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Tibet: Environment and Development Issues

[Environment and Development Desk; Department of Information and International Relations; Central Tibetan Administration; Dharamsala, INDIA. April 26, 2000.]


Ancient cultures which have adapted to their natural surroundings can offer special insights on structuring human societies to exist in balance with the environment. For example, Tibetans are uniquely familiar with life on the Himalayan Plateau. This has evolved into a long history of civilisation that took care not to overwhelm and destroy its fragile ecosystem.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, 1995.

AGRICULTURE has traditionally been the foundation of the Tibetan economy. The three major forms of occupation in Tibet are pastoral nomadism (drokpa), grain farming (shingpa) and semi-nomadism (sama-drok). Over 80 per cent of the total population of Tibet is still engaged in primary sector agriculture (TIN 1999a). Farmers are mainly concentrated in valleys where they utilise fertile soil for crop cultivation, while pastoral and semi-nomads are found on plateaus and mountains suitable for raising animals.

Natural rangelands abound in Tibet, accounting for 70 per cent of the total territory supporting an estimated population of 70.2 million domestic animals and about one million pastoral nomads (DIIR 1992). The rangelands are mostly concentrated in the Chang Thang (Northern Plateau) which has long been regarded as one of the best grazing regions in Asia. Cropland accounts for only two per cent while forest accounts for five per cent.

Desert, rocky and permanently barren lands, settlements, lakes and rivers account for the remaining 23 per cent of the total territory (ibid). According to Chinese sources, grasslands in the northeastern province of Amdo (Ch: Qinghai) account for 96 per cent of the province, while in 'TAR' 56.72 per cent of the region constitutes highland pasture (Tibetan Bulletin 1992a). The vast rangelands of Kham produce superior quality grass.


Pastoral Nomad Migration

Tibet's pastoral nomadism represents a unique example of the sustainable pastoralism that was once common in many parts of the world. The pastoral nomads manage their grazing lands with a combination of traditional knowledge, instinct and sensitivity to environmental conditions; skills that have ensured the productivity of these pastures for millennia.

Tibetan nomads migrate with their herds of yaks, sheep and goats and their movements are designed in such a way that the herds are moved to various pastures during different seasons of the year. Different pastures were used for summer and winter grazing allowing the land to recover and retain its fertility. The staple diet of the nomads is tsampa (roasted barley) supplemented by butter, cheese, yoghurt and meat; their drinks are butter tea and a beer called chang, which is usually made from barley.

The milk products such as butter and cheese are bartered with farmers for food grains. Dri (female yak) milk is churned every day using a wooden churner called dongmo and the butter that is collected is then pressed into a hard circular cake from which all liquid is removed and then packed into skin and wooden storage containers. The butter is prepared so well that it can be stored for long periods without turning rancid. The cheese prepared from buttermilk is either used fresh or processed further into hard cheese for marketing. Dried cheese is made by slicing the circular cheese into small pieces and hanging them in strings of 20 squares. Yak meat is considered a delicacy and eaten raw (red meat) by preserving a section of leg wrapped in cloth. Fresh meat or dried meat can be cooked in stews.

Nearly three quarters of Tibet's territory is pasture which forms the backbone of Tibet's agro-pastoral economy. Though the grasslands nurture a rich wealth of animals and a flourishing pastoral economy, the rugged mountain ranges and extensive steppes are covered with green grasses for only a few months of the year (Miller 1997c).

Much of the Tibetan Plateau is above 4,000 metres high; some nomads maintain permanent camps at elevations as high as 5,100 metres (Miller 1997c). The remarkable variation of the plateau's vegetation is attributable to its variations in altitude, temperature and precipitation. The natural growth of pastures consequently improves from west to east as the altitude decreases. Most of the landmass stands above 3,000 metres, with large areas above 4,000 metres. Little vegetation is found above 5,000 metres and this is used exclusively for summer pasture (yar-tsa). The vegetation between 4,000 - 5,000 metres altitudes is called spring pasture and the winter pasture (gun-tsa) is mainly found in valleys around 3,000 metres high.

These nomads remain in their winter and spring season pastures for seven months, moving north to their summer and autumn pastures in the middle of May. This seasonal migration involves the movement of all livestock and humans alike. Nomads pack up their belongings -- including the yak hair tents which are their homes -- and move to new campsites. Summer and autumn grazing lasts from June through September in the pastoral areas of Northern Tibet. In the south, this grazing period begins two weeks earlier and lasts until the end of October. In most of Tibet's pastoral areas the winter-spring grazing season lasts from October to May.

Many animals die every year due to the shortage of fodder and the fact that grasses are buried under snow in winter and spring. At times, the winter death rate could go as high as 50 per cent of the herd size. Overgrazing and snowstorms can lead to a decrease in grass availability and nutrient loss and therefore winter pastures are relied upon when the grass is withering. Herdsmen usually prefer to mow winter pastures before grazing begins. However, the amount of hay annually produced by mowing is very limited because grasses are short (only 5-12 cm) and vegetation cover is relatively sparse (Wu 1997). According to Long and Ma (1997), there are five primary types of rangeland existing in Amdo region which exemplifies the richness of the Tibetan Plateau's grassland. They are as follows:

  • Woodland and coarse grass
  • Shrub and coarse grass
  • Dry rangeland
  • Desert rangeland
  • Meadow rangeland

Yaks and dris are the most important domesticated animals found in the pastoral areas of the Tibetan Plateau. Dris provide milk and milk products, and along with yaks yield meat, hair, wool and hides. They are also used as pack as well as draught animals and for riding. Their dung is an important source of fuel on the plateau where firewood is scarce. They make life possible for people to live in one of the world's harshest environments.

Sheep and goats are also very important animals on Tibet's rangelands. Although yaks characterise Tibetan pastoralism, sheep and goats are often more economically important in many areas. Sheep and goats provide wool, meat, hides and in some areas of Western Tibet, sheep are also milked. Sheep meat is preferred among nomads and agricultural people throughout Tibet. Tibetan wool is well known for its quality and is highly prized in the carpet industry for its great elasticity, deep lustre and outstanding tensile strength. Tibetan goats produce cashmere; some of the finest cashmere in the world comes from Western Tibet and much of it is exported to Europe. Goats are also milked as they lactate for a longer period of time than sheep. Nomads spin sheep and yak wool and yak hair. Women weave wool into material for tents, blankets, bags and clothing and men braid ropes. These items are still used in everyday nomadic life.

Grain from Productive Niches

Croplands of Tibet are located at very high altitudes compared to croplands in other parts of the world. Croplands account for only two per cent of Tibet's total area and yet this supplies the essential food grain needs of the populace, despite its extreme altitudes, weather conditions and a short growing season. The principal croplands are arable niches along the Drichu, Zachu and Gyalmo Ngulchu river valleys of Kham, the Yarlung Tsangpo valley in U-Tsang and the Machu valley in Amdo. Kham province is the most fertile cropland region, accounting for 85 per cent of the country's arable land (DIIR 1992).

The traditional agricultural system naturally embodied organic farming principles. The principles of crop rotation, mixed crops and periodic fallows were sustainable and appropriate to the fragile mountain environment. Traditionally the principal Tibetan crop was highland barley used for making tsampa; and under Chinese government directives, wheat is increasingly being planted to suit the Chinese migrant diet. However, in one mu (15 Mu equals 1 hectare) of land, the barley yield has decreased from 1300-1500 gyama (1 gyama equals 500 grams) to about 900 gyama in Rebkong, Amdo(Tibet Times 1999). Other major crops include rice, maize, mustard, millet, sorghum, buckwheat and rape-seed. The main vegetables that grow well are cabbage, lettuce, radish, turnip, peas, carrot, potato, spinach, kidney beans, tomatoes and others. The abundant sunshine is good for vegetable production and it is not unusual for a radish or cabbage to grow to a dozen kilograms, or a single potato to weigh half or one kilogram. These days fresh vegetables grown in greenhouses are available throughout the four seasons, especially in the Lhasa area (Dekhang 1997).

Normally much of the farm work is done by family members, but during the sowing and harvesting seasons ‹ which extend for only a few days and have to be completed according to climatic conditions -- they hire people who are paid in kind or they exchange labour. Any harvest surplus is traded for animal products with nomads in pastoral areas.


A third agro-pastoral category is semi-nomadism -- a mixture of nomadic lifestyle and farming in productive niches, which involves the raising of livestock and at the same time engages in agricultural practices.


Over the centuries, the pastoralists of the Tibetan Plateau have been immensely successful not only in using their vast rangelands but also in conserving the grazing capacity of these areas. Wildlife also coexisted with nomadic populations on the plateau (Schaller and Gu 1994). Over thousands of years nomads adapted to their environment, learning to live with what it offered instead of trying to change or mould the landscape to suit their own needs (Miller 1997c).

Nomads have been herding livestock on the grazing lands of the Tibetan Plateau for nearly 4,000 years, but pastoral production strategies and practices vary widely across the rangelands, depending on altitude, environmental conditions and rangeland types (ibid).

For centuries, trade was based on a barter system of exchanging nomadic products like wool and salt for the grains of farmers. Traditionally, the Tibetan pastoral nomads did not involve themselves in the practice of commercial meat production. This is because most Tibetans are religious and believe in life-after-death which could mean being reborn as the animals killed and therefore they seldom slaughtered. Although Chinese nomads can earn 10 times more per animal, Tibetans do not show much interest in monetary rewards or in changing their behaviour to maximise returns, especially when it means increasing the accelerated slaughter of their herds.

Prior to the Chinese invasion, nomadic herdsmen kept 'pasture book' records which regulated the permitted number of animals on every pasture to save pasturelands from overgrazing and erosion. Herdsmen exceeding the established grazing limits or regulations were penalised (Goldstein and Beall 1990). A livestock census was taken every three years to avoid overgrazing of pastures (Atisha 1991).

Tibetan nomads lived in yak hair tents ‹ called ba in Tibetan ‹ made from the long, coarse outer hair of the yak and dri called tsid-pa, which is spun and woven by the nomads themselves. The tents suit the nomadic lifestyle because they can be easily taken down and packed on yaks when moving camp. These tents help to keep out the rain yet let in light. Sections of old and frayed tents can be easily replaced with new strips of woven yak hair. The tents are ingeniously designed to stand up to the fierce winds that blow across the high Tibetan plains in winter.

Pastoralists on the Tibetan Plateau often raise a mix of different animal species as each species has different characteristics and adaptations to the grazing environment. The multi-species grazing system, like raising yaks, sheep, goats and horses together, is commonly practised by Tibetan nomads and maximises the use of rangeland resources. Different species of animals graze on different plants and, when herded together on the same range, make more efficient use of rangeland vegetation than a single species (Miller 1997c).

In Tibet, grain constitutes over 80 per cent of total crops by value. Yields per hectare vary widely. Tibet's croplands were traditionally farmed using methods that were both efficient and environmentally sound and Tibetan society used to be self-sufficient with respect to food supplies. The dry climate allowed storage of surplus harvests for long periods of time, sometimes more than 25 years. This resulted in a mainly closed economy, where comparatively little trading with neighbouring countries occurred. Some of the products of trade were salt, wool, butter, livestock and tea. Within the communities, barter exchange trade was the most commonly used system to acquire necessary provisions (Zhang 1989). Factors that allowed Tibetan society to maintain these isolationist practices for such a long period were the low rate of population growth and sustainable agricultural methods.

Traditionally, the pastoral grasslands were considered the property of the central government in Lhasa. The government had the right to transfer the ownership of estates in lieu of service, such as spiritual, military and civil administration, rendered by different sections of the society. The grasslands were not demarcated, allowing a natural form of transhumance. Spiritual service was rendered by monastic institutions whereas the military and civil administration came from the lay population. Land use was restricted to three major estate-holders: local administrative officials, the nobility and upper-ranking lamas in monasteries (Goldstein 1989). These groups accounted for less than five per cent of Tibet's population, but controlled most farmland, pastures, forests as well as most of the livestock, of which 30.9 per cent was owned by officials, 29.6 per cent by nobles and 39.5 per cent by monasteries and upper ranking lamas. Farmers and nomads made up 90 per cent of old Tibet's population (Geography of Tibet 1991).

In accordance with 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 colonisation of virgin soil in China have been going on for thousands of years (ICJ 1997).


Ever since 1951, immediately after China occupied Tibet, a series of changes were imposed. These agrarian changes can be studied under three different phases. The first stage, Democratic Reform (1951-1965), was short-lived and the implementation of the second stage began half way through the 1960s. By 1975, the major objective of the second stage of establishing communes was 93 per cent completed (Grunfeld 1987).

Phase I: 1951-1962

The first phase was marked by the distribution of estate livestock among nomad households and the formation of nomad 'Mutual Aid Teams'. Soon class-struggles began because the whole community was divided on the basis of an 'exploitation index' into five categories of nomads -- lord, rich, middle, lower middle and poor. Changes in cultural freedom, trade and transport were also taking place in pastoral areas (Tsundue1999a). However, despite these changes, the situation instead of improving worsened due to political instability, heavy taxation, the ban of the traditional barter system,inexperienced leadership and more so due to curtailing cultural freedoms. The result was that, like in many farming areas, the pastoral community experienced food grain shortages and declining livestock heads which encouraged the agrarian resistance movement.

Phase II: 1965-1982

In the midst of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), communes were radically imposed and land, animals and even properties which had been distributed during the 'democratic reform' of Phase I were taken back by the communes. Livestock were owned by communes, without any private ownership, and net income was distributed according to the labour contributed by an individual in the form of work points (Tsundue 1999b). Agricultural planning and decision-making was made at a high level of organisation and plans were implemented by farmers and nomads through a multi-tiered hierarchial system. The agricultural policy changed frequently and production growth-rates and net returns remained low.

Because the economic reality was often disregarded and surpluses were appropriated, farmers lacked enthusiasm for the methods of increasing production (ICIMOD 1988). Most of the produce was forcibly collected as patriotic grains tax, compulsory livestock sales tax, military tax and famine protection tax. The remaining harvest was 'purchased' at a nominal price by the Chinese government; this was rarely paid, the claimants being told the money had gone towards maintenance of the communes (Choephel 1976).

Failure of harvests and the export of grain and meat to China led to famines in the early 1960s. The late Panchen Lama specifically identified the cost of feeding Chinese immigrants as one of Tibet's main problems and wrote in a lengthy report to Mao Zedong:

The grain of about five kilos per month was not enough to feed Tibetans, even those with the lowest requirements, who in some places didn't receive anything at all. To dispel the daily hunger, Chinese officials gathered tree bark, leaves, grass roots and grass seeds, which really were not edible. After processing this, they mixed it with bits of food stuffs, made it into a thin gruel like pig food and gave it to the people to eat, and even this was limited in amount and couldn't fill their stomachs. He further added, 'Anguish of such severe hunger had never been experienced in Tibetan history and was such that people couldn't imagine it even in their dreams. The masses could not resist this kind of cruel torment and as a result, colds and minor infectious diseases developed which caused a percentage of people to die. In some places, many people starved to death and in some cases, there was a phenomenon of whole families dying out' (TIN 1997c).

During this phase, impossible quotas were imposed to increase crop yields and multiply the number of livestock in total disregard to the carrying capacity of arable land and grazing pastures. Carrying capacity is defined as the maximum density of domesticated livestock that a particular pasture can support without the risk of degradation (Aggarwal et. al 1993). Farmers, at that time in communes, increased the cultivation of marginal lands and grew high yield wheats which were unsuitable for local conditions or needs. These wheats were unable to tolerate severe highland winters and affected the traditional barley cropping system.

Inappropriate Chinese methods of increasing foodcrop and livestock production during the late 1950s and early 1960s resulted in the widespread destruction of Tibet's fragile grasslands. The increased number of livestock on limited grasslands led to overgrazing of Tibet's pastures (Zhang 1989). This was one of the major ecological disasters generated by the Great Leap Forward policy of late Chinese leader Mao Zedong (US Embassy 1996b).

Phase III: 1981-1989

After the death of Mao in 1976, the much-awaited liberal policy of 'Household Responsibility System' (HRS) was introduced. This third phase of agricultural experimentation was implemented in 1982 in Tibet. Under this policy communes were disbanded, every able-bodied person received an equal share of livestock and land, each household was entitled to be rewarded in the case of over-quota production, decisions were given to farmers, taxes exempted, people could retain part of their surplus produce and private ownership flourished. The HRS provided opportunities for farmers to return to traditional crops and their methods of agriculture, based on socio-economic demands was supported by technical improvements (Zhang 1989). Unfortunately this phase lasted only around seven years.

In 1989 the policy was reversed and restrictions were imposed once again by bringing agriculture under a centralised system of intensification of land use to produce grain surpluses for the benefit of 'the state'.


In Tibet, planning and development of agriculture has remained centralised in the 1990s and there is no freedom of land-use. Grain quota systems, a multitude of taxes and intensive farming have all contributed to a loss of freedom and incentive for Tibetan farmers. High altitude overgrazing and intensive agricultural production has resulted in the loss of many medicinal herbs and food plants, and has destroyed much of the winter food supplies for wildlife. Overgrazing has also caused wind and water erosion which has led to further desertification of the Tibetan Plateau. For example, 272 million hectares of land which is 17.03 per cent of ŒTAR' has been turned into desert (Tibet Daily 1998a). Desertification is caused by a variety of factors; mainly from conversion of land for agricultural purposes, clearfelling of forests and overgrazing in grassland areas.

According to Beijing, development means raising productivity, capital accumulation and investment. Thousands of skilled and unskilled Chinese workers are being transferred into Tibet in the name of 'development'. Tibetans see development projects simply as a case of misguided aid applied by the Chinese government designed to benefit only Chinese migrants. Wheat and rice which China had to import that fed the growing Chinese immigrant population in Lhasa were subsidised by the Chinese government at a staggering cost.

Resistance still exists in rural areas against intensified monoculture, heavy taxation, the livestock compulsory slaughter quota, the inappropriate state procurement policy, lapses in price reform and other policies. For the agriculturists, these issues reach to the heart of food security and sustainable rural life.


Widespread Taxation

A huge amount of tax is charged from the nomads to graze animals on the land. The amount of the tax depends on the size of the land and family. Each year, US$5 is collected from every individual between 15 - 60 years old which is supposed to benefit them during their old age. An education tax of one yak and two sheep is collected even from nomads who have never attended schools -- for which the price they get is less than half the market price (Bidhartsang 1998).

Rigid Quota System

Since the reversal of the HRS policy in 1989, China has once again imposed a rigid quota system, whereby farmers must adhere strictly to the government's policy of cropping system with the risk of food security. They are forcibly required to sell 250 kilogram of grain and mustard oil seeds irrespective of the size of the family. Nomads are forced to sell their animal products like khulu (soft fur) and slaughter cattle. Some families, however, do not possess enough livestock to fulfill the quota and are forced to purchase sheep and goats from others.

Under such policies, in order to fulfil their grain quota, farmers are forced to buy grains at the market price for which they are paid a compulsory purchase price by the state or at times do not receive any compensation at all (Bidhartsang 1998).

Fencing and Privatisation

Although the policy of reform since the late 1970s has led to nomads being able to re-establish some features of their traditional economy, policy measures are increasingly focusing on 'modernisation' which drive a process of dividing up land by fencing it and settling nomads has been under way since the mid 1980s in Qinghai. The Ninth Five Year Plan (1996-2000) for the 'TAR' includes provisions for the development of five million mu (335,000 hectares) of enclosed pastures. However, Xinhua News Agency has reported that fenced pasture exceeded 10 million mu (Dorje and Tsering 1999).

In 1998 Qi Jingfa, China's vice minister for agriculture, said that all herdmen were expected to end the nomadic life by the end of the century and that in Qinghai province 67 per cent of herdsmen have already settled into houses (Xinhua 1998i).

Although the introduction of fencing helps to some extent in the recovery of degraded pasture, it often leads to disputes over boundaries and resentments over its cost (Xinhua 1998i). Commercialisation of pastoral-nomadism is a serious issue. The World Bank and policymakers approve further commercialisation of pastoral nomadism through 'scientific management' of grasslands and present strategies to overcome local cultural 'obstacles' (Lafitte 1998b).

Documented interviews with Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala verify that there is widespread concern over the policy of fencing and the permanent settlement of nomadic communities. Natural movement of livestock has been practiced by the nomads for centuries but this policy change has caused social conflicts among Tibetan herding communities leading to regional instability and sometimes even the loss of life. At least 29 Tibetan nomads lost their lives due to a series of armed clashes over pasture lands (TIN 1999c).


Feeding Chinese settlers

The inequality of food subsidies makes living in 'TAR' more attractive to Chinese settlers while making it harder for poor Tibetans to survive in the way to which they were traditionally accustomed. Most of the subsidised items are foodstuff that is preferred by Chinese settlers rather than Tibetans. The staple diet of Tibetans is barley; however, it is only the two grains forming the staple diet of the majority of Chinese immigrants -- rice and wheat -- that are subsidised.

Shifting Policies

The Chinese government's frequent changes in policy have severely affected the livelihood of Tibetan pastoralists. Since 1949, ill-conceived policies were enforced which ignored local conditions and were aimed at growing crops -- particularly grain crops -- in all regions regardless of climatic and land conditions. Traditional production systems suited to local conditions were abandoned (Bidhartsang 1998).

Compulsory Fertiliser Purchase

New regulations require farmers to increase wheat production, especially winter wheat, which requires heavy applications of chemical fertiliser that Tibetan farmers believe depletes the soil (Grunfeld 1987). However, they are compelled to purchase fertiliser at fixed state prices, as part payment for grain procured by state trading companies.

This reduces their income, their power to pay for health and education benefits and discourages organic farming.

Increasing Human Pressure

According to Qu, Chairman of the Environment Protection Committee of the Chinese National People's Congress, and Li, an advisor to the Chinese National Environment Protection Agency:

A delicate balance exists between human population density and biomass productivity. By internationally accepted standards, a typical grassland area may support five persons per sq.km. On an average, Inner Mongolia's population density is home to 15 persons per sq.km. If that density is taken as a standard, the eastern regions of Tibet, which have absorbed the Chinese influx, now mostly support excessive numbers.



The stocking rates on the Tibetan grasslands are today being pushed to the limit as a result of the 36 per cent increase in China's herds (ICJ 1997). As a result, pastures are overgrazed in many areas and livestock have difficulty in finding nutritious pasture and have consequently lost weight. For example, in Amdo, the average weight of an adult yak dropped from 112 kilograms in 1965 to 40 kg in 1981 (64 percent decrease).

Specific cases of grassland degradation are related to extensive areas being enclosed for Chinese settlers and farmers. Such interventions affect the nomads' traditional migration patterns and restrict them to ever-smaller areas which leads to conditions of irreversible damage. This deterioration has reached a point where if conservation measures are not taken soon, the longterm continuity of nomadic Tibetan civilisation is threatened.

Degradation of Grassland

The most significant threat to the herders is the increasing level of grassland degradation as the pastures are no longer able to produce sufficient cover to feed livestock. Although there are no reliable figures for the extent of the degradation of grassland, some reports have quoted percentages of a loss of between 17.2 per cent (Xinhua 1998j) and over 30 per cent (US Embassy 1996d) of grassland in the 'TAR'.

Official Chinese literature blames it on the grazing traditions of the nomads. But it is an irrefutable fact that nomads' traditional pasture strategies have allowed them to survive and prosper for centuries on the high plateau. So inappropriate goverment policies are to blame for grassland degradation..

Seasonal Pasture Shortages

Even though the Tibetan nomads have accumulated a wealth of experience in the use of rangelands and seasonal migration management systems are well adapted to local conditions, many problems like shortages of pastures have arisen from uneven distribution of seasonal pastures. This shortage of such pastures has led to overstocking in winter areas and, therefore, insufficient nutritional provisions for the livestock during the winter (Wu 1997).


Tibet's population will continue to grow through Chinese migration at a relatively high rate and the consumption level of the population will increase, while the availability of land suitable for agriculture remains limited. But the prospect will not be so bleak if policy correction is embarked upon to redress the problems now.

The degradation of agricultural resources can no longer be regarded solely as a localised problem since the implications are widespread, affecting regional, national and international interests. Intensive use of land through changing land-use patterns should be encouraged, provided the interests of Tibetans and environmental conditions are taken into consideration. Also there is the need to encourage diversification of income for farmers through off-farm activities.

The Chinese government's centralised agricultural policy should be decentralised since it entirely ignores Tibet's local conditions, environment and the habits of the people. Increases in agricultural yields also depend upon improved agricultural techniques and not only on bringing more land under agriculture. This will require considerable new investment in the land and people skills. Training should be provided for Tibetans to use better agricultural tools and techniques. Studies on farmers' behaviour also should be made as this plays an important role in agricultural and rural development.

Protection of grassland is vital to the survival of Tibetans. There is a need for educational conservation programmes which convey the spiritual and economic benefits of good resource management. Such programmes should involve Tibetans, natural resource experts and others. Issues of overgrazing and degraded ranges can be addressed through joint efforts of herders and researchers, so that rangeland ecosystems and pastoral production systems will be better understood and conserved in the future.

Tibetan pastoralists' experience and deep understanding of the environment should govern policy decisions about grassland management. Policy reforms at all levels should consider the basic needs of local people and provide direct economic benefits to them. Incentives for rural development must be oriented towards improving living standards and conserving biodiversity.

Studies on the environment and development of the Tibetan Plateau are essential not only to fill the enormous gaps of knowledge on these dynamic, millennia-old ecosystems, but also to provide data that will enable the evaluation, by rational methods, of sustainable development strategies.

The preservation of nomads' extensive traditional knowledge of their natural environment, as well as the breeding and management skills of domestic and wild animals, remains vital. This knowledge should be fully investigated and integrated into the planning and implementation of development projects. Herd diversification should be practised as an insurance against major outbreaks of disease, since different domestic species are generally not susceptible to the same pathogens. Strengthening a sense of community and personal responsibility is the key to the conservation of biodiversity and the rehabilitation of degraded ecosystems. The use and conservation of rangeland ecosystems should be the exclusive responsibility of Tibetan people.


Agriculture has historically been the primary source of livelihood for over 80 per cent of the total population of Tibet. Until the late 1950s, Tibetans survived on the principle Tibetan crop, barley, plus vegetables, meat and animal bi-products. Trade was based on a barter system where the nomads exchanged their products like wool and salt for grains from farmers. The systems of agriculture and trade prior to the Chinese occupation sustained both humans and nature to a much greater degree.

Due to the Chinese occupation, Tibetans are now facing many hardships like food scarcity, heavy taxation, centralised and frequent changes of policy, lack of Tibetan participation in 'development projects' and the transfer of thousands of Chinese settlers. All changes were introduced in the guise of 'modernisation' and 'development of Tibet and Tibetans'.

Although the Chinese government forced the cultivation of winter wheat on marginal lands, coaxing Tibetans away from their staple crop of barley, this crop change failed as it was unsuitable for local conditions. All the agricultural planning and decision-making in Tibet today is imposed from above. Production growth rates and net returns remain low because farmers receive no incentives for increasing production. Most of the produce is forcibly collected as taxes in various forms.

The issue of grassland in Tibet is centred around the sustainability of pastoral-nomadism which hitherto depended on the policies that would support restoration and preservation of a sound grassland ecosystem. Over 60 per cent of pastoral-nomadic counties in the 'TAR' are faced with extensive rangeland degradation caused by overgrazing, imbalances in the grassland food chain and the Chinese policy encouraging commercial exploitation of rangelands.

For the future it is important that the present arable land and pastures are conserved and utilised by following appropriate cropping patterns and grassing systems, as Tibet has the potential to meet future demands for food self-sufficiency and other basic needs. The most fundamental requirement is that there must be clarity and consistency on land policies so that farmers and nomads feel secure about their land rights. Agricultural sectors should be gradually decentralised while drastic revisions are needed in the areas of cropping patterns and price reforms. The active participation of both the farmers and nomads in all aspects of the development process is necessary.


[Source: Used with permission from Environment and Development Desk. Department of Information and International Relations; Central Tibetan Administration; Dharamsala, India.]

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