As a result of heavy pressures on natural resources and environment by the demands of economic growth, protected area management in China is facing severe challenges. The rapid increase in the number of protected areas in China does not automatically improve the conditions of conservation, but to a greater or lesser extent intensifies the conflict between protected area authorities and local communities. The major aim of this thesis is to explore this conflict.
The basic hypothesis in this research is that sustainable management of protected areas depends on effective integration of ecological, economic, community and institutional components, which has been examined through the following four propositions:
1) Economic development is the key to induce local people to support the activities of biodiversity conservation;
2) Traditional ecological knowledge can be an important component in assisting the management of protected areas;
3) Ecotourism can play an important part in participatory management of natural resources and common prosperity between protected areas and the local community; and
4) Well developed administrative systems and policies which fit into the context of China will help integrate conservation with local development.
This research, which was initiated in 1997, started with gathering and analysing secondary data to understand the conditions of target areas and to design the research methods and schemes. A major case study was conducted in Wuyishan Biosphere Reserve, Fujian Province, China. I participated in multi-disciplinary teams which were constituted to conduct three field work studies in Wuyishan Nature Reserve during 1997-1998. Data collection m seven other nature reserves in China, which had been chosen on the basis of their protected area type and geographical location, gave me important information on how the nature reserve system functions and the problems that exist between nature reserves and local communities. Over one hundred in-depth interviews were conducted with villagers and village leaders in local communities where nature reserves are located and approximately 50 interviews with central and local government officials and nature reserve managers. I conducted a national survey of China's nature reserve managers on the broad topic of protected area management with specific reference to community participation. In addition, I had the honour of being invited by the Chinese National Committee for MAB to present in two important national conferences, titled the Third CBRN Conference and Co-Management Workshop and the National Conference on Ecotourism Management in Nature Reserves. This led to several focus group discussions with over one hundred participants during the conferences to share knowledge and understanding concerned with nature reserve management and ecotourism development in China. Further, on behalf of CRC for Sustainable Tourism, I have organised and hosted eight Chinese delegations visiting Australia. These delegations consisted of government officials and protected area managers from the State Forestry Administration (SFA) and the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) and other agencies charged with nature conservation. All these experiences have given me a chance to probe the existing issues between nature reserves and local communities in China. Finally I participated in the analysis and reporting of a China-MAB survey of protected area management on the topic of ecotourism. This allowed me to share information and ideas from team members and broadened my understanding of protected area management and the relationship between protected areas and local communities.
The major case study, which was conducted in Wuyishan Nature Reserve, has indicated that community participation in resource management and nature reserve management to a great extent relies on what economic benefits local people can gain from their participation. The establishment of nature reserves can provide some potential benefits to local people, but none of these benefits automatically accrues from nature reserve status, and in many cases local people have seen few of them. As the case study in Wuyishan Nature Reserve demonstrates, if new kinds of nature reserve partnerships are established, local people who are living inside the nature reserves can become an important force for nature conservation and reserve management. Local people can make significant contributions to the conservation of biodiversity in nature reserves through their traditional ecological knowledge, environmentally sensitive land use practices and resource management.
The interviews in Wuyishan confirmed the presence of a number of target mammal species in the reserve and proved a robust method of wildlife survey. They also suggested erosion of indigenous interest and knowledge of wildlife, with males of advanced years being the most knowledgeable and school children and women being generally more poorly informed. This process of impoverishment over the past 60 years (the age range of the interviewees) marks the transition from a hunter-gatherer economy that derived most of its cash income from the sale of animal products to a more affluent society of bamboo growers.
Ecotourism is becoming a new economic means to raise funds for the maintenance of conservation management in China's protected areas. Ecotourism provides opportunities for benefiting local communities and environmental protection. Nevertheless, the case studies indicate that weaknesses in ecotourism development such as misunderstanding concepts, lagging policies and regulations, incoherent management, lack of qualified staff, weak scientific support and shortages of funds are so dominant that they may threaten the environment. Strategies for operating ecotourism in China's protected areas should both coincide with its overall objectives and correspond to its early stage of development.
Case studies from the other seven nature reserves and questionnaire survey from 83 responses further indicate that lack of funding sources in nature reserves and poor local economy pose obstacles to community participation and a threat to the relationship between reserve authorities and local communities. Both nature reserves and local communities have to struggle for survival by using limited resources within protected areas. Consequently, conflicts over resource use are inevitable since nature reserve managers are reluctant to involve local community participation. Current community participation will remain at a low level while these policies are in place.
Sustainable management of protected areas is a complicated subject, which requires interdisciplinary study and polyfunctional complementarity. These functions, including ecological, economic, community and institutional components, depend on each other and interact. Currently, economic development plays a very important role in China's protected area management because economic development and raising the living standard of Chinese people, especially the rural poor, is the number one priority in China. Therefore, it is crucial to ensure economic development in protected areas in the context of China. Economic development in a sustainable way provides funds for conservation management and alternatives to change some traditional activities such as hunting and logging. Economic development also provides visible benefits for local people and an incentive for community participatory management. On this basis, the natural environment can be protected by reducing adverse impacts; local living conditions can be improved; and partnerships among local peoples, government officials, protected area managers and other development parties will be established. These new alliances may ultimately reshape a sound relationship between local communities and protected areas and promote the sustainable management of protected areas.