Nomads in ‘no man’s land’: how China’s policies risk the extinction of Tibetan pastoralism

Following is the English version of an article by ICT President Matteo Mecacci in Spanish that appeared in Newsweek En Español (September 11, 2017 issue). The issue’s cover story was on Tibet and included an interview with Dr. Lobsang Sangay, President of the Central Tibetan Administration.

Nomads in ‘no man’s land’: how China’s policies risk the extinction of Tibetan pastoralism

By: Matteo Mecacci

In Krakow, Poland, this summer, a decision was made to give UNESCO World Heritage status to a vast expanse of lakes and wetlands high on the Roof of the World, in Tibet. China’s nomination to the global cultural heritage body was indicative of its ambitious and sweeping policies on the Tibetan plateau – developments that literally re-shaping the landscape of the world’s highest and largest plateau.

UNESCO World Heritage branding is highly sought after – it brings in more tourists, and China is developing Tibet as a mass tourism destination. So approval by the World Heritage Committee was an outcome that the Chinese government had sought, presumably keeping in mind an important meeting of the top leadership on October 18. President and Party boss Xi Jinping is expected to consolidate his power at the 19th Communist Party Congress in Beijing.

But there are unexpected consequences to awarding this part of Tibet UNESCO’s brand equity. The area under discussion at the World Heritage Committee meeting this summer was the Hoh Xil nature reserve on the Tibetan plateau (Achen Gangyap in Tibetan), a fragile river source area twice the size of Belgium that is rich in wildlife, including the iconic Tibetan antelope or chiru that was used as the mascot for Beijing’s 2008 Olympic Games.

Although China described the area as ‘no man’s land’, it should more accurately be termed nomads land. Tibetan pastoralists have made skillful use of the dry landscape here and across the plateau for centuries, co-existing peacefully with wildlife and protecting the land. One Tibetan, Sonam Dargye, has become legendary there after he was shot dead by poachers due to his efforts to save these antelopes.

The involvement of Tibetans – and nomads in particular – as stewards is essential to sustaining the long-term health of the ecosystems, and the water resources in Hoh Xil and other river source areas that China and Asia depend upon. 

But despite this, recognizing the area as World Heritage required tacit acquiescence by the UNESCO Committee with China’s ambitious and elaborate state-engineering policies including, most notably, the removal of Tibetan nomads from their land.

Official policies in the PRC of confiscating pastoral land and displacing nomads, which give the authorities greater administrative control over people’s movements and lifestyles, mean that since 2000, tens of thousands of Tibetan pastoralists have been compelled to slaughter their livestock and move into newly built housing colonies in or near towns, abandoning their traditional way of life. Many Tibetan nomads from Hoh Xil and adjoining river source areas have already been removed from their land to urban areas including the petrochemical and industrial center of Golmud (Tibetan: Gormo) in Qinghai, where they live in concrete compounds facing increasing difficulties, lacking skills or language ability to compete with Chinese workers, and leading to increasing poverty, environmental degradation and social breakdown.

Not only are these policies threatening one of the world’s last systems of sustainable pastoralism, but scientific evidence shows that these policies are threatening the survival of the grasslands and Tibet’s biodiversity. There is a consensus globally that settling nomads runs counter to the latest evidence on lessening the impact of grasslands degradation, which points to the need for livestock mobility in ensuring the health of the rangelands and mitigating negative warming impacts.

China has recently announced that it is considering turning a vast area of the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau into a huge national park. At face value this appears to be a positive development – didn’t the Dalai Lama propose Tibet should be recognized as a Zone of Peace, and doesn’t leader Xi Jinping want the PRC to be an ‘ecological civilization’?

But the development is not what it seems. When an area has national park status in the PRC, grazing is banned as traditional pastoral land-use is labeled as a ‘threat’, and so are traditional nomadic activities such as the gathering of medicinal herbs. This means the removal of Tibetan nomads who have protected the landscape for so long, risking the survival of pastoralism, livelihoods and Tibetan cultural identity across the plateau.

And while Tibetans are shut out, Chinese tourists and security personnel are allowed in. National park status is imposed from the top-down, situating the state as the sole agency of control, and ignoring the concerns and expertise of local people.

These developments are of increasing concern even within China. A growing number of Chinese professors and rangelands experts have become increasingly critical of government policies, arguing that a series of policy mistakes has caused overgrazing and degradation in Tibet’s grasslands – not the nomadic pastoralists themselves. More than 200 research papers have been published in China documenting scientific findings that no longer confirm the dominant official narrative by the Chinese leadership.

Professor Li Wenjun is one of those voices; she found that resettling large numbers of pastoralists into towns exacerbates poverty and worsens water scarcity. In published studies, she has said that traditional grazing practices benefit the land. “We argue that a system of food production such as the nomadic pastoralism that was sustainable for centuries using very little water is the best choice,” she wrote in a recent article.

Other Chinese scholars have been profoundly influenced by the spiritual values that underpin Tibetan nomads’ relationship with the landscape. A Tibetan nomad explained to us: “The grassland is both the home and a source of life for Tibetan herdsmen. We, Tibetan people, since ancient times, have been living on the meadows surrounded by snow-capped mountains and the blue sky. Depending mainly on animal husbandry, our people have eaten well and lived happily for generations after generations. We believe in Buddhism. We have lived in harmony with nature. It is this that makes our Tibetan culture unique and attracts attention from the world’s developed countries.”

As China’s top leaders meet in Beijing for the Party Congress in October, they would do well to consider questions of Tibet’s ‘ecological civilization’, beyond the Party rhetoric. As the earth’s Third Pole, Tibet is the source of most of Asia’s major rivers, of critical significance to the rest of the world, not only to the Tibetan and Chinese people.

It is an urgent moment to listen to Tibetans themselves who are on the frontline of skillful work to protect their environment, as well as to those within the PRC who understand that displacing nomads from the grasslands into concrete encampments or industrial cities is deeply counter-productive, risking the evisceration of a sustainable way of life uniquely adapted to the harsh landscape of the high plateau.

As Chinese environmentalist Lu Zie concludes: “We’ve often wondered which would work best: laws, which are based on punishment or economic incentives that are based on financial rewards. But the Buddhist system is different. It comes from the heart of the people.”

– Matteo Mecacci is President of the International Campaign for Tibet www.savetibet.org

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