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Best Practices on Indigenous Knowledge MOST/CIRAN


Ecological restoration of degraded watershed on the upper reaches of the Minjiang River; Integration of Qiang ethno-botanical knowledge and practices into a reforestation project


The Qiang people mainly inhabit the valleys of the Minjiang River (a main branch of the Yangtze) in Sichuan Province. This region is important for its mountain forests, which are a major source of water for the Yangtze. What takes place in these mountain ecosystems has far-reaching effects on the areas downstream. Large-scale deforestation and population growth over the last four decades have resulted in serious degradation in this area. In just four decades, it is estimated that the forests have shrunk from 40 per cent of the land area to 10 per cent. This has caused a loss of biodiversity.

Since the 1980s the government of China, recognizing the need for ecological restoration, has funded a programme entitled "Construction of a Protective Forest System on the Upper Reaches of the Yangtze River". Productive land, including newly cultivated fields, some of them on steep slopes, has been forcibly set aside for protection and reforestation.

From the beginning, the project to rehabilitate this watershed has incorporated indigenous knowledge of the Qiang people. Their knowledge of medicinal plants has played an important role in the conservation of biodiversity, and Qiang practices of forest management and home-gardening have been integrated into the project. Because the collection and cultivation of plants for herbal medicines were an important source of income for the Qiang people, the cultivation of these plants was integrated into the project to plant trees. This helped to guarantee the participation of local farmers in ecological conservation, which in turn increased the economic return from the reforestation investment.


COUNTRY: People’s Republic of China
Region: Sichuan Province
the upper reaches of the Minjiang River
Neighbourhood/village: Maoxian County


At present trees are being planted in terraces: i.e. horizontal bands of original vegetation (shrubs and grasses) are alternated with bands that are planted with tree seedlings. Indigenous species are preserved in the bands of original vegetation, which also prevent soil erosion.

In the area where the Qiang live, the collection of wild medicinal plants is a traditional source of income. Some of the plants are used locally, but most are sold. Because of this market, Qiang farmers cleared fields for cultivating the plants on a large scale in addition to growing them in their home gardens. This indigenous agroforestry model—meaning that the people know exactly which plants to cultivate and how--was incorporated into the national projects. This not only maintains local traditions of forestry management but also promotes the participation of local people in conservation projects.


Economic sustainability:

The practice provides income for local people and guarantees their participation in the project. This reduces the need for government and development agencies to make large investments.

Environmental sustainability:

The practice of alternating bands of new trees with bands of original vegetation creates an ideal habitat for medicinal plant cultivation, increases the diversity of species in forest stands, and protects the soil against erosion from water runoff.
It is common in China for reforestation projects to ban local people from entering the woodlands. But the Qiang people have a tradition of cultivating medicinal plants in common woodlands and around their homes. If this had not been taken into account, the reforestation project would not have been sustainable. It is sustainable because it not only focused on planting trees; it also opened up the woodlands to local people. They may cultivate medicinal plants under the tree canopy as they have always done. Because these plants need shade, local people have always understood the need to plant trees first. This step in their indigenous practice is now supported by project funds, but they still finance the cultivation of medicinal plants themselves. This cultivation surely increases the diversity of woodlands, and if reforestation projects are managed in this way, local people will surely protect the newly reforested lands.

Other types of sustainability:

The traditional medicinal knowledge of the Qiang people has acquired higher status as a result of the reforestation project. This helps to ensure that local traditions are passed on to future generations.


Some 300-400 households have taken part in the project and benefited from it. Both farmers and scientists have played major roles:

  • With support from government and technical assistance from scientists, farmers cultivate medicinal plants or other cash crops under the reforested canopy. They are not paid, but are themselves responsible for planting, harvesting and marketing the medicinal plants. They keep any income these activities generate.
  • Scientists were responsible for designing the models according to biological and ecological principles, but they first investigated the local socio-economic situation. This led them to suggest integrating traditional practices of medicinal herb cultivation into the reforestation project.


Small agroforestry-based gardens and the opening up of common woodlands for the cultivation of medicinal plants and other local cash crops eliminate the need for farmers to go into the natural forests or protected areas. The emphasis on both economic and ecological sustainability has meant that the national project encourages the development of agroforestry in overpopulated farming areas and on steep slopes and other marginal land. This has contributed greatly to increasing the environmental stability of the mountains.


The integration of cash crops into a reforestation project is directly related to external markets. The fluctuation in market prices is severe and quite frequent, however, while information pertaining to the market is slow to reach the remote mountainous regions. This has a negative effect on farmers’ incomes from cultivation.


In collaboration with government forestry departments, funds for reforestation were used mainly to purchase seedlings, pay for technical assistance, and provide training and demonstrations. Local farmers invested their own labour. Policies that made local farmers responsible for managing the forests and harvesting the non-timber forest products have encouraged farmers to conserve these resources. They know that a re-vegetated environment produces more medicinal plants for them to collect, and that a healthy canopy of trees provides the stable, shady habitat needed to cultivate their plants.


The integration of indigenous practices into a development project in this case has had at least six positive results. It has:

  • improved the living standards of the rural poor;
  • saved project money;
  • accelerated the process of ecological restoration;
  • increased the economic return from a conservation project;
  • improved environmental conditions;
  • safeguarded natural forests and their valuable genetic resources.

The practice can be replicated under certain conditions and following certain adaptations:

  • Different cash crops need different specific habitats.
  • Local farmers need to have a tradition of cultivating the plants in question, and must possess the required skills.
  • There should be potential markets for the products.
The cultivation of plants for herbal medicine is very popular in China and not only limited to one ethnic group. But each group has its own species and practices. Planting trees in terraces on slopes is an extension of the indigenous practice of the Qiang people, who planted cash crops in this way, including the Zanthoxylum, a kind of pepper which has traditionally provided one of the Qiang’s traditional remedies.

The IK best practice as described here has been replicated only in the mountainous region of western Sichuan by the Chengdu Institute of Biology, of the Chinese Academy of Science.

Anyone thinking of replicating the practice should take the following into account:

  • The Chengdu Institute of Biology and the Maoxian Forestry Bureau have an agreement regarding the practice. Anyone wishing to replicate it should first ask their permission.
  • Not all Chinese reforestation projects serve both ecological and economic purposes. Not all help to alleviate the poverty of local people. In remote mountain areas, however, a simple reforestation project with only an ecological orientation would be difficult to sustain, since any effort requires the full support of the local population. The problem then is to achieve the combination—projects that directly benefit both the environment and the economic circumstances of the local population.
April 1990 to January 2000.

USD 340,000.00 (= 34,839.98 p/year)


  • Enci Enterprise
  • Local government
  • National government

Dr. Ning Wu
Academia Sinica
E-mail: wuning@public.cd.sc.cn
(Address see below)


Academia Sinica
Chengdu Institute of Biology
Center for Ecological Restoration and Development Studies
P.O. Box 416
610041 Chengdu, Sichuan
Telephone: +86-28-5229243 / 5229783 / 5229115
Fax: +86-28-5222753
E-mail: cascib@public.sc.cninfo.net

Cooperating organizations:

Forestry Bureau of Maoxian
623200 Fengyi Town, Sichuan, Maoxian County

Enci Enterprise Corp
(Address not available)

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