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ICJ: The Situation from 1951-1990

In forty years, most Tibetan wildlife has been destroyed and much of the forest has been cut, watersheds and hillslopes eroded and downstream flooding heightened. The most extensive environmental impact of Chinese practice is the widespread degradation of the rangelands, resulting in desertification of huge areas until recently capable of sustaining both wild and domestic herds. The extent of grassland deterioration has reached a point where, unless measures are taken soon, the long term continuity of nomadic Tibetan civilization will be brought into question.

As described in the chapter on Autonomy, Chinese political power has fragmented Tibet, bisecting ecological zones and land systems. Tibet has lost its self sufficiency and is heavily reliant on external inputs to sustain a human population far in excess of anything in Tibetan tradition. Decisionmaking for resource allocation, forestry, investment, wildlife management is centralized, and is not in Tibetan hands. Tibet was redrawn as if a virgin land, its development bound to the ribbons of highway built to connect Tibet with China. Tibet was made to look east for everything. Supply lines are long, requiring an enormous fleet of trucks which operate, according to Chinese economists, way below optimal efficiency. The energy deficit of Tibet is now great, as a consequence of the political necessity of trucking manufactures to persuade Chinese settlers in Tibet to stay.

The biodiversity of Tibet has suffered greatly from the 1950's onwards, as Chinese soldiers careened about the plains in jeeps, sniping at anything on legs. Tibetan herds of gazelles and other deer used to grazing undisturbed amidst herds of domestic animals, and until the PLA arrived were unafraid of humans. The abundance of wildlife in Tibet until recent decades is attested by many 19th century and early 20th century visitors to Tibet.

The collectivization of both nomads and farmers into communes and production brigades in the 1960's was done with scant regard to the carrying capacity of the land, long term sustainability, or the slow rate of renewal of forest in cold dry uplands. Customary Tibetan practices of not fishing or mining, frowning on hunting, and freeing some domestic animals to graze to the end of their natural life without hindrance, were all seen by the scientific modernizers both Chinese and Tibetan as feudal superstition. Chinese cadres commanded Tibetan communes to fulfil rigid production quotas, even when the farmers themselves were hungry.  Production quotas were arbitrarily set without knowledge of the limiting factors of each biome. Tibetans were ordered to grow wheat, a grain familiar to the northern Chinese, rather than the customary highland barley, with catastrophic results.

During the 1960s roads were cut, using conscripted and unpaid Tibetan labour, through unstable mountain passes, exacerbating the danger of landslides, which regularly cut roads even today. The thrust of Chinese efforts to maximize extraction, and make the wastelands useful was concentrated in the forested counties of eastern Tibet. The shortage of wood for socialist construction in the inland provinces of China made the timber of Tibet valuable. China lacked the capital to invest in an extensive network of logging roads, and lacked the will to process logs into timber in Tibet. Only the armed forces possessed the logistic infrastructure capable of reaching the steep forested slopes, and logging is to this day often a commercial operation of the People's Liberation Army.

Slopes were indiscriminately clearfelled, leaving neither ridge tops, gullies nor steep slopes unharmed, as is standard logging practice anywhere. Logs were hauled out by truck, or rolled into the nearest river to be floated haphazardly downstream to the populous Chinese provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan. This practice is highly wasteful of timber, utilizing only part of the tree, with much lost or damaged in downstream transport.  There was and is no effort at reforestation, nor has there been much scientific study of how to regenerate forests which grow slowly at high altitude and low temperatures, reliant on rainfall concentrated in summer.

China has frequently emphasized its reforestation policies, stating that forest growth in Tibet is greater than the amount of cutting.  A survey of the forest stock of Tibet, using remote sensing technology, was reported in 1994: “The forest growth in the Tibet Autonomous Region has greatly exceeded its timber consumption.”  The survey was restricted to those parts of Tibet incorporated into the TAR, however, while the most intensive logging has occurred in the designated Tibetan autonomous prefectures in Sichuan and elsewhere. In addition, the rate of regeneration of Tibetan hillslopes is not as great as indicated by the extent of overflight by PLA planes dropping seed. 

In the 1970s the determination to completely remake Tibet, by acts of revolutionary will, paid little heed to environmental consequences. These were decades in which revolutionary slogans included: “Win the war between man and grass.”  All that was old was swept aside, including the entire indigenous Tibetan knowledge system of ecosystem sustainability. It was the very lack of Tibetan impact on the environment that condemned Tibetans, in Chinese eyes, as primitives. 

The 1960s and 1970s saw politically mandated campaigns to increase production at all costs, including massive cost to the environment. Photographic archives showing the extent of forest in premodern Tibet, compared with the present, demonstrate widespread deforestation  not only in south eastern Tibet, but also much further north, in Amdo, where traditional Tibetan practice set aside north-facing hillslopes for forest cover and the abundant wildlife therein. In political campaigns such as the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution, directives required remaining stands of trees be sacrificed for the revolutionary experiment in backyard steel smelting.

In most areas where forests were cut there is no sign they are returning. Forest was clearfelled, leaving no seed trees. Clearfelling altered the microclimate, increasing water runoff and reducing availability of rain to feed regrowth. There has been little investment in reforestation. The climate requires very lengthy rotations which Chinese policy fails to acknowledge, and population numbers have grown greatly due to Chinese settlement, putting pressure on any remaining forest for both construction timber and fuel wood. A scientist of the Sichuan Forestry Research Institute states: “Forest regeneration after cutting is difficult owing to high relief, bad weather, and environmental changes associated with cutting.”

China insisted that Tibet be made to sustain a greatly increased human population. The economic reforms since 1979 were motivated by: “the exploitation of land and natural resources for the benefit of a Han-defined program of modernization, under conditions of ‘market socialism.'”  “In Tibet, the combination of government policies, immigration and commercial activities by Tibetan entrepreneurs and herders has led to an increased rate of deforestation, rangeland degradation and other forms of damage.”

Biodiversity in Tibet has suffered dramatically. Chinese and international scientists concur in finding a high proportion of Tibetan wildlife warrants listing as species whose survival is now threatened by modernity.

"Since the Chinese Government has occupied Tibet, its wildlife and natural resources have been heavily exploited by poaching, poisoning and the destruction of natural habitats."  Scarcity of animals of all kinds has been reported.  As one well-known wildlife scholar observed during an excursion to the Changtang, the high plateau of the TAR: “Those plains are now empty of yaks, killed for meat since the 1950s, when a new road made the area accessible to hunters. This species of wild cattle is now largely confined to the most remote parts of the Chang Tang, and even there it is becoming increasingly scarce.”

The wild yak has become extremely rare, confined to a few small areas of the north western Changtang, due to poaching with modern hunting guns.  Wild yaks are legally protected but slaughter and sale of these animals has been reported.  As to ordinary yaks, the quality of yaks has degenerated because of poor grassland and inbreeding.

Tibetan customary practice of curating landscapes without making them solely serve human purposes has enabled the watersheds of the great rivers of Asia to remain pure, and remain home to migratory water birds. Nomadic Tibetan herders share the wetlands in which many rivers have their headwaters, with populations of black necked cranes, in a huge area of 300,000 hectares, undisturbed. The black necked crane is on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species, and these marshes, known in Chinese as Ruoergai, are the second largest remaining wetland in China.  There is no official recognition or protection of the area, and power to protect the cranes from modernity is not in Tibetan hands. Nomads are under pressure from the state to increase production, and must maintain larger and larger herds to keep pace with rapid inflation of grain which they cannot grow, and must buy as the staple of their survival.  This puts grazing pressure on steppe and wetlands, further exacerbated by Chinese moves to fence and privatize the open grasslands, which has had negative environmental impact when done in similar circumstances in China.

Far from the rare birds of Tibet being protected, the IUCN lists many Red List species facing extinction.  The mammals which are rare in Tibet, already endangered, are equally under threat in adjacent areas of the Himalayas, which are much more densely populated.  Similarly, one third of all species of plants growing in the Himalayas where the timberline meets the upland grasslands are now endangered.  The most vulnerable habitats are open slopes at forest edge, crevices in boulders and rocks, and marshes.

There are areas of Tibet where China does protect habitat, sometimes with international assistance. Enforcement of environmental law is poor, as Qinghai Vice-Governor Wang Hanmin, states: “The phenomena of refusing to abide by the law governing the protection of environment and natural resources, of not strictly enforcing the law and of not investigating law violators generally exists in the province.” 

One Tibetan area which has a high level of protection is Jiuzhaigou in Sichuan, which annually attracts four times as many tourists as the whole of the TAR. This area of scenic mountains and waterfalls is also home to a considerable Tibetan population, who have become part of the tourist package experience, yet the entire area has been granted World Heritage status by UNESCO, at China's request. This creates a pressure to remove the Tibetans from the park, to conform with World Heritage requirements.  Tibetans, long the guardians of such unspoiled places, may be displaced in the name of preserving natural wilderness values.

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