Whereas the prospective benefits of formalization programs are well-understood and received, less attention has been placed on the feasibility of such actions. This paper studies titling under China's Collective Forest Tenure Reform. We employ the Formal, Actual, and Targeted (FAT) Institutional Framework, based on the ‘credibility thesis’, to examine whether titling increases tenure credibility. To do so, we draw upon interviews and surveys collected in the Wuling Mountain Area (Southwest China), and compare formal policy objectives to households’ targeted (desired) preferences and actual forest rights. Our findings show divergences between formal and targeted versus actual rights. While titles were widely issued, socially supported, and farmers deemed boundaries and plot sizes clear, there is a paradox: (i) half of forest titles did not record boundaries; (ii) boundaries were not uniformly recorded; (iii) no on-site surveying had taken place; (iv) plot data were based on replicating older data, estimates, or averages; (v) titles had not been issued in contested areas; (vi) farmers had a weak legal understanding of ownership and lease rights. We argue that due to pressure from the central government to complete titling in five years, forest registration has emerged as an 'empty institution': an institutional compromise where spatial complexities were disregarded and neglected during implementation. Although seemingly credible at present, such outcomes of formalization bear the risk that future changes could easily dampen the reform's institutional efforts and intentions.
- Credibility thesis and theory
- Empty institution
- FAT Framework
- Forest reform