Mining and land rights of communities directly affected by mining are fraught topics worldwide, at a time when resource extraction companies are pushing ever deeper into remote areas in their insatiable quest for minerals and energy.

In Tibet, a  proliferation of mining, from medium to world scale, encroaches and disrupts community life in many areas all over the Tibetan Plateau, since Tibet is rich in minerals. There have been many protests against mining despoiling localities which until recently had been able to live traditionally,  which also means caring for sacred mountains and lakes, and the pilgrimage circuits which regularly bring people from afar to do the practices of mental purification as an active meditation done on foot.

In addition to the direct impacts of mining on local Tibetan communities, mining also generates much climate warming emissions, to be legitimised and offset by closing pastures and banning of grazing.  Most of the area of China designated as “restricted development zone” is in Tibet, including the richest grazing lands of the plateau. If such lands are now, under PES and REDD+ designated solely as watershed protection and carbon sequestration zones, then Tibetans will be denied the right to development, as will their children and grandchildren, as carbon sequestration contracts become a new kind of legal property that will increasingly override traditional property rights. In the name of Payment for Environmental Services, Tibetans will be paid by China, which in turn is paid by global treaty arrangements, to sit and do nothing, excluded from their land, with no prospects other than migrating to distant factory cities, while their land sits idle, growing grass which is counted as successful carbon capture. This depopulated land will be designated  a long term guarantee of pure water supply services to distant downstream users, at the opportunity cost to Tibetans of foregoing any development for the coming century, or even remaining in traditional mode of production on ancestral land.

The actuality of intensive mining of the rich Tibetan endowment of mineral wealth is concealed from the wider world, and the rest of China, not only by travel restrictions, censorship and the absence of much mining from official statistics; but also through an elaborate rhetoric which incorporates the active mines into “zones of restricted development”, around which “red lines” have been firmly drawn at the highest level, in order to protect “ecological environment” by banning almost all human activity, including the customary land use of the Tibetan pastoralists. This contemporary green governance discourse not only masks the exclusion of nomads from their pastures, it proclaims them to be voluntary “ecological migrants” who choose, for the greater good, to leave their lands so they will recover without human activity, from overgrazing, degradation and even desertification.  In the name of China’s global environmental citizenship, these depopulated lands, on paper off-limits to grazing and most definitely to intensive resource extraction enclaves, certify China as a responsible contributor to the global necessity of adapting to climate change by sequestering more carbon, protecting “fragile” watersheds, and rehabilitating degraded lands. China thus qualifies for not only global approbation from environmentalists but also concessions, in climate treaty negotiations, allowing China’s industrialisation and massive coal consumption to persist. As market-based global trading mechanisms that ostensibly reduce emissions caused by deforestation and land degradation (REDD), China may attract investment for these “restricted development zones”, which will relieve China of the burden of paying subsistence rations to displaced nomads to sit and do nothing, on the urban fringes of their former pastures. Similarly, as the concept of Payment for Environmental Services becomes increasingly operational, China can rebadge its practice of reducing pastoralists to utter dependence on state rations, as PES, yet again showing the world that China participates in the latest fashions in governance, is a good global citizen, even a model for the rest of the developing world to emulate.

Meanwhile, on the ground, the displaced pastoralists, not long ago proudly independent and active agents of productive and sustainable land management, are reduced to dependence, passivity and irrelevance. They sum up their circumstances, the anthropologists say, by saying they have become penned animals themselves. Yet, on the pastures from which they are increasingly excluded, the miners move in, often at the initiative of the local governments that also bear responsibility for environmental regulation and implementation of the nationally mandated program of tuimu huancao, closing pastures to grow more grass.

To the world, which has no access to the grasslands, this is presented as part of China’s drive to repair past mistaken conversion of sloping land to agriculture, excessive deforestation, land degradation and river catchment erosion. The world applauds, unaware of ground truth. It appears on paper that China is making great strides. Of the declared “red line restricted development zones” in China, more than half the area is on the Tibetan Plateau.

The great danger is that the exclusion of Tibetan farmers from valleys now allocated to hydro dam construction, and nomads from pasturelands, is not a temporary strategy to achieve remediation, it is a permanent exclusion, which will be enforceable not only by state decree but by the legal contractual obligations inherent in REDD, PES and in what China blandly calls “grain-to-green” programs, all of which necessitate the restriction or full exclusion of traditional farming and grazing, not only for the present generation, but for generations to come. For example, the emerging regulatory regime covering carbon sequestration imposes on traditional land managers the contractual obligation to grow more biomass by restricting customary agriculture or pasturing for at least one century, and this is written into the formal contracts that then have market value, and are purchased by factories in far distant countries to offset their ongoing pollution. Once signed, these contracts effectively prohibit traditional land use for the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren yet to be born, as well as the current generation. This effectively ends any prospect that the great grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau have a future, or opportunity to develop, based on growing the traditional livestock raising productivity. The right to development is thus denied. None of this has been explained to the nomads, who often choose to take up official inducements to move to new concrete housing on urban fringes, in the expectation that the move is temporary, reversible and negotiable, allowing a return of some or all family members to their customary lands to continue herding. Needless to say, none of the long term implications of this profound long term repurposing of land use has been explained to the nomads now leaving their land, nor has prior informed consent been obtained.

It would be far too simplistic to suggest that China has a grand strategy to displace the nomads of the Tibetan Plateau and Inner Mongolia (and elsewhere), based on an elaborate fiction of global green governance. Far from a calculated plan, the gradual emergence of the current situation must be traced. The history of successive policies for China’s great grasslands needs careful tracking, to see how the “tragedy of the commons” discourse came to dominate.

The nomads of Tibet, when given rare opportunity to voice their perception of issues such as degradation of the rangelands, have a very different view to the official scientists and official policy makers. To the nomads, maintaining a sustainable grazing economy that is both productive and cares for the land and biodiversity, is not difficult, as long as restrictions on mobility are lifted. They see no contradiction between grass and animals, as if the situation by definition is zero/sum.

State science, and the policies that stem from alarming scientific reports that as much as 90 per cent of the rangelands are degraded, are based on the foundational proposition that “there is a contradiction between grass and animals.” That formulation, phrased as a dialectic that demands a decisive solution, is found repeatedly in the basic assumptions of Chinese science on the grasslands. This denies that a grazing economy is possible, in which the long term survival of a healthy sward, and animal production. This crude formulation insists that the more animals you have, the less is the grass; and conversely, the fewer the number of grazing domestic animals, the more is the grass biomass. If this were true, then the grazing societies that have existed all over the world for thousands of years are all impossible. The corollary of this crude dialectic is that the benchmark for defining what constitutes degradation is anything less than the weight of biomass of grassland on which no grazing occurs at all. Thus any grazing, no matter how skilfully managed, is degradation. The goal of policy is now to restore pristine grassland wilderness, which, like rainforest, is in equilibrium only if humans are excluded.

Rangeland scientists around the world have been engaged with Chinese scientists, as have international anthropologists and other social scientists.  This has generated widely divergent views, so divergent it seems they are looking at different landscapes. As anthropologist and geographer Emily Yeh perceptively notes: “severe and pervasive degradation on China’s rangelands has become a kind of ‘received wisdom’, a narrative that blames local people for environmental degradation in the absence of adequate evidence, which is often used to justify certain interventions, and which is repeated so many times that it becomes common sense within certain scientific and policy communities. Discussing the ‘theory of Himalayan environmental degradation’, Blaikie and Muldavin trace the reproduction of perceived wisdom in China to disjunctures between epistemic communities of social and natural scientists, as well as between those working within the Chinese national context and other national contexts, who ‘write and read for different journals, speak different languages’, have different conceptualizations of sound research and effectively see different landscapes. Also examining the disjunctures between different epistemic communities, Williams argues that international, national and local scales of natural scientific practice work together to privilege non-local representations of nature, and that grassland science in Inner Mongolia ultimately functions to reproduce unequal social relations. Remarking on a different epistemic divide, Xu Jun (2010) makes an oblique reference to the highly politicized nature of resettlement policies implemented to remedy degradation. She notes, ‘western scholars are arguing about the various reasons or goals of China’s central government’s [policies, while] most Chinese scholars are paying more attention to the harsh living conditions of eco-immigrants’, a statement that points to the fraught politics of framing questions about rangeland management in China.”[1]

In these ways, industrial modernity is thrusting into remote communities, without any payment of royalties to those communities, investment in local education or health facilities, or training or local employment, or subcontracting of local supply to local communities. This is a familiar story worldwide, in indigenous communities unable to defend themselves effectively, even when they risk, and lose, their lives.



The accelerating depopulation of rural Tibet has been reported before, notably by Human Rights Watch, as long ago as 2007. Despite several subsequent reports, conferences and articles, there is no consensus as to whether this population movement is, as some say, entirely voluntary, or, as several assert, entirely coercive. The debate has focused narrowly on whether the nomads who move to urban fringes have provided their FPIC, free prior informed consent, which raises much debate as to whether the incentives, inducements and imposed quotas for leaving customary pastures are temporary or permanent, whether the  displaced nomads know in advance that they will seldom be legally permitted to return to livestock raising on customary lands, or whether their land tenure documents will be cancelled. Inevitably, national policy is implemented differently in the counties where the new policy of “closing pasture to grow grass” is actively implemented, so it is hard to achieve a comprehensive overview.

However, the narrow focus on FPIC neglects systemic issues common throughout China wherever rural land can become reclassified as a locus of development and modernity, whether as urban or industrial land, an enclave of resource extraction, or an area earning income for whoever controls it, by entering the global carbon trading market. Sargeson argues that the violence accompanying the frequent conversion of rural land to modern uses is systemic: “Violence authorizes development, because the rural spaces surrounding cities and towns are characterized as institutionally insecure, disorderly, economically under-productive and incompatible with modernity. It comprises development, because it involves the forced urban improvement of the nation, rural property, governance, people and livelihoods. Violence as development involves many different actors, purposefully engaged in a wide array of brutal, administrative, pedagogic and practical urbanizing tasks.”[2]

This provides a wider perspective. The question is no longer FPIC, but a state discourse that valorises social engineering, the displacement of rural populations declared surplus to the requirements of modernity, whose “wasted lives” to use Zygmunt Bauman’s term, are incidental collateral damage in the onrush of modernity, best displaced into ongoing mobility that results in their arrival at the gates of the factories and mines that displaced them, as the latest wave of low-paid workers, of low human quality, ready to staff the assembly lines of the world’s factory.

It is no accident that the legal status of rural Tibetan land, and the land tenure rights of the pastoralists, are institutionally insecure, granted and withdrawn by the state, at its discretion, because the conventional view among planners has long been that the pastoralists are “disorderly, economically under-productive and incompatible with modernity.”



This means the Tibetan pastoralists have common cause with villagers throughout China, whose land is forcibly appropriated, for urban and industrial use. It means violence should be understood as including more than physical intimidation; it is a systemic discourse of superior power, and the right of officials to declare local populations a hindrance to development, necessitating their removal. It is not just greedy property developers and corrupt cadres who overstep the legal ways of reclassifying rural land as urban; it is a system of disempowerment of farmers and herders, who are disadvantaged by being seen as recalcitrant, unruly, archaic obstacles to the imperative of modernity.

While the Tibetan pastoralists have much in common with China’s displaced farmers, there are major differences. Villagers can and do protest, often unsuccessfully, but sometimes they win, because they have been able to mobilise large number of people willing to face the might of the state’s repressive machine. Sometimes these protests are reported, generating sympathy within and beyond China, which may influence outcomes. Tibetan pastoralists, spread extensively across large areas, are seldom able to mobilise significant numbers. The areas from which pastoralists are excluded are now huge, and hard to defend. Current policy works incrementally, removing a few pastoralists at a time, rather than the total removal of a village in the path of development. The reasons for removing nomads are more various than for the enclosure of a farming village. While urban growth is a factor, a huge swathe of the Tibetan Plateau is now officially designated as “restricted development zone”, surrounded by “red lines” signifying permanent banning of legally permitted economic activity such as pastoralism, so that the land can be dedicated to green governance goals such as carbon capture, watershed protection and rehabilitation of land degradation.

Official statements support the necessity of coercion: “People seem to ignore the basic fact that everyone is actually a beneficiary of such policies. Without forced demolition, there is no urbanization in China; and without urbanization, there is no brand-new Chinese society. As a result, we can say that without demolition, there would be no new China.[3]  This was written by an official of a county in eastern China where three villagers had burned themselves to death in protest, generating publicity over the “Yihuang incident” of September 2010. The party paper, Global Times, then published, under the pseudonym  of Hui Chang, the argument of those county officials that nothing must get in the way of the onrush of urban modernity, as the Chinese state cannot just play the role of “nightwatchman” as the neoliberal governments of late capitalism can do, benignly watching over the workings of the market. “Hui Chang” argues that despite the Yihuang protests, self-immolations, and petitions to higher authorities, progress must go on, Yihuang GDP had doubled in five years and must continue to grow fast.  He writes: “Urban construction calls for lots of demolition, and local governments cannot afford to meet soaring compensation standards. Meanwhile, many farmers, stimulated by soaring land and house prices, dream of becoming millionaires overnight through land acquisition. Relocated households bypass the immediate leadership and appeal to higher authorities. In order to implement local development strategies, local governments find forced demolition the only choice. Yihuang’s incident will become part of the past in time. As long as local areas need development, forced demolition should be promoted.”[4]

The quest for a brand-new China now embraces not only rapid urbanization as the destiny of the rural populace, but also the construction of “ecological environment civilisation,” especially in Tibet, providing the world with proof of China’s green credentials. These emergent purposes, for which large tracts of land are officially designated, involve the creation of new kinds of value, that, by comparison, devalue traditional uses as unproductive. In the case of farmland that becomes urban land, the sharp rise in land value is often directly financed by state investment in economic stimulus and capital expenditure projects intended to accelerate urbanisation. The result is a steep jump in the value of the land in contention, a jump that justifies its expropriation as logical and necessary. The process is furthered by the reliance at local government level on revenues gained by reclassifying, expropriating and then selling newly urban land. That revenue stream not only enables the well connected to accumulate wealth, but provides much of the revenue local governments need in order to meet their obligations to provide education, health and other human services, as responsibility for such costly services has long been downshifted by central onto local government.

In Tibet, the area enclosed is far greater, the pace is slower, the opportunities for mobilising populations to resist are fewer, and media coverage is minimal. Rather than the sudden, overtly violent removal of village and villagers, a more typical sequence on the grasslands is the arrival of a team of officials who announce a quota of people, a fixed percentage of the population of what is legally a township but in practice is a scatter of nomadic households who may cluster over winter. The team announces that for the 15 per cent who are to leave, the state will provide housing, electricity, rations, perhaps even a school or a health aid post.  If the reasons for this policy are explained at all, it is presented as a temporary closure of pastures to allow the overgrazed areas to grow back. According to anthropologists who have done fieldwork in these areas, the families that opt to leave include the poor, who have too few animals to make a living, usually because of natural disaster, such as an unseasonal blizzard. Other families opting to migrate to the urban fringe have several in the family who are old and in need of access to medical care, or young children who may benefit from schooling. One the family has relocated, the able bodied adults often return to their pastures to continue livestock-raising, if official policy is not strictly enforced. Sometimes comparatively wealthy families make the move, while hiring poorer people to graze their large herds in various places. In these ways Tibetan pastoralists negotiate with the state, making provisional choices that are always open to renegotiation, much as they negotiate, and renegotiate, herd size, grazing strategies, risk management, shearing time etc.

So far, local government officials are usually willing to ignore these re negotiations. They are able to report to their superiors that they have met the quota, and that is all that is required for them to be eligible for promotion. If a head count is conducted, in the new settlement, where the residents are under the gaze of the police station that is always built, and numbers are down, there is always the explanation that some people are away, trading, or as urban construction labourers, rather than back on the range. In such ways, no-one loses face, and the state is declared to have achieved its objective of reducing grazing pressure.



Can this scenario be called violence? Compared to the screaming mothers we see, as heavy equipment trashes their village homes, clearly not. Yet the present moment on the rangeland has a wider context. If we look at the consistent trend of official policy and its implementation over several decades, it is clear what is the overall direction.

Since the state largely withdrew from the rangelands around 1980, with the collapse of the livestock production brigades and communes, the state has gradually returned, each time encroaching further on pastoralists choices; further limiting mobility; further allocating fixed, fenced, demarcated lands; further restricting herd size and family size;  further demanding that children be removed to distant boarding schools to be inculcated with the nationbullding ideology of the state. While there have been many policy announcements since the 1980s, they have had a consistent outcome, of making the pastoralists poorer, with fewer animals, less mobility, less land, more costs of production such as compulsory fencing, compulsory winter house construction, compulsory construction of winter herd shelters, compulsory fencing, ploughing, sowing and harvesting of fodder crops.

Some of these policies, in isolation, were well-meant, as ways of improving productivity, increasing the overwintering herd survival rate. But the cumulative effect was to shrink that land available for grazing, shrink herd size to or below subsistence survival level, and the result was overgrazing due to restrictions on nomadic mobility. These unintended outcomes of poorly planned policies in turn led to further restrictions, which invariably blamed overgrazing on nomad ignorance and indifference to grasslands that have always been the foundation of their entire way of life. This succession of state failures impoverished and immiserised the herders, while consistently blaming them for the negative outcomes, especially land degradation.



At the same time, in Qinghai province, senior cadres sought ways of attracting Beijing’s attention, and central financing. Qinghai, as a province, was created to separate the Tibetans and the Mongols, so its foundational mythos is that it is not really part of Tibet, even though it is topographically the northern half of the Tibetan Plateau and until quite recently populated mostly by Tibetans. In the 1950s and 1960s Qinghai served clear national purposes, for which it did receive central finance, for its role as a chain of prison camps for the regime’s enemies, and as part of the Third Front of military industrialisation, in preparation for the world war Mao expected. But by the late 1970s both of these sources of central finance dried up, and Qinghai was left behind, as coastal China surged ahead under Deng Xiaoping’s “opening up.”

The only ongoing opportunity for tapping into central fiscal largesse was dam building, capturing the waters of the Yellow River for hydro power to supply the fast industrialising cities of Xining, Qinghai’s capital, and, further downriver, Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province. The Ministry of Water Resources grew in power in Qinghai, coming up with a winning slogan: “Qinghai is China’s number one water tower.” This became the key to winning more central money.

This slogan, repeated at every opportunity, gradually expanded to become “Tibet is China’s number one water tower” and even “Tibet is Asia’s water tower.” In the minds of central leaders the nomads of Qinghai, and the entire Tibetan Plateau, seemed to produce very little that was sent to market, while water downstream became increasingly scarce. As access to upstream water became more important, the unruly, unproductive, over-grazing herders became more marginal. By the late 1990s, at the highest level, it seemed a decisive choice was required, an either/or, zero/sum decision that firmly set the course for the long term future, to be implemented gradually, if only to avoid any repetition of the war of the late 1950s, in Qinghai’s pastoral areas, once the nomads discovered they were to be communised, losing all control and ownership of lands, herds and even personal property. It is only very recently that violence of “peaceful liberation” has been adequately documented.[5]



This is the wider context in which the present moment sits.  The trend is towards further enclosure and exclusion, towards declaring the pastoralist mode of production irrelevant to China’s brand-new urban future; while guaranteed access to upriver water sources in Tibet is increasingly crucial. The currently intermittent enforcement of the tuimu huancao policy of closing pastures to grow more grass may well intensify. Although China publicly denies there was a war on the grasslands, and that “liberation” was “peaceful”, in the memoirs published by retired military officers, and in the official county records and gazetteers, the memory persists  of the extreme violence needed to quell nomads facing catastrophic loss of agency. Everything points to a brand-new Tibetan countryside, in which pastoral livestock production, at best, continues only to raise animals until they are adult, whereupon they will be taken to peri-urban feedlots for fattening and slaughter. Livestock production on the range will be banned altogether in the  red line restricted development zones, in the name of China’s contribution to climate change adaptation and land rehabilitation, winning for China sufficient credit for taking climate action, thus allowing the world’s factory to continue to raise emissions.

It is in this wider picture that we can consider the present moment as violence, seldom overt, but pastoralists required to relocate to urban settlements understand quite clearly they cannot refuse.[6] Violence is structural, in this situation, in the power of the state to not only dispose of land rights, cancel land tenure certificates, and remove people, but also in the prejudicial depiction of those classified only as “herders” as an itinerant rural labour force of low human quality, little awareness or care for the consequences of their actions, occupying enormous territories for little purpose. It is the state that authors the master narrative, or dominant discourse, that marginalises the pastoralists; and assigns the construction of a new China to the party-state. This is systemic violence, steadily marginalising and impoverishing people, to the point where they have no option but to leave their degraded land.

The state is in no hurry to fully depopulate the “restricted development zones” of the Sanjiangyuan Three River Source Protected Area. There is little effective opposition, and the creation of a semi-urban underclass of welfare dependants is a burden on national and county finances. There are pull factors as well as push, that encourage pastoralists to seek urban amenities.  New highways make urban life tantalisingly close. Tibetan writer Tsering Wangmo Dhompa captures this: “Five decades ago it had taken Tashi close to twenty days to reach Xining on horseback from Kyegu. When jeeps began to cover the same distance in twelve hours, she thought it was by some divine machination. ‘Now I can take a plane from Xining and be in Kyegu in the time it takes me to make bread,’ she says in wonder.…… Each winter Tibetans flock to the city leaving only a caretaker to mind their homes in snowbound towns and villages….  On cold winter days the elders spend their days in the shopping centres. The new buildings are so toasty, she sighs.

“This is the city Tibetans flock to when their small towns cannot help them: the sick come for surgeries, businessmen replenish their goods, families purchase furniture for new homes, and newlyweds spend a month’s salary to capture their union in glossy photo albums in Xining.”

“Young men wear suits and though they are ill fitting and almost certain to be in shades of blue, the suit makes them walk with a song in their gait. A suit is a statement of style, and of money. A suit proclaims that a man has tasted a little other than that of the mountains, the rivers, outside their herds. A suit is part of the world they will inevitably meet.”[7]

This is the inexorable logic of urbanization, the concentration of services in centralised spaces, to which everyone is centripetally drawn. This concentration is always justified by the market logic of efficiency in locating facilities in the best endowed places, the corollary being that remote, scattered, extensive land users can never expect modern services, as the cost of extending them to remote areas can never be justified. For anything beyond the increasingly irrelevant practice of livestock rearing, the rural hinterland is by definition inefficient, lacking in scale and concentration, forever doomed to fall further behind the new cities of new China.

[1] Emily T. Yeh (2013) The politics of conservation in contemporary rural China, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 40:6, 1165-1188, 1176

[2] Sally Sargeson (2013) Violence as development: land expropriation and China’s urbanization, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 40:6, 1063-1085

[3] Hui, C. 2010. Forced demolition an inevitable pain in China’s urbanization. Global Times, 18 October. Available from

[5] Li Jianglin, When the Iron Bird flies in the Sky, Linking Publications, Taipei, 2012

Li Jianglin 2009 Do We Understand Tibet More than the Westerners? (Women bi xifang dui xizang geng liaojie ma?). Online access at

[6] “No One Has the Liberty to Refuse”: Tibetan Herders Forcibly Relocated in Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and the Tibet Autonomous Region, Human Rights Watch, June 2007, 80p

[7] Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, A Home in Tibet, Penguin India, 2013, 161

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