China says it is doing the Earth a service by banning grazing, and the Tibetan nomads who graze their herds on the grasslands of eastern Tibet, the most fertile pasturelands of the Tibetan Plateau.

The ending of nomadic livelihoods is justified, China says, as the best, and only, way of rehabilitating rangelands that are degrading. The science of ecology is used to justify widespread removal and nullification of land rights, and the closing down of a way of life that sustained the whole Tibetan civilisation for thousands of years.

This use of ecology as justification for social engineering and exclusion, largely goes unchallenged. Environmentalists generally applaud China for increasing the size of its protected areas, nature reserves, rehabilitation zones, carbon sequestration areas; without looking a bit more closely at what actually happens on the ground, in the name of these lofty goals.






Presentation by Gabriel Lafitte,         #gltibet    +613 59623434


Ecology is a relatively new science, an attempt at encompassing and uniting the many narrowly specialised sciences that proceed by isolating atomistic fragments of complex realities, to identify their nature, causes and effects. The driving idea behind the new science of ecology was that we must be able to integrate all the atomistic knowledge into a whole, a big picture, if we are to act skilfully in the world, to maintain biodiversity, respect nature and yet maintain productivity for human use.

Ecology is focussed on ecosystems. By definition, an ecosystem is an enduring assemblage of plants, animals, soils, climate and many other factors, that over time is in equilibrium. The fact that a definable associated population of plants and animals exists in a specified area is itself a priori proof of equilibrium. Thus, also by definition, disequilibrium threatens that ecosystem. These days the disequilibrium that most immediately comes to mind is global climate warming.

When ecology took off, in the 1960s, these assumptions were necessary, if there was ever to be a science of wholes and parts, not just of isolated units that might or might not add up. As man’s mastery over nature accelerated, it seemed essential that we have some way of capturing, in words and numbers, what nature is, how it all hangs together. But those assumptions turn out to be unworkable; and hard to  make useful, since the amount of data required to capture the dynamics of even a simple ecosystem is so huge that there has hardly ever been the resources, time and money, to do it. So the promise of ecology remains largely unfulfilled. Sixty years of the science of ecology has led only to frustration that no ecosystem has been meaningfully mapped; the dynamics of a living, interdependent system are just too great to capture numerically or comprehend.

The impulse to seeing the environment as a connected whole with interlinked parts drove the introduction of ecology and still does. But in practice it has never been effected—the reductionist simplification of looking for ‘causes’ is too deeply embedded in sciences’ knowledge practices.

This doesn’t mean ecology has fallen. As an idea, and an ideal, it remains potent, perhaps more so now than ever, again because we now grapple with the human power to change the planetary climate, and every ecosystem on the planet. This seems especially so for Tibet, where warming is happening faster than anywhere except at the poles.

Ecology, and Tibet as part of China, are the same age, both created after WWII. It was only when the Tibetan Plateau was incorporated into China in the late 1950s that modern scientific categories and concepts were applied to Tibet. Until then, the traditional Tibetan sciences, of the medicinal properties of plants and ores, metallurgy and of experimental investigation of the nature of the mind, sufficed.



The entry of modern science, including the science of ecology, was part of China’s proof to the world of its claim to Tibet. China was civilising Tibet, erasing a blank spot on the scientific map, bringing to the world of science one of the last untaxonomised, uncategorised of inhabited lands. This was part of Tibet entering history, entering the path of development and progress, leaving behind its feudal darkness, isolation, stagnation and ignorance. The figure of Mr.Science had been depicted as China’s saviour, China’s entry into modernity, for generations, and now China would introduce Mr. Science to Tibet too.

By far the most important scientists who crisscrossed Tibet, sometimes in large expeditions, starting in the 1950s, were the geologists. To this day, if one looks up scientific publications on the Tibetan Plateau, whether in Chinese or other languages, most of it is geology. This is understandable, since Tibet is the most dramatic of continental collisions, still ongoing. But China’s geologists were mainly interested in locating economic deposits of minerals, confirming China’s long-held belief that the ores of Tibet could enrich a revolutionary China determined to overtake the UK in steel production, as fast as possible.

The geologists were praised as exemplary, model workers, sacrificing lives of comfort to work in the badlands of China’s far west, as guerrillas of the era of socialist construction, to definitively locate those deposits. So exemplary were these warriors of socialist construction, so willing to eat bitterness and endure hardship, they became idealised role models held up to the youth of the Cultural Revolution as the fearless pioneers to emulate.

It took decades, but the geological guerrillas did find those ores, firstly chromite and oil, then massive deposits of copper, gold and silver together, right on the continental collision lines, on the banks of Tibet’s great rivers, which were formed by the collision of the Indian and Eurasian continents. Gradually they proved the Tibetan Plateau is indeed a mineraliferous province, to be exploited just at the time the world’s factory relocated inland, to the foot of the Tibetan Plateau, needing raw materials not so readily sourced from abroad.

While geology flourished, so did other sciences, all of them basic to creating a new economy of intensified productivity. In the first 52 years of China’s Tibet, to 1991, not one book was published by Chinese scientists about ecology in Tibet, but there were many books of taxonomy, identifying and categorising the thousands of unfamiliar species of Tibet. The first volume on vegetation of Tibet was published in 1966, supplanting the traditional materia medica texts identifying Tibetan plants of medicinal use. Nothing further was published while China’s Cultural Revolution focused instead on denouncing everything old and educated, speaking bitterness against all old knowledge. But in 1983 a volume on the fungi of Tibet was published, and the first of the five volumes of the Tibetan Flora. The Linnean task of categorising the plants of Tibet had been basically conquered. Further, in 1985 Tibetan Bryophytes was published, and next year Tibetan Lichens, with Tibetan Diatoms in 1990, also Tibetan Economic Plants.  For fauna, there was a similar emphasis on economic animals, specifically on the insects that might attack new crops and scientific agriculture. As early as 1981 the first volume of Tibetan Insects was published, followed in 1984 by Locusts in Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, Tibetan Aquatic Invertebrates in 1983, as well as Records of Tibetan Birds. In 1986 came Tibetan Mammals and in 1987 Tibetan Amphibians and Reptiles. In all of these, the emphasis was on how to recognise each species. The assignation of Greek and Latin names for all that lives in this Tibetan terra incognita remained paramount.

By the 1990s, it became possible to start thinking ecologically, as well as taxonomically; to consider the wholes made up of the taxonomised parts. 1995, for example, saw not only the publication of Tibet’s Fish and Fish Resources, but also Study on Tibet Plateau’s Forest Ecology. This first title on ecology focused on the readily identifiable vegetation classes and communities of eastern Tibet, stratified by altitude into distinct zones, a phenomenon noted a century and a half earlier by Joseph Hooker, who chose to botanise the Himalayas precisely because all vegetation classes, from tropical to arctic, could be conveniently found on a single ascent. The availability of Tibet’s forests, in catchments above the headwaters of the Yangtze, was convenient also for China’s loggers, so much so that Study on Tibet Plateau’s Forest Ecology came out only after three or more decades of ruthless exploitation of Tibetan forests, and only three years before exploitation was officially halted, by decree, to conserve watersheds and protect downstream Yangtze users from floods.

These books, all in Chinese, pioneered the insertion of global science into Tibet, and laid the foundations for today’s intensive extractive economy, but also today’s concern with the Tibetan Plateau as a unit, as a unique island in the sky, so big and high that even the jetstream diverts around it, differently in summer and winter. The Tibetan Plateau gradually emerges from the torrent of detail, as a singularity, standing out in every way from its surrounds, as a spectrum of ecosystems ranging from remnants of subtropical forest to alpine desert, from humid southeast to arid northwest.

Yet even now, in 2014, it is hard to speak of the ecology of Tibet, because knowledge of Tibet, which is close to two percent of the planetary land surface, remains fundamentally fragmented, patchy, skewed towards economic payoffs, neglectful  of the human uses and stewardship of the vast plateau and its millennia of sustainable human curation. The number of scientific reports of Tibet continues to grow, but mostly they are narrower and narrower in focus.



At the same time, efforts to synthesize available data into much bigger pictures are having remarkable results. Climate science is a prime example. Only quite recently was it possible to connect knowledge of regional climate systems, generating a dawning awareness that the entire planet has a single climate system, of great complexity, still not well understood, with many variables, interdependencies and forcings. But the bottom line is that the planetary climate should be understood as a system, and moreover, a system that can be changed by human interventions. That’s ecology on a grand scale.

Likewise, it has only recently dawned on biogeographers that the collision of India with Eurasia, and the uplift of the Tibetan Plateau, happening at a particular phase in the evolution of life, had a profound effect on the biodiversity of the entire northern hemisphere, including even North America. There is growing evidence that the creation of the Tibetan Plateau not only initiated the monsoonal climate of Asia, and widespread warming;  but also initiated much later a global cooling, which led to the dispersal of Tibet’s cold climate plants and animals across a much colder Eurasia. So Tibet, known today as the source of Asia’s rivers, is also the source of Asia’s climate, and of the biota, plants and animals, of much of the northern hemisphere.

If the Tibetan Plateau was scientifically unknown until the middle of the 20th century, this cannot be said of the surrounding lands, of both India and China. The prior scientising of both China and India has had a profound impact on how Tibet, the blank canvas to be filled, was conceived as a scientific object. In India, long before the science of ecology was born, the British took great interest in forests and mountains, rivers and jungles, beasts and birds, and proceeded to survey this jewel in their crown. The Great Trigonometrical Survey of India went on to surreptitiously triangulate Tibet as well, setting the scene quite literally for the British invasion of 1904.

British categories, later to become foundational to the science of ecology, were inscribed as hard, exclusive concepts. Forests were to be preserved, by excluding the natives, who were to be fenced out and punished if caught inside the fence. The idea of inhabited forests best protected by their inhabitants was alien to British scientific thinking, a basic mistake now being repeated by China, as it excludes forest dwellers from rehabilitating decimated forests, and closes pastures in the name of protecting watersheds.



Thus we come, inevitably, from the state of ecology to an ecology of the state. India under the British Raj, revolutionary China embracing Mr. Science, and contemporary Tibet would seem to have little in common, separated not only in space but by two or more centuries of scientific change. Yet all share some basics, including a panoptic, urban, imperial gaze that, everywhere it gazes upon, sees lack, stress, disequilibrium, threat, danger, and crisis.

This remote gaze justifies strong statist interventions, and the creation of regulatory regimes single-mindedly focused on rectifying the dangerous disequilibrium identified by the scientific gaze. Thus villagers are locked out of their forests, and today Tibetan pastoralists en masse are excluded from their pastures and officially designated as “ecological migrants”, as if the nullification of their land tenure security and livelihoods is voluntary. Although the science of ecology aims at holistic inclusiveness, this has eluded both the ecologists and the policymakers, who revert to exclusive, narrowly focused policies that attempt to solve one narrowly defined problem by creating others.

Just as the British Raj knew little and cared little about the lives of India’s forest villagers, so China today knows little about the lives, practices, biodiversity conservation work and sustainable land management strategies of the Tibetan pastoral nomads. What China doesn’t see is nine thousand years of skilful nomadic use of pastures with a light touch, always moving on well before the grasses are overgrazed. What China does see, often by satellite observations from 400 kms up in space, is that the rangelands are degrading, which may (in largely unspecified ways) threaten downstream China’s water supplies. Hence the sedentarization policy, since 2003, of tuimu huancao,  closing pastures to grow more grass. Implementation of this policy, ostensibly for ecological rehabilitation, has resulted in the exclusion of hundreds of thousands of nomads, who now lead useless, dependent lives on urban fringes, with no skills for entry into the modern cash wage economy.

The exclusive, either/or logic that so often drives administrators to solve problems by further exclusions might seem a betrayal of the holistic vision of ecology. Yet ecology, as a science, from its beginnings, has treated the human presence as external to the natural ecosystem. This is the fatal flaw of ecology. At the heart of ecology is the romantic assumption that a “natural ecosystem” is wild, free, uncontaminated by human presence. This has tainted China’s perception of the vast grasslands it has struggled to govern since mid 20th century. China’s grassland scientists continue to speak of “the contradiction between grass and animals.” Taking the form of a classic Marxist dialectic that demands resolution, this utterly simplistic proposition asserts the inevitable incompatibility of ecosystem health and grazing by domestic animals. The more animals, the less grass; and vice versa, the fewer animals, the more the grass grows. As a proposition, this moronic oversimplification denies the very possibility of a grazing economy, even though pastoralism is a major rural way of life on every continent.



When China says the rangelands are degrading, it means that anything less than the amount of grass that would grow in the absence of domestic animal grazing. As soon as cattle or sheep appear, by definition the rangeland is degrading. This implicit assumption is seldom made clear. It is a romantic, either/or assumption, that grassland must be similar to a rainforest wilderness, untouched by human hand or the animals of the herders, lest its pristine purity be degraded.

This toxic assumption now justifies China’s civilising mission as protector of Tibet’s ecological environment; protecting the pristine watersheds of China’s great rivers against the degrading, ignorant, greedy grazing practices of Tibetan herders, who are blamed for the degradation caused by concentrating herds behind compulsorily fenced winter pastures, with no guaranteed access to summer pastures, nomadic mobility much reduced by decree.

The ecology of the state takes us away from the specifics of China in Tibet, or Britain in India, to a wider consideration of how the modern state, with its claims to exclusive sovereign jurisdiction within its defined territory, insists on problematizing its domain, then solving those problems administratively. The project cycle begins with identifying and defining the problem, and concludes with independent certification that the official solution was indeed effective. This elaborate process of policy making and implementation has become so familiar we no longer imagine how it could be otherwise. The ecology of the state includes a wide array of diagnostic technologies to define problems, with a preference for remote generation of data collected by geostationary satellites, uncluttered by local contested knowledges. Having objectively diagnosed the problem, the state these days has a huge menu of interventions, ranging from direct state action through to state financing of market based solutions of such complexity that tracking outcomes is increasingly difficult.

Tibet will soon become part of this new world of Payment for Environmental Services (PES), with compulsorily retired nomads dependent on officially supplied subsistence rations now deemed to be recipients of PES and/or REDD+[1] compensation payments that, in turn, legitimate China’s ongoing consumption of more polluting coal than the rest of the world put together. Tibet will be integrated into the global mechanisms of offsets, compensation and payments that, for a modest fee, enable the most heavily polluting and resource intensive of industries to keep going.

China is keen to embrace these market-based mechanisms that get the heaviest of industries off the hook, and enable business as usual, while climate globally continues to warm, nowhere more so, in the inhabited world, than in Tibet. China is also keen to claim moral leadership in global ecological responsibility by excluding pastoralists from their pastures because of the officially designated “fragile ecology” of the most productive pasturelands of eastern Tibet.  The ecology of the state is the mindset of an official class that thinks like a state, classifying eastern Tibet exclusively as a “fragile ecology” which has no purpose now other than as a region for growing grass. In such ways the ecology of the state trumps the state of the ecology.

It wasn’t always thus, nor need it be so. Those who think like a state have so normalised the exclusion of the nomads, as the inevitable solution to a problem of the state’s making; that we easily forget there are other ways of looking at the grasslands, ways that are much more local, richly detailed, intimate and specific.



Once we start looking through the eyes of Tibetan pastoralists, everything changes. Their holistic perspective includes the human presence, from the start, as benign or malign, depending on good or bad motivations, skilful or unskilful grazing practices. The traditional way of preventing degradation was mobility. In pastoral societies worldwide, mobility is essential to both productivity and sustainability. However mobility was quickly curtailed by those who, in China, think like a state which must be able to enumerate, locate and at all times keep under observation its citizens. Mobile pastoralists evade visibility and scrutiny, making the task of the state much more difficult. Civilisation begins, in a classic Chinese formulation, with penning the animals, bringing feed to them; while the uncivilised wander hither and thither with their animals, effectively leading lives little better than that of the animals they herd. This core distinction, and the “contradiction between grass and animals” continue to afflict the ecology of the Chinese state.

Ecology, as a science, does have a place for the instrumental indigenous knowledge of ethnobotany, grazing strategies, risk management and land use practices, as adjuncts to the scientific generation of data and models of ecosystems. But the Tibetans have a more profoundly holistic approach, arising out of millennia of extensive land use, primarily as gatherers of whatever nature provides. It is time we heard more from those Tibetan voices, if we are to better understand the state of the ecology of Tibet, and come to grips with the hold the ecology of the state has on what we define as possible and desirable.

Those Tibetan voices are now speaking up more than ever, telling us that traditional pastoralism was sustainable, not so much by maintaining Tibetan grassland ecosystems in equilibrium, but by accepting the reality of disequilibrium on a plateau so high, cold, arid and unpredictable that the genius of the nomads was their ability to live, not despite uncertainty, but because of it. Their flexibility, moving herds only short distances seasonally in good years, but great distances in bad years, was a way of living off uncertainty, making extensive use of the entire plateau with a light touch.

If we are ever to fulfil the promise of the science of ecology, we need a more robust holisitic approach, that is not grounded in the scientific quest for singular, data-defined causes. It is the scientific preoccupation with causes that has made ecology a disappointingly unfruitful science, fixated on the ideal that singular causes can and must be found and defined.

The robust holism of the Tibetan pastoral nomads is an obvious alternative to the impoverished state of ecology, and the punitive ecologies of the state that result from simplistic science. The nomads of Tibet look upon the pasture, the animals and themselves, knowing what goes with what, what can be done, and what the limits are, when to move on, without being obsessed with causes, drivers, dynamics, models of equilibrium, etc. The nomads share with the lamas an emphasis on skilful action in the present, based on mindful inclusiveness, without separating subject and object. Like the lamas, their emphasis is on motivation, acting with a good heart, and on being alive to the constantly shifting realities of the moment. Like the lamas, they are far less interested in aetiology, origins, causes, drivers that remain hidden from view and extremely difficult to discern with any confidence.  The lamas always say that good causes lead to good results; bad causes to bad results, and that’s as far as we need to take it. They tell us it is fruitless to dwell on finding specific causes for the problems of this moment, what matters is to respond to problems constructively.

The robust holism of Tibet’s traditional land managers –the nomads and farmers- is a major topic, for another time.




[1] REDD+ is the abbreviation for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, now with a plus sign added to signify an ever widening scope. It is a UN program.



Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.