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Tibet 2003: State of the Environment

[Environment and Development Desk; Department of Information and International Relations; Central Tibetan Administration; Dharamsala, India. White Paper, July, 2003]

Desertification: Grassland Politics

Open grasslands - accounting for more than 60 percent of the landmass of Tibet - have sustained Tibetans, their pastoral herds, and the prolific wildlife mingling with them, over the millennia. Today there is expert consensus that Tibet's grasslands are degrading and that this is having serious consequences on the livelihood of Tibetan nomads as well as affecting climate patterns for China and the world. However, there seems to be official denial over the causes for rangeland degradation and the factors that are contributing to this new phenomenon.

The following factors that have impacted on massive grassland degradation are avoided in China's white paper:

* Conversion of grassland (the most fertile and lower altitude pastures) to cropland in the Great Leap Forward of the early '50s and since then abandoned
* Reclamation of communal land, the traditional pastures of semi-nomads, under a new policy to allow commercial development
* Growing rapeseed on low-lying pastures - particularly by Chinese settlers and military units - around the pastoral plains of Amdo's Tso Ngonpo (Lake Kokonor)
* Uncontrolled gold mining and illegal harvesting of wild medicinal herbs on grasslands with the connivance of local authorities
* Infrastructure development such as highways, new townships for settlers and railroad tracks
* Elimination of indigenous predators leading to the loss of natural checks on the population growth of pest species

There is a tendency for the PRC to abrogate responsibility for grassland degradation by citing natural factors such as global warming and the general drying up of the Tibetan Plateau - and blaming the nomads for "irrational" and "stupid practices". The extent and nature of grassland degradation is yet to be studied in depth, but the problem is - pervasive and particularly localised and severe around peri-urban areas, resource extraction locales and areas of major development.

Pasture Degradation: Observations of International Agencies

Based on the findings of UNDP, ADB, the World Bank, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and other studies, it is clear that government development policies have been a major factor in the present plight of Tibet's grasslands.

Erosion and degradation of grasslands began under communism when nomads and farmers were collectivised, with all power in the hands of cadres and their so-called "scientific" knowledge. In the production fervour of the 1960s and 1970s Mao's China felt compelled to force high yields from Tibetan lands, especially in meat production, which the seasonal grasses could not bear.

As herd sizes doubled and quadrupled at the command of cadres the silent cancer of degradation began. In 2001 the World Bank noted: "The total area of degraded grassland increased by about 95 percent between 1989 and 1998, with a notable acceleration in the middle to late 1990s. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the most fundamental underlying cause has been poor government development policies." (China: Air, Land and Water)

UNDP's China Human Development Report 2002 states:

"Desertification costs China about US$2 to 3 billion annually. An estimated 110 million people suffer first-hand from the impacts of desertification and, by official reports, another 2,500 sq km turn to desert each year. Ultimately, people's livelihoods in pastoral regions are at stake. The capacity of the grasslands to support animal and human population is indisputably decreasing... Development has occurred with a disquieting widespread degradation of land resources. This already strained people-land relationship has been further intensified and alarmingly worsened with widespread grassland destruction and desertification, deforestation, soil erosion, salinisation, land pollution and biodiversity loss...

"Recent decades have witnessed an increased rate of desertification. Between the 1950s and 1970s about 1,500 sq km of land each year have become desertified. In the 1980s the rate has increased to more than 2,000 sq km annually, and now China loses alarmingly 2,500 sq km of land to desert each year. Desertification often occurs where agriculture and husbandry meet, partly the consequence of policies which for years favoured agriculture over husbandry."

China, the UNDP says, is now "one of the most seriously eroded countries in the world. Nearly two fifths of the total land area suffers from various degrees of soil erosion, and more than two thirds of its grassland."

Beijing's Undermining of the Traditional Livestock Management System

The role of traditional Tibetan community-based management of grassland has been seriously undermined. The American anthropologist, Melvyn Goldstein, and other international social scientists have written that the traditional livestock management system was a time-tested model, sophisticated, and developed enough to ensure viable and sustainable management of marginal pastures.

While China has produced volumes of data on scientific studies of grassland and livestock, hardly any literature or studies have been produced on traditional nomadic risk management and uses of grassland. The undermining of respect for traditional Tibetan livestock management methods is basically due to China's inexperience in managing open grasslands. Wherever Chinese farmers were settled on "minority" grasslands - as in Inner Mongolia - they ploughed the native grasses, planted grain and then watched the pastures turn to desert, the topsoil blown away in dust storms that plague Beijing to this day.

Few Chinese migrated to Tibet by choice. Fewer knew anything about the ecological dynamics of Tibet and their ability to endure intense cold and seasonal grazing by wild and domestic herds.

With the economic reforms of the 1980s and the PRC's opening to the outside world, the inherent policy of "squeeze agriculture for industry", and the shifting of social responsibility from Beijing to local governments, there has been very little investment in the vast Tibetan grasslands. But China does not acknowledge that its policies are the cause for grassland degradation. Instead, Beijing blames the plateau's nomads themselves, labelling them "backward", "ignorant", and unaware of the consequences of their actions. There is an inverted official policy of blaming those who are most immediately and severely disadvantaged by the eroding landscape.

Policies based on ignorance of the dynamics of grassland ecosystems, and the positive role of nomads and farmers, have resulted in misinformed and misguided policies which have harmed rather than helped the animal husbandry.

Urbanisation and Destruction of Grasslands

The historic pattern of a dispersed population utilising the land extensively, as transhumant pastoralists, suited the nature of an intensely cold plateau where vegetation may never regenerate once it is destroyed. The modern pattern of concentrating unprecedented immigrant populations in cities and towns imposes huge and unsustainable demands on the surrounding areas. Not only is the natural capital exploited intensively, the wastes generated by towns and cities are returned to nature almost totally untreated.

China's longterm policies for Tibet strongly emphasise the importance of urbanisation, and the transport corridors connecting urban centres. However, there has been little investment in mitigating the impacts of urbanisation.

The UNDP's China Human Development Report 2002 shows that the total length of sewer pipes in the "Tibet Autonomous Region" and Amdo is 0.3 percent of China's sewers and the total amount of human wastes carried away from urban centres is similarly minimal at 0.35 percent of China's total. If sewerage investment was proportionate to population size, these figures should be more than double.

It is one thing to remove wastes from towns, another to treat them properly before they discharge into rivers. The same UNDP report shows that by 1999 the discharge of industrial wastewater by urban factories in "Tibet Autonomous Region" and Amdo reached 64.9 million tons, of which only 28.7 million tons were treated in conformity with China's legal standards. The resultant water pollution compromises water quality in rivers that flow down throughout South and Southeast Asia as well as Mainland China.

China's 2003 white paper on Tibet's environment states that the two major factories in Lhasa - manufacturing beer and footwear - now comply with waste discharge regulations. Both factories were built in the 1990s and their tardy compliance has impacted negatively on the Kyichu, a tributary of the Yarlung Tsangpo, which becomes the primary river of Bangladesh further downstream, the Brahmaputra. The white paper admits that the brewery "used to be a major polluter" and that the footwear factory's water treatment facilities were paid for and installed by German government aid.

In Central Tibet only Lhasa has any garbage disposal plant. Major urban centres, including Shigatse, Tsethang, Chamdo, Nagchu and Gyantse, have no method of handling garbage disposal.

Modern cities require huge amounts of energy. Lhasa, a city that in 50 years of Chinese stewardship has increased its population 15-fold, now harvests its electricity from geothermal sources to the north and from hydropower to the south, from the most sacred of Tibetan lakes, Yamdrok Tso. Tibetans are outraged that their sacred lake has been tunnelled and piped, fitted with turbines and power pylons, and that the waters of this enclosed, high-perched lake are now exchanged daily with the waters of the Yarlung Tsangpo below.

The plateau's inadequate electricity supply will mean the installation of more large-scale hydro dams. Until they are built there will be ongoing reliance on coal, trucked from Tibetan coalmines far from Lhasa. The UNDP's China Human Development Report 2002 finds: "People in Tibet suffer the highest level of indoor air pollution due to the high coal consumption per household."

Untreated waste and uncollected garbage are problems not only in urban areas. Even the sacred pilgrimage area of Gang Rinpoche (Mt. Kailash) in the far west of Tibet experiences uncontrolled littering by tourists, with no effort by local authorities to provide for the collection of pilgrims' discards.

A major 2002 report on development plans for Western China, The 2020 Project: Policy Support in the People's Republic of China, (here on referred to as The 2020 Project) co-authored by China's State Development Planning Commission and the Asian Development Bank, states:

"Degradation of the natural resources of the Western Region has been severe, particularly in recent decades. It has occurred largely as a result of increased population pressure for agricultural and urban development, involving logging, livestock grazing, and clearing, followed by cropping in areas with steep slopes, erosion-prone soils, or low rainfall, beyond the sustainable capacity of the landŠ There are population concentrations in the Yarlung Tsangpo middle reaches, and population growth, overgrazing, strong winds, firewood collection and the sandy soil are threatening livelihoods."

The livelihoods most threatened as stated by The 2020 Project are those of Tibetan farmers, since the Yarlung Tsangpo midsection is the grain bowl of south Central Tibet. This region will now be required to yield at high intensity to feed the burgeoning immigrant population in fast-expanding towns and cities - from Shigatse to Tsethang - along a 300-km stretch of Central Tibet's riverine artery. The sudden intensification of grain production relies on heavy applications of chemical fertilisers and pesticides to achieve yields, which in turn leads to chemical pollution of the Yarlung Tsangpo.

China's 2003 white paper admits to the presence of persistent organochlorine compounds in this fertile region, saying only that the problem is now being monitored and surveyed without outlining any remedial measures. Contrary to expert evidence from Chinese sources, the white paper says of Tibet that "most of its major rivers and lakes are in a primordial state".

Dubious Policies

China's official response to the crisis over grassland sustainability has five aspects. Firstly, around 1980 China reversed the communisation of nomads and distributed land and animals to each family, returning total responsibility to them. But this reversal also brought in a new policy of settling nomads, requiring them to exchange their tents for housing on land leased to them by the authorities, and to fence their land - often forcing them into debt.

This enclosure policy has concentrated herds into more limited areas of pasture which quickly become overgrazed, while restricting the nomads' customary flexibility and mobility. However, the lessons of degradation have not been learned and decision-making over the nomadic lifestyle is still in Chinese hands. This is apparent in the March white paper which boasts: "To enhance grassland amelioration in the pastoral areas, change the nomadic way of production, speed up development in pastoral areas and improve herdsmen's living standards, projects to construct grassland in the pastoral areas, build permanent settlements for roving herdsmen have been launched since 2001."

Tibet's pastureland is characterised by a short growing season, marginal terrain and a fragile ecosystem necessitating the nomads to move herds seasonally between varying altitudes. The UNDP's China Human Development Report 2002 identifies the environmental harm done by sedentarisation of nomads. Sedentarisation "has been a government policy aimed at improving the living standards of nomadic herders. Over the short term, stationary herders also tend to have more livestock - a display of affluence. Mobile herding, on the other hand, though appearing harsh on herders' lives can give grasslands time to rejuvenate. The damage to the grasslands due to settled herding has been evident in Inner Mongolia and other Central Asian regions."

Secondly, the allocation of land has remained unchanged for over two decades, despite the natural expansion of nomad families. In a 1999 interview, Peng Liming of the Qinghai Animal Husbandry Bureau, in charge of the nomads of northern Tibet, admitted that the curb on land is intentional, and its purpose is to teach the nomads discipline, which is the beginning of "civilisation". This senior Beijing cadre explained that when Tibetan nomad children become adult, marry and form families of their own, if their land cannot support them they will necessarily migrate to Chinese cities to seek factory work - or curb the number of children they have. This policy, he said, will continue unchanged for at least 50 years.

Thirdly, China has launched a vigorous chemical poisoning campaign to eradicate one of the keystone species that in reality sustains healthy pasture. The authorities hold the mistaken belief that the plateau pika or ochotona is the cause of degradation. A huge area of over 208,000 sq km - bigger than Ireland, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Belgium combined - was poisoned. However, international scientific research on Tibet has shown that far from being the causes of degradation, Pika aerate the soil by burrowing and as preys for hunting species. They are what scientists term Œkeystone species'. However, the authorities remain unable to admit their mistake or distinguish cause from effect.

Fourth, Tibet's nomads remain poor, barely subsisting under the financial load of localised taxes and extra budgetary charges imposed by administrators who - since their salaries are no longer paid by Beijing - impose rents and invent new sources of revenue to achieve an income. This method of raising revenue includes the purchase of nomadic products at unrealistic prices.

Even though Beijing decries such arbitrary levies they persist in a laissez faire administration which leaves plenty of room for exploitation by local leaders. Additionally, China fails to invest in the rehabilitation of degraded rangelands, except in a few areas where, according to the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development, the nomads have been forced to take bank loans and go deeper into debt to pay for outside Chinese contractors to plough and sow grass seeds.

Fifth, China's current policy of promoting grassland and forest regrowth is only achieved by banning nomads from these areas. On hillslopes China refers to this policy as "mountain closure". In January 2003 China's top central planner, Zeng Peiyan, announced that human use will be barred from 67 m ha of Tibet's grassland over the coming five years. This exclusion of indigenous pastoralists, with their intimate local knowledge and husbandry of the grasslands, only drives Tibetans into destitution and alienation. This punitive policy fails to utilise the native populace's wisdom and intense desire to sustainably maintain the grasslands and their wildlife.

Under the guise of ecological rehabilitation the Tibetans are in reality being further marginalised and excluded in their own land. China's white paper boasts of this policy of enclosure, "sealing off mountainous areas to facilitate afforestationŠ in line with the principle of limiting the number of grazing animals by the size of the pasture, rotation grazing periods, rotation grazing areas and Œno-grazing areas' have been designated." The State making decisions without the involvement of the primary stakeholder is quite contrary to global practice - known by development agencies as New Rangeland Management - which respects and supports pastoralists' mobility and traditional wisdom. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation has identified the role Tibetan pastoralist community organisations could play in preventing degradation, managing risks and ensuring sustainability (www.fao.org/sd/2001/IN0601a/en. html). However, China's colonial management style remains topdown.

The 2020 Project report clearly recommends that the voices of nomads be heard as stakeholders who should be included in decision-making. It advises:

"Grassland management through administrative measures to enforce carrying capacities has either not worked well or been expensive. Necessary measures include the following: Reviewing the Grassland Law of 1985 with a view to strengthening the role of herdsmen and village committees in grassland management and reducing the role of governmentŠ Possible further measures include the following: Clarifying and certifying the ownership and usufruct of grassland, and handing out certificates for the use and ownership of grassland. Allowing peasants and herdsmen to buy shares by giving them land ownership and usufruct."

Undermining the role of Tibet's nomads has resulted in a grassland crisis as real as the dilemma faced by tropical rainforests. The combined impacts of erosion, fencing, sedentarisation, debt, poverty, taxation, toxic weed invasions, soil loss, exclusion and the absence of basic human services threatens the very survival of the nomadic way of life. Once prosperous nomads may soon be forced - by escalating user-pays health costs and school charges, and by absolute poverty - to become beggars in Chinese-run towns and cities. Or factory workers if anyone will employ them.

Local Empowerment: The Only Viable Solution

Pastoral-friendly policies are urgently needed to facilitate slow, sustainable progress so that nomads have the choice and freedom to decide their way of life in future. Since animal husbandry is subsistence-based - and the environment nomads operate and depend on is marginal, with limited potential for intensification - it is essential that State policies do not impose interventions that bypass local conditions and the traditional wisdom of nomads. We recommend that the PRC planners:

* Reverse the present policy of settling nomads and fencing grasslands, and instead promote livestock mobility - fundamental to preventing environmental degradation. This movement of livestock is the basis of traditional pasture management
* Promote economic diversification and improve social development programs. And off-farm employment opportunities that take natural and comparative advantage of pastoral so the nomads remaining on the grassland can develop a viable livelihood
* Reduce risk to nomadic households by legitimising communal tenure and management of pasture resources so that all will have equitable access to resources
* Promote and develop community-based management of resources through collaborative management of pasture, with local communities in partnership with government extension, research and administration entities

By building on the strengths of rural communities, China can achieve the goal of improving the livelihoods of nomads and restoring the quality of their grasslands. This calls for a new way of thinking, a new approach that respects and utilises the diversity of expert knowledge - from nomads to scientists and policy-makers. This approach is alien to PRC thinking and will only be accepted by Beijing's central planners when there is openness to more democratic mechanisms for research, development planning and implementation.


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

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