China’s forest dwellers have rights; why not grassland dwellers too?




Interviews with nomads from all over the Tibetan Plateau, conducted in recent years by human rights monitoring agencies, show a remarkably consistent picture. Nomads are impoverished by decades of tight regulatory control on herd size, family size, land size, mandatory expenditure on fencing; and now face both incentives and inducements to leave their land altogether.

With great consistency, displaced nomads say in their debriefings that even if their initial move to new housing, far from their traditional pastures, was voluntary, due to poverty, and to attractive official promises; they regret leaving, because promised facilities, compensation and retraining are not kept, and life in a cash economy is new to them and difficult, in the absence of vocational and life skills training. They say the new concrete housing is cold in winter, hot in summer. There is nothing to do; a meaningful and productive life on the range has become a meaningless existence surviving on rations which are seldom as much as promised. But return in impossible: it is a condition of accepting new housing that long term land tenure certificates issued to pastoral families 20 to 30 years ago are nullified, and newly housed families must sign contracts saying they will no longer own or keep domestic livestock.

With equal consistency, China’s official discourse is that all displaced former nomads are voluntary ecological migrants, who choose to transmigrate because benevolent central leaders are spending a lot of money to provide them with comfortable housing, freeing the land for treatment enabling it to recover from overgrazing, erosion, climate change, and desertification.

The EU-China human rights dialogue can do more than prompt a reiteration of China’s official position. The two discourses need to be tested. The fieldwork discourse is a bottom-up narrative of what is actually happening. The official discourse is a top down narrative of what is supposed, according to policy, to happen and therefore must be happening. Between the lived realities of what displaced nomads say and what official China says, is a gulf to be clarified through dialogue.
China has made this a question of human rights, by arguing that the cash incomes of exnomads will be greater than their nomadic standard of living in a subsistence, non-monetised barter economy, thus fulfilling their economic and social rights.
There is much need for independent observers to check whether this is true. There is a wider question of the economic and social rights of an entire population and way of life, for over two million pastoralists. Most fundamentally their right to food, and access to land on which to produce food, has been lost, replaced by dependence on rations which are often provided only to those named on the cancelled land tenure certificates issued decades ago, thus excluding from eligibility for rations those born later, or who married into nomadic families in the past two or three decades. The right to development has been lost. Instead of enhancing nomadic livelihoods by adding value to nomadic surpluses, notably wool, dairy products and meat, exnomads are now periurban unskilled fringe dwellers obtaining at most casual employment on construction sites and road building.

The civil and political rights of the nomads are breached in multiple ways. Contrary to rural development norms, nomads are not allowed to form associations, or civil society organizations to represent them. They have no voice, and no say when cadres arrive in a township or encampment and announce how many people must “voluntarily” move because policy is now tuimu huancao, closing pasture to grow more grass. Freedom of association and freedom of expression do not exist for them. If they do protest or seek redress, or speak frankly to a documentary film maker, they are quickly imprisoned.
China’s repetitive insistence that what should happen is what actually happens, needs independent verification. China masks the extent of displacement by presenting everything as a program to provide nomads with “comfortable housing.” But there is a big difference between new housing, paid for by government, on the traditional winter grazing land of a nomadic family which enjoys ongoing lane tenure rights; compared to new housing in distant concrete barracks 100 or 200 kms away from ancestral pastures, with land use rights cancelled and official threats that ownership of any livestock will result in eviction from the new housing. These are two extremes, both regarded as part of China’s comfortable housing program. Between these extremes are many other troubling outcomes reported by displaced nomads, including pressure from authorities on nomads to take out loans from state banks, despite their inability to service loans, to pay for what is ostensibly the gift of a benevolent government.

The gap between ground truth experienced by nomads and China’s official discourse needs independent verification. The danger is that an entire way of life, making skilful use of the entire Tibetan Plateau, is rapidly being made redundant, as if the depopulation of the Tibetan countryside is the only way of rehabilitating degrading rangelands. This briefing concludes with a list of specific questions that ask China for specific data on what the “comfortable housing” program means on the ground.

There is widespread recognition that forest governance involves human rights; but grasslands governance policy debate lacks a human rights dimension.

In China, the State Forestry Administration (SFA) is responsible both for reafforestation and rehabilitating grasslands. Forest governance aims at achieving globally important goals such as carbon sequestration, reduction of emissions due to destruction and degradation (REDD) of forests, conservation of biodiversity etc. but. After decades of debate and disagreement, there is now a well-recognised connection between the achievement of such goals, and the enhancement of the livelihoods of people who live in or near forests. These days it is the norm that forest dwellers should not be evicted from forests, and that forests are not effectively protected by fencing human communities out. The new norm is of co management, participatory development, engaging local communities as partners in sustainable forest governance, their livelihoods understood as integral to success in reforestation, biodiversity conservation and REDD.

China sees itself at the forefront of this movement to skilfully integrate the livelihoods of forest dwellers with the attainment of global public goods such as climate change mitigation. China, with active assistance from the EU from 2009 to 2012, has promoted the concept of forest tenure in several provinces, most of which have significant minority ethnicities in forested counties. Forest tenure is intended to give forest dwellers a strong feeling of ownership, agency and capacity to make governance decisions. The first step is to help forest communities set up their own cooperatives, Forestry Protection Association, Bamboo Association, Afforestation or Silviculture Association. The driver is empowerment, in recognition of the negative consequences of past policies which disempowered, alienated and impoverished forest dwellers, in the name of statist forest governance.

China’s forest land tenure program, which began as a small movement among peasants, has blossomed into a full-blown national program that affects about 400 million people and more than 100 million hectares of China’s largest and richest forests. It is arguably the world’s largest forest tenure reform. The Chinese Forest Administration’s (SFA) reform of the nation’s “collective forests” allows communities to reallocate land-use rights and forest ownership, either to individual households, groups of households or to the collective itself.

A major emphasis of the EU-China human rights dialogue has been legal training, mostly at an elite level of judges, court officers and lawyers. There is a strong popular desire for basic legal knowledge in Tibetan communities, a basic understanding of the rights as well as responsibilities of being a citizen of China. The 2011 Work Report of the Tibet Autonomous Region chairman says: “We have boosted the popularization of law. The public’s awareness of law has markedly improved.” Grassroots legal education, including China’s forest tenure practice, rights to appeal official decisions, rights of petition etc., would be a practical way to advance human rights awareness in remote and mountainous areas.

Tenure for forest dwellers, dispossession for rangeland pastoralists: The contrast is stark, even though grasslands are just as essential to achieving global goals such as biodiversity conservation, REDD, and carbon sequestration.

China’s Grassland Law is all about the rights of the state, with very little mention of the rights of the peoples of the grasslands. In recent decades, the pastoral nomads who 9000 years ago made the Tibetan Plateau humanly habitable, and have sustained it productively ever since, faced increasing restrictions. Encroachments by statist grasslands governance restricted the number of animals they are allowed to own, the number of children they may have, the amount of land allocated, and restricted mobile access to alpine meadow grazing land. The inevitable result of this enclosure was to concentrate animals onto smaller fenced lands. No longer do pastoralists have flexible opportunity to do what mobile pastoralists do best, which is to live off uncertainty, moving with their herds to conserve indigenous flora, making full, mobile use of temporary abundances of forage in the highly unpredictable climate of the world’s Third Pole. The cumulative effect of the 1980s and 1990s taxes, regulations, mandatory fencing and herd size restrictions was to impoverish nomads who have traditionally been seen by Tibetans as wealthy.

China’s 1980s and 1990s grasslands governance was deeply contradictory, resulting in perverse outcomes. On one hand, nomads of various minority ethnicities were given long term secure land tenure, but on the other were subject to intensifying disciplinary regulation. The result was, for pastoralist households, immiserisation; and for the land the outcome was degradation, loss of soil and vegetation, and even compulsory extermination of keystone indigenous species of grassland mammals.

A new grasslands governance policy for the 21st century was announced in 2003, which has meant cancelling the long term land tenure contracts issued by the state not so long ago. The new policy is called tuimu huancao, removing animals to grow more grass. Its sole objective is to increase observable above-ground biomass of pasture grasses, as the sole means of protecting from degradation the watersheds of both of Chinas great rivers, the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, which originate in the grasslands. The assumption is that a choice has to be made. Either the grasslands are grazed by domestic herds, guided by their herders, or more grass grows. It is impossible to have both grass and animals. In the words of an official Chinese slogan, “there is a contradiction between grass and animals.”

Actual outcomes.

Hundreds of thousands of nomads have been required, without choice, to leave their land and live in concrete barracks, in large scale purpose-built urban fringe camps, sometimes on the edge of their ancestral pasture lands, sometimes 100 or 200 kms away. There is nothing to do there, no employment opportunities, almost no vocational training, only state television, alcohol, boredom and meaninglessness. This is happening at an accelerating rate, most intensively in the Yangtze and Yellow river source area, but in many other parts of the Tibetan Plateau, in Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, as well as Tibet Autonomous Region.

The UN Special Rapporteur to the Right to Food, invited to China in December 2010, specifically named the nomads of Tibet among those who right to land and food was denied by China’s grassland governance policies. In its response, tabled at the UN Human Rights Commission, China said all those displaced are voluntary ecological migrants.

Fieldwork reports from social scientists closely studying the implementation of tuimu huancao grassland governance say that China’s combination of incentives and disincentives means that in the initial stages, some nomads do surrender their land use certificates and move to new housing settlement blocks voluntarily, drawn by promises of cash, rations, electricity and access to schooling for their children. However, they soon find the compensation and community facilities actually provided do not match what was promised, that living in a monetised economy with no source of food or income from land and animals is something they are not prepared for. At that point many seek to return, and those still on their land resolve to stay put. Officially, pasture closure is determined scientifically as necessary for three or five or ten years. In reality no-one is allowed back. The move to what China calls a more “civilised and comfortable” housing is irreversible, and non-negotiable.

Learning from the forests: from exclusion to inclusion

Thirty years ago, at a time when there was widespread global alarm at accelerating deforestation, local communities were blamed. The best policy for forest governance seemed to be to declare forests protected by state power, end exclude local communities, fence them out, and even criminalise their subsistence forest livelihood activities. That top-down, statist, and exclusive model of forest governance gradually became today’s inclusive community forestry approach. Only gradually did international development assistance agencies realise that excluding the locals is counterproductive, and leads only to poaching, encroaching and poverty. Gradually, the world has come to recognise that local communities can be the guardians and stewards of their forests, if they are given real management responsibility, and support, including payment for the environmental services (PES) provided by a healthy forest.

The same is true of biodiversity conservation. Instead of excluding and fencing out local villagers, who out of poverty become poachers, the more skilful approach is to mobilize the energies of local communities as wardens of protected areas. Article 8 (j) of the Convention on Biodiversity explicitly recognizes local indigenous communities as the best protectors of biodiversity.

China persists in seeing grassland governance as solely about grass, and watershed protection. The livelihoods of the pastoralists are of little concern, attracting almost no investment. Insofar as the incomes of pastoralists are a policy concern, China’s only strategy is that they should migrate even further away, to become part of the industrial proletariat of the world’s factory. To quote an authoritative 2010 “Sustainable Development Roadmap for Mountainous Areas of China”, the solution is that “the scale and intensity of the emigration from the mountainous areas to cities and towns should be enlarged and strengthened in order to keep in step with the progress of building a well-off society in an all-round way.” (Chinese Academy of Sciences, Springer Verlag)

Administrative obstacles

However, a fundamental obstacle is the strictly separate administrative categories of China’s policies. Watershed protection is the responsibility of the powerful Ministry of Water Resources (MWR), which has no responsibility for the livelihoods of pastoral nomads. Reforestation, rehabilitation of degrading grasslands, and converting farmland to forest and grassland all fall under the State Forestry Administration (SFA). These two are the drivers of the tuimu huancao policy of removing herds and herders to achieve the narrowly defined objective of growing more grass.

Who is responsible for the incomes, food security, livelihoods and future prospects of the pastoral nomads? It used to be the Animal Husbandry Bureau under the Ministry of Agriculture, but since the nomads are being moved out of animal husbandry, and their future is meant to be as migrant factory workers, there is no line agency with clear responsibility for anything beyond the punitive implementation of exclusion. China is not alone in having ministries that rigidly stay within their separate silos, but it is worse in China than elsewhere. Those engaged in the EU-China human rights dialogue, which is restricted to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as the sole Chinese partner, will be familiar with the difficulties of China’s compartmentalised system of governance.

Even within the silos, progress could be made. If China is unwilling to consider the food insecurity, poverty, landlessness and disempowerment of Tibetan nomads as human rights issues, the silo ministries could at least be encouraged to extend their community forest tenure approach to the grasslands, where SFA is in charge of grassland restoration. Since the EU has been strongly involved in promoting community forest tenure in China, in partnership with SFA, it could persuade SFA to take a less exclusionist approach to the grasslands.

The same applies to MWR. Protecting the source area of China’s great rivers can be achieved by participatory watershed development rather than by exclosure of the nomads who for thousands of years have sustainably managed the 100,000 sq kms source area, the Sanjiangyuan. Participatory watershed development is a well tried approach for rehabilitating degrading areas. India, for example, uses its Integrated Watershed Development Programme specifically to mobilise community energies to rehabilitate wastelands.

1. How many herders in Qinghai, Sichuan, Tibet Autonomous Region, Gansu and Yunnan are no longer living on the land allocated to them?
2. How many still have land tenure certificates to their pasture lands that were issued in the 1980s and 1990s?
3. How many herders have surrendered their land use certificates, and will be unable to return to their land?
4. How many herders have been asked to sell their herds and leave their land for three years? How many have completed three years and have now returned to their land? How many were told to leave for five years and have since returned?
5. How many herders now have comfortable housing on their own allocated pastureland, and how many have been rehoused 20 kms from their ancestral lands? 50 kms? 100 kms or more?
6. What vocational training, in what new skills, has been provided to how many herders, in educational programs lasting three months or more?
7. When will the rehousing of all nomads be complete?
8. What is the treatment program for degrading grasslands on the Tibetan Plateau, and what is the budget for treatment of affected areas?
9. If promised compensation, access to schooling, rations, electricity or community services are not delivered, what appeal process is available to resettled herders?