A presentation by Gabriel Lafitte to “Der Dritte Pol in Gefahr – Chinas Umweltpolitik in Tibet” conference of Tibet Initiative Deutschland 15 March 2011, Berlin, +613 59623434 +613 407 840 333

Table of Contents



According to recent archaeological fieldwork, the Tibetan Plateau has been used extensively by pastoral nomads for close to 9000 years, so there should be little reason to expect that, in the 21st century, such land use would be brought to an end.

But Tibetan nomadic pastoralists are now required, by state directives, to remove both their herds and themselves from large areas of grazing land, with little prospect of ever resuming their mobile mode of production. Under an official policy of tuimu huancao, “removing animals to grow grass”, hundreds of thousands of nomads have already been removed, especially in the area where three great rivers: the Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong all rise in glacier melt on the Tibetan Plateau.

The pastoral nomads who have been removed have had their land rights documents nullified. They are now landless, without means of subsistence, untrained in modern skills essential for entry into the modern workforce, dependent entirely on rations issued for a limited period to many but not all who have been internally displaced by tuimu huancao since it was announced in 2003.

Landlessness, loss of livelihood and production in many areas such as the prefectures of Yushu and Golok (in Chinese Qinghai Yushu and Guoluo) are now a direct cause of immiserisation and despair, as there is nothing the formerly independent producers can now do to sustain their lives.

The root of the problem is denial of the right to access traditional customary lands, in areas already adding up to hundreds of thousands of square kilometres. This exclusion zone has been proclaimed, and is now expanding, as the policy solution to the problem of rangeland degradation and hence the threat of erosion of the upper watershed of China’s greatest rivers.

This raises several questions. First, are the rangelands degrading, and what are the causes? Is exclusion of customary land use the only policy alternative? What is the scientific basis for declaring hundreds of thousands of lives redundant?

In order to answer such questions, we could begin by meeting the pastoral nomads of Tibet, getting a feel for their lifeworlds.


Tibetan nomads, if asked, usually say that their traditional way of life is easy, garnering the natural bounty of the seasons. The animals mate and reproduce by themselves, the dri (female yaks) give milk freely, both to their calves and their human milkers, the grass grows by itself. All the people need do is be mobile, moving on with their animals, so pastures are not exhausted. This is what they told Mel Goldstein (Nomads of western Tibet, Serindia, 1989)

Nomads are seldom asked, so their perspective is seldom heard. Occasionally, an anthropologist or development specialist does ask, and are told that being at home on the range means a life of comfort and ease, with material needs provided by the animals, and mental ease coming from a grounded life, and the popular traditions of training the mind in not thinking excessively.

No westerner has immersed in the Tibetan nomadic world as did Robert Ekvall close to a century ago, and his embodied familiarity with nomad ways of doing and being is evident on every page. He had 14 childhood years and eight adult years among the nomads, ending in 1936. (Cultural Relations, intro) Growing up as a native Tibetan speaker gave Ekvall special insight.

He notes the revealing nomad greeting: has there been difficulty? “There is a common greeting, in the form of a question, to which I have never heard an affirmative answer. E dKaa THal? (‘Has there been difficulty?’) is the question asked of the guest as he enters the tent, is shouted to riders coming within earshot from every form of venture, trade, hunting, raiding, pilgrimage, or long-range herding, and is posed to the members of the tenthold as they gather at the end of the day’s activities. The invariable answer is Ma dKaa THal (There has been no difficulty), or more colloquially, ‘No trouble at all’. The hard fact is that, in every instance, there has been plenty of trouble. No day filled with the exigencies of pastoralism combined with nomadism can be without trouble. Repeatedly, I have travelled with Tibetans when the entire day has been a succession of disasters or near-disasters: loads thrown in bogs and streams; robbers evaded or, in head-on confrontation, bluffed off; rain all day, so hard that no noon halt was feasible and everyone went hungry and thirsty; what should have been fords become waters for swimming, with loads and cattle nearly swept away; and at the end we were a sorry bedraggled lot, but the answer, somewhat hoarsely defiant and denying all reality, remained true to form –Ma dKaa THal (No difficulty at all). (Fields on the Hoof 92)

The nomadic masculine insistence that nothing is problematic contrasts with the Chinese predisposition to find everything about Tibet problematic. Tibetan nomads accept that life is risky, that the best approach is to deal with risks on the spot, as they arise, decisively. Ekvall notes that Tibetans, nomads and farmers alike, live in an unpredictable climate: “The economy is a high-risk one with very little of the slow-but-sure aspect of gain, for the livestock fields of the agriculturalists are as vulnerable as the harvests. A single heavy snowstorm, or a virulent cattle epidemic, can virtually wipe out all the potential harvest and the fields as well, leaving the once wealthy pastoralist a pauper. Loss and gain are equally unpredictable, for in two or three very good seasons a poor man can become a man of wealth, but risk is always present. With acceptance of risk as the basic factor, the subsistence routine becomes a successive taking of chances, and when risk taking becomes a habit, the habit may well leave its mark on personality, thus giving to the nomadic pastoralist something of the character and outlook of the gambler. This may partially explain his lavishness, his love of status symbols, and his arrogant assurance in situations of disaster, for chance, that has gone against him, may well be with him next time.” (Fields on the Hoof 91)

Ekvall lists many more of the unpredictable risks facing nomads, to which their response is “realistic appraisal of just exactly what is happening in a photoflash recognition of relevancies; near-instantaneous making of decisions, ad hoc and all-out commitment, as suggested in the Tibetan words for decision-making, Thag Chod (cut-off rope); action swift as a reflex, but carried through to the end. They are tough, self-reliant, meeting emergencies as mere routine, and subtly alert to changes of weather, scene, and circumstance; for the change that goes with movement is a variable requiring constant, focused attention.” (Fields of the Hoof 88)


The qualities Ekvall names are exactly those cultivated by Buddhist practice: fearless acceptance of reality is it occurs, a willingness set aside comfort and habit in order to encounter the nature of reality; immediate, immanent, embodied experience of suchness; decisive responsiveness to circumstances as they arise rather than prescripted ideas about what should be, or routinised attempts at controlling (or editing out) the uncontrollable. Circumstances are encountered as a gestalt, in the present, not as abstractions or examples of theories about what should be. Immediacy, unmediated responsiveness, presence of mind are not only highly valued in Tibetan Buddhism as manifestations of enlightened mind, but are taught as abilities one can learn to embody. Such learning can begin intellectually, but textual learning is only one of many entry points to the actual work of familiarising mind and body with the fluid nature of reality. In the west, with its tradition of intellectual Buddhism, there is a tendency to suppose nomads, often barely literate, could not possibly have understood such higher teachings on emptiness, interdependence, contingency and impermanence; that only literate practitioners of the “high” monastic culture could have understood. This seriously under-estimates the many ways the Buddhist approach to the nature of all things is popularly available, through proverbs, songs of realisation of the most popular saints, dance and opera, and especially by the living example of lay yogis and great lamas in the community. It is intellectual arrogance to assume that only those familiar with technical philosophical language can access the inner truths of Buddhism, or that nomads are unable to develop the deep faith which ripens into confidence and transformation of the self.

The qualities Ekvall observes in Tibetan nomads, of groundedness, realism and decisiveness, are described by a great contemporary lama, Tai Situpa: “The natural pattern, where grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins, in addition to the father and mother, take care of the child’s needs, provides stability with the natural environment. These people don’t have shopping centres, big highways, and so on. They live with nature, and they know the trees, flowers, and animals. The child sees his mother milking the cow to get the milk he is going to drink for breakfast. From the beginning he learns about the natural order of things from nature itself. A typical middle-class Tibetan family has two places to live: a highland estate for the summers and a lowland estate for the winters. The family has seasonal separations and reunions, since some family members stay mostly in one place, but most of the younger adults move back and forth. They experience sadness at parting and happiness at the real communication that takes place at meeting their friends and relatives once again.

“Tibetan children are exposed to natural reality all of the time. If they see a death, it is a real death. Death is not something that appears on a square screen, acted out by people who then get up and star in another movie. A child knows whether her jacket is made out of wool from the sheep, the very fine hair of the goat, or the skin or fur of some other animal. She saw how it was made by her mother or uncle, and maybe she helped clean, separate, or spin the wool. This kind of natural information has a deeper value that relates to a person’s inner development. When someone learns that it is necessary to wait half a year for certain flowers to grow, having watched them grow from seeds into plants, and having watched the leaves come out and buds open up –all in a certain, reliable period of time- an appreciation of the natural rhythm of things develops. One becomes aware at a deep level that things happen in a particular way and at the right time. This sort of appreciation builds the ability to accept other kinds of circumstances as they occur throughout life. It helps a person understand the temporary nature of life and its phases.

“People who grow up in a changed, more artificial environment have difficulty understanding that life is simple. Everything becomes very complicated for them, and especially such things as love, caring for themselves and other people, having balanced relationships, discipline and so forth. Such basic states as happiness, sadness, death, and birth all become very complicated. Even though they might have books and video cassettes that discuss every critical aspect of life, it is indirect learning. “People who have grown up with nature might not have seen any books, and they might not have the ability to explain what love, respect, or kindness is, but they know and feel these principles in a way that gives them stability. The professional therapist has originated from the need of modern people to find answers for all those major questions that didn’t need to be asked in the past. Nowadays the simple things that people once knew naturally have become areas of uncertainty.” (Tai Situpa, Relative World, Ultimate Mind, Shambhala 1992, 38-41) Similar first-hand accounts of the inner life experienced by those who grow up as nomads can be found in the writings of Chogyal Namkhai Norbu, and Chope Paljor Tsering. (The Nature of all Things, Lothian, 2004)

Tai Situ Rinpoche, speaking to modern metropolitan audiences, suggests it is they who are confused, lacking confidence and certainty, wandering in a maze of ideas about reality; while the nomads have direct and immediate access to how things are, and no illusions as to whether all risks can be controlled, managed, insured against or compensated for when all is lost.


China’s exclosure of nomads en masse is based on scientific evidence that the Tibetan rangelands are in disequilibrium, are unbalanced, degrading, prone to extreme events, all highly problematic. Is this an objective truth of the science of ecology, or an artefact of observation by the invisible scientific observer? Why is it that everything about Tibet, through Chinese eyes, seems problematic?

A profound change has occurred in ecology as a science, with major consequences for the world’s pastoral nomads, whether Tibetan or African. A new discourse has emerged. Instead of deploying a narrative of deficit, resource scarcity, threats due to drought, disease and insecurity; the new discourse, based on a closer awareness of what pastoral nomads actually do, recognises “the key role played by mobility in enhancing production. We argue that specialist dryland pastoralists produce by exploiting non-uniform distribution –in the form of what we call ‘intelligent’ harvesting of unstable concentrations of nutrients on the range. Dryland pastoralists are successful producers, they do so by exploiting asymmetric distribution, not stability and uniformity.” (Saverio Kratli, Living Off Uncertainty: the intelligent animal production of dryland pastoralists, European Journal of Development Research, 22, 2010, 606-7)

This is a new way of understanding how pastoral nomads have made the Tibetan Plateau and the drylands of Africa habitable and productive. Modernity, manufacturing, urban life, corporate success and agribusiness all require uniformity, stability, predictability, elaborate commodity supply chains and management strategies for minimising risks. So ingrained is the emphasis on stability and control of nature, as the necessary prerequisite of all modern life, it took a long time before rangeland scientists could name the assumptions, and be heard. Now they have named the alternative to dominance, equilibrium and predictable, guaranteed access to natural resources. The alternative starting point is to accept living in an environment which is unpredictable, unstable, where abundant nutrients flourish in brief transience, in asymmetric patterns across the landscape. Rather than seeing such uncertainty as problematic, both for human life and for environmental sustainability, this new appreciation recognises the fluid mobility of pastoral nomadism as its greatest asset, “operating not by avoiding risk but by harnessing it as the very basis of production.” (Kratli 608)

This is a nomad-centred way of looking at the drylands and uplands where the nomads live. Instead of imposing on them, in the name of science, assumptions which govern city life, the new range ecology says “the unstable heterogeneity of dryland environment is not an obstacle to pastoralists; it is what they produce with. This is done by systematically targeting and intelligently harvesting the transient concentrations of nutrients on the range.” (Kratli 608) In short, “pastoral systems are better understood as driven by stochastic events rather than homeostatic mechanisms.” In non mathematical language, this means the availability of feed for herds is governed not by regular processes always tending towards stability, but by unpredictable, adventitious circumstances due to unpredictable confluences of causes and conditions. Thus it is entirely inappropriate to judge the choices made by pastoralists as to where they lead their herds, as if they live in a stable environment with an inbuilt tendency to revert to a steady state. To apply a steady state model to the way pastoralists live is to inevitably find them to be dangerously overgrazing, carelessly pushing the land beyond its limits. China looks at its newly acquired grasslands for regularity, then, not finding it, assumes everything is problematic.

The alternative to a predetermined model for the grasslands, taken unwittingly from the regularities of urban modernity, is not another predetermined set of assumptions. It is not a question of dropping one ideology, or master narrative, for another that is chosen just as arbitrarily. Ecology has swung away from assuming, in advance of detailed observation work, that ecosystems by their nature tend towards equilibrium. Having discovered the hard way, after great effort, that no such equilibrium is to be found in nature, in actual ecosystems, which are instead in dynamic flux, ecology has tended to go for an opposite model, which is just as arbitrary. If an equilibrial steady state is not to be found, then ecosystems should instead be seen as inherently resilient and robust. Not surprisingly, ecologists are still arguing as to whether either set of assumptions is a valid starting point.


There is a third alternative, which arises from seeing the grasslands through the eyes of the pastoral nomads. This is a different way of doing life, by choosing to avoid grand assumptions altogether, taking conscious care to do away with grand concepts such as rangeland dynamics and ecosystem drivers, in favour of a cultivated immediate responsiveness to circumstances as they arise. From a Tibetan viewpoint, human minds do inveterately tend to generalise, to liken this to that, to accrete habitual ways of making decisions based on analogous past experience, and these are secondary. What matters most is sensitive, close observation and awareness of circumstances and associations, of the mood of one’s animals, the taste of their milk, conjunctions of naturally arising phenomena, as well as past experience of which medicinal herbs grow best in which pasture previously visited. This is a more immediate, fluid, situated, responsive way of making decisions, more attentive to detail, less concerned with fitting what arises into a predetermined set of categories. Each situation is encountered afresh, in its suchness, rather than fitting it retroactively into a predetermined chain of cause and effect. If the availability of feed arises stochastically, the chain of cause and effect is obscure and complex, not simple and predictable. There is little point in trying to fix cause and effect, and thus gain control of effects, such as a predictable supply of grass in particular times and places. Rather than being fixated on aetiology, and chains of causation, each situation is taken for what it is, as it is, as a sui generis, something unique, to be utilised decisively if useful, and avoided if not of use. This is living in the present rather than reconstructing the past so as to predict and control the future. This includes living with generalisations, rules, policies and ideologies kept as useful ways of organising, but not as master narratives to be followed, irrespective of actual circumstances in the present. These are practices familiar to Tibetans, practices which can be learned, for which there is a language of training and practical exercises which can be done to embody learning and make it practically available as needed, as circumstances arise. Learning how to live in the present, rather than in a world of ideas, is familiar to nomads.

The current Karmapa is one of many high lamas born (in 1985) into nomad society, spending their early years in nomadic communities. According to Chogyam Trungpa, for centuries Tibetan Buddhism has also been mobile: “They travelled in large encampments, or caravans. This included the Karmapas, up to the seventh or even the eighth generation of Karmapas. Everything was adapted for a travelling group situation. It was possible to set up a magnificent capital, a temporary modern city, right on the spot. The Tibetan tent culture was prominent and became powerfully important. This provided possibilities of establishing complete splendour in one night. The next day, the whole thing could be disassembled and the people could continue on their journey. Villagers would wake up in the morning and go out to take their herds into the mountains. They would look down into the next valley and find a whole huge monastery encamped there. Then the next day, when they woke up, the camp was gone. That type of monastery was able to travel to a lot of areas.

“The way to reduce pollution and save ourselves from urbanisation might be to have a magnificent dharma tent culture. The organisation could fulfil its duties wherever it goes. The administration would have a chance to relate with each locality as well, and then fold everything up and move somewhere else. That is a very heroic and very Buddhistic approach: nothing is particularly permanent, but you keep on moving all the time.” (Chogyam Trungpa, The Mishap Lineage, Shambhala, 2009, 32-4) There has been great difficulty, yet no difficulty at all.

One textual example of this approach is How to Look at a Horse and Judge its Worth, which proved so valuable to the People’s Liberation Army that it reprinted Buston’s 14th century Tibetan translation of this 10th century Sanskrit classic soon after the end of the Cultural Revolution, when it once more became politically permissible to use traditional Tibetan knowledge instead of persecuting it. As the title suggests, this intensely practical work, from a branch of Tibetan medicine, which is a specialist branch of Tibetan Buddhism, was of use to all who ride in Tibet, be they Chinese soldiers or Tibetan nomads.

China’s army’s embrace of classic Tibetan (and Indian) ethno veterinary knowledge is unfortunately exceptional. There are few other examples of China paying heed to nomadic knowledge, or even noticing that it exists. There is a reason China has fallen so far behind current ways of understanding pastoralism. Although China usually prides itself on being up with the latest in just about any field, but on the key question of whether pastoral Tibet is an overgrazed disaster requiring expulsion of the nomads, or a manageable but highly unpredictable environment, China is 20 to 30 years out of date. It is 30 years since Sandford’s book critiquing standard “carrying capacity”, “over-stocking” and “herd size regulation” models of rangeland governance, just one year after China promulgated its Grassland law in 1982. In the intervening three decades a new paradigm has evolved, usually called the new range ecology (NRE).


International best practice where rangelands are degrading is to first work with local pastoralist communities to provide them with resources and training to rehabilitate degraded areas, by providing them with suitable knowledge, seeds and equipment to establish sown pasture using indigenous varieties suited to the cold climate of Tibet. Removal of both herd and nomads should be the very last resort, after other forms of co management have been tried and failed. It is a serious policy failure to turn to exclosure as the first substantial intervention to deal with what China calls “the contradiction between grass and animals.” China has turned to depriving nomads of their land as a first resort, without having tried cooperative joint management of natural resources to maintain primary goals of rangeland management: sustainability, wildlife and habitat conservation, and productivity.

How many of the two million pastoralists of the Tibetan Plateau have already been driven to abandon both herds and land is hard to quantify, in the absence of independent monitoring and the political impossibility of nomads speaking for themselves, organising to make their voices heard. The inexorable pressure of state policies over decades, to reduce herd size, reduce land lease area or cancel leases altogether, restrictions on family size, sudden natural disasters and worsening erosion of grassland soils have steadily pushed Tibetan nomads off the land, towards casual money earning opportunities somewhere else. The poverty of pastoralists unable to graze or maintain herds beyond bare subsistence level pushes them to urban fringes, sometimes as construction workers, or sellers of medicinal ingredients found in the grasslands. Sometimes there is work on local road construction. Such cash income opportunities usually attract the healthiest adult males, with women, children and the elderly left on the rangelands to carry on the hard work of livestock production. Taxes need to be paid in cash too, putting further pressure on nomads.

After a natural disaster –a blizzard, cold snap or earthquake- the poor are often reduced to beggary, again forcing people off the land and into towns. This may be temporary, but if debts have accumulated –exacerbated by bank loans for nomads to build new permanent homes- nomads sometimes have little choice but to accept the standing offer from the state to buy out their remaining herd, and also pay a modest amount to cancel their grazing land lease. Given the range of policies which squeeze and compromise nomadic viability, and the combination of incentives and orders to leave the land, it is hard to distinguish involuntary displacement from the choices made by the desperately poor, in order to survive. For these reasons, it is hard to quantify how many Tibetan pastoralists have, with great reluctance, left their land, with no prospect of ever returning. It is certainly hundreds of thousands of people, and the number is increasing rapidly.

The tuimu huancao policy, removing animals to grow more grass, is China’s boldest solution to the endless problems of nomads and grasslands. For decades, despite nominal restoration of land use rights in the 1980s, Tibetan nomads have been hemmed in with stocking rate formulae, administrative caps on herd size, strictly allocated grazing rights, restrictions on family size, heavy taxation requiring cash payments, compulsory fencing and attendant costs, often including indebtedness from having to take out loans for state owned banks. The combination of all these pressures has been steady impoverishment, with a lot of data suggesting that most nomads have barely enough livestock for subsistence.

In a land of uncertainty, with mobility long curtailed, this slide into immiserisation also makes it hard to say what is the final straw that drives nomads off their land and into a concrete block. China argues that all sedentarisation is voluntary and no-one is coerced. However, when Human Rights Watch released its first report on Tibetan nomads (another is due in 2011) it made telling use of a phrase HRW monitors were told repeatedly by nomads: “No-one has the liberty to refuse.” (No-one has the liberty to refuse: Tibetan herders forcibly relocated, Human Rights Watch, June 2007 vol 19 #8)

What is certain is that they deeply regret having to leave livestock, land and a livelihood that had been their whole world; and are even more distressed to find that there is no way back, that the state, having cancelled a land lease, never restores it.

This social suffering is invisible to China’s central leaders. In 2011, in response to requests by the UN Special Rapporteur to the Right to Food that nomads not be involuntarily resettled, China replied: “The Government emphasized that although many people were relocated to save the grasslands, no one was forced. The resettlement process always involved careful consideration of the individuals affected. The Government invested money to establish water, electricity, roads, education, medicine, radio, and other needs to the people that were relocated into cities and towns. The Government encouraged the relocated herdsman to start their own businesses.”

The tuimu huancao policy names the above ground growth of grass biomass as the sole objective, to which all else must comply. This entails abrogation of the long-term land lease certificates issued to nomadic families in the 1980s and 1990s, in every way analogous to the land rights given to Chinese farmers to convince rural producers that the land confiscations of the 1950s can never happen again. In a state where absolute title to rural land is not available to rural dwellers, these long term leasehold certificates were proclaimed as being as good as a title deed. They could be used as collateral for raising bank loans, since they entailed a state guarantee intended to persuade farmers to care for land that was in every way theirs. In nomadic areas of Tibet, the awarding of such certificates happened more slowly than in most of China but by the early 1990s all nomadic families had their certificate, which named the family members entitled to use the specified land.

What seemed at the time a welcome retreat by the state, entrusting active land management to responsible nomad households, turned out to be a time bomb. Problems quickly surfaced. First, the land rights usually covered only winter grazing areas, not the upper alpine pastures that are essential to enabling herds depleted by winter starvation to rapidly gain weight grazing on mountain meadow. The mobility inherent in nomadism as an integrated system of animal rearing was compromised. Second, the nomad families were strongly encouraged to make their winter quarters into a permanent home, and to fence their allotted land. Construction of a permanent home and fencing both require capital outlay, though nomads have had only limited access to cash income, since they consider their true wealth to be animals on the hoof, not animals sold for slaughter. In some areas, central poverty alleviation funds partly financed fence and house construction but in many areas nomads report that they were required to take loans from China’s state owned policy banks, which led to great indebtedness and great difficulty in servicing loans. Poverty was the result, as herd sizes have relentlessly decreased to bare subsistence levels, a fact verified by recent research conducted by Leipzig University. A nomadic family interviewed in November 2010 said: “The local officials promised us poverty alleviation funding, and it sounded like a great bird would come from the sky. But when it got closer, it seemed like just an ordinary bird, and by the time it landed, it was no bigger than a bug.”

Third, the long term land lease certificates identified by name the family members at the time of issue, and were never subsequently amended to accommodate natural increase, whether by birth or marriage. This bureaucratic rigidity, so unlike the periodic re-adjustment of pasture allocation undertaken by the traditional rukor tent-circle, had severe consequences later. Officials in charge of administering this policy, chiefly the Animal Husbandry Bureaus at provincial level and lower, said explicitly that the refusal to enter new family names onto land certificates would teach the nomads to restrict family size; and the refusal to re-allocate land as circumstances change in a highly changeably alpine climate that is prone to natural disasters, would teach the nomads to restrict herd size.

These statist interventions proved disastrous. The official failure to engage with nomads in any meaningful program of rural extension, breeding programs, basic education in numeracy and literacy, meant state policies remained incomprehensible to the nomads, and the nomads remained a lumpen mass of backwardness in official eyes. A policy intended to incentivise nomads to care for land that was effectively theirs, was experienced as enclosure, which the nomads had to pay for, while greatly restricting the mobility on which pastoral systems worldwide depend.

The result was further degradation of pasture, since the nomads had largely lost their mobility; which in official eyes only further proved the nomads are to blame for degradation. One official response was to renew efforts to persuade nomads to kill more animals, increasing the slaughter rate to the officially recommended level of one half of all sheep to be slaughtered each year and one quarter of all yaks. This too the nomads resisted, in part because of a Buddhist repugnance at raising animals solely and specifically for slaughter, but also because, in a high-risk environment, the herd is the nomad’s only wealth, and after a disaster, the bigger the remaining herd, the faster the recovery. Experience in other nomadic economies, notably Mongolia, shows that nomads can be persuaded to reduce herd size if they can first be persuaded that the risks inherent in pastoral nomadism are shared by the state. This is achieved by setting up an inexpensive livestock insurance program which pays nomads to restock and recover after a major disaster. China never attempted in any way to assist the nomads to lessen risk, or to invest in rehabilitating degrading pasture.


The state-driven exclosure movement is the culmination of decades of state suspicion, mistrust, misunderstanding and communication failure to understand the dynamics of pastoral nomadism, is now accelerating. All over the vast Tibetan Plateau, in area comparable to Western Europe, both herds and nomads are compulsorily removed, while praised in official media as “ecological migrants.”

This is one of the greatest expulsions of a population from their lands in history, comparable in many ways to the 19th century European settler-driven removal of Australian Aborigines, American and Canadian Indians from their lands and into vestigial reserves. This profoundly mistaken and entirely unnecessary policy is a breach of collective social and economic rights as well as individual rights to freedom of movement and association. It cuts off at the root the livelihoods, productive economy and food self-sufficiency of those who made the Tibetan Plateau habitable.

This is state failure on an extraordinary scale, a reversal of direction by a state that throughout the 1980s and 1990s had dismantled the first wave of statist intervention, the disastrous communisation of the nomads into disempowering work units utterly under the control of revolutionary cadres with no understanding of the natural limits of the rangelands. After the failure of the communes, the Chinese state returned herds to owners, and gradually issued long term land rights certificates to each nomadic family, guaranteeing secure access to grazing land. Now these land rights have been torn up, the certificates nullified, herds removed and the nomads themselves compelled to leave pastures they managed both sustainably and productively for the past 9000 years.

Anthropologist Emily Yeh (Restoring the grasslands? China Dialogue, January 26, 2010)
writes: “Evidence to date suggests that the ecological benefits are questionable while the social costs are high. For tuimu huancao and ecological migration to improve grassland degradation in any given area, several conditions must hold true: grasslands must be degraded; overgrazing must be a primary cause of the problem; and removal of grazing must be able to move the ecosystem out of its undesirable state. However, a number of scientists have questioned sweeping statements about pervasive degradation across the plateau. Indeed, some of the data on which commonly cited statistics about the extent of degradation and the rate at which it is increasing is based, appear to be from undocumented and methodologically dubious surveys.

“Recent attempts to more rigorously quantify the extent of degradation have had conflicting results. Thus, while overgrazing in the past or present is undoubtedly a key driver of vegetation change in some areas, other factors such as climate change – and interactions between multiple factors – may also play important roles. To date, few rigorous studies have been conducted to investigate these multiple interacting factors, or the extent to which ecosystems can transition to other states under conditions imposed by various interventions. Much work remains to be done in demonstrating the ecological effects of grazing removal in areas where it is being implemented.

“Furthermore, there are reasons to believe that tuimu huancao in its various forms will not be a win-win solution for both rangeland health and climate-change adaptation. Large-scale boundary fencing, together with use-rights privatisation, reduces mobility across the landscape. (Although small-scale fencing for reserve pasture or fodder production is generally welcome). This could potentially increase vulnerability to devastating snowstorms, which climate-change models predict will become more frequent and severe. In addition, such fencing can have negative effects for migratory wildlife, as well as for local livelihoods, as a result of the uneven spatial distribution of rangeland resources.

“A study conducted by Chinese scientists in Sichuan’s Ruo’ergai county found that the number of herders facing lack of water availability tripled after household rangeland allocation. Furthermore, recent ecological evidence from warming and grazing experiments on the eastern Tibetan plateau suggests that the presence of moderate grazing actually helps control the expected effects of global warming on reduction of biodiversity and rangeland quality. Experimental warming leads to decreased species richness, including of medicinal plants, as well as decreased biomass, including palatable biomass. However, these effects are dampened in the presence of grazing. These results suggest tuimu huancao may not be adaptive for climate change.

“Studies to date of those who have been resettled through ecological migration also suggest that the benefits of resettlement for improving the livelihoods of herders are overstated. Some who have voluntarily resettled have expressed regrets about doing so, saying they did not realise the extent to which everything in their new town-based lives must be purchased with cash. For many families, government compensation has been inadequate, especially as inflation drives up costs while subsidies remain the same. In one study conducted in Golok, the annual income of those resettled in towns was reportedly lower than their earlier subsistence income, while expenditures were higher; those interviewed also stated that their health conditions had declined after resettlement, because of changes in living conditions as well as diet. Contributing significantly to the problems is the fact that the Tibetan ex-pastoralists do not have Chinese language and other skills needed to earn an income in the towns.”

In recent decades the rangelands have experienced alarming degradation, erosion, even such loss of soil as to strip the land back to bare rock exposed to the gales, blizzards and temperature extremes typical of the planet’s third pole. The Chinese state, backed by Chinese scientific research reports, insists that the nomads themselves are primarily responsible for greedily and ignorantly overstocking the pastures, and failing to kill a higher proportion of their yak, sheep and goat herds annually. China’s other explanation for the degradation of the rangelands, including the area where the Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong Rivers all rise in Tibetan rangelands, is global climate change, for which China blames the older industrialised countries. Because of climate change and nomadic backwardness, in order to conserve the headwaters of China’s great rivers, the tuimu huancao policy required the removal of herds and herders, to grow more grass. To the Chinese state, this policy is necessary, rational, and scientific and is now extending far beyond the river source region to the entire plateau.


At the current accelerating rate of exclosure, almost all of Tibet’s two million nomads will have become displaced persons by 2013. We are more than half way through a decade of accelerating depopulation of the great grasslands, with implementation spreading now well beyond the initial four prefectures that constitute most of the rangelands of Qinghai province.

This is a major breach of the collective rights of whole communities, clans and nomadic tribes to their economic and social rights to livelihood, access to land and the means of production.

This punitive approach also contradicts China’s own “Outlines of National Food Security Development Plan” for the years to 2020, which emphasises the need for state investment in technology to make primary producers more productive, rather than constricting them in am myriad regulations, all of which reduce productivity.


in the booming immigrant Chinese cities on the plateau, in the mining extraction areas, and in the corridors of roads, railways, pipelines and power pylons that connect these intensive development zones, the pace of development is accelerating, with many new hydropower dams due to be built, both to power Tibetan extractive industry and prove China’s green credentials.

Put simply, Tibet is fast becoming two economies, two kinds of land, two ways of using land: extensive and intensive. Extensive land use is traditional, mobile, a light touch, grazing here and there, moving on, few towns, no heavy industry, no concentration of population and environmental impacts in small areas. Intensive land use is the opposite: concentrations of investment, infrastructure, people, feedlot farming and urban services, in as small an area as possible. China explicitly signalled the shift from extensive to intensive as its key strategy of the Ninth Five-Year Plan that began in 1996. It is the key to efficient delivery of services, from electricity to education, to people clustered conveniently together. Extensive is primitive, intensive is modern. Extensive means being at the mercy of nature; intensive development is proof of man’s mastery over nature.

This is orthodox development economics, the economics of efficiency and scale, of bundled service delivery, with a country like Germany the ideal: a big population concentrated in a manageable area, with the capacity to invest in ensuring all gain access to the full range of modern services at least cost. When Deng Xiaoping famously said: let a few get rich first, the first are those already best favoured by their location, those who are best endowed with factors of production. Hence urbanisation is at the core of all of China’s plans for Tibet, as Anders Andersen’s forthcoming book, The Chinese Presence, TibetWatch 2011, makes clear. This is the ideology of productivism.

But China is just as strongly committed to colouring vast areas of the map of Tibet as nature reserves and river source protected areas. This serves China’s interests, protecting upper watersheds, making settled nomads visible and scrutable by state power, excluded from the nature reserves, in new towns where they can learn how to be civilised. China continues resist being bound to any greenhouse gas emission reduction targets or quotas, and must win credibility elsewhere, on the vast hinterland of Tibet, which has never produced much for China, and can better be re-engineered as climate-change abatement land.

These are China’s hopes, but Tibet remains disappointing and problematic, in Chinese eyes. Everything about Tibet seems problematic, and the more one thinks about it, the more one investigates, and decrees policies, the more problematic it gets. Everything about Tibet is discordant, unfamiliar and difficult. It is extremely cold yet very sunny. It is China’s number one water tower, yet largely arid. The people are stubbornly wedded to their non-commercial way of life, even when opportunities to accumulate wealth are available. Great rivers start below dramatic glaciers but then disappear into swamps as they fan out across plateau grasslands. Fugitive permafrost comes and goes, wrecking all engineering efforts to construct highways that don’t heave upwards in winter and slump down in summer, axle-breaking hazards for trucks and buses. The sky is so close one can touch the clouds, but the air is so thin every breath could be one’s last. Even in midsummer, a snowstorm can materialise out of the blue. Herders live at the mercy of the elements, but don’t want to modernise. Crop after crop has been tried, but few survive. Yaks, sheep and goats are everywhere but there is very little fresh meat to be had in the markets. The rivers and lakes are full of fish but the Tibetans don’t fish. Tibet is vast, but produces nothing. There is more grass in summer in the alpine meadows than herd animals to eat it. There is insufficient grass in the overwintering plateau floor pasture for livestock to survive without starving, but the nomads show little interest in farming crops for fodder to feed their animals in winter. He land abounds in minerals, but few mining companies –Chinese or foreign- are willing to invest capital to extract them. Beijing pours money into Tibet, but there is never an economic take-off. The Tibetans are not grateful, they prefer the mumbo-jumbo of their lamas. The more one thinks about Tibet, the more problematic it becomes.

All this problematising, from a Tibetan point of view, comes from too much thinking, that is not grounded in an appreciation of what is. Tibetans generally find Tibet fine as it is, and don’t begin, as their first move, by seeing their homeland as harsh, fearsome, threatening, overpowering, perverse or difficult.


The famous French philosopher Gilles Deleuze proposed the creation of a “nomadology” as an alternative to the all-too-familiar category of “history.”

Although he never developed a nomadology of his own, he saw the need for not just a different story to the conventional stories historians tell, but a different universe, inhabiting a different space/time, with a very different attitude towards the word, so cherished by historians as the currency of record, and thus of truth.

While seeing the need for a radically different starting point, Deleuze himself, a French intellectual of the mid 20th century, was quite unable to do more than point in the right direction. It is, the nomads say, grandmother’s finger pointing our eyes towards the hazy moon of enlightenment, but it is we, each of, who must turn our gaze to encounter the cold silver light of reality.

History is inevitably a written record of sedentary peoples bound by conventions of time and space, with an exaggerated reverence for the word. History is a primary tool of identity of people who have externalised time and space and the word into objectively existing naturalised categories of existence, within which we live, bound by them as absolutes. History is the record of the great deeds of kings and armies, conquests and cities, territory and wealth.

The history of the Chinese Communist Party’s encounter with the nomads of Tibet is disastrous, from the 1935 beginning, in the Long March. Nowhere did the retreating communists suffer greater losses than in crossing the boggy wetlands of eastern Tibet, sniped at by nomad riflemen, responding in kind by looting monasteries and leaving the nomads to starve. Both history and now science see Tibet, the land and the people, only as problematic, extreme, harsh, in disequilibrium, ungovernable. Maybe it’s our paradigm.

Nomadology makes no such assumptions. Time and space are fluid, elastic, human conventions immensely useful for naming a thousand plateaus but not to be taken too seriously. Nomadology does not impose Euclidean geometry as an invisible overlay circumscribing the world of experience. Nomadology is unmediated direct experience of whatever arises, without excessive thinking, conceptualising and confusing proliferation of categories. Nomadology, in the daily lives of Tibetan nomads, is the momentary encounter with whatever arises, without a complex predetermined agenda as to how nature is to be conquered, progress accelerated, accumulation intensified.

History worships the timeline, the arrow of time that ever points from past to future, from the triumphs and disasters of the ancestors to the ever greater triumphs (and inevitable disasters) of the coming generation. History naturalises progress, binds us to the agendas of nationbuilding, scientific mastery, ever upward and onward. Accumulation, growth, expansion are naturalised as inevitable and necessary, as the graph of stock indices climbs and falls and climbs again. Every situation becomes a project. Every project is defined narrowly by excluding much of the messy complexity of reality, treating those externalities as invisible, so as to better focus intensively on the few remaining variables, which can be manipulated. Every project thus contains a problem, and its technical solution. Only an expert can deal with the problem, as Laurie Anderson sings.

All the innumerable problems, solutions and project implementations add up to the great project of modernity, the attaining of the ever-unreachable goal of comprehensive national power, the fulfilment of all wishes, the availability of all consumables at affordable prices to we whose fundamental role is as consumers.

History not only obliterates nomadology, it makes it so utterly invisible that it becomes impossible to even imagine.

Yet nomads continue to live their nomadology, notably in Tibet, a vast land sparsely but extensively populated by pastoral nomads not driven by the agendas of the nation-state, or the urgency of modernity’s obsessive drive for perfection. Nomadology is not just different, it is fundamentally different, in ways that remain inscrutable to the gaze of the legislative state. Nomadology slips between the categories, and can be seen, if seen at all, as a passive, retrogressive fatalism, a surrender to the forces of nature, a primitive failure to strive for mastery, even a terror-filled abyss in which puny man is at the mercy of the violent forces of nature.

As recently as November 2010, China announced it had succeeded in sedentarising 6000 Tibetan pastoral nomads, far from the Three-Rivers-Source region, in the Tibetan prefecture of Yunnan province (Dechen in Tibetan, Deqen or Diqing in Chinese). The China Tibet Online website announced: “6,000 herdsmen say goodbye to nomadism in Deqen. Shangri-la County of Deqen Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province has helped more than 1,300 families nomadic herders left nomadic life and moved into comfortable, spacious houses. This year, a total of 111,780,900 yuan will be invested on construction projects to help 6,000 nomadic herders of 1,300 families move into new houses.” (28 Nov 2010)
In this Tibetan upland portion of Yunnan, pastoral nomadism has been practiced for centuries, and in recent years, villagers democratically agreed on formal rules ensuring that there would be no overgrazing, and that all available pastures would be used skilfully, in seasonal rotation. In translation, this is the exact wording of that village-level democratic process: “To people of all sectors of society in Dimaluo: Based on the leadership of the Village Committee, for the good of animal husbandry in our Dimaluo, for the health of the future Dimaluo villagers’ living environment, for the sustainable development of the livestock industry in Dimaluo, on the basis of the Village Customary Regulations (in Chinese cungui minyue) and to strengthen the management system of rangelands that are going to degrade, we ask people of all sectors to cooperate. Let us create a beautiful future animal husbandry together.
“The following is the management system for Xinke upland rangeland:
-Before the 10th of May every year the path up to Xinke must be made passable. Every household that herds in Xinke rangeland must take part in repairing the road. Those who, after being informed, do not take part in repairing the road, will be fined.
-Before 10th of May each year it is forbidden for the livestock of any household in any hamlet to graze in Xinke rangeland. Infringers will be fined……” (Andreas Wilkes, The Creation of Community-Managed Rangeland Institutions in Dimaluo: three cases of community-based natural resource management, Centre for Biodiversity and Indigenous Knowledge, Kunming, Community Livelihoods Working Paper #11, 2005, p10)
By these simple rules, the three villages democratically decided how to ensure that the upper summer pastures are used, taking pressure off lower pasture land, and that herds are not moved up until spring grass growth is vigorous. Tibetan pastoralists have shown their capacity to translate customary oral decision making by the traditional tent-circle, into the formal and written processes of Chinese legal regulations. Yet these arrangements have now been nullified by the supervention of state power, herding the herders off their land and into block houses below their pasture lands, with little future. An especial irony is that in Yunnan this is happening just above the zone designated officially by China as the actual historic Shangri-la, the romantic paradise on earth invented by the English novelist James Hilton in 1935. While tourists enjoy being photographed seated on a docile yak, the real nomads are now shut out of their land and livelihoods.


China ratified the UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) in 1993 and is thus obligated to enact complementary legislation and then implement it, to fulfil its CBD responsibilities.
Sanjiangyuan, the Three-Rivers-Source Protected Area is officially gazetted by the government of China as a high level officially Protected Area, thus incurring the mandatory obligation, under the UN Convention on Biodiversity’s Element 2 Program of Work on Protected Areas (PoWPA), dealing specifically with governance of protected areas, to ensure that traditional owners and land users in protected areas are not excluded but become participants in the work of protection.
The Convention on Biodiversity has many sections (notably Article 8 (j)) emphasising the importance of indigenous communities as guarantors and protectors of biodiversity and the ongoing sustainability of entire ecosystems, based on evidence from around the world, showing that the most effective way of maintaining ecosystem services to downstream users, and the viability of biomes, and the conservation of endangered species, is to not only allow customary land owners continuing access to land, but to support their efforts at rehabilitation of degraded areas.
The Convention on Biodiversity specifies not only governance but also equity and participation as the key issues all signatory parties must address, and report on, in certifying their compliance with provisions of the Convention. Equity and participation require inclusion of communities long resident inside declared Protected Areas, respect for their collective economic and social rights to livelihoods compatible with the objectives of declaring areas protected.


China should halt implementation of its tuimu huancao policy of removing animals to grow grass, until there is scientific consensus that such a program is necessary. A world scientific conference should be convened to clarify whether customary and contemporary Tibetan pastoral nomadic practices are causes of rangeland degradation, and whether grassland rehabilitation can be achieved with active nomadic participation rather than by exclusion.

China should update its rangeland management policy to world standard, inviting best practitioners from rangelands around the world to establish projects aimed at co-management of natural resources, to introduce new, inclusive processes of flood control, climate change mitigation, carbon sequestration and sustainable grazing, rather than exclusion. The NEW RANGE ECOLOGY should be the benchmark.

China should extend basic income support, health insurance and a social safety net to rural Tibetan areas, enabling pastoralists to repay debts, restock pastures and resume seasonal herding. This is in line with China’s policies of increasing domestic demand and buying power, lessening reliance on exports, and increasing incomes of the poor.

China should provide pastoral nomads with guaranteed land rights comparable to those issued to China’s peasant farmers in the 1980s, including official guarantees that land will not be arbitrarily repossessed by the state, for decades to come.

China should invite scientists from many countries to independently investigate how well central policies actually work in practice on the Tibetan plateau. This includes the sloping land conversion program, the grain-to-green program, the tuimu huancao removing animals to grow grass program and other land use programs that restrict nomadic mobility.

China should implement policies announced in 2003, which stated that nomads and herds would be removed for three or five years, to let more grass grow, and then be allowed to return to their pastures.

China should design all policies for pastoral areas according to the overall principle that traditional pastoral nomadism was sustainable because it was mobile, making extensive use of all pasture. All policies should be designed to ensure seasonal access to both summer alpine meadow and winter lowland pasture. The net loss of sustainable agro-ecological food and fibre production further deprives a world in which food prices are rising rapidly due to neglect of investment in agriculture, nowhere more so than on the Tibetan Plateau.

China should suspend programs requiring pastoral nomads to build (and finance the building) of barns, overwintering animal enclosures, fenced hay paddocks and hay storage, until consultation with nomads, as equals, establishes whether such measures are workable, given the intense pressure on nomads to maximise food and fibre production in the short growing season.

China should implement its food security policy and invest in organic agro-ecological production of food and fibre from the Tibetan Plateau, including investment in employing pastoralists to sow native grass seeds and rehabilitate eroded areas.

China should cease mass poisonings of Tibetan wildlife such as burrowing mammals that aerate the soil, and the birds that feed on them.

China should enforce its own laws on biodiversity conservation and halt poaching of endangered species in nomadic areas, including the source area of China’s rivers.

China should fulfil its obligations under the Convention on Biodiversity to report in detail on how it promotes co-manangement of pastoral lands on the Tibetan Plateau.

China should enforce decrees forbidding the mining of gold and other minerals by unregulated gold rush artisanal operators, and repair the damaged rangelands resulting from gold rushes, highway and railway construction and fencing that exposes alpine soils to erosive winds and blizzards.

China should promote the uses of Tibetan pastoral wool, cheeses, yoghurt and other nomadic produce in urban Chinese markets which are rapidly acquiring a demand for dairy products and wool. China should learn from NGOs creating markets and value-added products for urban consumption by using the produce of the pastoralists.

China should cancel the indebtedness of pastoralists and resettled pastoralists, where such loans are nonperforming, and the debtors have little realistic prospect of repaying.

China should make mobile solar power readily available to nomadic families rather than requiring nomads to settle permanently before becoming eligible for access to electricity.

China should invest in boarding schools with well paid teachers and good facilities, to attract the children of nomads, rather than use China’s commitment to 9 years of compulsory schooling as an excuse to settle nomads in areas where no decent schools exist.

China should allow resettled nomads an option of return to their lands, with official assistance to train pastoralists in natural resource management, protected area management, and sustainable land use.

In addition to sources cited above there are many organisations dedicated to taking a fresh approach towards pastoral nomads:,,,,