Principle 23 of the Rio Declaration, the final document of the "Earth Summit," provides that: "the environment and natural resources of people under oppression, domination and occupation, shall be protected." The Declaration also emphasises participation of citizens in the decision making process at all levels and access to information about environmental issues in their communities. An authoritative statement of principles on the management of forests, adopted at the same conference, stresses that “forest resources and forest lands should be sustainably managed to meet the social, economic, ecological cultural and spiritual human needs of present and future generations.
According to Mao Tse-tung:
The population of the minority nationalities in our country is small, but the area they inhabit is large. The Han people comprise 94 per cent of the population, an overwhelming majority.... And who has more land? The minority nationalities, who occupy 50 to 60 per cent of the territory. We say China is a country vast in territory, rich in resources and large in population; as a matter of fact it is the Han nationality whose population is large and the minority nationalities whose territory is vast and whose resources are rich, or at least in all probability their resources under the soil are rich.
Chinese perceptions of the Tibetan plateau as waste deeply influences Chinese policies which impact on the environment. China sees in Tibet its potential usefulness, rather than an existing, balanced, sustainable economy adapted to ecological constraints unique to such a high, cold, dry environment. In China, environmental consciousness was relatively rudimentary, while the dominant discourse is about wealth generation and material affluence. “In accordance with the popular teachings of Confucianism, most Chinese believed that human beings were the centre of the universe and that it was their mandate to control nature... It is not surprising that the continued deforestation and colonization of virgin soil have been going on for thousands of years.
Tibet is 1.6% of the land surface of the planet, and is home to major habitat types from tropical to arctic, sometimes on the slopes of a single mountain. This diversity of biome sustains a biological diversity with at least 3,000 plant species, of which as many as 450 species may be endemic - unique - to Tibet. The major rivers of Asia, and the booming coastal cities of Asia all take for granted the purity of their water supply, originating in Tibet. Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Burma Nepal, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and China - over half the world’s population - are all downstream of Tibet.
The diversity of Tibet's subtropical evergreen broadleaf forests, dense temperate coniferous forests of the east, scrub and meadow of the north-east, shrub and steppe of the south, highland steppe of the north, and desert and semi-desert of the far north-west provide the “home to the world’s most impressive collection of large mammals: Argali sheep, shou (Sikkimese Stag, or red deer), markhor, blue sheep, wild yak, Tibetan antelope, wild ass, snow leopard, takin, two bears, and varieties of birds, including the blacknecked crane.
Many of the high altitude plants growing in the mountains which ring Tibet are used both in Tibetan medicine, and in Chinese traditional medicine, both of which are now rapidly industrializing and expanding their production, in accordance with Chinese plan priorities.
Tibetans developed land and risk management strategies needed to sustain Tibet as a core of world heritage while maintaining extensive human use, in close symbiosis with the reliable yak. Tibetans created a curated landscape, moulded by the interventions of farmers and their irrigation channels; herders and their flocks. This indigenous knowledge system embraced the medicinal uses of hundreds of species growing in the mountains, the veterinary care of animals, the conservation of forest and wildlife, widely accepted prohibitions on hunting and fishing, nomadic grazing strategies to rotate stock in pastures so they could regenerate seasonally, and a wide range of practices to adapt to the unpredictable variability of climate. Wealth accumulation as an end in itself was strongly discouraged, growth was not the engine of development, and equilibrium was seen as the basis of renewable, lasting civilization. Human population on the grasslands was in equilibrium, a stasis maintained by a slow steady settlement of excess numbers as farmers, and the popular practice of each family sending at least one child to be a monk.
The nomadic way of life evolved historically after Tibet was settled by agriculturists, as a chosen lifestyle, which Tibetans continue to see as ideal, archetypally Tibetan, a life of freedom and mobility, combining an intimacy with herds and landscape with opportunity to trade and undertake spiritual pilgrimage, integrated into the annual nomadic cycle.
Chinese in Tibet assume no-one would voluntarily live out on the grasslands unless there was no alternative and that nomadism is ecologically determined. Chinese development policies are predicated on the assumption that if nomads had the option of a concrete apartment in a new town the grasslands would be promptly abandoned, so urbanization is the way to solve the poverty of Tibet.
Copyright 1998-2005, Tibet Environmental Watch (TEW)