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ICJ: Rangelands and Nomadic Pastoralism

Destruction of habitat and desertification and degradation of rangelands have dramatically accelerated throughout Tibet. Chinese statistics show that 17% of the TAR and 14.7% of Qinghai province have been turned into desert.

The problem is not unique to Tibet. A large-scale Chinese research project announced in 1997: that “more than 27% of China's land mass is threatened with being turned into desert. Vast swathes of barren desert and gobi have already swallowed up 1.7 million square kilometres - almost a sixth of all land in the country.

Degraded pasture at worst becomes desert, or supports only noxious weeds, the useful plants having been grazed to death. Loss of vegetation exposes thin topsoil to fierce wind erosion. In a dry, windy and cold climate, with very little organic matter, soils rebuild very slowly. At the heart of the debate is the loss of high alpine pasture. The sedges which live as high as plants can manage, below the bare peaks, steadily recede, baring rock and exposing the soil to be blown away in the gales which often occur. These kobresia sedge meadows have sustained yak herds, as summer pasture, for centuries without evidence that they were in retreat, yet scientific reports from all over Tibet now show steady erosion and degradation of the grasslands, especially at their upper limits.

Factors contributing to this degradation include compulsory collectivization, imposition of production quotas and the ongoing state price fixing of herder products well below market rates, all failures of state policy. The combination of population explosion, command economy, compulsory collectivization, diminution of personal responsibility for environmental impacts, stifling of all dissent, artificially low prices for Tibetan timber and grassland produce, the availability of exploitable new frontier resources, and officially sponsored migration of Chinese into Tibet, also help explain the steady degradation of the grasslands. The herders are becoming more and more marginal, in a literal spatial sense, as well as economically and as icons of Tibetan identity.

Tibetan herders evolved risk management strategies to deal with the uncertainties of life on the highest inhabited plateau on earth. Today they face new uncertainties and have to practice further risk management strategies, to cope not only with natural disasters and seasonal limitations. They have to cope with the steady deterioration of the quality and productivity of their rangelands, and with the human intervention of state policy imposed on them. From the point of view of the herders, the changeability of state policy is as much a hazard as blizzards.

Since 1959, state policy has changed frequently and dramatically, each time with environmental impacts. At times, private ownership of animals was forbidden, herders and their animals were collectivized, and the only earnings available to herders were calculated on the basis of work points scored according to contributions towards achieving quotas imposed by the state. The twenty years of collectivization, class war and stigmatization of all things Tibetan were the cause of excessive grazing pressure, from which the grasslands have yet to recover. Herders remember these decades as a time of bare survival, with all connection broken between work and wealth, in which the state extracted surpluses for itself, leaving little for survival. Never before was famine known in Tibet, but, as the early ICJ reports indicate, starvation became widespread.

For herders the risks are many, and risk management is a fundamental indigenous knowledge system essential for ongoing sustainability of both herds and pastures. Recent scientific research shows that herders have curated the landscapes of Tibet for thousands of years, selectively using fire to clear forest regrowth off south facing hill slopes to maximize pasture availability. In the Tibetan prefectures of western Sichuan the use of fire to restrict forest cover to north facing hillsides was a risk management technique suited to long term sustainability of forest, pasture and herds.

The climate of the Tibetan plateau, especially on the wetter eastern portion where Qinghai, Sichuan and TAR meet, is unpredictable, and prone to massive blizzards. Because of the variability of climate, herders' risk strategies are essential. The basic strategy is to maximize herd size. For this reason, and because it is offensive from a Buddhist point of view, herders seldom kill their animals, and resist the idea of commercializing their practices so as to maximize meat production. They continue to set many animals free to graze out their days undisturbed, as a pious act compensating for the consequences of the inevitable occasional slaughter of a beast for human survival.

These are three key risk management strategies - seasonal migration, burning, and maintaining herd size - in response to the constraints inherent in the close symbiosis of people and yaks on the highest plateau on earth, making human use possible and sustainable.

Since the early 1980s, Chinese policy changes resulted in redistribution of herds and land use rights to family groups, or tribes (tshowa). Redistribution was done according to who had best Party connections, and was always conditional, a favour rather than a right, revocable at any time.

In recent years, herders responded to their new opportunities to rebuild herds, which are their primary security. They reverted to the tradition that wealth on the hoof is the most fundamental form of wealth, compatible with their preference for a mobile life. This is a basic difference in outlook to the modern Chinese, for whom accumulation of fixed assets is the yardstick of wealth.  Under these circumstances, everything pointed to herd maximization as the best strategy to manage both the natural risks of climate and the human risks of renewed state extraction of herder production.

Chinese populations most immediately adjacent to Tibet have grown at extraordinary rates. In 1850, well into a population explosion fostered by mid-Qing conquests and dynastic prosperity, the combined population of the provinces neighbouring Tibet was 27.19 million. In the communist era the population of the Chinese hinterland - the immediate beneficiaries of extraction of Tibetan resources - has grown from 70 million to over 180 million people. Urban consumer demand in the Chinese hinterland was met by centralized state enterprises capable of commanding resources, determining prices, imposing production quotas and investing in transport fleets required to bring Tibetan commodities cheaply to Chinese urban markets. Two senior Chinese environmental monitoring officials reported recently that "the average distance travelled to harvest timber is 1,200 km."

A discreet reference to the root causes of rangeland degradation is made by Qu, Chairman of the Environment Protection Committee of the Chinese National People's Congress, and Li, an adviser 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 5 persons per km2. Populations in grassland areas currently far exceed these standards. On average, Inner Mongolia is home to 15 persons per km2. If that density is taken as a standard, the eastern counties and prefectures of Tibet, which have absorbed the Chinese influx, now mostly support excessive numbers.

The degradation of the grasslands is the most pervasive environmental impact of the era of Chinese control of Tibet, and the impact which most threatens the sustainability of Tibetan civilization. German research reports degradation of the sedge turf, at the upper limit of plant growth, which has always sustained the nomadic cycle by providing late summer and early autumn pasture for the yak herds, enabling the grasses at slightly lower altitudes to be kept for autumn and winter forage.

A lengthy review of the evidence of the loss of rangeland savannah concluded: "The continued loss of the natural savannahs on a global scale has implications for mega-environmental concerns such as global climatic change and loss of genetic diversity which are at least as serious as those associated with the destruction of rainforests." "The major blame is laid at the feet of policy. The policy environment in China since 1949 has created the incentives and uncertainties which have induced pastoralists to behave in an exploitative manner. Furthermore, the availability of modern technology has facilitated and intensified the 'mining' of natural pastures in China's pastoral region."

The loss of grassland quality directly affects the productivity of the nomadic backbone of Tibetan civilization. Chinese scientists have quantified the impact. In the Tibetan prefectures of western Sichuan, the home of over one million Tibetans, "the quality of grassland has deteriorated a great deal. During the period from 1960 to 1980 (on the basis of grassland surveys at county level), the average yield of grass decreased from 316 kg/mu to 250 kg/mu. In terms of the composition of grasses, the content of poisonous grass increased from 1.5 to 4 per cent."  Grass productivity in 1960 was 26.4% higher than in 1980. Due to increasing Chinese population transfer, this grassland of diminished productivity was required to carry a heavier stocking rate of animals: "The grassland available per sheep unit decreased from approximately nine mu/sheep in 1976 to approximately six mu/sheep unit in 1986. The grassland available per capita (at village level) decreased from 458 mu/person in 1982 to 376 mu/person in 1988."

The decline is over a short period, which, if extrapolated, could suggest an impending crisis of viability for Tibetan nomadic civilization. Degradation of the uplands is having a considerable impact on the yaks, according to Zhang Yun, the head of the Damxung Frozen Yak Sperm Station, north of Lhasa: "In the last few decades, however, the breed of yaks has been degenerating in some areas. Major reasons behind this situation include the degeneration of grasslands and inbreeding. In the 1950's, one male yak weighed some 460 kg, but one male yak weighs only some 300 kg now. In the same period, milk produced by one female yak has dropped for 200 kg to 120 kg."

Increasing urbanization on the steppes has environmental consequences. Once forests are gone, the only available fuel for heating and cooking is dried dung, which is removed from the grasslands, its nutrients lost. Levine found the poorest Tibetans were those closest to the new towns, whose grazing land had been encroached for urban construction.

Current Chinese policy is to make herders responsible for specific tracts of land. This privatization of responsibility falls short of outright ownership. Land use decisions and risk management strategies in much of Tibet are now personal choices for which the state accepts no blame. However it is the state which allocates land, and recent anthropological fieldwork suggests allocations go to those who enjoy personal connections with the Communist Party.  Once land is allocated, equitably or not, those with the biggest herds and best connections continue to run their animals on the remaining commonly owned land for as long as possible, reserving for emergencies their own allocated areas, fenced off with finance from an agricultural bank made possible only by utilizing Party connections. Only when there is no alternative is the personal fenced area grazed. Further fencing of the rangelands is proceeding.

A delegation of American scientists and social scientists specializing in grasslands, challenged the view that degradation of the rangelands is due to the selfishness of herders who own their herds but not the grasslands, so exploit it without heed to long term consequences. They pointed out that:

far from being the object of abuse by private owners, common pool resources such as pastures are often subject to well defined access and management rules enforced by effective customary institutions. Such rules specify who has access to the resources and under what conditions, regulate access and levels of use, and provide for the resolution of conflicts and enforcement of sanctions....Where members of such groups share similar production objectives and methods, where there are no large differences in wealth or social status, where group membership has important benefits in addition to those concerned with production, and especially where rules governing resource use are effectively enforced by the group or by some superior authority, it is likely that the common resources will be managed in a sustained manner. Conversely, where these conditions do not apply, it is unlikely that common resources such as pasture can be sustained. This is the case... where there are large wealth or status differentials, where group membership has few benefits, and especially where rules about resource use and management are unenforced or unenforceable. The last condition prevails where governments attempt to manage common resource use through ill-equipped centralized bureaucracies and inappropriate regulations and, in so doing, undermine the rules and procedures adopted by the resource user groups themselves. In this situation, individual producers may find it rational to ignore the rules, which result in a tragedy of the commons.


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