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Community-Based Forest Fire Management in Wenyime Village, Sanchahe Township, Dayao County, Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province, China

By Zhang Lichang, Wu Long, Zhao Yaqiao and Lu Caizhen

October 2001
Center for Community Development Studies (CDS)
133 Qixiang Road, Kunming, Yunnan 650032


Many environmental problems, such as global warming, greenhouse effects, soil erosion, desertification, water resource degradation, loss of biodiversity and excessive flooding, have been linked directly or indirectly to the decrease in forest cover. One cause of the rapid decrease in forest cover is the effects of various natural disasters. Among non-natural events, excessive logging can be blamed for much of the loss. Of the many natural disasters, fire has had a pronounced influence on forest cover. Although forest fires are difficult to prevent altogether, proper management and control can reduce their occurrence and spread, or at least minimize the damage that they may cause. Prevention and control of forest fire has always been an important part of disaster prevention and relief. Appropriate forest fire management has not only important repercussions for human well-being, but also a profound significance for forest resource protection, restoration effects and sustainable economic development.

This study investigates community involvement in fire management as a way to strengthen forest development, fire prevention and the management of forests and woodlands in Yunnan Province. The objectives of the study are to:

The strategies used to reach these objectives were: collection of primary data and statistics on forest fire management, and evaluation of local people's awareness about fire management. There was an emphasis on traditional sources of fire, methods of using fire and managing fire for productive and non-productive uses. These include the causes of forest fires, prevention methods and village rules and regulations. The study also provides background information on China's fire management policies and includes recommendations for the further development of such policies.

The criteria for site selection included: frequent fire occurrences; degraded landscape; fire management challenges; the government's interest in collaborating; community involvement; and significant achievements with CBFiM. With collaboration from the headquarters of Yunnan Provincial Forest Fire Management Office, the Wenyime natural village in Dayao county, Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture was selected as the site for studying CBFiM in Yunnan Province. The reasons for selecting Wenyime were as follows:


A total of 18 days were spent in Wenyime village. In the first stage, the research team spent four days listening to the introductions of the township and village leaders and discussed forest resources, forest fire management organizations and forest fire disaster time lines. In the second stage, the members of the research team stayed in the village for 11 days to hold group discussions with the following groups of villagers:

A workshop was held for household heads.

Semi-structured interviews, forest resources stakeholder analysis, questionnaires and ranking were used to obtain primary data and relevant information. Key informant interviews were also carried out; key informants included elementary school teachers, the former party secretary, elders, neighbouring villagers, and people who had been punished for starting fires. In the third stage, the research team spent three days completing the collection of secondary data, crosschecking primary data and giving feedback of the study results to the township and village leaders.


From the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 until 1990, China had an average of 15 619 forest fire events each year (1996 inspection tour, National People's Congress). The average forest area damaged by fires was 930 000 ha per year. The forest fire incidence rate was 11.1 occurrences per 100 000 ha of forest area. Every year, the forest fire damage rate was 0.706 percent (the area of fire-damaged forest divided by the country's total forest area). On average, 103 people were killed and 643 injured by fires each year. Since the 1987 forest fire in Daxinganling, each level of government has strengthened its leadership on forest fire management and adopted more effective measures. In the past ten years, forest fires have decreased significantly. Between 1990 and 1995, the number of forest fire events decreased to 5 768 per year and the average forest fire incidence rate to 4.4 occurrences per 100 000 ha per year. Compared with values from 1990, the number of forest fires in 1995 had decreased by 63.1 percent, and the incidence rate by 58.5 percent. The area of forest damaged by fire was reduced to 38 800 ha per year, amounting to a forest damage rate of 0.029 percent between 1990 and 1995. Compared with figures from 1990, the damaged forest area had decreased by 95.3 percent, to become lower than the world average of 0.1 percent of forest area burnt. The number of deaths resulting from forest fires also decreased from 1990 to 1995: 49 people died and 203 were injured in fires every year. The number of deaths and injuries had therefore decreased by 53.4 and 68.4 percent, respectively.

In 1996, about 4 948 fires took place in China, and forest fire alarms were sounded on 2 156 occasions. Fire occurrences included categories of ordinary forest fires (2 779), major forest fires (ten) and extraordinary forest fires (three). The damaged forest area was 148 985 ha. The forest fire incidence rate was 3.8 occurrences per 100 000 ha, and the damage rate was 1.13. In 1996, 105 people were injured and 75 killed. Compared with 1995, the number of fire occurrences decreased by 4.8 percent; the damaged forest area increased by 155.9 percent; the number of injuries decreased by 36.7 percent; and the number of deaths increased by 82.9 percent. Three extraordinary forest fires in Mongolian forests increased the damaged area significantly. Regarding the causes of forest fires in 1996, productive uses of fire such as prescribed burning or wasteland burning caused 2 355 fires, comprising 47.6 percent of the total ignitions; nonproductive uses of fire, such as smoking or burning paper when visiting graves, caused 2 474 fires, accounting for 50 percent of known ignitions; arson caused 54 fires, making up 1.1 percent of known causes; lightning caused 16 fires; and fires from other countries caused five forest fires1.

1987 was a turning point in China's forest fire management activities. Since 1987, China's forest fire management has made great progress through joint efforts on the part of government and civil society. The following steps were taken:

Since 1987, leaders at all levels of government have paid greater attention to forest fire management issues. Consciousness has been strengthened, and forest fire management has made three fundamental shifts: forest fire management work has changed from depending solely on forestry departments to giving greater responsibility to multiple departments working collaboratively with civil society; work has changed from arousing the masses on fire management passively (after the fact) to more proactive measures of pre-fire management and fire control - professional teams now realize the goal of fire control at early stages, i.e. when fires are small and of low intensity and where the communities' collaboration allows for quick and effective control; and previously simple administrative management has evolved into integrated control in which combined administrative methods are used with economic and legal incentives.

Forest fire situation in Yunnan Province

Yunnan is one of China's key national forest areas. It is rich in forest resources but also very prone to fire. Every year, more than 2 700 forest fire events occur, in which 1.7 million ha of forest is consumed by fire. From 1951 to 1999, 130 000 occurrences of fire burnt 8 622 million ha of forests. Over the same period, 658 people died and 1 944 were injured by fire. The losses to the economy were estimated at 4 billion yuan. The latest statistics show that in 1999, 964 forest fire events occurred, burning 10 469 ha, killing 12 people and injuring 185.

Prevention and control of forest fire in Dayao County

The Chinese Communist Party and Government in Dayao county have paid great attention to forest fire management, especially after the Daxinganling forest fire in 1987. Under the attention and appropriate leadership of these institutions, with the collaborative effort of each level's government and the communities, forest fire management has made significant progress. In 1992, Dayao received the prize for the best advanced forest fire management unit in Yunnan Provincial Government for the following reasons:


Wenyime is one of 14 villages participating in the village committee of Sanchahe township, Dayao county. Wenyime village is situated on the Datianling plateau, eight km from Sanchahe administrative village. Han and Yi nationalities have been living together here for more than a century. The village's 42 households have a total population of 186 people, 90 of them male and 96 female (fifth census, November 2000). The Han nationality makes up 60 percent of the total population. The cultivated land area covers 202 mu (1 ha = 15 mu), of which 25 mu are paddy fields and the remaining 177 mu irrigated fields. The average farming land area is 1.08 mu per capita. The yearly grain output is 51 600 kg. The average grain output is 276 kg per capita. The main crops are maize, rice, broad bean and some other coarse foodgrains. Tobacco is the main cash crop with a yearly planting area of 118 mu and a total output of 18 762 kg. There are 95 cattle, 39 mules and horses, 85 goats and 134 pigs. In 2000, the total income of the group was 284 700 yuan per year, of which, 51 600 yuan was from agriculture, 93 800 yuan from tobacco, 74 600 yuan from animal husbandry, 49 700 yuan from forestry, and 5 000 yuan from other sources. The average annual income is 1 530 yuan per capita. Most households live in tiled houses surrounded by walls on three sides. The village is reached by road, and electricity was connected in 1997. Some households have TV, video, and grain and fodder processing machines.

The main mountain is Hongjia, which forms a tower-shaped landscape with Datianling plateau at its peak. Soils are fertile and suitable for tree growing. The forest land area is 5 600 mu. Vegetation is subtropical green broadleaf trees and the Yunnan pine belt. The main tree species are Yunnan pine (Pinus yunnanensis), Chinese fir (Keteleeria evekynina) and sawtooth oak (Quercus acutissima). The forest cover rate is 40.7 percent and the average forest area per capita is 30.1 mu. The village has cash trees such as walnut, chestnut, peach, plum, pear, bamboo and apple. Walnut has an annual output of 3 091 kg and chestnut output is 362 kg which, together with wild mushrooms and fuelwood, generated an income of 49 700 yuan in 1999. Income from NTFP makes up 17.5 percent of the total income.

Landownership and use rights for forest resources are related to the development, prosperity and subsequent decline of forestry in China. Stable forest tenure is essential for effective protection of forest resources. Since the People's Republic of China was established, forest ownership had gone through six distinct policy changes 2. The most recent experimental Responsibility Mountain policy was first implemented in 1985. Under this policy, 2 100 mu was allocated to the Wenyime village community, with ownership belonging to the collective and individual households owning the forests and trees. This has provided the incentive for households to manage forest and to control fire. The Responsibility Mountain certificate that was issued allocated 37.5 percent of the village collective mountain area. Each household has an average area of 50 mu of mountain forest, with a maximum of 109 mu and a minimum of 20 mu. Now that each household has its own mountain forest, they have invested in, benefited from and managed the forest by themselves. The confirmation of rights, responsibility and benefits of this Household Running Hills policy improved forest fire management initiatives, as well as forestry development for the collective and households. This type of community-based approach is further explored in this case study.

Forest fire and its impacts

Historically, Wenyime village has used slash-and-burn cultivation for agricultural production and other fires for improving pastoral lands. This practice is based on indigenous knowledge that "the soil would not be rich without fire burning the hills", and "the grass would not grow, so the goats would not be strong, without fire burning the hills". Such knowledge was handed down, so forest fires took place frequently. During discussions, elders stated that there had been more than ten occurrences of forest fire since the establishment of the People's Republic of China, the largest of which took place in March 1965. This fire was caused by a neighbouring village shepherd making a fire to warm himself. The fire continued for more than one month. The following facts emerged during investigation of this fire:

These are only a few of the effects of the 1965 fire. The former village leader claimed that the fire had a positive impact because it encouraged the next generation to remember the potential effects of fire. The memory of this fire would be handed down from generation to generation, reminding people that "Forest fire can be merciless. Forest fire management is necessary to minimize its effects on the community".


In order to evaluate the sources of ignition and the cultural uses of fire within the village, 37 surveys were taken from different stakeholder groups (elders, women, main forest households, shepherds, young people and village leader groups). The main topic of the survey was "do you know the productive and non-productive uses/sources of fire in Wenyime village". Thirty-six of the surveys were returned. The following are the productive uses of fire in Wenyime village:

The non-productive sources are:

Villagers' habits and consciousness in managing fire

Except for one fire alarm caused by a child playing with fire in February 1982, there has been no significant fire since that of March 1965. The 1965 fire was the first forest fire in Sanchahe township and the last significant forest fire in Wenyime village, which had no forest fires in the 35 years from 1966 to 2000. During discussions with elders, women, forest households, shepherds and young people, the following components of CBFiM in Wenyime village were identified:

Villagers' role in preventing and controlling forest fire

Based on this study, the farmers are the main body in forest fire prevention and control. The farmers in Wenyime village joint action depend on two factors: they have had clear forest tenure since 1982 and now obtain such forest products as timber for house construction, leaves for animal stables and fertilizer, fodder, fuelwood, fruits and a comfortable living environment, all of which influence their behaviour; and the government has formulated requirements and strict regulations. The punishment for causing a forest fire or not actively participating in its control is severe, and everyone is deterred by it. The role of the villagers in forest fire prevention and control are as follows:

Villagers' indigenous methods and regulations for fire management

The main indigenous regulations are as follows:


Forest fire can potentially harm forest resources. After 35 years, the effects of having villagers cultivate, manage and protect the 5 600 mu of forest are clear. The following are some of the effects of CBFiM on forest resources protection:


In China, forest fire prevention and control is more of a top-down than a bottom-up process. Planning, regulations, cost and management all come from the government; the local community thus has a limited role in decision-making. Experiences from Wenyime village have the potential to provide recommendations for forest fire prevention policy that emphasize the local community's ability to manage fire. They also demonstrate how to encourage and build on the local community's interest in protecting forests. Forest fire management has a tight and direct relationship with forest tenure. The Responsibility Mountain policy has given benefits and income to the villagers so that they have the incentive to participate in fire management, and the effects of this have been positive. The most effective forest fire prevention regulations are not necessarily those of the government or outsiders. In Wenyime village, the community discussed and formulated regulations of its own, which are very effective. Awareness building about forest fire management is a long but important process. The attitude and behaviour of Wenyime villagers are the result of 35 years of capacity building, awareness raising and the benefits derived from CBFiM practices.


It is necessary to find CBFiM models that supplement the current top-down and government-dominated forest fire management approach. The Chinese saying that "A single spark can start a prairie fire" is quite true. It is necessary to perform more studies on CBFiM and to summarize some key elements that may foster the formulation of more CBFiM models that are appropriate to China. For example:

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