a person stealing trees from your land, you go cut four trees from his land for each one he took from you. We call this system 'stealing from each other ( huxiang tou )."

Today the examples of tree stealing are as abundant as ever. In every village, except perhaps the most remote and strategically situated to guard their trees, people have experienced theft in private stands. Fir trees are frequently stolen and carried off in the night to be sold off. Each township has a local forestry official who might manage such problems but there is little incentive for him to make enemies of his neighbors by catching local culprits. Locals point out that whereas in the Old Society illegal cutting was dealt with seriously and severely, today no such system exists and there is a management vacuum.

In 1979, when goat husbandry began in this area, the upland fields were covered in vines and saplings. One could collect a basket of fodder very quickly and each handful was said to contain many varieties of nutritious plants. It was felt to be very easy to keep goats well fed and healthy. Now collecting fodder for a herd of four or five goats takes three to four hours a day, and in addition, the farmers have begun to put their goats out to graze during the day. Farmers complain both human afforestation efforts and natural regeneration of saplings have been negatively affected and it is easy to see that the scrublands are intensively cut. Some cropping for goats takes place, but relatively little. In the cut-and-carry system, where most of the goats spend their lives locked in pens, it is clear that the blame for the destruction lies squarely on the human side.

In 1987 there was a forestry plan in which the Longxi township government cooperated with the Hydro-electric Bureau, the Forestry Bureau and a local Medical Company to spend 20,000 yuan on the distribution of saplings in the township, particularly to plant along the banks of the irrigation canal. The seedlings were distributed and some planted by farmers, but almost all of them died. There were several problems: Farmers were all expected to participate in the program, whether they were themselves interested or not, and they received subsidized fertilizer with the seedlings. Thus some farmers were taking seedlings who really had no intention of planting and caring for them, and these trees had little chance to survive. Such farmers accepted the trees only because they wanted the fertilizer; they just threw the seedlings into their stoves. Many people did plant the trees, however, and wanted them to survive. These farmers point out that their main trouble was that goats put out to graze ate the seedlings or people cutting grass indiscriminately cut them down to feed to their animals.

The cutting down of seedlings for fodder is a significant problem. Natural forests cannot regenerate, and nothing less than the most intensively managed plantations have any chance of survival. Many villagers will blame farmers from the next village over who travel upland in search of grasses and have no respect for their neighbors' resources, but others see the problem as even more widespread. One middle-aged woman was particularly enlightening. She pulled out of her fodder basket a mutilated palm seedling she had found that morning carelessly cut and left in a field to die. She then pointed to the field across the river and said if it were not for goats the whole hillside would by now be trees again. This was not so much because goats were put out to graze, she thought, but because the teenage girls who do most of the fodder cutting are young and careless; they see their grass cutting as a mere target, a responsibility ( renwu ) that they must complete each day, to fill a basket with grasses. They try to do it as fast as they can so they can have time to relax. After all, once they marry they will no longer live in the village and so they are not interested in the land. They have their targets and they will cut anything to fill their basket. They are not so much malicious as they just do not look or care.

Xiakou is an area where competition over wild resources is particularly fierce. Wild grass resources are common property. While the land may be divided, anyone can cut wild grass. Members of teams 3 and 4 compete over grasses and even the deadwood on the high slopes. People from down in the valley, from other villages in Longxi township, also come up the valley to cut grass for their goats. Villages down the valley plant more rice, while farmers in Xiakou plant more corn. When Xiakou residents are busy weeding corn, the rice farmers have free time, and they come to cut the highland grass to make hay before the residents of Xiakou have a chance to cut it themselves. Such problems are typical in the area and many villages complain of neighboring villages pilfering resources. What is interesting is that there is leeway for villages to structure their own rules of land-use on a village by village basis, so long as they have the ability to follow through on their project. Thus one local village decided to restrict grass cutting to one own's land, whether or not land was planted and whether or not there was wild grass, and their trees seemed to do better. That village had good group relations evidenced by the fact that they had worked effectively together on a variety of communal projects since the reforms. They were also favored with a relatively remote location. It is not simply the creation of the rule, but the ability to follow it through that makes a system work.

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Where effective conservation seems to be associated with good community relations; excessive tree cutting appears to be indicative of social stresses. Today it is not just the fact of tree stealing and borderlands competition that supports this point, but also the association of tree cutting with immoral behavior. In such cases it is not simply that individuals who cut trees are seen to be acting immorally, but that tree cutting is associated with systemic snags--areas where the interests of the leaders and the interests of the people are not in harmony, or where the leaders are unable to maintain control and social order. Three cases from the current period will serve as examples of the connections between deforestation and social disorder.

Outlaw behaviour: squandering a forest

In the 1920s and 1930s, all the families but one who lived on top of Wang mountain moved down to Xiakou. The one man who stayed behind, named Chen, became famous for his lawless activities. Chen's house is a thirty minute climb straight up from the public road, and the closest neighbors are a nearly equal distance in another direction. Even in production team times when people were tightly managed, Chen held out against the authorities. Stories circulate in Xiali of how the local officials would go to his house to enforce one law or another and he would shoot at them and get his way. They also say he robbed a bank during the Cultural Revolution and was never caught for it. He had many wives in succession and he beat them and treated them harshly. Chen had two sons, one of whom today carries on the family tradition of lawlessness.

The mountain where this family lives is one of the last few areas in walking distance of Xiakou to be covered by natural mixed forest, and it is from this mountain that most people in Xiakou get their firewood. We went to visit one day but neither the son nor the father were there. Instead we found four men who had come to cut saw logs and were resting before carrying them down the mountain. They had paid Chen five yuan a standing tree (about 50 pence) cheap even by local standards. The trees were not legally Chen's to sell, but no one dared to counter him. Much of the land on which he sold trees technically belonged to neighboring villages, but the individuals concerned knew better than to assert their claims.

We saw the son for the first time when he showed up uninvited at a Xiakou wedding, proceeded to get very drunk, and then stood up and began to insult the father of the groom. He claimed that the host family owed him money because they had come to cut wood on the mountain for the wedding feast without paying him anything. Then he pulled out a knife and ended up cutting himself in a scuffle, much to everyone's horror. This son, it is said, is accomplished in martial arts which he studied at Shao Lin Temple. They say he frequently gives demonstrations swallowing broken glass, bolts, and nails. The house on the mountain top where he sometimes lives is littered with broken objects he shattered in sport. He retreats to this mountain when he needs money, but he never cultivates crops; he merely collects fees from locals interested in exploiting the mountain's resources. The cutting of this mountain's forests intensified during the time of my fieldwork, and just after I left I heard its woodlands were being finished off as people went there to cut trees to burn for charcoal to then sell.

While locals do not blame those who participate in the cutting, they do paint the young man as foolish in his attitude toward forest management. A middle aged woman was disgusted with these "wastrels" ( bai jiazi ), young men who sell off all their inheritance and resources. Speaking directly about the younger Chen from the mountain, she said:

He sold off his house for just 180 yuan and someone is taking it apart and moving it. He sells all the wood on the mountain. Just a little while ago there was much more. He sells the green wood and dead wood alike. Yang Mingao took a ton of wood off the mountain and that is why the kid had a fit at his son's wedding. He asked someone to ask Yang Mingao for 50 yuan, but he would not pay it. Wu Guozhen took a huge amount of wood from that mountain. This kid is so stupid, when Guozhen got the wood she gave him liquor, cigarettes and sugar and she was allowed to cut as much as she wanted. Tomorrow, when all is gone, this kind of person will starve to death. It should not be cut so fast but managed.

The case of the Chens demonstrates the association between immoral behavior, poor social integration, and tree cutting. This family exemplifies a tornado of anomic forces as they test the power of local authorities. With the authorities unable to win, and society unable to integrate them, the mountain on which they live is destined to be quickly cut to the very end.

The World Bank

In another example of the relationship between poor social integration and deforestation, it is the self-serving actions of officials that has resulted in massive cutting. 7

see also discussion in Chambers (1989, p.68-76)

  This example reveals a new force behind deforestation particularly apt for the global nineties; it involves the World Bank.

In 1990 The Chinese government obtained a large World Bank loan for afforestation efforts across China to be managed by its forestry bureau network. The loan agreement specifies that tree plantations should not be established in areas that contain rare species of plants or animals, or which had more than a 30% existing tree canopy. While many of the plantations in the Ya'an area established with the loan money conform to these guidelines, it did not take the forestry bureau long to figure out that it was more profitable to establish trees on national land holdings which do have substantial existing forest cover than to search out smaller holdings of bare ground for their forestry efforts. In keeping with the common Chinese proverb, "the mountain is high and the emperor far away," some of the plantations demonstrate blatant disregard for the loan agreement's planting guidelines.

We came across one of the `corrupt' plantations quite by accident. During the course of fieldwork it interested me that farmers often claimed that "virgin forest remained" or "wild goats still live" "just over that mountain." When we heard such claims, we always tried to find time to go off and see what we could see. Usually we only found more farmers who pointed to the next hill and said, "over there are better woods." In all my such adventures in China , the best forested wildlife habitat we did find outside of an official nature reserve was an area that began three hours walk from the public road at Xiakou. There were the remnants of an old dismantled temple which dated from the Ming dynasty called Bifeng Si and behind that there was a forested area that straddled a ridge exactly half-way between two well-populated valleys. Here indeed were numerous wild cat tracks, wild pig trails, evidence of bear, and even recent sightings of the endangered "forest cow."

About a year after my first visit to Bifeng Si, we heard from a young hermit-monk, who had recently taken up part-time residence at the temple, that a large work crew of a hundred men were soon to be setting up camp near the temple to clear the mixed forest and plant fir trees. The forest near Bifeng Si did not belong to any of the local villages but rather belonged to the system of "national forest lands."

We immediately began to interview local inhabitants about their views on the plan. Almost everyone we spoke with said it was "fine with them" or "none of their business" and stressed that it would not effect them one way or the other. They said that they did not use the resources from those woods, so it did not matter. Other observations, however, indicated that they did, in fact, use the resources from those woods. These same local people frequently hunted wild pig and even bear. They collected and sold wild kiwis. They gathered firewood. People from as far away as Xiakou travelled to those woods to collect the abundant and delicious bamboo shoots that grew there and scoop up the wild chestnuts that littered the ground. WE also had noticed that the largest trees in these woods had in very recent years been mostly all reduced to stumps, their timber carried off. Nevertheless, the locals were unconcerned, or at least felt the forest was "the nation's" ( guojia de ) and not their concern, and while the hermit may not have been happy about it, the land-clearing tree-planters from the southern end of the county soon arrived.

The next time we went back, we found a large and spreading zone of destruction. We spoke with the son of the general-contractor who was there over-seeing the day-to-day management of the operation. His father had a contract with the county forestry bureau to clear the land and plant fir trees. At this point our friend the monk chipped in with his own cynical humor to rib the young man about how he had seen his father with the high officials of the forestry bureau, each in their own fancy cars, having a relatively expensive lunch in Xiali. The monk elaborated on how rich they must be, and sang a happy round of the old communist favorite, "Beat Down the Landlords." The contractor's family had fulfilled several similar contracts for clearing the same type of land in southern Ya'an county. Now, he and the workers told us, essentially there were no more such woods left in that region; all the mixed species forests had been cut down and replaced by mono-crop plantations of fir. Their practice was to burn the smaller trees and bushes, while any larger logs they came across they carried out to sell. 8

Besides blatantly violating the stipulation that sites with over 30% tree cover not be included in the program [World Bank credit agreement (1990, in Chinese, p.21), the mono-crop plantation of fir also failed to "implement environmental protection regulations including: maintaining biological diversity, mixed tree species..." (ibid., p. 14).


The last thing we heard when we left China in 1993 was that local people as far away as Xiakou were annoyed at all the crop damage on their lands that had resulted from the wild pigs fleeing the deforested area. Also we heard reports from the similarly denuded southern end of the county that farmers there were not happy about what had happened to their woodland. They complained that the logs cut had been taken by rail to southern China to be made into plywood when they felt it would have been better to develop a local plywood plant. Those who had made money from the formerly substantial enterprise of collecting wild camphor leaves were particularly unhappy. Others were saying that the clear-cut method was unnecessarily "killing the chicken that lays the egg."

National vs. local interests: Arrowshaft Forest

A third case highlights the way economic development can be a mixed blessing, with conflicts of interest between the government and the farmers. Recently the Ya'an bureaus of forestry have adopted a series of policies and programs to increase the future availability of wood and bamboo for state purchases. At the center of these plans is the decision to build a new paper pulp mill in Ya'an with the assistance of a loan and technical help from Canada . When plans for the mill were first announced there was considerable opposition from local intellectuals at the Agricultural University and some government bureaucrats who could see plainly that Ya'an did not possess adequate resources to supply a mill of that size. The opponents lost out as Premier Li Peng himself gave the go ahead indicating that this mill and its two sister mills were an important step for national construction. China currently imports paper pulp and operates many heavily polluting smaller mills.

The new policies and programs, however, have begun to sound alarms for local farmers who see them as in opposition to their own interests. One new policy states that bamboo shoots, a prized local wild food, may no longer be collected. Farmers are more enthusiastic about the programs encouraging them to plant pulp wood species of trees and bamboo. But the new road the government is putting in to one village that specializes in bamboo production is raising concerns as well as hopes.

Arrowshaft village is named for the bamboo forest on which the locals have depended for generations. The village is unreachable by road, and the farmers carry loads of bamboo weighing hundreds of pounds down the steep mountainside to trucks in the market town of Shangli. In the past, villagers made paper and woven mats from the bamboo, but since 1979 they have found a lucrative market selling whole lengths of bamboo to middle-men for the North China market. Hauling the bamboo is hard work, but they rely almost completely on bamboo for their rice. A new road to the village would improve life considerably, both by reducing their labor and by bringing electricity and easier access to consumer goods. The people of Arrowshaft Forest have anxiously waited for the road to come; as one man said, "after 70 years the party should open their eyes and do something good for the mountain areas!"

But the road carries a price and villagers know it. Each family has 20 mu of bamboo from which they harvest 5 tons a year according to a strict and sustainable plan of planting and cutting. At present, they get .1 yuan per jin for the bamboo, or about 1,000 yuan per year per family-- a price they can live with. The village party secretary is worried because he was told by the township government that the government wants to limit the village's export of bamboo. The paper mill needs resources and the opening of the road to exploit the bamboo will bring production targets and a lower fixed price. Since the villagers are dependent on income from the bamboo, if the price falls and their markets are limited they will have no choice but to cut more, thereby breaking with their sustainable practices and risking the very source of their livelihood. In the party secretary's opinion, "The road has advantages and disadvantages; but if it means management will be no good, then it is better not to build the road than to ruin our resources." He recognizes that he is a cadre, and bound by the government's targets, but he also has the responsibility of making sure the village survives. To do this, he hopes to develop bamboo handicrafts and a return to high-quality hand-crafted paper production. By developing these value-added sideline industries the villagers can resist selling their bamboo at lower prices, and sell to the government only within their sustainable plan. The party secretary understands that the road is only being built to exploit their bamboo, and he expressed annoyance at development plans based on "vast territory and rich natural resources" ( dida wubo, ziyuan fengfu ) as an article of faith.

Individual views

Obviously, local views on the importance of trees vary. There are definite expressions of an ethic of conservation, but individuals interact differently with this tradition. Speaking about tree cutting, one old man shared with me the proverb, "if you pour slowly, the water will run a long time ( xi shui, chang liu )." But while the idea that existing resources should be well managed is common enough, only some speak of the importance of looking after the interests of their own descendants. More cynical individuals laugh at the idea of worrying about descendants, for "why should I worry about them when I do not know if they will be good people or not?" People with this type of attitude may still endorse a forestry plan, however, that emphasizes species with a fast turnaround such as cold fir, pulp wood, and bamboo. Some people are `optimists' and believe that there are "plenty of trees left"-- somewhere else, in a "vast territory with rich resources." Many more are pessimistic about afforestation projects, citing a litany of obstacles: lack of foresight, stealing, lack of capital, and above all lack of leadership.

In some villages, local leaders have been able to organize better management and even coordinate major forestry projects for economic development. When the entire village dedicates themselves to seriously developing a timber economy, tree planting can become very successful. In many villages, however, the critical mass is bent on pulling apart resources rather than building them up. One reason for this is that the future of agriculture seems uncertain, and the urban pull is strong. Cooperative villages tended to be more remote--they were not crossroads locations where outsiders roamed past, and so easier to control. Also the more remote locations have less opportunity to take up wage labour, and therefore seek to maximize their own resources.

Villagers in more accessible places such as Xiakou feel they cannot solve the problem of competition and lawlessness themselves, but many do feel that the active involvement of the township government could make tree projects more successful. They feel a leadership vacuum and think the local government should be more involved. Wu Yanqi, of Sichuan Agricultural University , has told me of a project he managed in another area of Sichuan , planting bushes for fodder. There were problems with farmers haphazardly destroying the young plants before they could grow until he and others initiated an intensive program to educate farmers and tighten management, punishing offenders by fining them. According to him, and in keeping with my own observations, farmers welcome this kind of involvement.

A pattern of reliance on the state for leadership in economic development has emerged. While effective projects can and have been organized at the grassroots, cooperative structures have been weakened by a history of leadership from above that was intensified in the communist period. Consider this interview with a man of about forty who lives in Xiakou and is eager for agricultural development: We asked him how he thought Xiakou's economy could be developed and he said,

this is a question I have given some thought to. We could plant bamboo and fir trees because the prices for these two products are good. With one mu of bamboo, you can earn 3000 yuan a year. You only work a short time and have more rice than you can eat. Two good fir trees and you have a tidy sum of money. The problem is that it is difficult to try to get this kind of plan going. For this village you would need 100,000 yuan of capital. They take time to grow and you need to plan ahead. That kind of far-sight is hard to come by. People need cash right away so they go out and break rock etc. Also the country is poor and that kind of capital is hard to get... Under the production team system it could have been tackled. Now people are too spread out (fen san). They don't do the long range planning. What you would need is a local leadership team of eight or ten people to coordinate it so the whole village would do it together.

Not only is the village short of capital, its experiences during the collective times left a legacy of bitterness and complications that must be overcome before they can solve the current dilemma.

The responsibility system, however, has brought at least one novel economic management arrangement that has begun to assist with forestry efforts. There are townships and villages in Ya'an which have had success with plantings of medicinal trees and Chinese Fir using a policy of "joining hands to produce and shoulder the responsibility"--a system that gets farmers to cooperate in tree production. The fallow land of several farmers are combined to make one sizeable plot and one farmer in particular takes on responsibility for planting and/or maintaining trees. The profits are divided among the farmers who have contributed land, with the largest share (as much as 70%) going to the farmer who does the cultivation. The same basic system may be used to pay for a ranger to protect more mature forests.

Even without leadership or specific afforestation projects, villagers commonly observe that there has been an increase in trees since decollectivization. While areas that had old natural stands of mixed forest have experienced a net decrease in trees since 1981, areas previously deforested have experienced a net increase because farming has been made more efficient and less extensive. Formerly, in production team times, programs such as "taking grain as the key link" mandated that all available land be put into grain production regardless of the yield. Local villages made paddy land where the land was inappropriate for such improvements. More dryland rice was grown, and poor soils made to grow corn. One old lady pointed to some new second-growth and told how in production team times "that land was made to grow corn," but, she laughed, "it didn't even produce enough grain to feed the birds." Such lands are now left vacant and have contributed to a net increase of wooded land. Because families now are the main locus of decision-making, they choose to farm the areas that yield well, leaving poorer areas to fallow. Where they can, families have invested in trees."

One afternoon I sat with three young friends in their late teens and early 1920s along with a grandmother in their family and we talked about how to develop Xiakou's economy. One of the young women brought up the idea of a project to plant bamboo. Then she added, "Now we are supposed to do something for our descendants to make their lives better. We should plant trees for our descendants." She could remember bigger trees on the hill behind the village when she was younger and pointed out that now they are all gone. Here the Grandmother intervened to boast that the trees were so big around that many people had to link hands to encircle them, but that now they are all cut, all gone. I asked the group why, if they had this attitude, there are so few trees these days ? They answered that there are more trees now than before, and they gave several examples of individuals involved in tree planting. Then the four of them together confirmed that planting and planning for one's descendants is standard teaching: "you don't have to go to school to learn this; we learned it right here in the village.

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Mencius, writing in the fourth century BC, demonstrated an early concern with issues of sustainablity which he connected to the question of "kingly" leadership. In China , there is a clear connection between political leadership and the state of resource management. This connection is basic to the farmers' thinking about their local resources. At the grassroots level, there are clearly cooperative traditions and beliefs that have helped create sustainable practices over the years--tea house arbitration, ethics about tree planting, and rational long-range household economic planning. Still, people are generally seen as individualistic and competitive and thus destructive. Strong and just leadership is an orthodox solution to this problem. Today, farmers we talked to easily differentiated between practices which erode the natural resource base and those which enhanced or stabilized it. Whether or not farmers personally identified with the goal of conserving local natural resources varied. The fact that at an individual level the goal of sustainable management of collective resources is not universal gives strength to the Mencian thesis that the quality of leadership has a determining effect on the quality of the environment.

Support for the goals of sustainable management of local resources related to two questions: whether or not farmers saw their future mode of production as fundamentally the same as their current mode, and the extent to which they identified with the interests of others, including their own descendants. Rising expectations of upward mobility and economic development can create an atmosphere in which people perceive their dependence on their own current resource base as temporary and changeable, which in turn makes them unwilling to invest in its long-term replenishment. This attitude may in some circumstances be justifiable, but as the Great Leap Forward demonstrated, errors in assessment can turn catastrophic. Excessive individualism defined as disregard for the welfare of others, can, in an unregulated environment, lead to a chaotic situation which in more general terms we can also recognize as unhealthy. In Xiakou there has been a revival of interest in questions of belief and values in recent times and in the final chapters of Pam's Phd thesis and in the Belief essay Rivers and Rocks this revival is analyzed as an attempt to come to terms with these two kinds of dis-identification-- disidentification with the present in favor of a novel future, and disidentifacation with the welfare of others. These disidentifications have caused people to be unwilling to make long term investments in tree planting and must be seen as a factor in tree stealing. In my opinion, given the extent of current Chinese dependence on their own agricultural resource base, and the problems with current technological fixes, the future consequences of perpetuating such dis-identifications carry a heavy risk.

Even amongst the many individuals who do identify with the goal of conserving the resource base, a considerable portion have participated in cutting trees in an unsustainable way. What causes people to cut more trees than what they might think is good? The history of Xiakou presents several lessons in this regard. In a totalitarian state individuals may be coerced into doing things with which they do not agree. Furthermore, the imposition of relations of production which are felt to be fundamentally alienating or exploitative can motivate people to act in ways which do not conform to their own ideals. In addition, as alluded to above, a system that is badly managed, in Chinese terms "loose", can result in competitive free-for-alls where a stand on principle appears as absurdly futile. Finally, severe scarcity may turn people to desperate and destructive actions they would not take if they had more flexibility. In China, raising of false hopes for economic development, totalitarianism, alienating or exploitative relations of production, loose management, and extreme scarcity have each been, to a large degree, defined by the condition of social relations in general and interactions with the state in particular. These relations are further explored and placed in the context of historical memory in the essays on soil and rivers. 9

Ellen asserts that Nuaulu beliefs do not provide the means or incentives to understand the consequences of long-term ecological change or see it as relevant to day-to-day decisions about cutting the forest. While his conclusions are relevant here, I have also sought to emphasize the potential dynamism of villagers beliefs to respond to new challenges (Ellen 1993, p.141).


About This Essay

Patterns of tree cutting and tree planting in Xiakou have everything to do with the broader political events and economic structures proceeding from Chinese political movements. The when, where, and why of tree planting and tree cutting proceed from villagers' social relations, relations deeply affected by state policies and national trends. This essay explores patterns of tree planting and cutting as a metaphor for people's view of their community and their own future. While these patterns of cutting have been clearly connected to government policies and other aspects of the specifically Chinese experience, tree cutting is also part of a more general 20th century pattern that has adopted a particular ideal of development as its central paradigm. This essay originally appeared in Pam Leonard's 1994 thesis, The Political Landscape of a Sichuan Village and thus does not cover the important developments in the realm of forestry that began in 1997. To learn more about the highly significant Farmland to Forest policy begun at that time, the reader is encouraged to look at the ecotourism essay in the Landscape section as well as the village economy in 2004 essay in the Work section.