ICT Inside Tibet: Tibetan nomads make rare appeal against removal from grasslands

  • Tibetan herders have made a rare appeal to the Chinese authorities after being banned from their traditional grazing grounds, saying that the orders are illegal in the context of Chinese law. The nomads, from a Tibetan area of Qinghai (Amdo) were forced to leave their summer pastures, with large fines being imposed on those who refused and threats of imprisonment. Nomads have also been ordered to leave their grazing land in another area of Qinghai.
  • In their appeal, written by ‘the people of Dernang’ in a county in Golog and addressed to “The respected senior leaders of the People’s Republic of China, and concerned departments”, the Tibetan nomads write: “Taking away citizens’ rights to pastureland is against the constitution, against national and local laws, and a major cause of damage to People’s’ livelihood and way of life.” The appeal, and details about the order from Mangra county, are translated into English from Tibetan below.
  • The petition, which makes a well-reasoned case against the removal of the nomads from their pastures, is a new instance of the sophisticated ways in which Tibetans are challenging counter-productive orders and policies. It is also consistent with a consensus that exists among grasslands experts in the PRC and internationally that Chinese policies of confiscating pastoral land and displacing nomads are detrimental. Scientific evidence points to the importance of a nomadic lifestyle and livestock mobility in ensuring the health of the rangelands and mitigating negative warming impacts on the Tibetan plateau.

No explanation was given to Tibetan nomads in Darlag (Chinese: Dari) county in Golog (Chinese: Guoluo) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai, for the order to move from their traditional grazing lands this summer. This followed a report on social media in June that nomads in a township in Mangra (Chinese: Guinan) county in Tsolho (Chinese: Hainan) prefecture also in Qinghai, were prohibited from using their summer pastures this year, and threatened with fines if they do, demonstrating that the order is not restricted to one area.

On the Tibetan plateau, Qinghai province was the first to advance official PRC policies of nomad settlement, which give the authorities greater administrative control over people’s movements and lifestyles. 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.

According to the petition, on August 8 (2017), in some areas of Darlag county in Golog, officials began the “implementation of a new policy highly prejudicial to the ordinary people’s livelihood.” The deadline of August 23 was set for the nomads to move off their summer grazing land, according to a source who spoke to Radio Free Asia,[1] and though most were able to leave by the assigned date, some did not meet the deadline. The same source said: “So the officials brought in armed police to threaten the nomads who remained, finally forcing them from the land and fining each of them 1,000 yuan [U.S. $152] for failing to obey the order. They were also told that anyone still left behind would be jailed.”

The petition to Chinese leaders, which appears to have been written by a group of Tibetans in Darlag and frames their argument in the context of Chinese law, states: “Restricting the rights of indigenous pastoralists to use their pastures, some small communities were more or less prohibited from using their pastures, some entirely deprived of their summer pasture, and so on. According to the PRC constitution and laws, local law and prevailing social custom, this would appear to be both illegal and in contravention of accepted practice, so we are appealing in the hope that the officials of the PRC People’s Government, putting the interests of the people first, and being committed to the principle of ‘ruling by law’, will show concern, and make a decision in keeping with law and custom.”

The petition, obtained by ICT, gives six cogent reasons why the nomads should not be removed from their summer pastures, including that there is no reason to take pastoralists off the land to achieve “a moderately prosperous society for the masses”, a goal of economic development that has been stated by the authorities.[2] The Tibetans argue that if this is the objective, “The output generated by the existing nomadic means of livelihood based on the rearing of cattle needs to be the basis. This needs to be supported by modern science. Opportunities to expand livestock commerce, butter and cheese production, markets for spun and woven yak wool, hair etc., need to be provided based on the need of today’s people, rather than moving the pastoralist population into towns and cities where they will become like “deer in the fog”, bereft of livelihood or life-direction.”

Another point states that removal of nomads from the pastures is detrimental to environmental protection, an argument that is supported by a scientific consensus among rangelands experts in the PRC and internationally. An increasing 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. A report by the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy on nomadic pastoralism in Tibet cites no less than 243 research reports published in China documenting scientific findings that no longer confirm the dominant official discourse by the Chinese leadership on removing nomads from their pastures.[3]

The petition from Golog states: “It is said rearing of cattle should be abandoned to protect the environment. In general, to protect the environment, mining, which drains the vitality of the earth and causes the vitality of the creatures living on it to dwindle, and all the construction and factories that pollute the air, need to be prevented and stopped. Similarly, if grasslands need to be preserved, those areas seriously affected by desertification and rodent infestation should be conserved and regenerated, not areas like our Dernang, which is hardly affected by desertification and rodent infestation, is filled with natural greenery, and has no history of overgrazing. In such places, to abandon cattle rearing to grow grass and having pastoralists give up rearing cattle and altering their means of livelihood is inconsistent with natural reality and scientific fact. That cattle rearing does not harm the natural environment is corroborated by the experience of the nomads themselves..”

Across Tibet, large-scale mining in copper, gold, silver, chromium and lithium, signaling the remote region’s integration into the Chinese industrial economy, is having a devastating impact, and Tibetans who express even moderate concern risk being imprisoned, tortured, or killed.

In Mangra county, Qinghai, the Chinese authorities announced that nomad communities under its jurisdiction would not be allowed to graze their livestock on the summer pastures, that the more than 900,000 Mu (around 600 km²) of pastureland in the township was off-limits, and anyone in violation of this order would be fined Y50 ($6) per sheep and Y150 ($22) per yak, according to the Tibetan-language Trimleng website, set up by a Tibetan in exile, Drolma Kyab, to provide legal advice to Tibetans on current issues in Tibet.[4]

The Trimleng website includes an image of an official announcing the ban on nomads grazing their livestock on the summer pastures in Guinan, Qinghai. Posted on July 11, 2017.

The Trimleng post, uploaded on July 11 (2017) states: “This is causing misgivings among the public towards the government. This measure by the government poses a major obstacle and interruption to the local nomads’ regular work of rearing yaks and sheep. The nomads, assuming that the government’s order is national law, are reduced to a state of helplessness..” Trimleng further points out that: “According to the constitution of our country, civil law, and property ownership laws, the Sumdo township People’s Government’s way of doing things is clearly against the law”, explaining that: “Through the legal procedure of taking land responsibility contracts, a collective economic organization or village community has user property rights over the acquired contracted land for a contracted period of 50 years, over all the pastureland, including summer pasture – to manage, use and profit from it. This is the private property right specified in the 13th article of the Constitution (the lawful private property of any citizen may not be violated by others). The state is therefore obliged to protect the nomads’ means of livelihood, of using the summer pastures to conduct their pastoral work and to enjoy its output.”

It is the custom of Tibetan nomads to release their sheep and other livestock into the grassland for summer grazing in around June/July. Although no explanation was given by the authorities for the bans in these two areas, according to Tibetan sources, Chinese officials frequently take the position that grazing bans, pasture closures and nomad removals are a scientific necessity in order to grow more grass, capture carbon and protect watersheds, although the opposite is the case. According to a report by Gabriel Lafitte for the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy, “China has failed to enlist the time and knowledge of the pastoralists to do the landcare work of rehabilitating degrading areas, relying instead solely on enclosure and time to achieve rehabilitation. This is contrary to experience worldwide in community based landscape restoration, which relies on local communities to lead the recovery process. […] The accelerating exclusion of pastoralists originates in successive policy failures.”[5]

Nomads living in the Horkor and Takor villages of Dernang township in Darlag county have also been ordered to relocate from areas prepared as winter camps, with a source being quoted by Radio Free Asia as saying:

“But they don’t have anywhere else to go, and are now facing continuing harassment from officials. They are very worried about what is going to happen to them.”[6]

Appeal by the people of Dernang on the pasture issue: translation into English by ICT

To the respected senior leaders of the People’s Republic of China, and concerned departments,

On August 8, 2017, in some areas of Darlag county in [Golog prefecture] Qinghai province, concerned officials started implementation of a new policy restricting the rights of native pastoralists to use their pastures. Some small communities were prohibited from using most of their pastures, and some others entirely deprived of their summer pasture, and so on. According to the People’s’ Republic of China’s constitution and laws, local law and prevailing social custom, this would appear to be not in accordance with law and in contravention of customs. We are thus forced to appeal in the hope that the officials of the People’s’ Republic of China’s People’s Government, putting the interests of the people first, and being committed to the principle of ‘ruling the country by law’ and ‘ruling the country as per law’, will show concern, and make a decision that is in accordance with law and not against custom. As set out below with reasoned arguments, the implementation of this policy is not in accordance with the nation’s law, becoming an obstacle stone of economic development, and not in keeping with the realities of the natural environment.

1. Not following the consultation process

If policies concerning ownership rights over pastoral and agricultural land need to be implemented, it has to be done from the prefecture level and above. That too, it has to be done after meeting certain preconditions; the local government has to go through a lawful reason and process: first arrange for review by experts and registration, and then provide the facility for gathering the opinion of the people. On the issue of compensation, too, there must be absolute transparency and income needs to be accounted, and a large amount of compensation has to be made. Thus, while meeting none of the preconditions, there was merely the order for the communities to relocate immediately. This is the first [point].

2. No publication of an order formalizing this action

If this is an authentic policy from the higher levels [of government], then an explanation of how the formulation process was and benefits of implementing the same needs to be made and these have to be backed by law. In any country, for any undertaking a detailed explanation of its nature is produced for circulation to the local population. Here, other than directly saying that the communities must move and that such and such pastures can’t be used, not a single piece of written document has been produced and given This is the second [point].

3. Not an environmental conservation measure, and not in keeping with the reality of the natural world

It is said rearing of cattle should be abandoned to protect the environment. In general, to protect the environment, mining, which drains the vitality of the earth and causes the vitality of the creatures living on it to dwindle, and all the construction and factories that pollute the air, need to be prevented and stopped. Similarly, if grasslands need to be preserved, those areas seriously affected by desertification and rodent infestation should be conserved and regenerated, not areas like our Dernang, which is hardly affected by desertification and rodent infestation, is filled with natural greenery, and has no history of overgrazing. In such places, to abandon cattle rearing to grow grass and having pastoralists give up rearing cattle and altering their means of livelihood is inconsistent with natural reality and scientific fact. That cattle rearing does not harm the natural environment is corroborated by the experience of the nomads themselves. This is the third [point].

4. Nomads can’t be separated from their nomadic life to achieve a moderately prosperous society

If, as per the economic development goal of our country a moderately prosperous society needs to be achieved for the masses, the output generated by the existing nomadic means of livelihood based on the rearing of cattle needs to be the basis. This needs to be supported by modern science. Opportunities to expand livestock commerce, butter and cheese production, markets for spun and woven yak wool, hair etc., need to be provided based on the need of today’s people, rather than moving the pastoralist population into towns and cities where they will become like “deer in the fog”, bereft of livelihood or life-direction. This is the fourth [point].

5. The current initiative and policy is not in accordance with the law

This initiative goes against the constitution and laws of our country, too. Article 13 of the People’s Republic of China constitution states “Citizens’ lawful private property is inviolable. The State, in accordance with law, protects the rights of citizens to private property and to its inheritance..” Point 13 of the Qinghai province grassland law implementation measures states, “During the contractual period, the contractor may not take back the pasture from the contractee, the individual pastoralist”, and point 12 of the Qinghai province grassland regulation states, “The rights of those legally permitted and registered users of grasslands are protected by law, and cannot be annulled by any department or individual”, and there are many other such provisions. This is the fifth [point].

6. Ending nomadic activity will ruin China’s nationalities’ culture

Not only that, but by doing so, much of the culture, tradition, and customs associated with nomadic life will likely be lost, which goes against the provisions in our country’s constitution and laws guaranteeing the rights of minority nationalities to continuity of their cultural traditions and customs. Thus, an important factor for nationalities’ culture of the multi-ethnic Chinese nation faces severe disintegration. This is the sixth [point].

In short, taking away citizens’ rights to pastureland is not in accordance with our country’s constitution, not in accordance with national and local laws, and becoming a major cause of ruining People’s’ livelihood and way of life. Since not one among us the nomads of Dernang accepts or supports this policy, on the strength of our lawful rights as People’s Republic of China’s citizens (to look into the work of any government department or employee, and point out or criticise any shortcoming or mistake), we submit this appeal and request in the hope that officials concerned with the public good and citizens’ welfare will not ignore it, and take a good decision on the matter, in accordance with the public’s wishes.

Respectfully submitted by the people of Dernang on [blank date] of August 2017.

Translation into English by ICT of Trimleng post:

Access to summer pastures is the herders’ right
By Drolma Kyab (posted July 11, 2017)
http://trimleng.cn/grassland-rights-for-nomads-2/

Recently, the People’s Government of Sumdo township, Mangra (Ch: Guinan) county, Tsolho (Ch: Hainan) prefecture[in Qinghai] announced that this year nomad communities under its jurisdiction would not be allowed to graze their livestock on the summer pastures, that the more than 90,000 Mu [Chinese unit of land measurement that is commonly 806.65 square yards] of pastureland [in the township] was off-limits, and anyone in violation of this order would be fined Y50 per sheep and Y150 per yak. This is causing misgivings among the public towards the government. This measure by the government poses a major obstacle and interruption to the local nomads’ regular work of rearing yaks and sheep. The nomads, assuming that the government’s order is national law, are reduced to a state of helplessness.

According to the Constitution of our country, civil law, and property ownership laws, the Sumdo township People’s Government’s way of doing things is clearly against the law. Through the legal procedure of taking land responsibility contracts, a collective economic organization or village community has user property rights over the acquired concerned land for a contracted period of 50 years, over all the pastureland, including summer pasture – to manage, use and profit from it. This is the private property right specified in the 13th article of the Constitution (the lawful private property of any citizen may not be violated by others). The state is therefore obliged to protect the nomads’ means of livelihood, of using the summer pastures to conduct their pastoral work and to enjoy its output.

In case the pasture is to be re-possessed by the state for reasons of public interest, the local government must follow legal procedures, and introduce to the nomads opportunities such as public hearings and administrative review that are available to them, providing facilities for opposing views to be aired in an open atmosphere. If the nomads themselves are not prepared to forfeit their property rights, they must be allowed to challenge and legally contest the local government. If the People’s Government does not follow these procedures, it is itself in violation of the law, and at that point, the nomads are not obliged to follow its orders.

For the nomads, pasture-use rights as obtained by legal contract is like the rights to one’s own property; they need to understand that these cannot be arbitrarily violated by the local People’s Government or other individuals, and the legal means for restoring those rights should also be understood. Within the civil law and property rights law that are part of national law, the lessor party in a land responsibility contract cannot take the land back from the lessee within the contractual period, and article 13 of the local ‘Qinghai Grassland Law Implementation Measures’ specifies that during the contractual period, the contractor may not take back the pasture from the contractee, the individual pastoralist. So for a township government to rescind the right of a village or collective economic organization to use their summer pasture, for no legal reason, within the contractual period, is violation of contractual and civil law.

Concerning the legal relation between a township People’s Government and a collective economic organization, the township People’s Government has no right to direct or interfere with the autonomous functioning of the nomads’ collective economic organization. Point 5 of the ‘People’s Republic of China Law on the Constitution of Village Committees’ states that town and township governments may not interfere in the autonomous functioning of village committees. This means that local governments have no right to tell villages or collective economic organizations what to do, let alone interfere in their internal autonomous functions by telling such things as whether nomads can take their cattle to the summer pastures or not.

If the local People’s Government creates a grave situation, without regard for the law, insisting on prohibiting access to the summer pasture, and causing the nomads economic losses of more than Y100,000, the the authorities of the township People’s government are in violation of the law and are liable to prosecution. If the nomads come to know about such cases, they can report official misdemeanors to the concerned officials at their local court, Public Security office or procuracy and establish criminal responsibility. If a county and township government issues an order violating nomads’ pasture rights causing hardship to their livelihood, they can apply through administrative review for the order to be rescinded at the higher levels, or they can defend their rights by undertaking court proceedings.

Footnotes:
[1] RFA report, August 30, 2017, http://www.rfa.org/english/news/tibet/grazing-08302017133026.html

[2] China’s Five Year Plan to achieve a ‘moderately prosperous society’ http://www.china.org.cn/opinion/2015-10/30/content_36935303.htm

[3] Li Wenjun, a professor of environmental management at Peking University, 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,” according to a recent article she wrote in the journal Land Use Policy. ‘Solving one problem by creating a bigger one: The consequences of ecological resettlement for grassland restoration and poverty alleviation in Northwestern China’ by Mingming Fan, Yanbo Li, Wenjun Li, Volume 42, January 2015, Pages 124-130 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0264837714001586, cited in New York Times, July 11, 2015, ‘China Fences In Its Nomads, and an Ancient Life Withers’, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/12/world/asia/china-fences-in-its-nomads-and-an-ancient-life-withers.html?_r=0

[4] The post on the Mangra (Guinan) pasture ban in Tibetan is at: http://trimleng.cn/grassland-rights-for-nomads-2/

[5] ‘Wasted Lives: A Critical Analysis of China’s Campaign to End Tibetan Pastoral Lifeways’, May 2015, Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy, http://www.tchrd.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Download-Report.pdf Also see recent ICT reports, ‘Nomads in No Man’s Land’, June 30, 2017, https://www.savetibet.org/nomads-in-no-mans-land-chinas-nomination-for-unesco-world-heritage-risks-imperilling-tibetans-and-wildlife/ and ‘Blue Gold from the Highest Plateau’, https://www.savetibet.org/new-report-reveals-global-significance-of-tibet/

[6] Radio Free Asia report, August 30, 2017.

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