Historical Overview of Grassland Degradation in Tibet

Like the two poles, the Tibetan plateau is showing drastic signs of changing climate. The retreat of glaciers, degradation of permafrost, and desertification of grassland is only the beginning of a series of changes that could threaten the livelihoods of millions of people living on the Plateau and billions more throughout Asia… and the world. This post will explore the history behind how the degradation of the grasslands of Tibet has become an environmental and social justice issue.

source: author's image

Growing up in the grasslands of Tibet with my nomadic family, my fondest childhood memories always included the springtime new blossoms, summer monthlong picnics and gatherings, and cozy wintertime frost.

According to Dr. Marc Foggin from Arizona State University, by the 1990s, the total area of degraded grassland was larger than the size of Germany and this destruction ensues to this day. The People’s Republic of China’s government blames the degradation of the grasslands on overgrazing by the nomads, and have responded by fencing off pastures or barring nomads from the land altogether. This only exacerbates the problem; with certain areas fenced off, herds are forced to overgraze the available areas.

Traditional Tibetan way of life is also quickly disappearing.

Brief History

For thousands of years, Tibetan nomads have achieved balance with the environment. Keeping large herds as a shelter against bad years, Tibetan nomads seldom slaughter their animals for meat and instead use them for wool, milk, butter, and cheese. Nomads in particular areas balance their herds between yaks, goats and sheep to best suit the local vegetation.

Eager to modernize the Plateau, the Chinese government has limited herd size, changed herd composition, and has imposed quotas for slaughter. This not only conflicts with the sustainable lives the nomads have led on the grasslands, but conflicts with the local cultural and religious beliefs of the Tibetan people.

“The grassland without animals is like a child without a mother” […]“I feel so stuffy inside the house. It is so different from living in the tent. As soon as I move out my mood changes. It must be my habit, because I feel so good and my spirits are much better.” Phuntsok, 45 yr old nomad (source: nomadrights.org)

According to Environment and Development Department in the Central Tibetan Administration, China’s introduction of different policies over the years have not only disenfranchised and disadvantaged these pastoral nomads and the herders but also threatened the sustainability of this delicate environmental balance. During the commune system of the 1960s, in the name of “communistic reform”, the nomads were herded into communes, stripped of all possessions, reshaped into production brigades, and given rations according to their work points. From the outset, the new class of cadres in command saw the nomads not as environmental stewards but as ignorant, backward people lacking the enthusiasm for class warfare.

The Grassland law was adopted in the year 1985 to protect the degrading grasslands and to modernize animal husbandry. Some researchers such as Dr. Emily Yeh, argues that this law has been implemented in order to gain more control over the pastures and to stop the over-exploitation of the grasslands, which the government appears to consider the most important cause for grassland degradation.

Along with the implementation of the grassland law, the state authority gradually implemented the “Four-Way Program” ordering region-wide fencing regimes and shelters for nomads and livestock. This programme was meant to improve people’s lives, and control livestock and grazing. However, on ground, this program limits the mobility of the livestock by allowing them to overgraze only a small piece of land.

Chinese scientists and administrators have blamed the nomads arguing that they were overstocking, beyond the carrying capacity of the pastures, and this was the cause of degradation. The failed Chinese policies could not be discussed. So in 2003, PRC government implemented the ‘Restore Grassland Policy’, moving herders from the grasslands to statebuilt housings. This program is being largely intensified and has now become the central measure in protecting these grasslands. Under policy,  according to Dr. J Marc. Foggin from Arizona State University, the local Chinese government of Tibet Autonomous Region has moved a total of about 300,000 families, or 1 and half million Tibetan nomads and farmers into settlement homes. According to Chinese state news agency, another 190,000 families are expected to move into new homes by 2013.

source: nomadrights.org

This new policy simply assumes the only way to conserve China’s upper watersheds is to remove animals and nomads. Yet China’s own scientists have now learned that the grasslands of Tibet when grazed moderately and intermittently the traditional way, actually maintains a higher biodiversity than on ungrazed pastures, where toxic weeds invade and biodiversity declines. They are now partnering with organizations like Rangeland Conservation to push forward conservation initiatives on the grassroots level.

Here is a video made by nomadrights.org discussing the affects of grassland degradation on Tibetan nomads [vimeo]http://vimeo.com/25009729[/vimeo]

China is continuing its policy of resettlement to “save” the grasslands, but ungrazed grassland can be more susceptible to accelerated degradation. Research shows that responsible amount of grazing can actually slow or stop grassland degradation. By consistently “clipping” grassland vegetation, animals help grasses stay healthy. The relationship between nomad, livestock and grassland has been mutually beneficial for generations; however, misguided PRC policies may within matter of a few decades strip nomads from their livelihoods, gazing out over vast expanses of desert.