China is at odds with the world trend. Currently, under UN auspices, all major sectors and social forces, from big business to small NGOs, from indigenous communities to states, are engaged in defining Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that will replace the Millennium Development Goals that expire in 2015. One major issue in this debate, and emergent consensus, is the future of the world’s farmlands and pastures. In March 2014 the Farmers Major Group in this UN process announced its priorities for the next global SDG commitments, to be adopted by all states. Their top goal is poverty eradication, to be achieved by farmers and pastoralists not only continuing to use their land but also to gain “universal access to resources (land, water, seeds, credit, infrastructure).”

The second priority for the world’s agriculture is food security, nutrition and sustainable agriculture systems.  This UN position paper calls for: “the promotion of agricultural extensification instead of intensification,” and for “adoption of food sovereignty as policy framework –farmers and their countries must be free to make agricultural policy decisions that best benefit them.”[1]

China is moving in the opposite direction, towards intensification that concentrates food production in enclaves on urban edges, while depopulating huge areas that have been managed both sustainably and productively for millennia. China is reducing Tibetan food security, generating reliance on distant sources for even basic foodstuffs, despite a long history of Tibetan self-reliance. At a time when food insecurity is a worldwide concern, exacerbated by China’s large-scale purchases of agricultural land in Africa, for monoculture crops to export to China for animal feed, China is deliberately undermining food security in Tibet. The loss of food security in Tibet is currently an issue that has attracted little attention, yet the pastoral regions of the Tibetan Plateau are actually one percent of the inhabited land area of the planet, and a loss of one per cent at a time of food insecurity and consequent poverty is a very backward step.

Extensification is a key concept. Throughout the 1990s, the European Community pushed for extensification, which deliberately seeks to make use of all land suited to food production and environmental protection, together, rather than have former agricultural land shrink as intensification of production also intensifies pollution, and leaves much land uncared for. Tibet’s traditional land use is extensive, with pastoralism actively pursued in almost all vegetated areas. China has assumed that extensive land use is a vestige of a less productive age, and that intensification, located in places of the greatest factor endowment, is the direction to go. This makes most of the Tibetan Plateau redundant.

Claude Beranger, research  director of France’s National Institute of Agronomic Research sums up the resurgence in extensification, pointing out that extensification results in lower output per unit of area, while productively occupying agricukltural land that otherwise would be abandoned. By accepting less output per hectare, without lessening total production, fewer expensive and environmentally damaging inputs are required, reducing environmental impacts. Extensified agriculture has been designed, in Europe, to include specific biodiversity conservation actions by the farmers, who qualify for assistance under Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy by acting to benefit the environment while maintaining extensive food production. This restores ecosystems and landscapes, through the active engagement of farmers, on land they know best, taking initiatives to preserve and protect water quality.

Beranger says: “Extensive farming or production systems can be more beneficial for the ecological environment than  intensive systems. They require fewer chemical inputs and thereby minimise the risks of land and water pollution. They also utilise more surface area for most types of production and thus avoid fallowing or abandoning of land, and land degradation by soil erosion.”[2]



China practices precisely the opposite, and argues that it thus follows objective “laws” of development at apply worldwide. An official White Paper issued in 2013 on “Development and Progress of Tibet” argues that: “The development and progress in Tibet is in accord with the rules for the development of human society, and reflects the mutual aspirations of the people of all ethnic groups in Tibet. It is the natural result of the overall development and progress of China as a whole. The development and progress of Tibet mirrors the victory of human society’ s enterprising spirit and creativity in the quest for justice and happiness, and has proved the inevitability of history. The development and progress in modern Tibet results from the innate logic of its social and historical environment, and has its roots in China’ s progress in a larger context. Its development is in line with the advance of world’ s modern civilization.”[3]

What is it that can be called a historic inevitability, obeying  the rules for development and the innate logic of social and historical environment? There is nothing inevitable about taking much of the most productive pasture of the Tibetan Plateau out of production, because a command and control economy decrees that water production supplants animal production, on the mistaken assumption that, to use a common Chinese phrase,” there is a contradiction between grass and animals.”[4]

There is nothing inevitable about an economy that is dominated by massive central subsidies designated for “leap-style development” of a province unable to raise even 10 per cent of its fiscal expenditure through its own revenues. The fast growth rate of the Tibet Autonomous Region has been driven by massive capital expenditure on industrial, extractive and urban infrastructure, while investing little in the pre-existing indigenous economy of farming grain and raising livestock. This centrally mandated force-fed fast growth is aptly defined by one of the few economists of contemporary Tibet, Andrew Fischer, as “Disempowered Development.”[5]

What China appears to mean by “the rules for the development of human society” is the  argument of economists that favour concentrating investment capital in those places best endowed with the key factors of production, notably land connected well with markets, requiring labour –a major factor of production- to move to where the capital is concentrating. That convention of economic efficiency is what Deng Xiaoping embraced when he called for some (the best endowed) to get rich first. That neoliberal orthodoxy, in sharp contrast to the Maoist redistributive command economy, is far from what has happened in Tibet. Tibet never quite abandoned the command economy, under direct control from Beijing. If anything, the decades of Deng’s “opening up” were in TAR the decades of an expensive nationbuilding infrastructure investment program that emplaced highways, railways, fuel pipelines, high voltage long distance electricity cabling, hydro power dams, extraction zones and urban construction; all financed by central leaders. This is not a “natural result”, nor “the inevitability of history.”

Fischer writes: “Subsidies have increased both in real per person values and as proportions of government expenditure and GDP. The TAR has nonetheless maintained its relatively privileged priority, to the extreme and somewhat perplexing extent that direct budgetary subsidies from the central government exceeded 100 percent of the GDP of the TAR for the first time in 2010. This was higher than even the heights of intensive subsidization during the Maoist period. The resurgent subsidies resuscitated growth in western China and especially in the TAR and Qinghai, where growth accelerated to very rapid, above national-average rates in the late 1990s. The speed of economic growth in the TAR and Qinghai over this period was phenomenal, even by Chinese standards. For instance, the nominal gross domestic product (GDP) of both provinces grew at a rate about one-third faster than the national economy from 1997 to 2010, even though the national experience has been perhaps the fastest (and definitely the largest) experience of sustained rapid economic growth the world has ever seen. Indeed, from 1997 to 2007 (the year before the outbreak of large-scale protests), the GDP of the TAR quadrupled, versus a tripling of the GDP of China as a whole. The pace of change has been astonishing, as has been the extent of subsidization driving this change.”[6]

“In essence, the argument of this book is that the intensified economic integration of Tibet into regional and national development strategies on these assimilationist terms has, in turn, intensified various dynamics of subordination and marginalization faced by Tibetans of all social strata and despite the evident material improvements in their living standards. These dynamics are partly—although not entirely—reflected by rapidly rising inequalities within Tibetan areas that have accompanied different phases of rapid growth, some aspects of which had reached levels much higher than anywhere else in China in the 2000s. Most activities outside traditional farming and herding (and the booming trade in caterpillar fungus) in the TAR and, to a lesser extent, in other Tibetan areas have been by and large the construct of subsidization policies. Even changes in the Tibetan rural areas have become increasingly dependent on subsidization, such as the subsidies driving investment into chicken production in rural parts of the TAR near heavily subsidized towns and cities. Hence, privilege and polarization are driven much more by the hierarchy of position within the flow of these subsidies. State-sector employees in the TAR benefited from among the highest salaries in China since the beginning of the Open the West Campaign, neck and neck with those of Beijing and Shanghai for several years, which has had nothing to do with productivity or overall prosperity considerations in the TAR.”[7]

“The TAR economy has been changing rapidly, but the local Tibetan population has been rendered very marginal as agents causing the change at the aggregate level, even if they reap some benefits. Their contribution to the indigenous village-based economy is huge, no doubt, but this economy has shrunk rapidly as a source of value relative to the rest of the economy, and much of the surging activity within the rural economy is subsidized by the government in any case. In this sense, the agency and “ownership” of development  is located largely outside of Tibetan hands and this situation has been accentuated as the economy becomes progressively less agrarian and rural. The resulting economic structure in Tibet—including the broader political economy structure of entitlements, incentives, compulsions, and distributive conflicts—is effectively very similar to that of a colonial-type economy. Indeed, the degree of aid dependence in the TAR is far greater than even the most aid-dependent countries of Africa, and the degree of disempowerment is more or less on par with that of an occupied region.”[8]

“The more pressing question is whether the integration of Tibetans into the emerging structural and institutional patterns of development in Tibet has accentuated their disempowerment in the governance of their home-land and in the “ownership” of their development, whether or not this necessarily results in some form of deprivation. In sum, within a context of continued political disempowerment of Tibetan locals, centrally directed development strategies since the mid-1990s have channeled massive amounts of subsidies and subsidized investments (relative to the local economy) through Han Chinese–dominated state structures, corporations, and other entities based outside the Tibetan areas, thereby accentuating the already highly externalized orientation of wealth flows in the local economy. This has resulted in a socio-economic structure that increasingly and disproportionately rewards a small upper stratum servicing and/or operationalizing the development strategies, which have remained excessively hinged on decision making in Beijing) to a far greater extent than any other region in China. The upper stratum includes a small minority of Tibetans and a large proportion of non-Tibetan migrants, concentrated mostly in urban areas and well positioned to access the flows of wealth as they pass through the region with increasing velocity. Whether or not the ongoing outcomes are intended to be discriminatory, these structural and institutional dynamics effectively accentuate the discriminatory, assimilationist, and disempowering characteristics of development.”[9]

Nonetheless, China’s official view is that benevolent statist interventions have worked wonders. The 2013 White Paper on Development and Progress in Tibet states: “Over the past 60-odd years, Tibet has finished a course of historical journey that would normally take several centuries or even a millennium for the human society to complete. It has written a spectacular chapter in the history of mankind. At present, Tibet presents a picture mixing traditional and modern elements, featuring economic and political progress, cultural prosperity, social harmony, sound ecosystem and a happy and healthy life for the local people. We may gain valuable enlightenment from Tibet’ s extraordinary journey. Tibet’s development can’t be separated from the choosing of a right path. Over the past 60-odd years, by adhering to the path of socialism in the arms of the Chinese nation, the people of all ethnic groups in Tibet have become masters of their own country, society and fate, and Tibet has made the dramatic change from a place of poverty and backwardness to one of prosperity and civilization.”

These issues are seldom discussed.

A tragedy fast unfolding across Tibet. The wider world, lulled by China’s discourse of environmental good citizenship, fails to discern the crippling impacts on Tibetan communities which have a 9000-year history of sustainably managing a pastoral grazing economy.

China is doubly advantaged by the situation in Tibet; and the Tibetans doubly disadvantaged. At a national and international level China represents itself a  an exemplary global citizen, protecting fragile ecosystems with firm red lines that prohibit human activity so as to capture carbon, rehabilitate degraded lands and  protect watersheds. At a subnational level Chinese mining companies despoil Tibet with growing intensity and environmental damage, unseen, unknown to the wider world, especially in depopulated areas where there are no longer Tibetan communities to protest these illegal encroachments. China also claims the resettlement of Tibetan pastoralists will increase their (cash) incomes, succeeding in alleviating poverty, and thus fulfilling the economic and social rights of Tibetans.

The Tibetans are doubly disadvantaged. The world understands them as “ecological migrants” who have chosen to leave behind poverty and remoteness, entering history and the modern urban job market. The reality is dependence, anomie and even despair leading to public protest suicide; while the world applauds China’s commitment to PES, REDD, carbon capture etc. In reality Tibet loses self-sufficiency in producing even the most staple of foods, deepening dependence on China  and exacerbating food insecurity. Grazing bans Tibetans were told would be for a few years now turn out to be permanent, depopulating huge areas, often the best pasturelands of the plateau, creating space for miners to move in, resulting in further degradation.

[2] C Beranger, Sustainable Agriculture: Extensive systems and extensification,

[3] Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China; Development and Progress of Tibet, October 2013,

[4] Du Xiaojuan and Cheng Ji-min;Analysis of Formation Causes of Grassland Degradation in Damxung County of Tibet and Its Exploitation and Utilization; Journal of Anhui Agricultural Sciences , 2007

BAO Fenglan A STUDY OF THE COUNTERMEASURES OF OPTIMIZING ANIMAL HUSBANDRY STRUCTURE OF INNER MONGOLIA; Journal of Inner Mongolia Normal University (Philosophy & Social Science) 2005-06

[5] Andrew Fischer, The Disempowered Development of Tibet in China: a study in the economics of marginalization, Rowman & Littlefield, 2013

[6] Fischer, 5

[7] Fischer, 11, 12

[8] Fischer, 24

[9] Fischer, 28-9

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