Large-scale bioenergy and oil forestry programs in rural China : an institutional analysis

Jia Li

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


Liquid biofuel from oil crops are broadly promoted globally, among which biofuel from perennial wood species, as well as from bushes and small trees such as jatropha. In China, oil-bearing small trees, which mainly grow on slope land, are applied as so-called bioenergy and oil forests for liquid biofuel production. The national government in China has devised a series of laws and policies to promote bioenergy and oil forest programs. In this study, the focus is on jatropha and camellia programs. Similar as other afforestation programs, bioenergy and oil forest programs may face similar institutional problems in their implementation. In addition, China experienced decentralization in forestry sectors. In investigating the institutional problems China faces in implementing bioenergy and oil forestry programs, this research concentrates on the role of three institutions: property rights, the governance structure and farmer incentives. The general objective of this research is to investigate how these three institutions impact on the implementation of large-scale bioenergy and oil forestry programs, and whether and how these institutions enable, constrain and condition farmers’ participation in these programs. Both qualitative institutional analyses and quantitative econometric analyses are employed, based on empirical fieldwork in China. The study has led to a number of interesting insights related to each of the three institutional aspects.

First, good governance, which includes stakeholder participation, plays a crucial role in the success of large-scale forestry programs. As forestry entails a long-term investment, how to set-up good and sustainable governance architecture is very important, but also challenging. The research shows that large-scale bioenergy and oil forestry programs in China are moving from government-organized, centralized, top-down governance architectures to multi-level and multi-actor governance arrangements, which involve market-based mechanisms and private actors such as private companies, NGOs, international agencies, communities and individual farmers. Large bioenergy and oil forestry programs in China can be distinguished as those driven and implemented by the government and those driven and implemented by market arrangements. As such, this structure confirms that new roles and interaction patterns between government and markets are present in contemporary transitional China. Another finding is that jatropha’s failure in China can be attributed to the institutional environment, such as poor implementation and enforcement of monitoring and sanctioning rules. Rules to prevent the withdrawal of a company and executing such rules are crucial to keep companies committed. Finally, convergent “time perspectives” of different actors in forestry institutional arrangements is important in the success of large-scale forestry programs.

The second set of results relates to the role of property rights and property rights reform. Since 2003, there is a new trend of devolution in forest tenure in China. Five different forest tenure regimes have been identified in this research: Collective, Collective-Individual, Company, Partnership, and Individual. The study indicates that the devolution process in tenure reform redistributed the user rights to local stakeholders. It also confirms that the de-collectivization process and the tenure reform have resulted in a diversification of management forms. Based on the New Property Rights Theory, it is hypothesized that the five forest tenure regimes differ in terms of residual control and income rights, implying different degrees of tenure security for farm households. The research findings confirm that in general tenure regimes with higher degrees of tenure security trigger higher household investment. Furthermore, the risk of future expropriation negatively affects farmers’ participation in forestry projects.

Finally, the study addresses the question of farmer incentives and benefits. For large-scale forestry projects engaging smallholders in forestry is vital for the success of the project, with respect to a balanced socio-economic development in poor rural areas and guaranteed long-term success. Forestry development potentially improves the livelihoods of famers by increasing their income, and poverty alleviation has always been an important objective of bioenergy and oil forestry programs. Although these programs often provide financial support and technical services, some farmers are still not able to join. For instance, the participation rate of farmers in the camellia program was only 37%. Moreover, the participation level varied among counties and villages, because farmers’ participation is still constrained by their capacity in terms of wealth, labour endowment and education. Finally, forestry programs generate different benefit distribution impacts on farm households under different forest project implementation regimes. Results show that five implementation regimes of camellia plantations can be distinguished, i.e. Individual, Partnership, Collective-Individual, Collective, Company, each having their own specifics of project access and benefit distribution among smallholders. Collective-individual, Collective, and Company forest implementation regimes perform better in terms of program access and equal benefit distribution than Individual and Partnership regimes. But also for the former three regimes, village leaders and companies may seize substantial project benefit reducing the benefits to and marginal smallholders.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Mol, Arthur, Promotor
  • Bluemling, Bettina, Co-promotor
  • Dries, Liesbeth, Co-promotor
Award date17 Dec 2013
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789461738165
Publication statusPublished - 2013


  • forestry
  • property rights
  • stakeholders
  • governance
  • participation
  • farmers
  • bioenergy
  • china


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