Eight Chinese myths about Tibetan nomads


A briefing by Gabriel Lafitte
Presented at European Parliament Tibet Intergroup 30 March 2011
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In a world where active, violent conflicts inevitably dominate headlines and the attention of policymakers, unresolved conflict over Tibet attracts less attention.

It is a political reality of this second decade of the 21st century that the rise of China overshadows the concerns expressed in earlier years by European leaders over human rights in Tibet. It is getting harder to find official voices able to speak up on violations of the civil and political rights of Tibetans.

Does this mean there is nothing we can do? Not at all, it is just that we need a different approach.

The six million Tibetans in Tibet (Chinese 2010 census figures) have made humanly habitable the planet’s third pole, by skilful, mobile, extensive land use, moving with their yaks, sheep and goats across pastureland as big as the whole of western Europe. Not only is that way of life now being rapidly shut down by official intervention, the exclusion of nomads from their pastures depopulates the Tibetan countryside, opening it to exploitation by itinerant gold miners whose methods are environmentally destructive.
This is an economic development issue, an environmental issue and a question of the collective economic and social rights of the Tibetans as a people. Exclusion of nomads is now being taken up by human rights monitoring agencies, for example, the recent reports of the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food and access to land, as a backward step in a world running short on food because of Chinese consumption. Human Rights Watch intends to publish a new report soon on the internal displacement en masse of Tibetan nomads, having first reported the issue in 2007. TibetWatch will also publish a detailed report on nomad displacement in 2011.

From development and environmental points of view, these are issues where Europe has much to offer. Development does not declare entire populations redundant, still less is it helpful to label as ignorant, backward and primitive those populations which have skilfully and productively used an entire plateau sustainably for millennia. Rehousing the millions of pastoral nomads of Tibet –as is happening now- in concrete barracks on urban edges, makes useless their livelihoods, land care skills and productivity in livestock production, at a time of fast growing demand for the wool, butter, cheese, hides and meat they produce. Global food insecurity is only worsened by making the Tibetan nomads redundant, fenced out of their pastures.

China mistakenly blames the Tibetan pastoralists for degradation of the rangelands, seen as a threat to China’s river water supply, necessitating the removal of both herds and herders, in the name of watershed protection. Although China’s great rivers –the Yangtze and Yellow- are over-used downstream, and much polluted, China is anxious to maintain the flow of pure water from the glacial sources high in Tibet, even if it means removing the nomads who live in an area the size of Germany between the glaciers and lowland China.


There is no reason why the Tibetan pastoral nomads cannot be partners with the state in protecting watersheds while maintaining their livelihoods; but China has formulated an either/or policy. China is usually very up-to-date in all matters, but when it comes to the grasslands, it does not work with or even listen to its nomads, so policy is based on remote satellite data, and mechanistic formulations of “stocking rates” and “carrying capacity” that are not relevant to the extremely unpredictable climate of the world’s third pole.

China is behind the times, and needs to catch up. Europe can help. Most of the expertise, individually and institutionally, on skilful, appropriate policies for the drylands and uplands of the nomads, is in Europe. There is much opportunity for technical assistance that strengthens nomadic life, returns mobility as the key to successful nomadic production and sustainable, mobile grazing. This new approach, which recognises the skills of nomads as risk managers, living off uncertainty and unpredictable pastures, is called the New Range Ecology.

China can learn to respect the specialist livestock producers of the Tibetan Plateau, if given help by Europe. The best help is in pilot projects showing how to work with pastoralists as partners, rather than a top-down approach that assumes all pastoralists are primitive and ignorant. For some years, the European Union and other OECD countries have financed and implemented projects that show, in practice, how development can be done most effectively by co-management, with state agencies and pastoralists, organised into producer associations, working together.

Those pilot projects could now be scaled up, in all five Chinese provinces that include parts of the Tibetan Plateau. Specifically, China could learn from the experiences of neighbouring Nepal, Mongolia and Bhutan that nomadic livestock producers can be encouraged to reduce herd size and grazing pressure by inexpensive insurance finance that recompenses nomads when disastrous climate events wipe out much of their herds. A major reason nomads keep more animals than necessary in good years is as their only insurance against bad years, in a country where there is no social safety net, all health costs are user-payment upfront in advance, and herd size on the hoof is the only source of security. When nomads know the state is there, in an emergency, to help, they are much more willing to reduce herd size, and the need for coercion and displacement evaporates.

European development agencies have spent decades in Nepal working with forest communities in the hills, setting up user groups that empower villagers to work with the state to attain globally important goals such as carbon sequestration, erosion mitigation, flood control, sustainable land use and biodiversity conservation. Yet in Tibet, on the other side of the Himalayas, the state is distant, punitive and disciplinary, relying on an approach that is decades out of date elsewhere in the developing world.

Environmentally, the Tibetan Plateau is crucial to planetary atmospheric patterns, drawing inland the monsoons that make India, China and SE Asia productive. Climate change is happening faster in the high altitudes of Tibet than elsewhere, providing China with a short-term boost in glacier melt river water; perhaps one of the reasons why China is reluctant to accept greenhouse gas emission quotas.

The Tibetan Plateau is almost 3 per cent of the planet’s land surface, naturally rich in biodiversity despite the cold. Until recently it was an unfenced land where huge wild herds mingled freely and undisturbed, with the domestic herds of the nomads. Fish were abundant in lakes and rivers, since Tibetans do not kill fish. Land was used extensively, which means lightly, in a mobile way, always moving on to ensure pasture remains intact, and not vulnerable to the biting gales and blizzards of the high plateau. There was much forest, and extensive wetlands, which were major carbon sinks.
In recent times this has all changed. Wetlands were drained and dried out, rivers dammed for hydro power, wildlife shot and poached by immigrants, the land compulsorily fenced and nomads no longer allowed their mobility, which meant concentrations of animals in small areas which inevitably degraded. Trawlers took to the waters, soldiers stationed in Tibet gunned down wildlife. Forests were destroyed, pandas died. More recently, China has nominated the less productive areas of Tibet, mostly the alpine deserts, as protected areas and insists that internal displacement of whole communities of pastoralists is for the sake of the environment.


In theory, China’s programs seem valid, even important contributions to a global effort to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and sequester more carbon. Only when one looks more closely at the actual implementation of China’s programs, on the ground, does it become obvious that in practice the official slogans and campaigns are actually contradictory, self-defeating and with many perverse outcomes.

On paper, the displaced nomads are voluntary “ecological migrants” choosing to sacrifice their way of life for the greater good. On paper, China is scientifically addressing its downstream water shortage, its past history of mistakenly ploughing forest, grassland and hillslopes which are now being replanted as green belts. Officially, this is all about plausible, sensible slogans such as the grain-to-green campaign to turn marginal farmland back to forest or grassland, part of a land use change program needed worldwide to help adapt to climate change.

Now, many people are confused. Is there inevitably a clash between watershed protection and pastoralism, a contradiction –as Chinese officials say- between grass and animals? Are the pastoralists abandoning their whole way of life actually voluntary ecological migrants, as China claims? What sort of lives can they now lead? Could they contribute better to environmental outcomes in Tibet by maintaining their traditionally mobile way of life, and as park rangers, anti-poaching patrollers and reforesters with modest incomes from external sources to employ them as guardians of nature in Tibet?
Here are China’s eight key policies, examples of the gap between stated policy objectives and actual results:

ONE: Protecting China’s Number One Water Tower. Ostensibly, the high altitude glacial sources in Tibet of three great rivers –the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong- require removal of herds and herders so more grass will grow. Huge areas have been designated as requiring “treatment” to reverse desertification and degradation of the rangelands.

On the ground, when nomads and their animals are removed, grass does grow, but in the absence of grazing, grassland biodiversity shrinks, inedible shrubs replace grassland, alien invasive weeds multiply and medicinal herbs are fewer. There is no program of “treatment” of degraded pasture, no budget or employment to sow seeds and carefully rehabilitate degraded areas. The removal of the nomads is the “treatment.”

Climate change at the planet’s third pole –the Tibetan Plateau- happens faster than in the lowlands. Glacial melting, according to Chinese scientific calculations, gives China aghout the 21st century.
Downstream, China’s great rivers are chronically over-exploited, farmer irrigators continue to pay only nominal amounts for water use, and there is massive discharge of pollutants into the great rivers. The solutions to these problems are not to be found in Tibet, which, despite the Chinese label of “China’s Number One water Tower” is actually semi-arid. The rain and snowfall in the source area is only 250mm a year.

TWO: Climate change is the cause of rangeland degradation in Tibet, necessitating removal of nomads, under the slogan of tuimu huancao, removing animals to grow grassland.

In reality, degradation of the rangelands started to accelerate in the 1960s and has gone unchecked ever since. After 9000 years of skilful and sustainable use of the rangelands by Tibetan pastoralists maintaining a mobile civilisation, degradation began when nomads lost all power over their herds and their lives, were compulsorily collectivised into communes intended to “scientifically” intensify meat production. These communes, which lasted 20 years, were disastrous, increasing herd size beyond the capacity of the land to bear. These mistakes of the revolutionary period cannot be spoken about or acknowledged, so all blame goes now onto the nomads as ignorant, and onto climate change as the explanation of all problems.

THREE: Resettled nomads can join the modern economy, start their own businesses, take full advantage of being resettled along roads giving them access to markets.

In reality, relocated nomads are rarely allowed to keep any animals. In some places they must take out bank loans to pay for the housing that is officially the gift of a generous state, forcing them into debt. Although they are promised compensation, provision of survival rations, vocational training, schooling for their children, access to electricity and urban services, the ground reality is that in many resettlement blocks there is no school and almost no adult education providing useful vocational skills, in a language the nomads understand (Tibetan). While there is always a police station built, many promised services do not materialise. Vocational training, if available, is too brief and inadequate, or quite inappropriate to the situation, not equipping ex-nomads with practical skills such as business planning, or even how to save cash income, essential to people not used to having to pay cash for everything needed for survival.

The resettlement blocks are places of wasted life, where people made redundant in the modern world are parked, away from view, with nothing to do. Meaningless lives lead to alcohol abuse, violence and theft, community discord and the ex-nomads get a bad reputation. This is a self-fulfilling negative loop, proving what authorities suspected all along: that Tibetan nomads are of “low human quality”

The reservations of 20th century north American Indians or Australian Aborigines were similarly destructive of social bonds, of meaningful life and cultural continuity.

FOUR: China says nomads don’t own land and don’t care for it. Tibetan nomads have had land rights ever since the 1980s, but persisted in overgrazing because they could access land that doesn’t belong to them, and they don’t care if it degrades. The nomads have also had great opportunity to grow rich from off-farm income earning opportunities, notably the gathering of yartsa gumbu (cordyceps sinensis), a fungal growth of grassland caterpillars in great demand as a virility enhancer used in traditional Chinese medicine.

On the ground, the experience of the Tibetan nomads is that their animals were returned to them in 1980 after the communes failed, but returning guaranteed land tenure rights took much longer than for Chinese farmers. The land they were allocated had to be fenced, usually at nomads’ expense, there were many taxes to be paid either in cash or labour, prices for nomadic products were manipulated by unscrupulous cartels of urban merchant butchers immigrating into Tibet, and official regulations increasingly restricted herd size (as well as family size). Although nomads were eventually given land use certificates, they were only for winter pastures. Their customary mobility, essential to both sustainability and productivity, was curtailed. Access to summer pastures high up in the alpine meadows became more difficult.
On paper, nomads had secure tenure. In reality the number of animals they could keep on the land allocated to them shrank, and nomads increasingly led a subsistence existence. Many slid into poverty, very vulnerable to immiserisation if anyone in the family became ill or disabled. The nomads were encouraged to sedentarise, making the winter home the only home, with no more summer mobility.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, nomads in theory had their land; in practice the land was too small, the fencing and new housing too expensive, the taxes and cadre rent-seeking usurious, the result was overstocking and land degradation, and the nomads sliding into poverty. Sometimes nomads had to sell all their remaining animals, just to survive, or could not afford to restock after a snow disaster, and were forced into becoming urban beggars. The incentives to sedentarise were often the only option for immediate survival.

Both the rangeland and the nomadic livelihoods were on a negative spiral, with intensifying restrictions reinforcing further degradation, and reinforcing the view from afar, in Beijing, that Tibetan nomads are stupid, ignorant, greedy and destructive.

FIVE: Resettled nomads will now be able to lead comfortable lives in new housing provided by the generosity of the state, with access to electricity; and their children will be able to go to school for the full nine compulsory years. Their measurable cash income will be higher than before, and they can transition to the modern economy.

In reality, concrete houses are extremely cold in winter and unbearably hot in summer, especially as many have few windows. Often the nomads have to pay for house construction, even when it means indebtedness to a bank which they cannot repay. They usually have to sign an undertaking not to keep any animals, the penalty for any breach is loss of the new house. Their land use certificates are nullified, so they have no right to return to their old pastures.
Nomads stripped of all that is familiar, all their skills now useless, experience deep shock at no longer having purpose in life. They must now pay cash for everything. The young adults seek casual unskilled employment in towns, on construction sites. Unfamiliar diseases, especially infections spread by overcrowding, become more common. Public hygiene essential to high-density living is seldom taught, and not in a culturally appropriate way.

The school curriculum continues to emphasise political education in Party policies, patriotic education, and not the transmission of skills that are actually useful in remote areas. China used to have mobile tent schools in nomadic areas, until 25 years ago. It is not necessary to sedentarise whole populations so the children can attend school. Nomadic Mongolia achieved almost 100% literacy among nomads in the 1970s and 1980s by investing in well-equipped boarding schools for nomad children, and a school timetable that fits in with the nomadic calendar.

SIX Nomads must go. China says there is no way of mitigating climate change and the degradation of the rangelands, without first removing the nomads whose overgrazing is the main cause of the problem.
In reality China has not tried the methods in use elsewhere in the world, to repair degraded areas, as a co-operative process involving local land users and the state. In landcare programs around the world, local communities are encouraged to organise themselves, and work together with government to design, plan and implement labour-intensive replanting of native species which have been dying. The state provides finance, scientific expertise and if necessary income support so livestock producers can spend time on the rehabilitation work. None of this has been done in China’s grasslands, in the badly desertifying grasslands of Inner Mongolia, or in Tibet, except for a few small pilot projects.
Exclosure of entire populations should be the very last resort, if all else has failed. In China it has become the one program which supposedly will, by itself, without further intervention, fix everything, with no investment of state funds except for some of the costs of construction of concrete block housing, and the promise of subsistence rations for some, but not all, displaced nomads for a few years.

SEVEN: Kill the rodents. China says a major cause of grassland degradation is population explosions of burrowing mammals, in plague proportions, which destroy grasses by eating roots, and expose the soil to erosion. These rodent plagues must be controlled by chemical poisoning on a large scale, utilising funding from GTZ, Germany’s official aid agency.
On the ground, ecological research shows the rodents are keystone species, essential to aerating the soil, and are naturally the main food of several predatory birds species and four-legged hunters. When rodent populations explode, it is a symptom of existing rangeland degradation, not its cause. Poisoning them en masse, which Tibetans are shocked at being required to do, is not helpful, and it exposes poisoned carcases that are consumed by birds, transmitting the poisons to them.

EIGHT: Nomads should learn to become ranchers, operating feedlot cattle fattening operations on urban outskirts, bringing in fodder for animals in a modern, scientific way, making profit by selling fattened animals for slaughter as soon as they gain enough weight. Intensive feedlot meat production is the way of the future, while extensive, mobile land use, following animals to pasture, is primitive slavery to nature.

Producing animals solely for slaughter, with animals as the necessary means to a monetary end, is repugnant to most Tibetans. Accumulating wealth year by year is not common. Most Tibetans believe generously donating surplus funds annually is the best path to future wealth. Tibetans have neither the capital, nor the business model of endless accumulation, needed to go into the ranching business.

In reality, nomads did try to increase production, especially of wool, only to find their efforts undermined by county level officials who over-invested in wool scouring plants in the 1980s policy of promoting rural industrialisation. These wool scouring plants owned by county cadres failed to prosper, or to look after the interests of the nomads by separating semi-fine, valuable wool from coarser grades. By the late 1980s nearly all the rural wool scouring plants went broke and there has been no further attempt to add value to Tibetan wool.

Now the woollen mills of coastal China rely entirely on imported fine wools; and the substantial Tibetan wool surplus is used only for low grade, low priced products such as felting for hats. Instead of helping nomads improve sheep breeds, wool quality, wool sorting and cleaning, and the transport and marketing of wool to the mills, Tibetan wool is sold near Beijing in the dirt, on an open field, mixed with mud and dust, attracting only low prices.


In some cases, there are independent witnesses such as international scientists who have done the fieldwork, and published their results in reputable journals. This is true of the debate over poisoning pikas and other grassland rodents, and the biodiversity consequences of fencing animals out of the grasslands. There are dozens of scientific papers, academic conference presentations and postgraduate dissertations showing in detail the unwisdom and narrow-mindedness of China’s governance of the grasslands.

Most of the information, however, comes from those who may not speak: the nomads themselves, who are forbidden to organise themselves, or to speak up. If they try to articulate their concerns they are labelled criminal splittists, which results in long gaol sentences. In keeping with the protocols of human rights monitoring, their names are not given here. Nonetheless, there are opportunities to interview nomads discreetly, taking care to protect their identities, which is why the picture above is not attributed to named individuals.

Professional human rights monitors, development agency specialists and other professionals have debriefed nomads all over Tibet. The picture that emerges is quite varied: in some areas official policy is enforced vigorously, in other areas nomads are yet to be excluded or pauperised. But the trend is clear: in the past decade hundreds of thousands of nomads have been sedentarised, with no direction or future.


China could achieve much by effective reforestation that employs Tibetans as forest guardians, by restoring wetlands and removing the fishing trawlers. China could repair the damage to the grasslands: this has seldom been directly attempted and even more seldom has it succeeded.

There is also a much bigger picture. China’s development policies for the Tibetan Plateau concentrate investment, and environmental impacts, in areas best endowed with factors of production. This creates zones of intensive land use, at mine sites, urban centres and the engineering corridors that connect intensive development centres with highways, railways, power pylons and pipelines. It also means the rest of the Tibetan Plateau remains a vast, under-capitalised, neglected hinterland now rapidly being depopulated as the nomads are removed to urban fringes. Basically it is a choice between intensive, concentrated, high-impact development, and the older, traditional extensive land use practiced by the nomads.
There are strong environmental reasons to believe the build up in human population by Chinese immigration into Tibet, and the intensive land use pattern, are unsustainable. In other words, the people who made the entire Tibetan plateau habitable –the pastoral nomads- are the only people who know how to use Tibet sustainably and extensively. Never before has the Tibetan Plateau supported 11 million people, but it does now, only because of heavy dependence on imports of fuels, food and almost anything manufactured.


Tibet is on the brink. China could decide the future of Tibet is as a nature reserve, a wildlife refuge populated by nomads who know how to protect biodiversity; or Tibet can learn the hard way what Europe learned some time ago: that not all populations have to undergo intensification and concentration in order to live well. Europe has its Natura 2000 program, (http://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/natura2000/index_en.htm ) the centrepiece of EU nature & biodiversity policy. It assures the long-term survival of Europe’s most valuable and threatened species and habitats. Natura 2000 is not a system of strict nature reserves where all human activities are excluded. It includes in nature reserves land likely to continue to be privately owned and the emphasis will be on ensuring that future management is sustainable, both ecologically and economically. If the Tibetan Plateau learned from this, there would be no need to displace the nomads, who could instead be employed locally to rehabilitate degrading rangelands and reforest hillsides which Chinese loggers indiscriminately cleared until a decade ago.

Europe understands that there are areas best designated post-industrial and post-agricultural, without need to remove the former farmers or villagers. Instead they are employed creating post-industrial, post-productivist futures, entrepreneurially setting up conservation and ecotourism businesses that include local culture and traditions as part of what attracts visitors. This would be very useful in Tibet.

China will not discover by itself how to become a partner with the pastoral nomads, because it does not listen to nomads, nor are nomads permitted to establish their own NGOs or water user groups or producer co-operatives. Chinese leaders believe they are on a civilising mission to raise the human quality of very backward people in Tibet. It will take a very long time for China to realise it has much to learn from traditional Tibetan land care practices and indigenous knowledge.
The program of removing nomads, reducing them to poverty and dependence on handouts is a path to wasted lives, alcoholism, meaninglessness and immiserisation. China blames the victims of climate change for the degradation of the grasslands and excludes them from participating in the rehabilitation of the pastures. China says it is setting aside the entire “Three River Source Area” of 200,000 sq kms –half the size of Germany- as a protected nature reserve, in which there is a program of treatment planned for the restoration of degraded and desertified areas. But if one looks more closely, the removal of the nomads is not the precondition for the beginning of treatment, it is by itself the sole treatment; there is almost no funding allocated to the remediation of degraded land, which is a labour intensive process best achieved by engaging the energies of the nomads, also providing them with income support and poverty alleviation.

In so many ways, development, poverty alleviation, environmental protection, biodiversity conservation, reforestation and watershed protection could be designed in ways that are mutually supportive. China treats them as mutually exclusive.
Europe is well endowed with development agencies with useful experience that China could learn from, which could strengthen instead of closing nomadic livelihoods. There are development NGOs, some quite small but skilful, established by Tibetans in global diaspora, which have learned from experience how to achieve not only better livelihoods for nomads but also the literacy and numeracy necessary to avoid discrimination and exploitation, and better health in a country where the poor must pay upfront for all health care. Europe has several academic institutions with practical experience in working with Tibetans, including regularly bringing bright young Tibetans to study in Europe and gain higher degrees. The connections exist, ready to be scaled up if there is a will to try fresh approaches that deal with core issues.
If the nomads of Tibet become partners in achieving environmental and developmental goals, they also cease being enemies of China’s progress, obstacles to attaining security and stability, threats to harmony and unity among ethnicities. Helping Tibetan nomadic pastoralists regain mobile livelihoods could also help China overcome its anxiety that nomads in remote border regions are a danger to national security.

China will not immediately welcome any such new approach. But what is the alternative? China will persist with its civilising mission, utterly convinced that the nomads of Tibet are of “low human quality”, to use a common Chinese phrase, and increasingly depopulate the Tibetan countryside, leaving it vulnerable to opportunistic gold miners, usually poor immigrants with neither the capital nor the technology to extract gold carefully. All over Tibet, an illegal gold rush is now occurring, even in areas officially designated as nature reserves and watershed protection zones. The reality is that officials are bribed to look the other way, the nomads are no longer there to protect their lands, or, even worse, the mining is sometimes done with local authorities as silent partners pocketing much of the proceeds. With gold at record prices, and the streambeds of Tibetan rivers carrying much gold, the mercury and cyanide used by illegal diggers have devastating effects.

On paper, small-scale gold mining in Tibet is banned. The extraordinary proliferation of illegal gold dredging from Tibetan rivers and streams suggests China’s true motive for fencing out the nomads is not watershed protection, climate change mitigation, carbon sequestration, nomad education, comfortable homes or any of the rationales China presents to the world. China has long feared nomads, found their mobility a threat to disciplinary governance, and worried that nomads are uncontrolled. Six decades of controlling the world’s third pole has convinced China that it is time to consolidate China’s control of border regions nominally designated as areas of ethnic minority governance.
If nomadic mobility and nomadic livelihoods are gone, others will inevitably move into the empty land. It seems those who are moving in have no concern for environmental consequences, and Chinese authorities at a local level turn a blind eye, despite all the high level rhetoric about watershed protection.

China, usually so keen to be up to date with the latest fashions in anything, lags far behind the New Range Ecology, which emphasises the skilfulness, adaptability, resilience, flexibility, productivity and sustainability of pastoral nomadism. China will need external assistance to learn from the lessons of successful nomadic development projects in other countries.
This is an opportunity for foreign ministries in Europe, official development assistance agencies, and the NGOs with experience in nomad projects, to assist China’s transition to a positive alternative. Instead of treating the nomads as enemies of the land, and of the state, the alternative is working cooperatively with nomads, restoring their mobile, extensive, sustainable way of life. That would win Tibetan hearts, guarantee harmony and stability, and enable central authorities to work in partnership with the nomads to achieve environmental goals.