China has more species of plants than any other country except Brazil or Columbia. Its faunal diversity is remarkable as well; it has more than 2000 species of terrestrial vertebrates, not to mention uncounted fish and invertebrate species. One reason for this high species diversity is China’s great variety of ecosystems, ranging from wet to dry, coastal to continental and lowland to alpine. About half of the species found in China are found nowhere else on the planet, and many are rare. With assistance, advice and funding from Western NGOs, the Beijing government has set aside over 2400 nature reserves, resulting in some level of protection for more than 15 percent of its territory.
Although its record of reserve-based biodiversity conservation is striking, Beijing’s approach to the conservation of living natural resources outside reserves is less impressive. Pressures for economic development often eclipse complex ecological and cultural factors. This is especially true on the Tibetan plateau, where China’s political agenda collides with a complex and vulnerable ecological and cultural landscape. The Tibetan highlands constitute the world’s largest, highest and youngest plateau. Because the plateau is situated at the junction of two continental plates, it hosts representatives of two of the world’s major floras, which evolved separately and came together only fairly recently in geological time. The ecological influence of the plateau extends far beyond its borders, because it is upstream of two-fifths of the world’s population and contains the headwaters of several of Asia’s major rivers. Geographically, the plateau comprises not only the Tibetan Autonomous Region but parts of Nepal, India and Bhutan, as well as several parts of China: all of Qinghai province and parts of Sichuan, Gansu and Xinjiang provinces.
The large size and topographic variation of the Tibetan plateau create a complex landscape that supports many plant communities, ranging from mountain forests and sub-tropical valleys to high-elevation steppe and desert. Many writers describe this region as ‘harsh,’ ‘forbidding’ or ‘bleak’, but this only reflects the perspective of outsiders, rather than that of Tibetans towards their homeland. The plateau supports plants, wildlife and cultures that have developed remarkable adaptations to the challenges posed by their unique setting. Wild yaks, chiru (Tibetan antelope), kiang (Tibetan wild ass), Tibetan argali (a species of wild sheep), blue sheep (actually a type of goat), gazelles and white-lipped deer all feed on the grasses, sedges and shrubs, and are in turn preyed upon by snow leopards, brown bears and wolves.
Sometime within the last 10,000 years, people of the plateau developed an economy based on grazing domesticated yaks, sheep, goats, cattle and horses. These animals supplied pastoralists with meat; butter, yoghurt and cheese; leather, felt and wool; fuel; and tools, as well as transportation. Supplemented with medicinal herbs and products obtained by trading and raiding, this lifestyle formed the basis of a sustainable, and sometimes prosperous, economy. Nomads moved their herds to summer pasture during the short period when green forage was available, and shifted to areas that supplied dry forage for the rest of the year. Particularly in western Tibet, these movements were constrained by a feudal system in which nomads owed allegiance, labour and taxes to monasteries or aristocratic families that allocated pastures to households, which owned their livestock but not the lands on which they grazed. Periodically, the allocation of pastureland was re-evaluated and adjusted on the basis of herd size. This flexible system allowed nomads to cope with the inevitable mortality of livestock from weather and disease, and to adjust grazing pressure in accordance with unpredictable changes in herd size. Paradoxically, this autocratic arrangement was similar to communal management in that it allocated resources to households on the basis of need.
In Tibet, as in many parts of Central Asia, there is a continuum between sedentary farmers, semi-nomadic pastoralists and fully mobile nomads, with households often increasing or decreasing their mobility as family situations and economic circumstances change. In some of the warmer, wetter portions of the Tibetan plateau of the east, nomads coexist with farmers, but in the highest and most northern and western areas the growing season is too short and the soil too infertile for agriculture. In such an environment, herbivores are the most efficient mechanism for converting vegetation into products that can support human populations. Throughout the world, in open habitats with limited plant productivity, large mammalian herbivores have performed this function: reindeer in the northern tundra, wildebeest and other ungulates in Africa’s Serengeti, kangaroos in Australia, camels and horses across the Eurasian steppe, llamas and alpacas in South American mountains and plains, and bison in the tallgrass prairies of midwestern North America. In each setting, people developed ways of harvesting these bountiful resources, either by hunting the wild animals or by domesticating them. Some of the world’s most spectacular populations of charismatic megafauna are supported in these relatively unproductive habitats, a phenomenon that is possible because grazing pressure is intermittent rather than continuous.
When Chinese military forces arrived in Tibet in the late 1950s, the presence of nomadic pastoralists on the plateau presented a dilemma to the authorities. The Chinese wanted to make use of the plateau’s resources, but only the nomads knew how to convert the plateau’s variable supply of forage into a reliable supply of meat and wool. So, China’s initial policy toward the Tibetan nomads was relatively mild, and most traditional practices were allowed to continue. That changed with the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s, when China abolished private ownership of livestock and established communes. In an effort to increase the production of livestock products – including meat, skins, sheep’s wool and cashmere (from goats) – pastures were fenced, livestock was crossbred with ‘improved’ breeds (which tended to be less adapted to plateau conditions), rangeland was ploughed up and planted with grain or forage crops, and irrigation was supplied. Houses and barns also began to replace the traditional black tents made from felted yak hair.
Even when the Beijing government shifted from this heavy-handed approach to a more market-oriented economy in the 1980s, the modernisation of livestock husbandry was still emphasised. Under what was known as the new Household Responsibility System, the communes were dissolved and responsibility for livestock production returned to families, but the core features of China’s range-management policy remained: the privatisation of pastoralism and the elimination of mobility and traditional methods of adjusting herd sizes, with the goal of maximising the production of meat, wool and cashmere.
Beijing’s economic goals were one driver of this continued policy, but preconceptions about nomadism played an important role as well. In this view – one that is prevalent throughout much of the world – nomadism is a backward and primitive means of production from which its adherents need to be ‘rescued’. Typically, this means being forced to settle and adopt ‘scientific’ animal-husbandry practices. In Tibet, historical factors exacerbate this perception. The Long March took some of the Red Army across the northeastern section of the Tibetan plateau, providing the fighters with first-hand knowledge of the area’s cold temperatures, high altitude and unwelcoming inhabitants.
Today, Chinese officials and some scientists argue that range degradation is widespread on the plateau . But a recent review of the question, published in the Journal of Arid Environments, concluded that although some parts of the plateau are undoubtedly degraded, the magnitude and extent of this degradation are largely unknown. In fact, range degradation might be exaggerated for political reasons. Beijing attributes this degradation to traditional practices and concludes that nomadic animal husbandry is based on irrational practices in need of reform. It needs to be understood, however, that the Chinese approach to the modernisation of animal husbandry is based on a livestock management model developed for relatively wet environments, particularly on commercial ranches in the United States and Australia. Under this model, managers determine the number of animals that a range can support – its carrying capacity. Livestock numbers are then artificially maintained below this level, usually within fenced pastures. Failure to keep stocking rates below the carrying capacity causes palatable and nutritious species of plants, especially grasses, to decrease, and forage plants that are less valuable to increase. In the prevailing Chinese view, this potential has been jeopardised by the ‘imprudent’ practices of nomads on the Tibetan plateau, and the solution is to eliminate pastoral mobility and reduce herd sizes.
There are a number of reasons to question the wisdom of this policy of the Chinese policymakers. Raising livestock on the high plateau is indeed a tricky business. Chinese policy in Tibet not only ignores the insights of the peoples who have lived there for millennia, but also applies ecological models that are inappropriate for the environment. Western scientists themselves have come to question the validity of conventional models of rangeland dynamics in settings with limited or highly variable precipitation. In such environments, ‘opportunistic’ grazing strategies, which take advantage of forage when and where it is available – as here, in Tibet’s rangelands – make sense both ecologically and culturally.
Scientific theory is of course not the only consideration in China’s policies toward Tibetan nomads. Beijing uses its development policies in Tibet to justify its political control, claiming that development in Tibet is raising standards of living as well as bringing nomads into the modern world. One thread of this policy is modernisation of animal husbandry – contradicted by testimonials from nomads who have come out as refugees. Nyima, a 27-year-old nomad refugee, told the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Dharamsala:
The Chinese authorities … impose many limitations on our way of life, so that life will be hard and to encourage us to stop living as nomads … We are given a particular piece of land and have to stay there … We are told to fence the land or else we are fined … There are some nomad families who because of heavy taxation became very poor and had to leave the nomadic way of life.
Another nomad refugee reported that when authorities made his family fence their pastures his family had to pay 4000 yuan (about USD 600) for the cost of the fencing. ‘If we had refused we would have had to pay 8000 yuan for the fencing as punishment,’ he said.
The right to development is recognised as a key human right. In 1986, a United Nations declaration on this issue described development as, ‘a comprehensive economic, social, cultural and political process, which aims at the constant improvement of the well-being of the entire population and of all individuals on the basis of their active, free and meaningful participation in development and in the fair distribution of benefits resulting therefrom’ (emphasis added). The Chinese government might be spending billions of dollars on development projects in Tibet each year, but these projects fail to meet the criteria outline by this declaration.
First, rather than benefiting ‘the entire population,’ Tibet’s development benefits migrants from the east, most of whom are ethnic Han professionals or businesspeople. Tibet is indeed becoming wealthier, but it is also becoming more ‘Chinese’ as more and more migrants arrive from the mainland. Second, nomadic pastoralists (with a few notable exceptions involving community-based development projects on parts of the Tibetan plateau that are outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region), have no control over the terms of their development. Instead many face increasing poverty, threats to their culture and dependence on the government. Tibet’s pastoralists have been involved with the world economy for centuries, through trade networks connected to the Silk Road that skirted the plateau. But because of the inaccessibility of their homeland, they were relatively isolated and hence able to maintain a distinctive culture.
Meanwhile, climate change on the Tibetan plateau further complicates this situation. Warming of the plateau is causing changes in its vegetation. Glaciers in the Himalaya are also shrinking, raising the alarming possibility of severe water shortages in parts of China (and South and Southeast Asia) that depend on rivers arising on the plateau. Unfortunately, Beijing is now using this as further justification for removing nomads from the plateau. Put very simply, the reasoning seems to be that if the plateau is facing an ecological crisis, its indigenous inhabitants must be the cause. But the urgent challenges posed by global warming make it even more important to understand the cultural and ecological context of the Tibetan plateau.
Now more than ever, China needs to pay attention to the insights, knowledge and skills of the nomadic pastoralists who have been living, and prospering, on the plateau in spite of sudden snowstorms and severe winters for thousands of years. They are the ones who know where there are sheltered spots or places that green up a little early in spring or stay green a little later in the fall. They are the ones who know which places are best for yaks, or for goats, sheep or cattle. A more nuanced approach that integrates this traditional ecological knowledge with appropriate scientific information and an understanding of the social consequences of development policy is a prerequisite for a sustainable response to the daunting environmental changes taking place on the Tibetan plateau.
Ecologically, in many contexts mobile pastoralism is far less damaging to range plants than continuous grazing. Although it involves bouts of intense grazing, these are episodic, so forage plants have time to recover. Culturally, mobile pastoralism provides insurance against the inevitable but unpredictable reductions in herd size. Maximising herd size when resources are abundant reduces the chance that an entire herd will be wiped out by disease, drought or storms. Thus, mobility and flexibility are essential for sustained use of highly variable rangelands – and the imposition of the carrying-capacity model on nomadic production systems has caused environmental damage and undermined traditional cultures in many parts of the world. For example, until 1945 animals and nomads in the Sahel – the semiarid region south of the Sahara desert – migrated north in summer with the rains and returned south during the dry season. These seasonal movements gave grasses time to recover from grazing and thus sustained high stocking rates. After World War II, when political pressures led to the settlement of Sahel pastoralists, livestock grazed the vegetation around settlements continuously. As a result plant cover decreased, cattle trampled and compacted the exposed soil, and erosion increased. In the 1970s and 1980s this part of Africa experienced devastating famines that may have been partly due to range degradation. Some East African tribes that maintained their nomadic lifestyle were able to avoid famine during the droughts.
~ Bertie Weddell is a wildlife-biology consultant specialising in the impacts of conservation on human rights, and teaches at Whitworth University’s Costa Rica Center.