Emptying pastoral Tibet with China’s national parks
The forced displacement of Tibetan nomads from their land is set to accelerate as China prepares to unveil a new system of national parks in Tibet next year.
Read our new report that challenges China’s argument that Tibetan nomads must leave their ancestral land in the name of development and environmental protection.
The report closely looks at how the Tibetan nomads have lived sustainably for centuries, the threat they are facing today, and why they must be understood as vital protectors of Tibet’s vast grasslands.
By Kyinzom Dhongdue, Gabriel Lafitte, Dr Simon Bradshaw
Nomadic pastoralists have flourished sustainably on the Tibetan Plateau for hundreds of generations.
Glimpse into the world of Tibetan nomads, and we soon uncover a sophisticated way of life carefully tuned to the local environment, grounded in a deep connection to place, and guided by rich local knowledge and collective decision-making. Indeed, it is only the unique partnership between nomads and their animals that has made life on the cold, arid Roof of the World possible.
The nomads, like all those living close to the land, understand their lives depend on the health of their pastures, their water sources and the complex web of life that surrounds them, and so take no more than can be replenished to sustain them the next year. To the nomads, the landscape is sacred, inhabited by many spirits and deities, and fiercely protected. In this way, they ensure the Tibetan Plateau remains a healthy, biodiverse and productive ecosystem. And with the Tibetan Plateau the fountainhead of Asia’s great rivers, this is something upon which many millions of people beyond Tibet’s borders depend.
Today, as the world, including China, grapples with the intertwined challenges of climate damage, food and water security, inequality and biodiversity loss, the knowledge, wisdom and practices of Tibetan nomads are more applicable now than ever. However, this is not how China sees it.
For two decades, the Chinese government has been removing Tibetan nomads from their grasslands. This forced displacement is now set to accelerate under a new system of national parks, including four large parks stretching across the Tibetan Plateau.
While China seldom states this directly, a closer look at its elaborate plans for biodiversity protection, poverty alleviation, land restoration, securing water supply and climate change mitigation reveals that almost all involve the exclusion of Tibet’s nomads from their pastures. These plans, if left unchallenged, will mean the almost total demise of nomadic pastoralism in Tibet. An end to a way of life that had enabled Tibetans to live successfully and sustainably for millennia.
Years of testimony from displaced nomads coupled with a growing body of scientific research shows that these policies can be devastating for communities, harmful to the environment and counterproductive to all of China’s stated aims. Further, that Tibetans themselves can offer vital solutions to the challenges that China is purporting to solve.
Traditional nomadic grazing can play an essential role in reversing grassland degradation, which has been brought about by decades of policy mistakes under China, including constraining the mobility that has been crucial to sustainable pasture management in Tibet.
With downstream water security – China’s number one priority – dependent on healthy upper catchments, Tibetans, who have been determined through the ages to protect these sacred water sources, must again be seen as part of the solution, not a problem.
When it comes to efforts to sequester more carbon in the Tibetan landscape to offset China’s burgeoning greenhouse emissions, China will likely gain nothing by removing nomads and their herds from the grasslands. On the contrary, maintaining soil carbon long-term depends on careful management and is aided by the presence, not absence, of the traditional custodians.
Similarly, ungrazed and depopulated grassland in Tibet loses biodiversity as longer grasses and the hardier species begin to dominate. Also, when it comes to iconic wildlife such as snow leopards and wild antelope, Tibetan patrols were, until recently, the only safeguard against poachers.
Lastly, the experiences of displaced nomadic communities make a mockery of China’s claim that forced resettlement is necessary to alleviate poverty. In their own words, Tibetan nomads, when out on the range, consider themselves wealthy. It is only when stripped of their traditional livelihoods and forced to the urban fringe and left to survive on handouts; they become impoverished.
A better way forward is possible: A path of cooperative, inclusive solutions that protect biodiversity, ensure secure land tenure, promote food and water security for all, and uphold Tibetans’ right to choose their future. Many joint initiatives of Tibetan, Chinese and international NGOs in recent decades have demonstrated what is possible – how it is not a matter of choosing between environmental protection and human livelihoods, but how both can, and indeed must go together.
While on the surface, the announcement of new national parks spanning Tibet may seem like welcome news, Australia Tibet Council strongly encourages all interested parties including environmental NGOs, development agencies, government and parliamentarians to consider the consequences of China’s current plans for Tibetans. The international community should not welcome these national parks until China genuinely embraces collaborative management approaches that value the role of Tibet’s traditional custodians and uphold their rights, thereby promising a secure and dignified future for Tibetans while protecting the Tibetan Plateau for all humanity.
With the fate of Tibet’s remaining nomads now hanging in the balance, the task ahead is clear. It is vital that Tibetan voices are heard. Also, the global community of conservationists, development practitioners, and human rights defenders works collectively to challenge China’s policies towards Tibetan nomads while advocating strongly for a cooperative and inclusive path forward.