Tibet The Third Pole
Zone of Peace
CHINA AND THE WORLD DISCUSS THE ENVIRONMENT
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Policies for an eco-plateau
January 25, 2010
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Climate change poses new threats to life on the grasslands of the Tibetan
plateau. Beth Walker introduces a week-long series about government
responses to the challenge, their environmental and social effects.
Tibetan grasslands constitute one of the most important grazing ecosystems
in the world. Since 2000, when China began its “Western Development
Strategy”, the global significance of the Tibetan plateau region has been
widely recognised, both as the “third pole” – a water tower upon which
around 40% of the world’s population depend – and as a geographic region
with a unique natural and cultural heritage.
Traditional pastoralism, and to a lesser extent subsistence hunting, have
been practiced in this high-altitude, fragile ecosystem for over 5,000
years. However, climate change is now leading to historically
unprecedented pressures. For example, at the centre of the plateau at the
source of the Yellow River, over one-third of the grasslands have
transformed into semi-desert conditions.
The Chinese government has introduced a number of policies aimed at
reversing this trend and protecting the ecology and biodiversity of the
grasslands over the last decades. Since the 1980s, these have included the
assignment of property rights and the fencing of rangeland. As the Western
Development Strategy began, the first programme to be adopted and
implemented was a nationwide environmental restoration program. The
“farmland to forest” policy, or “grain to green” (tuigeng huanlin), which
converted steep cultivated land to forest, was one of the most important
initiatives. In grassland areas, it is known as the “pastures to
grassland” policy (tuimu huancao). The basic premise of this policy is
that a decade of respite from livestock grazing is necessary for degraded
grassland to be restored to its natural state, and therefore domestic
livestock – and their herders – should be moved away. Now, new fencing is
being erected at an unprecedented rate in rural grassland areas.
However, this policy has been recently overshadowed by another attempt to
conserve the region, known as “ecological migration” (shengtai yimin).
Since the mid 1990s, “ecological migration” has been used to describe the
planned relocation of people from areas under environmental pressure. It
was adopted as official state policy in 2002. The major target of this
policy has been the Sanjiangyuan (“Three river sources”) region of
Qinghai, situated in the centre of the Tibetan plateau, which encompasses
the headwaters of three major Asian rivers: the Yellow River, the Yangtze
River, and Mekong River. In 2003, the area became the second-largest
nature reserve in the world, as well as the highest and most extensive
wetland protected area.
Now, tens of thousands of families have been asked to move from these
fragile grassland areas and adopt new livelihoods in farming, or to live
in new towns. In Qinghai, for example, 35 resettlement communities have
already been built and 51 more are under construction. According to
government plans, over 100,000 people (17% of the region’s population)
will have been relocated from Sanjiangyuan by the start of this year, with
the aim of restoring the grassland ecosystem.
However, these resettlement projects have raised serious concerns, mainly
among academics, about the policy and its effects on minority groups in
China. According to some scholars, these kinds of projects have
historically been as much about the urbanisation of nomadic peoples (in
this case, mostly ethnic Tibetans and Mongolians), as they have been about
protecting the environment. Moreover, recent studies have suggested that
overgrazing may not in fact be the major driver of environmental
In her article for chinadialogue tomorrow, “Restoring the grasslands?”,
Emily Yeh reviews recent Chinese government grassland policies and
relocation programmes. Yeh writes that recent studies suggest the
environmental and social benefits of such measures have been overstated.
Later in the week, Judith Shapiro looks in detail at the tragic history of
the Lakota Sioux in the American state of South Dakota, and asks what
China can learn from the sad history of Native American resettlement.
Beth Walker is a researcher at chinadialogue’s “the third pole” project