Ecosystem services and management of Long Forest created by Dai Indigenous People in Xishuangbanna, China

This is a case study of community forestry on the Dai community in Xishuangbanna, which is an ethnic minority in China. Dai people have unique water cultures relying on the forest. They have used their traditional knowledge to conserve forests around their villages for more than a thousand years. Nevertheless, the frequent changes in land tenures and policies, as well as economic reforms and development have stroke their traditional ecological values.

This study aims to interpret the values of indigenous community forest management by Dai people, and challenges faced with by the full implementation of community forestry; with possible approaches addressing these issues.

Geography and Climate

Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture. By CIA via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture is located at the southern-western corner of China, as a part of Yunnan Province. The area of the Prefecture is about 19,700 km2, consisting of one city, Jinghong and two county cities. Jinghong is the seat of Xishuangbanna, villages of the study are mainly located at and around Jinghong. Xishuangbanna belongs to the tropical monsoon climate with a long summer and no winter. [1]There will be dry seasons and rainy seasons every year. The rain season is from late May to late October, while the dry season is from late October to the late May of the next year. The precipitation in the rain season is accounted for more than 80% of the annual precipitation. Because tropical climatic conditions occur over a small proportion of China's landmass, there are very limited lowland old-growth tropical forests with high biodiversity, and most of such a type of old growth is located at Xishuangbanna. The forest ecosystem and biodiversity in Xishuangbanna’s forest have a both nationally and globally significant. Xishuangbanna is included in the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspots and contains over 5000 species of vascular plants, comprising 16 percent of China's total plant diversity. Xishuangbanna has accounted for 36.2%, 21.7%, and 14% of China's birds, mammals, and reptiles, and amphibians occur in the region, respectively.[2] In light of the ecological importance and uniqueness of Xishuangbanna’s forests, forest management in this area is not only concerned by the central government in China but also receives attention worldwide.

Dai indigenous people

Representatives of the Dai indigenous people. By Brücke-Osteuropa via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

There are 56 ethnic groups in China, with Han Chinese has the largest population, and other are minorities. Xishuangbanna has a diverse composition of the population from various ethnic groups, including Dai, Han Chinese, Hani, Yi, etc. Dai indigenous people hold the largest proportion, for about 30% of Xishuangbanna’s population. [1]Dai people mainly live in plain areas at lower altitudes. Each plain is called “Meng” in Dai’s language. There will be several villages living at and around each “Meng”. Dai people live by a traditional agricultural system relying on forest and rice cultivation with a unique traditional forest management.[3]

There is a quote in Dai cultures “Where there is a forest, there is water; where there is water, there is food; where there is food, there are people.” The quote interprets traditional thinking of Dai people, considering the forest as the keystone of a human society[4]. There are several ways of how Dai people preserve the forest, intentionally and unintentionally, merely to acknowledge Long forest, setting rules on Long forests and other harvesting behaviors. These are all unwritten customary rules as the consensus of all villagers.

Long forest

Each village would choose two specially preserved areas of forests around the village, “long man” and “ba-hei-ao” as the two components of a “Long forest”

  • “long man”: a scared forest, also called the “holy hill forest”. This is a forestland considered to be divine and superior. All access to resources in this forestland is strictly prohibited to both villagers and outsiders, even collecting debris is banned that it must be left there and decomposed naturally. Villagers will use livestock and hold ceremonies to worship the forest on a regular basis, as the pray for the blesses to their land.
  • “ba-hei-ao”: used as a cemetery forest. Similarly, all kinds of access to the forest materials is prohibited. Using resources from this forestland would be considered to bring bad fortune. Villagers will only enter the forest to bury those passed away.[3]

All resources from a Long forest are sublime and inviolable, including timber, water bodies, all kinds of fauna and flora. Therefore, harvesting, logging, and hunting are strictly prohibited. Such regulations make the Long forest resemble a conservation area way before the concept of conservation emerged, and imply an erratic conservation behavior by Dai people because they are incentivized by traditional religious belief.

Before 1958, the total area of Long forests in Xishuangbanna was about 1000 km2, which could account for 1/3 of nature reserves in China in 1999. Dai people had successfully preserved the forestland for more than a thousand years until 1958’s Great Leap Forward, which blindly took the productivity as priority ignoring the holding capacity of the land.Other traditional management: in addition to preserved Long forests, there are other unwritten, customary laws in every village to regulate the use of forest resources to achieve sustainability.[5]

Harvesting rules

These are regulations set to preserve forests and achieve a sustainable use of forest resources, as an intentional conservation behavior.

  •  Only collect juvenile leaves for medical uses to maintain the growth of the plant. If whole-plant collecting is needed, only take one or two plants at a single area.
  •  Collect firewood from fallen branches without logging. Only fell trees when building houses and strictly follow the required demand to fell. Take small-amount harvesting at several points instead of at one area. Take stem-only harvesting with a maximum 25% of bamboos at each plot.
  •  Two species, Ficus altissima and Ficus religiose are considered sacred trees that felling is strictly prohibited. Fences will be built around to protect seedlings from humans and wild animals.   
  •  There are two types of gardens at each Dai village, home gardens and temple gardens. Home gardens are used to plant vegetables, fruits, and spices. Temple gardens are used for religion-related plants cultivation. Home gardens will be used to experiment croppings to optimize the land use.
  •  Plant bamboo around riparian areas and beside roads for construction uses building their bamboo houses.[3]

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) gives four categories of ecosystem services, provision, regulating, supporting and cultural. The ecological and cultural importance of Long forests under traditional management by Dai people will be examined based on these categories. 

Dai bamboo house-inner structure. By Daderot via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.


Provision service is the he direct provision of timber and non-timer products from forests, like water, food and firewood.[6]

  • Water storage for irrigation: preserved forests intercepts rainfall on its canopy.  The maximum water storage in a Long forest is 30m3/km2 . Villagers would construct streamflow to use water preserved by forests for irrigation, as a part of their agricultural activities. Before 1959 where the industrial development leading to severe deforestation, there was no need for Dai people to store water because a Long forest is a natural watershed.
  • Timber and bamboo: Dai people have a unique architecture form, the bamboo house where they use bamboo to build the housing,
  • Wild vegetables and medicinal plants: At least 30 recorded species grown in some Long forests are medicinal or edible. The follwoing table gives some examples of edible or medicinal species and their available parts. One of the example, Artemisia argyii Levl. is the species to extract Artemisinin, which is the most effective to malaria.[5]
    Dai bamboo house. By Daderot via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.
Plant species Availble parts
Artemisia argyii Levl. whole plant
Alocasia macrorrhiza

(Lim. ) Schott

stem and root
Helicia erratica Hook. F fruit
Citrus auranticum L. fruit
Alstonia scholaris (L. ) R.Br whole plant


Regulating service refers to the benefits obtained from the regulation of ecosystem processes such as climate regulation, natural hazard regulation, water purification and waste management.[6]

  • Prevent stormwater runoff: Canopy blocks rainfall and roots and leaf litter promote the infiltration of rainwater into the soil. The annual runoff in a Long forest is about 6. 57mm; while the annual runoff in logged soil is about 226. 31mm. The annual soil erosion in a Long forest is 4.17kg; while the annual soil erosion on logged land is 3245kg.
  • Preserve moisture in the dry season: At Jionghong, from 1956 to 1969, annual precipitation was 1174mm with an annual evaporation of 1225mm. From 1970 to 1979, annual precipitation was still around 1180mm while the evaporation increased to 1606mm. Due to the destruction of Long forests, the evaporation hand increased. At the same time, the moisture had decreased by 3-5% from 1950s to 1980s. The bamboo house of Dai people also has a good self-insulating function to maintain temperature.
  • Temperature mediator: The mean temperature in a Long forest is 0.6℃ lower than other areas, with the mean maximum temperature 3.4℃ lower than other areas, and the mean minimum temperature 0.2℃ higher than other areas. 
  • Resilience to extreme weather: windstorm [5]


Supporting service is the importance in the ecosystem, for example as the habitat for species or provides sites for pollination.[6]

  • Monsoon forest ecosystem: the representative species of a monsoon forest, like Antiaris toxicaria are only present in Long forests in China, which makes these forest the only monsoon forest ecosystem in China.
  • Preserve biodiversity: Long forests have a high biodiversity index. Some rare species with significant research values are also present.  --Archaic plant species existing for several epoch times since Paleogene and Neogene, like Mangolia henryi, Homaiium laoticum, Chaydaia crenulate, Piettosporosis kerri --In Long forests, there are 11 national preserved plant species among all 51 national preserved plants in Xishuangbanna. 
  • Habitat for birds, reptile and amphibians feed on pests: e.g. Gekko gecko, woodpeckers, owls, Asian common toads, Calotes. 
  • As a closed ecosystem without any human intervention, a Long forest is an ideal environment for genetic flow among species[5]


Cultural service refers to the non-material benefits like spiritual enrichment, recreation and aesthetic values.[6]

  • Long forest is the media of Dai traditional beliefs: to the mother nature and forests. It is a vital representation of Dai's cultures and spirits.
  • "bai-he-ao", which is the cemetery forests, represent their sustenance in the afterlife.
  • Aesthetic values

Changes to Xishuangbanna’s forest tenure system are mostly tenure-related policies originated with the central government, especially before the early 1990s. [7]So the timeline will base on policies implemented by the central government, extracting those important tenure changes, forest policies and the development of indigenous people’ s rights on the site.


  • Before 1950s: due to world wars and the civil war between Chinese Nationalist Party and Chinese Communist Party, quite chaotic governance, no established forestry department: Dai indigenous people have customary rights to use their land and forest.
  • 1952: Establishment of Forestry Department: highly centralized management of forests.[8].
  • 1958: “The Great Leap Forward”led to aggressive use of forests to meet the industrial development. The overlogging and over-harvesting have provoked massive over-exploitation of forests, with severe consequences for soils and hydrological cycles. [8]
  • 1966-1976: the  Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Ethnic minorities faced with extreme assimilation proposals. Dai people had very limited rights to manage Long forests.[8]
  • 1970s: The government started to decentralize some forestland intentionally, assigning access and use rights to farmers.
  • 1976: Announcement on allocating freehold hills to households: Allocate freehold hills to individuals while owners have the use right to plant and harvest products like trees and vegetables, but the land ultimately belonged to the state or the collective forest. [7]
  • 1984: The right of ethnic minorities to speak their own language and involve in the decision-making process were formalized in the Law on Regional Autonomy for Minority Nationalities. Dai people started to have more access rights to the land.[8]
  • 1989-1994: State-owned forest ownership were issued throughout Yunnan province. In total, ownership of 3, 221,200 ha of forestry land, or 88.4 percent of total State-owned forests, was certified legally.
  • 1994: 57 counties in Yunan auctioned to gain use rights of 77 800 ha forest land.[7]
  • 1998: completely ban of harvesting natural forests without government permission.
  • 1998-2000: China started to suffer from the consequences of profligate use of natural forests. A programme called ‘Upland Conversion’  was implemented, aiming to ban all agriculture on lands with a slope of over 25 degree was imposed. Farmers were encouraged to plant trees on steeper fields, free grain and fund were provided by government to make up their losses. The programme wasn’t associated with farmer’s scope of interests, which eventually turned to one of the obstacles against community forestry development.[8]
  • 2000: Implementation of the Rural Land Contract Law: Households or groups could sign contracts to gain rights of planting, using resources or transferring rights by administrative process for decades of the land. This include a forest concession which permits rights of using forests and a rural land contract which permits rights of using rural land in general. Households and communities must follow regulations of using.
  • 2002: New Village Organic Law was implemented, making the village committee will remain essentially an organ of States instead of an independent stakeholder.[8]

Current tenure forms

Because a traditional Long forest is a forestland around each village instead of a particular area, the composition of tenures on Long forests is very complex and lacking clear records of each village. Reference to previous case studies, there are three legal forms of tenures of a Long forest:

  • State forests: the forestland is owned and managed by the government  
  • Collective forests: communities, usually a village or a county collectively own and use the forest within a limited period, which is the most common form in this case. 
  • freehold/individual forests: individuals or households own and use the forest within a limited period   

A point to note is that the real meaning of individual or collectively “owned” forests is lacked in China. Essentially, the collective forest ownership and freehold ownership is a concession. Because the forest administrative in China states that forests are collectively owned by all Chinese citizens. Villagers have the use rights to decide what to plant and what to cultivate on the land they have been allocated. They would have to follow statutory laws given by the government, for instance, the logging quota, instead of the customary laws they build themselves. The land is ultimately owned by the States. For the collective forest, the concession is usually 70 years; the community could apply for a renewal when the concession is expired.[7]

Affected stakeholder

An affected stakeholder is considered to have an innate connection with the land and earn their living by the land and will be affected directly, hence have a high interest

  • Village committee

The village committee chair of each Dai village has high power and a high interest because they have the right to hold meetings and negotiate with the States. They are most engaged in the decision-making process compared with other villagers and have a certain level of power affecting the decision-making, as the representative of all villagers.[8]

  • Dai elders

The elders in the village have high interest but low power. These people usually have more traditional knowledge and beliefs. They have learned the skills of how to manage the forest and have more fear and respect to the sacred forestland hence a high interest. But as normal villagers, they have little power in decision-making.

  • Younger villagers

Some young people and farmers preferring cash crop farming have a relatively low interest and low power. Although they might also grow up on the land, they have a weaker belief, or even don’t believe in the traditions at all. Some might place economic benefits above the forest and land preservation and show little care for the forest. Hence they might show a low interest in forest preservation although they are affected stakeholders. As common villagers not involved in the committee, they also have litter power in decision-making.[3]

Interested stakeholder

An interested stakeholder is considered to have an interest in the land but will not be affected directly, usually outside the community hence have a low interest.

  • Ministry of forestry: Central and Prefectural

Forestry department of the central government: The ultimate body who decide forestry policies. As mentioned in the tenures part, Chinese forest tenures change upside-down, following the order of central government. Hence the central government has a superior power in occupying the forest. But since they are remote in Beijing and rarely have interactions with Dai villagers. Prefectural forestry department is very similar with the central government, might show more care with some Dai governors, but there are very few ethnic minorities in the government at higher positions, so still with a relatively low interest .[7]

  • Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)

As stated in the description, the ecological importance of Xishuangbanna’s tropical forests has drawn global attention. And in the past decades, there are various NGOs visiting, funding and collaborating with local government with the forest management, including the Center for People and Forests (RECOFTC), World Wildlife Fund (WWF); Global Environment Facility(GEF), Chinese Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation(CBCGDF). They have an interest in preserving forests and Dai cultures but they are not directly affected hence a low interest. They might have a certain influence on the government and provide guidelines of community forestry, they are rarely involved in the decision-making or policy implementation process hence a low power.[8]

  • Academia

Academia, specially Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Sciences in this case has a similar case with NGOs. But the Botanical Graden might have a relatively higher interest because it is located at Xishuangbanna and local researchers might care more about the forests. Similarly, they could provide research and be referenced by the decision makers, but they couldn’t change policies without government’s permission. 

high power low power
high interest -village committee chair/members Elders with traditional knowledge and religious belief 
low interest -prefectural forestry department

-Central government/forest department of the states

-Younger villagers

-farmers preferring cash crop farming



1. Centralization of forest ownership

As interpreted in the tenures part. Though there’re various forms of tenures, the ultimate ownership of the land belongs to the States. Strict regulations are also given on the owner’s behaviors. Essentially, the collective forest is more like a long-term concession. In order to expand the authority of forestry departments, the government has assigned considerable power to them for managing forests. The predominant power of forest departments has restricted the rights and functions of local government. However, governors usually have very limited field experience or understanding with the rural socio-economy and local communities’ needs, hence the interactions between forests and human beings are rarely considered when proposing or implementing new policies. The centralization of government gives Dai people very limited rights although they collectively “own” the forest. [7]

2. Lacking trust

Forest tenures and rights of Dai indigenous people have changed very frequently in the past half century as demonstrated in the timeline above. This instability results in villagers’ distrust in the government and less willingness to collaborate. At the same time, the government also lacks a confidence that indigenous people could manage the forest well and are unwilling to decentralize the right of making regulations by villagers themselves. [8]

3. Conflict with economic development

During the economic reform, local farmers were encourage to occupy more forestland and cultivate more cash crops to increase economic development. Forests generally contribute from 10 to 70 percent of communities livelihoods, but the revenues from forest resources account for less than 5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). What villagers gain from the forests could not support their income, and they tend to plant more cash crops to increase their revenue. A leading example is the rubber plantation, which have led most severe forest degradation among all crops. Rubber is easily grown but has a high market price. More Dai people started to plant rubber to increase their revenue. Villages started to have rubber gardens of as a concentrated area cultivating rubber for the whole village in 1990s. Some villagers logged the community forest illegally, using the land as private rubber gardens.[9]

4. Limited power of NGOs

Although various NGOs are showing an interest in Dai people and forests in Xishuangbanna, they are merely funding and advising on the project established by the government; while many of the social forestry projects don't cope with villagers’ interests. The direct interaction between Dai villagers and NGOs is insufficient which makes the NGOs lack an in-depth understanding of the situation and couldn’t give a more plausible approach.[8]

5. Descending knowledge

As mentioned, the Great Leap Forward and the Economic Reform has led to severe deforestation in the past decades. The traditional Dai agricultural system relied on forests and rice cultivation has been stroke. What Accompanied with deforestation, is the gradual loss of traditional knowledge of forest management and agriculture owned by Dai people. In the history, Dai people had an intentional regulations and unintentional behaviors, protecting Long forests to preserve forests. The loss of these behaviors deteriorate deforestation, which forms a undesirable positive feedback loop that deforestation and descending knowledge are affecting each other continuously. 

Under the current forest administrative system, it is impossible to change the policy entirely to let Dai people own and manage Long forests independently. But some actions could still promote community forestry, which enhances the collaboration between villagers and the government, as well as balancing between local people's benefits and forest conservation.


The Long forest has a very similar situation with the Jozani forest case in Zanzibar, where a minority traditionally owns and manages the land, and the forest has a global significance in biodiversity. Therefore, a similar approach could be proposed.[10]

Dai Water Festival. By Takeaway via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0

In the Jozani case, a national park has been established where villagers and the government manage the park and share the revenue together. In this case, because Long forests are dispersed small areas of forests, it’ hard to build a national park. However, Xishuangbanna Tourism Bureau could cooperate with Dai people, to construct various small tourist attractions including a Dai village and the Long forest around it, where rules and regulations are set by the government and the village committee. The government could establish a document listing these regulations, which converts the traditional unwritten laws of Dai people into statutory laws.

Dai cultures and traditions, the mysterious tropical forest and archaic tropical plant species could be the attraction. For example, in Mandan, which is a Dai village developing local tourism successfully, many households have held small businesses to provide hoteling for tourists using their own house, [5]the unique bamboo house. Dai people could also be guides to lead tourist visit tropical forests, and involved in their traditional agricultural activities and festivals, like the water festival.

With an increase in revenue, Dai people would be more willing to preserve the forests. The collaboration could also build the trust between villagers and government.

Other approaches

  • Develop the scientific value of Long forests: Since 1998, many Chinese and foreign scientists have visited Mandan to study local ecology and endemic fauna and flora. In one Dai village, a traditional medicines preservation group, select 4ha area as “Medicinal Plants Preserved Area” has been established which could be popularized. Dai traditional medicine also gets funds from United Nations Development Programme Global Environmental Finance (UNDP-GEF).  [4]
  • Multi-species planting: Rubber plantation has caused severe deforestation and land degradation. Previous research demonstrates that single-species plantation of rubber on a land behaves the poorest in preserving biodiversity and soil fertility. Whereas a mixing plantation with tea or other tropical fruits shows a better capacity.[11] Instead of telling farmers where and what to grow, (like the rubber plantation in 1980s or the "Upland Conversion" in 1990s) encouraging them to plant in a more conservative way while preserving their benefits at the same time would be more desirable.
  • Enhance communication with NGOs: intermediate NGOs, especially those international ones, would have a more significant influence on the government. Villagers could actively contact NGOs to let them have more understanding with their situations so that NGOs could directly help Dai people. 
  • Establish museums about Dai cultures and hold seminars with Dai people to inherit their traditional knowledge of forest management. The museum could also be managed collaboratively with the revenue shared with Dai people.
  • empowerment of village committees: since the village committee is regulated as a unit of the government, villagers could form alternative inter-village committees and organizations with individual rights and actions to strive for attention. For example, in the Jozani case, local people built and registered their own NGOs, JECA(Jozani Environmental Conservation Association) and MICA(Misali Island Conservation Association).[10]
  • Specify forest laws: the forest department could consider increased flexibility in proposing land tenure arrangements for forestry land based on local situations and preferences and Dai people’s traditional management of Long forests.
  1. 1.01.1 Xishuangbanna administrative office. (2018, June 20). Xishuangbanna Information. Xishuangbanna Government. Retrieved from
  2. Cao, M., Zou, X., Warren, M., & Zhu, H. (2006). Tropical Forests of Xishuangbanna, China. Biotropica, 38(3), 306-309. doi: 10.1111/j. 1744-7429.2006.00146.x
  3. Chen, J., Li, Q., Liu, H., Xu, Y., &Xu, Z. (2007). Investigation of traditional forest resource management of Dai people in Xishuangbanna. Journal of Anhui Agricultural Science, 35(19), 5844-5866. Retrieved from
  4. 4.04.1 Li, H., &Yan, Y. (2016). Xishuangbanna, Yunnan: Protecting the "green pearl" on the tropic of cancer. Xinhuanet. Retrieved from
  5. Liu, L., Wu, Z., &Xu, H. (2001). The tradition and its changes of natural resources use in a Dai village in Xishuangbanna. Chinese Journal of Ecology, 20(4), 42-45. doi:10.3321/j.issn:1000-4890.2001.04.012
  6. Biodiversity Information System of Europe. (2010). Ecosystem services. BISE. Retrieved from
  7. Zheng, B. (2006). Changes and trends in forest tenure and institutional arrangements for collective forest resources in Yunnan province, China (Forest Policy and Institutions Working Paper 14). Rome: Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.
  8. Colchester, M. (2003). Community forestry in Yunnan (China): The challenge for networks (Learning from international community forestry networks: China country study). Bogor: Center for International Forestry Research.
  9. Zhang, L., Kono, Y., Kobayashi, S., Hu, H., Zhou, R., & Qin, Y. (2015). The expansion of smallholder rubber farming in Xishuangbanna, China: A case study of two Dai villages. Land Use Policy, 42, 628-634. doi:10.1016/j.landusepol.2014.09.015
  10. 10.010.1 Menzies, N. K. (2007). Chapter 3: Jozani Forest, Ngezi Forest, and Misali Island, Zanzibar. In Our forest, your ecosystem, their timber: communities, conservation, and the State in community-based forest management. New York: Columbia University Press.
  11. Liu, H., Xu, Z., & Chen A. (1998). An assessment of the impacts of land Use on plant biodiversity in Xishuangbanna, China. Acta Phytoecologica Sinica, 22(6), 518-511. doi 10.3321/j.issn:1005-264X.1998.06.006

Seekiefer (Pinus halepensis) 9months-fromtop.jpg
This conservation resource was created by Shuyue Xu.

Post image: By Colin W. CC BY-SA 3.0.