An Iron Fist in a Green Glove
Emptying pastoral Tibet with China’s national parks
EXECUTIVE SUMMARYNomadic pastoralists have flourished sustainably on the Tibetan Plateau for hundreds of generations. Glimpse into the world of Tibetan nomads, and we soon uncover a sophisticated way of life carefully tuned to the local environment, grounded in a deep connection to place, and guided by rich local knowledge and collective decision-making. Indeed, it is only the unique partnership between nomads and their animals that has made life on the cold, arid Roof of the World possible. The nomads, like all those living close to the land, understand their lives depend on the health of their pastures, their water sources and the complex web of life that surrounds them, and so take no more than can be replenished to sustain them the next year. To the nomads, the landscape is sacred, inhabited by many spirits and deities, and fiercely protected. In this way, they ensure the Tibetan Plateau remains a healthy, biodiverse and productive ecosystem. And with the Tibetan Plateau the fountainhead of Asia’s great rivers, this is something upon which many millions of people beyond Tibet’s borders depend. Today, as the world, including China, grapples with the intertwined challenges of climate damage, food and water security, inequality and biodiversity loss, the knowledge, wisdom and practices of Tibetan nomads are more applicable now than ever. However, this is not how China sees it. For two decades, the Chinese government has been removing Tibetan nomads from their grasslands. This forced displacement is now set to accelerate under a new system of national parks, including four large parks stretching across the Tibetan Plateau. While China seldom states this directly, a closer look at its elaborate plans for biodiversity protection, poverty alleviation, land restoration, securing water supply and climate change mitigation reveals that almost all involve the exclusion of Tibet’s nomads from their pastures. These plans, if left unchallenged, will mean the almost total demise of nomadic pastoralism in Tibet. An end to a way of life that had enabled Tibetans to live successfully and sustainably for millennia. Years of testimony from displaced nomads coupled with a growing body of scientific research shows that these policies can be devastating for communities, harmful to the environment and counterproductive to all of China’s stated aims. Further, that Tibetans themselves can offer vital solutions to the challenges that China is purporting to solve. Traditional nomadic grazing can play an essential role in reversing grassland degradation, which has been brought about by decades of policy mistakes under China, including constraining the mobility that has been crucial to sustainable pasture management in Tibet. With downstream water security – China’s number one priority – dependent on healthy upper catchments, Tibetans, who have been determined through the ages to protect these sacred water sources, must again be seen as part of the solution, not a problem. When it comes to efforts to sequester more carbon in the Tibetan landscape to offset China’s burgeoning greenhouse emissions, China will likely gain nothing by removing nomads and their herds from the grasslands. On the contrary, maintaining soil carbon long-term depends on careful management and is aided by the presence, not absence, of the traditional custodians. Similarly, ungrazed and depopulated grassland in Tibet loses biodiversity as longer grasses and the hardier species begin to dominate. Also, when it comes to iconic wildlife such as snow leopards and wild antelope, Tibetan patrols were, until recently, the only safeguard against poachers. Lastly, the experiences of displaced nomadic communities make a mockery of China’s claim that forced resettlement is necessary to alleviate poverty. In their own words, Tibetan nomads, when out on the range, consider themselves wealthy. It is only when stripped of their traditional livelihoods and forced to the urban fringe and left to survive on handouts; they become impoverished. A better way forward is possible: A path of cooperative, inclusive solutions that protect biodiversity, ensure secure land tenure, promote food and water security for all, and uphold Tibetans’ right to choose their future. Many joint initiatives of Tibetan, Chinese and international NGOs in recent decades have demonstrated what is possible – how it is not a matter of choosing between environmental protection and human livelihoods, but how both can, and indeed must go together. While on the surface, the announcement of new national parks spanning Tibet may seem like welcome news, Australia Tibet Council strongly encourages all interested parties including environmental NGOs, development agencies, government and parliamentarians to consider the consequences of China’s current plans for Tibetans. The international community should not welcome these national parks until China genuinely embraces collaborative management approaches that value the role of Tibet’s traditional custodians and uphold their rights, thereby promising a secure and dignified future for Tibetans while protecting the Tibetan Plateau for all humanity. With the fate of Tibet’s remaining nomads now hanging in the balance, the task ahead is clear. It is vital that Tibetan voices are heard. Also, the global community of conservationists, development practitioners, and human rights defenders works collectively to challenge China’s policies towards Tibetan nomads while advocating strongly for a cooperative and inclusive path forward.
PART 1: BACKGROUND Nomads, their grasslands and sacred spaces
China’s solutions to the problems China created
“At that time, the livestock had to graze in a small area, following the same grazing orbit every day. As a result, the vegetation was consumed more quickly, resulting in inadequate forage. Plus, we could not move to the winter pasture as it did not belong to us. We had to stay at the settlement for three seasons (winter, spring and summer). The livestock was getting weaker and weaker, and there was little fat on meat…. We lost many livestock.”As we explore in the next section, this now well-established pattern of top-down, coercively applied ‘solutions’ to problems of China’s own making continues apace.
PART 2: DISMANTLING CHINA’S JUSTIFICATIONS FOR DISPLACING NOMADS Land degradation: Causes and cures
China’s number one priority: Acute water shortage downriver
“Of course locals are afraid to dig near a spring, they are afraid because according to the Tibetan perspective, there are, like, water deities there. If we dig around there, maybe it will bring disasters, like illness, and even kill people. So I hired some Chinese people to dig near the spring. But it rained a lot, and then local people started to say, It rained a lot because we dug there!… I’ve always believed there are water deities… So I asked all the monks to go near the spring and chant prayers.”Downstream China wants its water from Tibet, not in the summer monsoon season when the problem is too much rain and the danger of flooding. The water is wanted in the other seasons, a primary argument used by the dam and power grid construction corporations for building more dams across Tibetan rivers. However, the best seasonal regulator of year-round water availability is intact glaciers at the river sources and intact forest cover on the steep slopes above the rivers as they start to plunge from the high plateau. Climate change has accelerated glacier melt, providing downriver China with a dividend of increased runoff that may persist, on current trends, until the glaciers have melted by the middle of this century. The Tibetan forests and wetlands that soak up the heavy summer rains were intensively logged and drained by China, over several decades, from the 1960s to the end of the 20th century, and little has been done to restore them. Chinese scientists in Tibet say: “Forested vegetation types were best able to regulate surface runoff. Land use changes have dramatically affected water conservation in the study area in the past several decades; if forested land cover existed at the levels present in 1986 or 1974, the ability of the watershed to intercept surface runoff would increase by about seven percent and three percent, respectively, over its capacity in 2000.” It is surface runoff that causes erosion, degradation and floods. As discussed in the previous section, the degradation of the grasslands – and consequent implications for water security – are best explained by a series of policy mistakes by the Chinese government. In particular forcing nomads to fence their herds, constraining the mobility that had enabled animals to tread only lightly across a vast range, and instead concentrating their grazing in smaller areas, which then gradually degraded. The mandatory enclosure of each family’s herd drastically reduced the mobility, which has always been the secret of sustainable pasture management.
Climate change: Does it makes nomads redundant?
Displacing nomads to alleviate poverty?
“Everything here costs money. A slice of meat costs 10 RMB, so does a bag of livestock dung [for household fuel]. We can’t afford them. When we lived on the grassland, we didn’t need very much at all. We got everything from our livestock.”Tragically, the impact of resettlement goes beyond the loss of livelihoods and security, and can profoundly impact a community’s identity, cohesion and spiritual wellbeing. Unfamiliar surroundings and dislocation from ancestral land can leave individuals and whole communities unmoored, lacking any sense of belonging, and severed from everything that had given life order, grounding and purpose. This may lead to increased alcohol consumption, crime and other social problems. Overall, while resettlement may initially come with promises of better access to healthcare, education and other benefits, accounts consistently show nomadic communities becoming worse off after the relocation. As noted by the Central Tibetan Administration:
“Tibetan nomads, who once lived happy and self-sufficient lives, have been suddenly thrust into dislocation and poverty. Ultimately, this is the state-engineered destruction of a culture and a way of life.”One of China’s core arguments for the forced removal of nomads from their pastures is that it is necessary for their good because they are poor and their poverty is the inevitable outcome of having to live in such a harsh landscape and that the only solution is relocating to the fringes of distant towns. China labels this contiguous poverty, the toughest to eradicate, because it arises due to the absence of all factors that encourage productivity. Officially they are called contiguous destitute areas (个集中连片特困区贫困). Tibetan pastoralists do not see it that way. They consider themselves the gatherers of what nature seasonally provides, with many months each year when there is little work to be done, and plenty of time to undertake long pilgrimages or trading expeditions, honour local gods, weave tents and ropes or teach the young. Far from feeling poor out on the open range, there is a deep nomad tradition of tsethar, freeing animals for life, marking herd animals, so everyone knows they are to peaceably live out their full life on the pasture, with no threat of sale or slaughter. This widespread practice has gained momentum in recent years, despite China’s pressure on nomads to behave more like industrial commodity agribusinesses, sending animals for slaughter much faster and younger. Tibetan nomads know Chinese and other outsiders see their life as hard, close to bare subsistence and even aimless since they wander with their animals. The nomads consider such views absurd, since livestock management and production, while also curating entire landscapes, protecting wildlife and maintaining plant biodiversity are skilled work, all based on a willingness to maintain mobility. Nomads often talk of wealth, not poverty. In Tibetan, wealth is nor, and the best of all nor is a herd on the hoof, on an alpine meadow, fattening on the abundance nature seasonally provides. So when nomads are vexed by demands, they reduce herd size, sell stock younger and more often, downsize or altogether end what they learned from earlier generations, to keep whole landscapes healthy and productive, by mobile, moderate grazing. China’s view distresses nomads, and also Tibetan officials in local government:
“Overall, pastoralists in our county regard the rangeland contracting policy as a demon and reject it. First, people do not accept the idea of dividing all the land – they are concerned about livestock grazing and disputes over the land after it is divided. But it is a very bad idea to divide all the land. Also, dividing the land makes it very difficult to graze livestock as it will redistrict livestock mobility. It will keep livestock well fed and happy if they can move around to graze.”In recent years, science has caught up, discovering that moderate grazing results in the greatest grassland biodiversity. Heavy grazing endangers plants, which the nomads have always known. Removing grazing results in an immediate flush of biomass, but reduced biodiversity as long grasses crowd out delicate herbs essential to traditional Tibetan human and veterinary medicine manufacture. If grazing is removed for a few years, there is no further accumulation of biomass and carbon, but grassland becomes shrubland, which is no longer productive. Chinese scientists and policymakers, however, have spent decades operating on the simple assumption that all grazing is degradation of plant biomass. Officially, this is expressed as a Marxist dialectic: “There is a contradiction between grass and animals.” The solution to this contradiction is that herds and herders should be removed. Since China never invested in adding value to nomad production such as wool, dairy and animal products, incomes in rural Tibet now lag far behind incomes in the heavily subsidised towns and cities of Tibet where Chinese settlers live, where there is plenty of state employment for security personnel. China’s massive investment in infrastructure across Tibet is largely confined to the mines, dams, power grids, urban centres and network of highways and railways connecting these nodal enclaves. Rural Tibet remains without effective linkages to lowland China, even though urban China has a big appetite for yoghurt and other dairy products. Inequality is now extreme in Tibet and throughout China. So rural Tibetans are now relatively poor; a matter of distributive justice. That does not mean they want to leave their land or see moving to urban fringe settlements as the solution. Even after they are resettled, and their land tenure security cancelled, they still consider themselves to be nomads, and often manage to outsource their herds to those who remain on the land. Urbanisation is now China’s solution to everything, but nomads, who seldom speak Chinese and even less often read or write it, are effectively shut out of urban labour markets except for casual, unskilled work in road making and construction labouring. On paper, China argues that these displaced nomads are wealthier because of transfer payments from the central government. In return, those removed are required to show gratitude at the benevolence of central authorities in raising not only cash income but also their level of “civilisation”. According to official statistics, transfer payments in rural Tibet have reached RMB 2167 per person per year, around US$310. For nomads displaced to urban fringes, those transfer payments are usually bags of rice and subsistence rations, of low quality, poor substitutes for formerly proud, independent food producers.
Biodiversity: Creating wilderness
“The top-down approach is prioritised in the planning and management of the national park system, and the involvement of civil society groups in the making of China’s national parks does not guarantee an inclusive and bottom-up approach. From the 1970s onwards, worldwide the conservation paradigm gradually shifted to recognise the importance of a participatory and inclusive approach to protected area management. China’s moving away from such understanding and practice may eventually undermine the rights of local communities and threaten to hamper the conservation goals that the national parks aim to achieve.”“Top-down” is not a term applied only by outsiders to describe the design, operations and management of China’s new national parks. It is also how China’s central planners see it themselves. The official phrase 自上而下, zi shang er xia means top-down, designed by top-level computerised systems theory. From the 1980s to 2000s, many of the world’s leading conservation NGOs were active in Tibet. Some formed close partnerships with Tibetans keen to conserve wildlife and habitats, at a time China ignored its lawless wild west, allowing rapacious slaughter and extraction to persist. Some of those NGOs still quietly work on the ground to mitigate the imposition of top-down models. One of the earliest to understand the importance of Tibetan wildlife was Conservation International (CI), which set up a Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, a joint initiative of l’Agence Française de Développement, Conservation International, the Global Environment Facility, the Japanese government, the MacArthur Foundation and the World Bank. CI’s program The Mountains of Southwest China identified the location of the Tibetan biodiversity hotspot – not where most of the new national parks are but in Kham, including parts of western Sichuan, northwest Yunnan, eastern parts of Tibet Autonomous Region, the southeast tip of Qinghai and the southern tip of Gansu. This huge hotspot is home to about 50 percent of the country’s birds and mammals and more than 30 percent of its higher plants. However, only a fragment of this massive hotspot will be protected under the new national parks to be unveiled next year. China has instead turned to the three rivers source, the Sanjiangyuan, to the north, which is far less biodiverse, but the source of China’s biggest rivers, essential to water provisioning for lowland China. In China’s domestic tourism market, and with animal lovers worldwide, protection of iconic wild species is a winner. There is an immediate, wholehearted connection to photos of headline endangered species such as snow leopards, pandas, wild yaks, gazelles and antelope. Is this newfound concern to protect wilderness what drives China’s new system of national parks? Does biodiversity conservation necessitate excluding most nomads from lands they have always curated and cared for? China will no doubt receive significant international praise when it launches its new system of national parks. Powerful actors will be willing to overlook the darker side of this program and herald another sign of environmental leadership from China, at a time when the world is grappling with the twin challenges of climate breakdown and biodiversity loss. This unfortunate reality heightens the need to better understand the motivations and mistakes behind China’s ongoing moves, the consequences for Tibetans and Tibet’s environment and to advocate for a better path forward. Tibet and China are already teeming with various types of protected areas, managed variously at the national or provincial level, including nature reserves, UNESCO World Heritage properties, and Ramsar protected wetlands. China’s new national parks system will see some existing protected areas upgraded to National Park status, while others will have their boundaries redrawn and modern management practices put in place to bring them to the new standard. Management of the parks, along with other types of protected areas, is now centralised under a new National Forestry and Grassland Administration, and the different types of protected area consolidated into fewer categories. Design of the Sanjiangyuan and Qilian/Dola Ri parks has been facilitated by a major multi-year project of the UN Development Programme, financed by the World Bank’s Global Environment Facility. Most significantly for Tibetans, China’s plan requires nearly all human activities except science and tourism to cease within these new national parks.