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Rangelands and Pastoral Production on the Tibetan Plateau in Western China

Himalayan and Tibetan Pastoralism. Rangeland Management in the Hindu Kush Himalayas.

By Daniel J. Miller


The rangelands of the Tibetan Plateau and adjoining Himalayan region are one of the world’s great grazing land ecosystems. Stretching for almost 3,000km from west to east and 1,500km from south to north, and encompassing about three million square kilometres, the region is one of the largest and most important pastoral areas on earth. The fact that these grazing lands have supported pastoral cultures for thousands of years while sustaining a varied and unique flora and fauna bears witness to the existence of a remarkably diverse and resilient rangeland ecosystem. Some of these rangelands, especially in northwestern Tibet, also represent one of the last notable examples of a grazing land ecosystem relatively undisturbed by man.

Tibetan rangelands are at the heart of Asia. These grazing lands form the headwaters’ environment where many major rivers have their beginnings. Here, the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Indus, and Sutlej rivers originate. The preservation and management of these river source environments have global implications, as the water from their watersheds will be of increasing importance in the future. Upsetting the ecological balance in these high-elevation rangelands will have a profound effect on millions of people living downstream. As such, these grazing lands demand respect and are considered sacred ground.

Across most of the pastoral region of the Tibetan Plateau, the land is too cold and arid to support cultivated agriculture. Here, fields of grass, green for only a few months of the year, clothe the rugged mountain ranges, extensive steppes, and broad valleys. Growing seasons are short and cool. Nevertheless, the grasslands nurture a rich wild fauna and a flourishing pastoral economy. The lives of pastoralists and animals, both wild and domestic, are tuned to the growth of the grass and the rhythms of the grazing lands. These fields of grass provide the theatre in which nomads and their animals interact and bring into force a unique pastoral culture - a remarkable nomadic way of life, thousands of years old, about which little is known.

Rangelands of the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas are unique, as they are the highest elevation grazing lands in the world. Much of the Tibetan Plateau is above 4,000m; some nomads maintain permanent camps at elevations as high as 5,100m. Temperatures of minus 30oC are often reached in the winter and snowstorms are common even in the summer. As such, these grazing lands are one of the world’s most extreme environments and, undoubtedly, the harshest pastoral areas on earth - still used extensively by nomads.

Rangelands, diverse in structure and composition, vary from cold deserts to semi-arid steppe and shrublands to lush alpine meadows. Forest areas in the eastern Tibetan Plateau and Himalayas also provide grazing land for wildlife and livestock. Vegetation differs considerably in plant community structure depending on altitude, temperature, rainfall, and the uses the land has been subjected to by man and his animals. Each rangeland type has its own unique assemblage of plants and animals. Vegetation variations define movements and foraging behaviour of both wildlife and livestock and influence the manner in which ungulates affect the ecosystem. Although often limited in overall plant species richness, especially in the cold, arid steppes of northern Tibet, the rangelands are still fertile environments, providing a habitat for numerous species of wild animals, as well as grazing for domestic animals.

These high elevation rangelands are important for a number of reasons. First, they provide water and are the source for many major rivers. Second, rangelands provide habitats for a wealth of plant and wildlife species, many of which are endangered. Numerous plants are of medicinal value and other species may provide important genetic material for future economic use. Many of the protected areas in the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau are dominated by rangeland vegetation. Conserving the rich biological diversity of these lands is crucial for sustainable development, yet grazing-related issues are often the major management concerns in protected areas. Third, these grazing lands provide forage for livestock. Since cultivated agriculture is not possible on the rangelands, grazing by livestock enables pastoralists to convert otherwise unusable plant biomass into valuable animal products. As economies in the region modernise and begin to demand more livestock products, it is the rangelands that are expected to be the source for this increased demand. Fourth, many mountain rangeland environments are becoming increasingly popular as recreational sites for tourists. Tourism has the potential to not only help improve livelihoods of pastoralists but also to contribute to overall economic development in pastoral areas.

Factors such as geographical extent, watershed protection, biodiversity conservation, livestock production, and economic development suggest that the Himalayan and the Tibetan Plateau rangelands should be a priority area for development; but, unfortunately, they have not been given the attention they deserve. These pastoral areas are home to millions of people who have largely been ignored by previous development efforts due to remoteness and as a result of government policies that failed to appreciate the importance and potential of these grazing ecosystems. The lack of concern for pastoral areas and misconceptions regarding rangelands and pastoral production systems have led to a general downward spiral in the productivity of many areas, loss of biodiversity, and increased marginalisation of herders. Reversing these trends should be a priority for range researchers, policy-makers, range-livestock extension personnel, pastoral specialists, and herders.

Rangelands of the Tibetan Plateau and Himalayas provide habitats for a wide variety of wildlife, especially ungulates, or large-hoofed, grazing mammals. On the steppes of northern Tibet, wildlife such as the Tibetan wild ass (kiang), wild yak, Tibetan antelope, Tibetan gazelle, brown bear, and wolves are found. The mountains harbour blue sheep and argali along with the snow leopard and the lynx. In the mountain rangelands of eastern Tibet, where forests mix with grasslands, musk deer, red deer, white-lipped deer, roe deer, and takin are found. In the western Himalayas, ungulates like urial, ibex, and markhor appear along with the ubiquitous blue sheep and occasional argali. In the central Himalayas, Himalayan tahr and musk deer and, in lower elevation grasslands, goral, serow, and barking deer are seen. Some of these species are among the least known wild animals in the world. For example, Tibetan antelope are one of the earth’s major migratory animals, yet the location of their birthing grounds is still unknown.

Designing new and innovative conservation and development programmes for rangelands that will protect the remaining herds of wild yaks, Tibetan antelope, and other wild animals, requires a number of actions. First, there is a need to develop a much better understanding of rangeland ecosystem dynamics and animal-vegetation interactions. Second, more information on the ecology, status, and distribution of wildlife species is required. Regular monitoring of wildlife populations, especially antelope and wild ass, are also required. Third, there is a need for increased knowledge of pastoral production systems and nomads’ use of important wildlife habitats. Such information is necessary in order to design management programmes that address the needs of both livestock and wildlife. Fourth, more thorough analysis of the constraints and opportunities for maintaining and improving rangeland biodiversity needs to be undertaken. Finally, modifications in policies and current approaches to management will have to be made. The illegal killing of wildlife, especially Tibetan antelope, must to be stopped. Wildlife authorities will require additional training and support for enforcing wildlife protection regulations and reorientation to more participatory approaches to working with herders on protected area conservation and development. These actions are crucial for conserving biodiversity and ensuring sustainable pastoral development in the face of growing threats from modernisation.

Tibetan antelope define the vastness of the Tibetan wilderness. Like caribou in Alaska and wildebeest in Africa, antelope migrate long distances across the Tibetan steppes. The antelope’s migratory habit indicates the need for an enormous territory or home range. Sadly, in spite of being fully protected under legislation, antelopes have been heavily hunted in recent decades for the luxurious wool they produce. Known as shatoosh, it is the finest wool in the world. With the establishment of the 300,000 sq. km. Chang Tang Wildlife Reserve in northern Tibet, much of the antelopes’ habitat is now protected, but some antelope populations are known to migrate out of the Reserve into adjoining areas of Xinjiang and Qinghai to give birth. Protecting critical antelope habitats in these areas is vital if antelopes are to survive. Wild yaks once numbered in the millions, now, only an estimated 14,000 are left in the wild on the Tibetan Plateau and these animals can only be found in the most remote areas, far from the hunter’s guns. Preserving the remaining herds of wild yaks is crucial for biodiversity conservation. Wild yaks characterise the rugged wilderness of Tibet. No other animal so evokes the raw energy and wild beauty of the Tibetan landscape. The wild yak is a totem animal of the Tibetan wilderness and achieved mythic status long ago in Tibetan life. Superbly adapted to the rugged conditions of the highest plateau on earth, wild yaks are a keystone species: their presence identifies one of the last, great unspoiled ecosystems of Central Asia.

Nomads have been herding livestock on the grazing lands of the Tibetan Plateau for probably 4,000 years. As early as the Chinese Hsia dynasty (2205-1766 BC), nomadic tribes called the Ch’iang, who were believed to be the early ancestors of Tibetans, were known for making a fine woven woollen material in their camps in the Kunlun Mountains. Even rugs made from the ‘hair of animals’ were recorded as one of the articles of tribute received by the Hsia Emperor from these early nomads. During the Chinese Shang dynasty (1766-1027 BC), these nomad tribes inhabiting the eastern Tibetan Plateau steppes were also renowned for their horses.

Pastoralism in this environment has evolved through long-term persistence in one of the most inhospitable places on earth. As such, nomads have adjusted their production strategies to best suit the local environment and to take comparative advantage of the opportunities that are presented. The fact that nomads still populate Tibetan grazing lands today is proof of the rationality and efficacy of many aspects of traditional pastoral production as a means to convert forage from cold, arid rangelands into valuable animal products in an environment where cultivated agriculture is not possible. The survival of pastoral nomads indicates that many of the strategies of animal husbandry and range management developed centuries ago are well-adapted responses to the spectrum of environmental conditions found on the Tibetan steppes. Over thousands of years, nomads accommodated to their environment, learning to live with what it offered instead of changing and moulding the landscape to suit their needs, as farmers are wont to do. The endurance of pastoralism on the Tibetan Plateau also provides examples of nomadic practices that were once common throughout the pastoral world but are now increasingly hard to find. Tibetan pastoralists offer an opportunity to learn more about a way of life that is fast vanishing from the earth.

Over the centuries, Tibetan nomads acquired complex knowledge about the environment in which they lived and upon which their lives depended. The fact that numerous, prosperous pastoral groups remain to this day, bears witness to the extraordinary knowledge and animal husbandry skills of the herders. Pastoral development specialists need to access this vast body of indigenous knowledge and incorporate such information in range-livestock development programmes. Nomads should be considered as ‘experts’ even though they may be illiterate. Some old Tibetan herders have probably already forgotten more details about rangelands and yaks than many young scientists will ever learn.

Trade and links with agricultural communities have always been an important feature of pastoralism in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau. Trade represented an essential element in the pastoral economy in most areas and, for some pastoral groups, defined the structure of their herding operations as well. Various factors, such as ethnicity, religion, subsistence patterns, and environment, played key causal roles in the development of trading enterprises within each community. For centuries, this trade linked pastoral regions with grain producing areas and both the means of transport and the basic characteristics of this trade remained constant over long periods of time. In much of the Himalayas, trade was based on the exchange of grain for salt and wool in Tibet and the subsequent bartering of Tibetan salt for grain. It is unclear when trade across Tibet and through the Himalayas began, but it must have been flourishing when the Central Asian city-state of Khotan was founded in 250 BC. The opening of the Silk Road in the first century BC ushered in a period of rapidly expanding trade across Central Asia and across Tibet to India. Pastoralists must have contributed to, and been a part of, much of this trade.

When analysing rangeland ecology and current pastoral production practices on Tibetan rangelands, it is important to keep in mind the region's long pastoral history. The movements of early hunters, herders, traders, and troops across the grazing lands had a major effect on the later historical development of dynasties and kingdoms throughout the region. They, in turn, affected how pastoral areas were used. Understanding the historical developments that took place in the grasslands is invaluable in comprehending the present ecology of the landscape. It also helps to inculcate a greater appreciation for present day nomads and their long experience with herding livestock across these vast fields of grass.

The foundation for the rise of strong nomad tribal federations, kingdoms and empires on the Tibetan Plateau were the rangelands. The boundless, fertile grazing lands, and the livestock grazed on them, helped create prosperous, pastoral-based cultures. Tibet’s vast grasslands nurtured a prolific livestock industry. Tibet was rich with animals, wool, and butter. The pastoral landscape also assembled nomads accustomed to taking care of animals. This legacy enabled troops on horseback to be easily organized and for cavalry to travel swiftly and conquer far-flung territories. Without such a pastoral setting, people residing on the Tibetan Plateau would never have been able to develop into such an extraordinary civilization.

Nomads possess a great body of indigenous knowledge about the environment in which they live and the animals they herd. Unfortunately, nomads’ vast ecological knowledge and animal husbandry skills are often not well recognised or appreciated by scientists and development planners working in pastoral areas. As a result, herders have often been left out of the development process, with neither their knowledge nor their needs and desires being considered by many governments and development agencies in introducing more ‘modern’ and ‘scientific’ methods of livestock production. The key to sustainable pastoral development in the Himalayan and Tibetan Plateau lies in incorporating and building upon the indigenous knowledge and skills that herders already possess when designing new interventions.

Women play a very important role in pastoral society. Since they bear and rear children, women directly influence future human resources. As managers of the household and tent, pastoral women make vital decisions about the use of natural resources (fuel and water). As herders, women are responsible for many of the activities regarding livestock production. Their decisions and actions have effects on range resources and livestock. Efforts to improve livestock productivity, conserve and manage rangeland resources, reduce population growth, and improve pastoral peoples’ livelihoods will, therefore, have to focus on pastoral women. These efforts will have to try and reduce women’s time constraints; remove barriers to women’s access to credit and extension advice; introduce technologies useable by and beneficial to women; and improve women’s educational levels. Women are key actors in the sustainable development of pastoral economies in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau. Governments, donors, researchers, and pastoral specialists need to better acknowledge women's critical roles.

The management of Tibetan rangelands is both a science and an art. It tries to augment the returns from rangeland resources (water, plants, animals) in ways that are desired by the herders who raise livestock on the grazing lands, other people who also make use of the rangelands, and the wider society through the proper use of rangeland ecosystems. Proper management of rangelands combines practices from the physical, biological, and social science disciplines. Since climatic, topographic, soil, and hydrologic factors affect rangelands, physical science skills are necessary. Biological science is required because range management deals with plants and the response of animals (both wild and domestic) that consume vegetation. Social science skills are necessary because the needs and desires of society determine how rangelands are used.

Scientific knowledge of rangeland ecosystems and technical skills are vital to managing rangelands, but range management and pastoral development are more than just a science. They are also an art. The scientific information available on rangelands needs to be synthesised and fabricated into practical and implementable management plans. Creating such plans requires the talents and perception to detect changes in rangeland vegetation that have taken place in the past, how different uses are currently affecting the rangelands, and then the ability to fashion plans to present range use and future demands. This 'feel' for the rangelands can only be achieved by spending considerable time in such areas looking and listening.

Tibetan pastoral areas are complex environments and appear to function as highly dynamic ecosystems. Over much of the Tibetan Plateau, there is considerable variation in forage production from one year to another due to different precipitation patterns. There are even remarkable differences in grass growth in a small geographic area within one year due to local climatic patterns. Severe winter blizzards can bury forage for livestock under snow, often resulting in large livestock losses. These periodic snowstorms add to the complexity and non-equilibrial nature of the pastoral system, making pastoral production a high risk enterprise.

Nomads cope with the uncertainties of the environment by adopting a number of flexible production strategies that minimise risk and make optimal use of the resources available to them. One such strategy is to diversify herds and maintain a high degree of mobility. Social arrangements with neighbours and neighbouring groups of nomads have also been established to enable herders to gain access to additional resources or assistance during times of stress. Although not as important now in many areas, hunting and gathering were also strategies engaged in by pastoralists to supplement subsistence livestock production. All of these strategies aimed to minimise risk, stabilise production, diversify food and livestock product sources and income, and maximise returns to household labour.

Many of the large lakes on the Tibetan Plateau are much smaller than they were thousands of years ago. Old beach lines, in some cases 40 metres above the present shore lines, indicate the degree to which lakes have dried up. This general desiccation that is taking place is also affecting vegetation and is especially apparent in the alpine Kobresia sedge meadow communities. Researchers have noted that, in many of these plant communities, the environment can no longer support sedges and the vegetation is changing to a grass steppe type. These vegetational changes have important implications for the future of the Tibetan Plateau rangeland ecosystem, as these sedge meadows provide vital grazing for livestock and wildlife. Reduced plant productivity in these areas could have serious repercussions for livestock production and pastoralism over a wide area, with critical implications for wildlife as well. These climate-induced vegetation dynamics need to be better understood and vegetation changes should be monitored to detect changes and to develop appropriate pastoral management plans.

Since Tibetan Plateau rangelands have been subjected to livestock grazing for thousands of years, livestock have probably affected rangeland vegetation composition in many areas. Analysing the nature of these man-induced changes will help to explain ecosystem processes and the impact of livestock on the rangelands. New perspectives about non-equilibrial ecosystems such as are often found in pastoral areas, provide fresh paradigms for analysing the Tibetan rangelands and pastoral systems. The new concept of relatively stable, multiple vegetation states with thresholds or transitions between these vegetation states is also emerging as a new framework for analysing rangeland vegetation. These perspectives differ markedly from the Clementsian Paradigm of plant succession and plant climax communities, offering promise for improved descriptions and measurements of rangeland conditions. Exploring the relevance of these new concepts for Tibetan and Himalayan rangelands could have important implications for the future management of these pastoral areas.

The conventional concept of carrying capacity in range management is grounded in theories of plant succession and climax plant communities. Range management was built around the concept of range condition class, determining carrying capacities, and the manipulation of livestock numbers and grazing patterns to influence range condition. The relevance of the carrying capacity concept for planning livestock grazing in pastoral systems is being challenged, since it is often difficult to estimate carrying capacity in the highly dynamic ecosystems where pastoralism occurs. The difficulty of applying carrying capacity concepts means the notion of "opportunism" is gaining favour as a management approach for livestock production in pastoral areas. Instead of considering "average estimated carrying capacity", an opportunistic approach bases the grazing strategy on that year's forage production. Such an approach allows herders to better adjust livestock numbers to the wide spatial variability found in forage production, establish better distribution of livestock to forage availability, and enable increased livestock production.

The optimal strategy for herders in highly dynamic environments where pastoralism is commonly practised, therefore, may be to exploit range resources during ‘good times’ when climatic conditions promote better forage growth and to capitalise on outside resources during ‘bad times’ as the need arises. Opportunism is not new to pastoralists; many aspects of traditional pastoral systems embraced such opportunistic strategies. However, the adoption of opportunistic range management strategies on the Tibetan Plateau today has implications for the redesign of pastoral policies, most of which are currently based on carrying capacity concepts. Range research on Tibetan grazing lands needs to further investigate the usefulness of carrying capacity practices and the practicability of new models, such as opportunism, for managing livestock grazing.

In recent decades, many changes have taken place on the rangelands that are transforming traditional rangeland use and conditions, pastoral systems, and the lives of herders dependent on rangeland resources. Nomads and their pastoral systems have always been confronted with events that change their lives – droughts that wither grass, winter storms and livestock epidemics that wipe out herds, and tribal wars that displace people and their animals – but the changes nomads are facing today on Himalayan and Tibetan rangelands are more profound and likely to have more significant, long-term implications on their way of life and the ecosystems in which they reside than any previous changes.

Such new changes include the modernisation process itself, which has brought improved access and services to previously remote nomadic areas and increased demand for livestock products; the expansion of agriculture onto rangelands, and decrease in the amount of grazing land available to nomads' herds; disruption in traditional trade networks, which were often an important part of pastoral systems; the expansion of the protected area system with increased regulation limiting livestock grazing; and, more recently, policies to settle nomads and divide rangelands into individual family parcels. In many cases, the changes have altered previous, often stable, relationships between pastoralists and their environment. Pastoral systems are still in a state of transition and it is not yet clear what patterns will eventually emerge.

With the increase in human population in the region, along with a rise in peoples’ incomes, there is an increasing demand for livestock products from pastoral areas. Many nomads have now entered the market economy, selling their livestock products and purchasing goods they require, in contrast to traditional barter systems. Many pastoral families have greatly improved their standards of living. Nomads throughout the Tibetan pastoral areas of western China, who until a few years ago still lived in tents the year-round, have now built houses and barns and have erected fences around private winter pastures, although most herders continue to live in tents in the summer. Herders are also demanding improved social services (schools, health clinics, etc.), as well as improved veterinary services and market outlets for livestock products. Keeping abreast of the changes taking place on the grasslands is an important task for pastoral researchers. These changes and the effects they have had - and are having - on the rangelands, livestock production, and socio-economic dynamics of pastoral societies need to be analysed.

The challenges facing the sustainable development of rangelands in the Himalayan and Tibetan Plateau are considerable. These grazing lands, however, do offer numerous opportunities for achieving the twin objectives of conservation and development of rangeland resources. Programmes stressing multiple use, participatory development, sustainability, economics, and biodiversity could be realised through complementary activities in range resource management, wildlife conservation, and pastoral development and livestock production. Properly managed, rangelands can continue to be sources for water, provide habitat for wild animals and grazing land for livestock, and contribute to overall economic development. Rangeland strategies must aim to maintain the condition of the range and to protect biological diversity. Designing more effective pastoral policies and rangeland development strategies requires improved knowledge of range ecosystem processes, better understanding of pastoral production systems, and more thorough analyses of the constraints and opportunities for improving the management of grazing lands.

Resolving rangeland management and pastoral development issues will require policies and approaches that integrate ecological processes of the rangelands with the economic processes of livestock production and biodiversity conservation. Economic valuation of rangeland resources requires consideration of both direct and indirect values. New policies for rangelands will also have to better demonstrate, in economic terms, the contribution grazing land resources make to overall economic development.

Those involved with managing rangeland resources and setting pastoral policies need to make the best use of the latest data available and any new ideas or emerging concepts on rangeland ecosystems and pastoral development. There is also a need to explore beyond the conventional thinking of many of the traditional range management concepts, developed largely in North America, in order to manage rangelands in the pastoral areas of the Himalayan and Tibetan Plateau where the pastoral history is thousands of years old, more effectively. Rangeland degradation, loss of biodiversity, and increased marginalisation of pastoralists result from mismangement of rangeland resources.

The general lack of concern for rangelands in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau means that not enough, good ecological research has been carried out in these grazing land ecosystems and, therefore, rangeland dynamics are not well understood. This complicates proper assessments of the causes of rangeland degradation and decline in rangeland productivity and biodiversity. While overgrazing by livestock is a problem in many areas, livestock are often wrongly blamed for vegetation changes and rangeland degradation. There is increasing evidence that a general climatic trend of desiccation may be responsible for much of the vegetation change and apparent degradation that is taking place. When the actual causes of perceived rangeland problems are misinterpreted, as is often the case on the Tibetan Plateau when the ecology of the rangelands is not well understood, efforts to address the problems are often frustrating and unsuccessful.

Successful efforts to conserve and manage rangeland resources must address the full range of causes of rangeland degradation, loss of biodiversity, low livestock productivity, and marginalisation of pastoralists and embrace the opportunities that rangeland ecosystems and pastoral people offer for sustainable development.

Rangeland degradation, illustrated by areas of rangeland that have lost their vegetative cover (known as ‘black beach’ in China) is an issue on the Tibetan Plateau. Large areas of this ‘black beach’ are found in the eastern parts of the Tibetan Plateau in Kobresia sedge meadows. While the causes of this degradation are still not well understood, it is believed by some researchers that the general desiccation, or drying up, taking place on the Tibetan Plateau may be responsible. The rangeland environment can no longer support Kobresia plant communities and the rangeland is going through changes to a plant community dominated more by drought tolerant grasses and forbs. Livestock grazing, often perceived as the cause of ‘black beach’, may actually just accentuate natural ecological processes taking place on the landscape. Small rodents such as pikas (‘rabbit-rats’) and zokers (‘mole-rats’) also cause considerable rangeland degradation.

Animal husbandry will continue to be the main land use in this high plateau environment. Livestock will be the primary source of livelihood for people residing in these pastoral ecosystems for many years to come. As such, much greater effort needs to be directed towards rangeland research and pastoral development. Many of the new perspectives emerging on rangeland ecosystem dynamics and pastoral production systems from other pastoral areas of the world provide fresh approaches and interesting challenges for analysing rangelands and pastoralism in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau. They also offer valuable, fresh frameworks for designing new, exciting range and pastoral research, suggesting possibilities for more sustainable development and conservation of these unique grazing lands.

Many pastoral areas in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau are now included in a greatly expanded protected area system. Balancing biodiversity conservation and pastoral development in these parks and reserves is a major challenge. Innovative models for conservation that promote an integrated development approach offer new opportunities for protecting wildlife while, at the same time, improving people's livelihoods. However, in some key wildlife habitats there may have to be restrictions placed on livestock if wildlife is to survive.

There are no simple solutions for addressing range resource management, biodiversity conservation, and pastoral development issues in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau. Due to the multifaceted dimensions of the problems, action will have to be taken on several levels. Policy dialogue will be necessary to establish appropriate range-livestock development programmes and incentive structures for pastoral areas. Mechanisms for increasing pastoralists' participation in the development process need to be improved. Human resource training and institutional development for organizations working in pastoral development need to be supported. Many of the tools are already available – the knowledge and skills of the herders, scientific data on rangeland resources, new technologies, and information systems – and new information, ideas, and technologies are being generated, but all of this must be integrated into a practical long-term strategy that includes saving rangelands, analysing them, and using rangeland resources sustainably and equitably.

Pastoral development programmes must involve herders themselves in the initial design of interventions. Herders’ needs and desires must be heard and the vast body of indigenous knowledge pastoralists possess about rangeland resources must be put to use when designing new range-livestock development projects. An important message for pastoral policy-makers and planners is the need for active participation by the herders in all aspects of the development process and for empowered herders to manage their own development. New mechanisms for discussion, negotiation, and common action by all concerned about rangelands may be required in order to realise sustainable development goals in pastoral areas.

Rangeland resources must continue to be available for future generations, as much as they should be used to improve people's livelihoods now. Without such provisions, rangelands are not being used in an equitable, sustainable manner. The fact that many prosperous nomadic groups remain to this day on Tibetan rangelands bears witness to the extraordinary capacity of these grazing lands, as well as to the sustainability of their resources if used wisely. Maintaining rangeland productivity and biodiversity and, at the same time, increasing livestock offtake to meet growing demands and improve the livelihoods of nomads who depend on the rangelands for existence are challenging tasks.

Sustainable development of the pastoral areas of the Tibetan Plateau and those of the Himalayas requires a better understanding of the complex nature of the rangelands, greater appreciation for nomads and their way of life, and consideration of new information and ideas emerging about rangeland ecosystems and pastoral production systems. It may also require rethinking of some existing pastoral polices in light of new information about rangelands, nomads, and range-livestock production practices.

The remarkable rangelands of the Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau will experience a great and tragic emptiness if the productivity and biological diversity of these grasslands diminish. Unique pastoral cultures will be forced into transformation beyond recognition, while wildlife populations will be severely threatened. These consequences can be avoided if timely action is taken to evaluate the rangeland resources, to acknowledge the efficiency of many traditional pastoral strategies, and to realistically appraise development alternatives for conserving and managing the Tibetan rangeland ecosystem. These actions are crucial for ensuring sustainable economic development and environmental protection in the face of growing threats from modernisation. Only then will the long-term viability of the Tibetan fields of grass be secured for future generations.

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