#2 in a blog series of 3


If the world arrives in Tibet, announcing corporate investment in carbon capture on the Tibetan Plateau, it will arrive wrapped in jargon. We might soon find we need to learn that jargon, and learn to decode what it conceals as well as what it reveals.

Jargon serves a purpose. It is not just a shorthand abbreviation, it is insider language, empowering its users as people with specialist knowledge. Jargon privileges those able to use it, proclaiming them to be experts, people who have mastered scientific rationality.

In reality, jargon technicises debate, narrows debate to the seemingly rational concepts enclosed by acronyms, excluding human realities that are deemed extraneous externalities. Technicisation narrows the focus so that the only question is whether the package identified by its acronym achieves its narrowly defined goal, such as capturing carbon. Human impacts on people’s livelihoods are secondary, incidental, unintended consequences, unforeseen and unforeseeable side effects at most.

Today’s China loves to be up to date with the latest concepts and intellectual fashions, to prove yet again it is a great and advanced civilisation with high human capital, and much investment in technicisation.  The advocates of technical solutions, by sticking to their jargon, can avoid any suggestion that they are straying into political questions, which, in China, is strictly the prerogative of the party-state, and no-one else.

This section is a guide to all the new jargon: INDCs, Five-Year Plans (FYPs), and many more. There are plenty of people fluent in these jargon terms, which then take on a life of their own, becoming well-known, naturalised concepts, the building blocks of new regimes of global policy towards environment and human development. Once the jargon sets in, those who use it seldom step back to question the package that the acronym summarises. Thus they fail to notice, that in China’s hands, these jargons mutate, acquire “Chinese characteristics” and in practice, on the ground, in the farmlands and pasture lands of western China, they end up meaning something quite different to what was originally intended.

A.   Payment for Environmental Services

Payment for environmental services (PES) is an idea that’s been around for a while. It focuses on the lands and peoples who are providers of environmental services such as clean water supply, carbon capture or biodiversity, especially when those who benefit from those services live elsewhere, downstream, or in cities that make much use the resources and services provided by others. The basic idea is simple: beneficiaries should pay providers, to ensure the providers continue to provide. In Tibet, it would mean no longer taking for granted that Tibet provides China and Asia with pure water, clean air and much else; and if Tibetans are to continue to do so they must forego the opportunity to industrialise. So the Tibetans deserve pes payment, to compensate for the opportunity costs incurred by remaining under-developed.

In principle pes is widely accepted, but operationalising it in practice is difficult. Who pays whom? For how long? Who decides what services are measured? How can environmental services be monetised, given a dollar value? Can industries, used to getting air and water and much else as a free public good, be persuaded to pay?

Due to such difficulties, much effort has gone into coming up with new concepts that build on pes, which are more measurable and doable, such as redd+.

B.   Reducing carbon emissions caused by deforestation and degradation

Reducing carbon emissions caused by deforestation and (forest) degradation (REDD) is an idea intended to help achieve the key aim[1] of climate change action. The focus of redd is on the forests of the developing countries, because historically they have always captured huge amounts of carbon from the air, and because they are now threatened by logging, plantations, burning and clearing for cattle ranching. Although redd is focussed on forests, there is growing recognition that the vast grasslands of the world also have the capacity to capture carbon. The idea of REDD+ indicates an expansion of REDD beyond the forests.

The REDD+ idea usually involves a market-based scheme in which an industrial polluter pays a distant forested community to capture more carbon. For the polluter, this is much cheaper than reducing emissions. But if, in a remote corner of Tibet, for example, people plant more trees, how much carbon is thus sequestered? How long must it be sequestered? What is the monetary value of taking carbon out of the air, and into the soil, trees, grasses and herbs? Who receives the payment?  What are the responsibilities of beneficiary communities to ensure that carbon captured is not released to the atmosphere again?

These are difficult questions to resolve, even if all the parties are free to speak up; even harder in Tibet where local communities are not allowed to negotiate their free, prior and informed consent to a contract which may bind them for a century. redd+ is an idea with problems.

C.   The Sloping Land Conversion Program and the Natural Forest Protection Program

These are specifically Chinese slogans and concepts. Two decades ago China’s planners realised that much forest and grassland had been mistakenly cleared, or “reclaimed”, according to China’s propaganda, for farming.  The farmers spreading into the grasslands of Inner Mongolia and elsewhere ploughed up the grasses, exposing the soil to gales and blizzards, which even today cause Beijing to be blanketed in dust storms as the ex-grassland erodes. The farmers lose soil and livelihoods. In hilly country, including Tibet, land far above any river was cleared for agriculture, creating many dryland farmers barely making a living.

In the 1990s, China started to reverse these policy mistakes. The Sloping Land Conversion Program (SLCP) and the Natural Forest Protection Program (NFPP) both aimed to reforest, or regrass, large areas and restore natural landscapes in which ecologically suitable trees, shrubs and grasses were planted, while compensating poor farmers for their loss of income. The overall slogan was: “grain to green”, or g2g.

In practice, nfpp and sclp succeeded in some areas, but did not work well in others. Despite massive investment in reforestation, China still struggles to halt desertification and degradation of land that once supported grassland or forest.

D.   Land Degradation Neutrality

The newest jargon is LDN: land degradation neutrality. It is a simple idea that is hard to implement. If degradation occurs in one area, it should be compensated for by restoration and rehabilitation of degraded land in other areas, so there is no net loss. That is a bottom line, if the world is to arrest the current slide backwards into worsening desertification and degradation. LDN is sometimes called NLDN: net land degradation neutrality.

The problem is that, as with all market-based solutions, it introduces trade-offs. Degradation in one area may be cheaper to remediate than in another area. In Tibet, because of the cold climate, rehabilitation of degrading grassland takes a long time, is often not very successful, and requires labour-intensive employment of local pastoralists to look after the freshly sown native grasses, herbs and sedges. The danger is that China will persist in removing rather than employing pastoralists to do the work of repairing degradation, because China persists in blaming pastoralist as the cause of the degradation, and because repairing degrading loess soils below Tibet is cheaper and easier.

Private investors are now being invited to see ldn as a profitable opportunity.[2]  This could become another way for third parties to improve both profit and reputation, while disempowered parties such as Tibetan communities find themselves yet again excluded from their own pastures, in the name of ldn. The United Nations says LDN should not work that way. The UN poses the key question[3] and supplies its answer: “ Is LDN an offset or compensation scheme that could result in a license to degrade? No. The focus and aim of LDN is to maintain and improve the productivity of land resources by sustainably managing and restoring soil, water and biodiversity assets, while at the same time contributing to poverty reduction, food and water security, and climate change adaptation and mitigation.  The key principle of LDN is that the people at a grassroots level, whose everyday decisions and actions affect the condition of land and water resources, have to be involved in designing and implementing measures to halt and reverse land degradation.”[4]

However, in practice, ideas such as LDN do result in tradeoffs, and profit for a few, often at the expense of the disadvantaged. Tibetans should monitor all these new jargons closely, to see how they are actually implemented in practice. Tibetans will find many environmentalists worldwide share their concerns that REDD+ and LDN achieve little by way of actual emissions reduction, confuse everyone with their deliberate complexity, and disempower indigenous “beneficiaries.”[5] There are many REDD projects in Nepal, which Tibetans could check out to see what actually happens on the ground. A recent investigation of those projects says: “REDD+ policy making is dominated by a ‘development triangle’, a tripartite coalition of key government actors, external organizations (international NGOs and donors), and select civil society organizations. As a result, the views and interests of other important stakeholders have been marginalized, threatening recentralized forest governance and hampering the effective implementation of REDD+ in Nepal.”[6]


E.    Using jargon in Tibet: SLCP and NFPP

Not only do these jargon concepts guide policy from above, dictated by Beijing for implementation across China, irrespective of local differences, the jargons collide with each other, or are implemented serially over time, amplifying the impacts. One of the policy fashions of the 1990s was the sclp. As usual, the starting point that crystallised into an acronym was well intentioned. It began with a recognition that too much land in China had been converted to farmland, even in hilly areas where irrigation is impossible, and the dryland farmers struggle to grow enough crops to sustain themselves or keep the land, in dry years, from eroding badly. The slcp was a program requiring farmers on land that slopes to return a portion of their land to plantings of species that serve an ecological purpose, above all, holding remaining soil in place, preventing erosion, restoring habitat. At a national level, this was the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) facing up to its revolutionary pledge to forever banish the danger of famine; a recognition that policies requiring each province to be self-sufficient in grain production had wrongly cleared for farming much land that should never have been farmed. China was learning to become a national market, no longer placing local self-sufficiency as the highest of goals. The initial impulse was good, and the policy was popularised by a simple slogan, grain to green, g2g. The policy recognised, at national level, that farmers on marginal drylands struggling to make a living would not want to lose part of their farmland for ecological plantings that produce nothing edible or saleable. So the national government accepted responsibility for compensating farmers by providing them with subsistence rations, to enable them to survive on a smaller land allocation. In theory, it was a complete package that made sense.

Likewise, China’s recognition in the late 1990s that it had exploited its forests, including those in Tibet, far beyond any sustainable capacity to grow back, led to the Natural Forest Protection Program (NFPP), mandating that much cleared land be reforested. Again, a commendable aim, but everything depends on how, at a local level, such policies are implemented.

Local government officials and party cadres at local level are meant, in theory, to transmit down the line the will of the central leaders, and ensure implementation.  But China is huge; policies suited to one area may not be suitable in another. When the people and the cadres are of the same nationality, and share sympathy for each other, national policies are often bent to accommodate local needs. For example, in the 1990s, monitoring of slcp and nfpp programs showed how much difference local government attitudes make. In areas where local officials sympathised with the loss of income of farmers ordered to replant ecologically useful species on their farmland, they widened the definition of “ecological” trees to include many trees that also bear commercially valuable fruits, which can be cropped and income gained. Strictly speaking, from a national viewpoint, this distorts policy implementation, and does not show up in national statistics that aggregate how big an area has been replanted.

In areas where the senior cadres are not of the same ethnicity as the local population, lack understanding of traditional lifeways, and do not care much whether they are liked locally or not, implementation is stricter. The cadres know their best chance of promotion, and a reposting to a town or a wealthier area depends on implementing national policies strictly according to orders from above.

In a country as big as China, national policy can only define goals, and the extent of official support, such as compensation or punishment, for local implementation, or resistance. How the policy is implemented may vary greatly. For example, in Kham, in the heavily forested, precipitous landscapes of eastern Tibet, nfpp, starting in 1998, was meant to reforest the steep slopes denuded by decades of Chinese logging. How reforestation was to be accomplished was not made clear and delegated to local officials.

Experience of successful reforestation worldwide shows that local communities are the best people to do the work, of gathering seeds, planting them, caring for vulnerable seedlings until they can look after themselves. However, China’s top priority was maintaining economic growth, not the environment. As a result, the main concern in implementing the nfpp was to maintain employment for the state forestry workers who had been cutting trees down, redeploying them in the unfamiliar role of forest guardianship. The workers put down their chainsaws and took to aeroplanes and helicopters to scatter tree seeds from the air. This method did not take into account the steep slopes of the rugged ranges that separate the wild mountain rivers of Kham. Not surprisingly, it was not very successful. Even when seeds strike roots, they must survive the hard winter without a surrounding shelterbelt of mature trees providing a protective microclimate. On many slopes, at differing altitudes, complex habitats exist, in which different species grow together, and such complexity is not readily reproduced, especially from the air.

Far from employing local Tibetan communities to do the work of reforestation, in many areas NFPP meant declaring areas designated for reforestation to be officially Protected Areas (PAs), within which human activity was banned, especially pastoralism, which was becoming possible as grasses naturally replaced trees. Tibetans, who could have been made part of the solution, were instead declared to be part of the problem.

The acronyms, and the thinking behind them, are seldom explained to Tibetan communities, still less in Tibetan. So there is a disconnect between Beijing policy and local engagement. Policy is often transmitted via simplistic slogans, which instruct people as to what is to be done, without explaining the policy goals.

Perhaps the slogan with the biggest impact has been tuimu huancao, close pastures to grow more grass. This slogan, introduced in 2003, has led to more and more Tibetans pastoralists losing all or some of their pasture, officially removed from production for a temporary period of three or five or at most ten years, to see if the removal of grazing is sufficient, without any other intervention, to restore degrading lands. In reality, these temporary bans are not reversed, and Chinese scientists increasingly question whether degradation has been caused by overgrazing or by past policy mistakes that fragmented pastoral land, reduced seasonal mobility, forced pastoralists to invest much time and money in fencing, house building, winter fodder crop production and storage and other measures that had perverse outcomes, notably exacerbating poverty and squeezing herds year-round on lands allocated to nuclear families, depriving them of the flexibility of many families pooling lands and herds, to minimise over-grazing.

So Tibetans experience the simplistic slogans, such as “close pasture, grow more grass” as incomprehensible, and a threat to their ongoing livelihoods. There is a disconnect between official policy and the needs of the land and the people.

NFPP, SCLP, tuimu huancao and the other policies of the 1990s and first decade of this century are the background to 2015’s SDGs and COP21, bringing in pes, redd+, and ldn. All these policies result, for rural Tibetans, in disempowerment, restriction, exclusion, exclosure, poverty, dependence on official rations, relocation and resettlement to new concrete towns, while denied access to their traditional pastures and valleys. A 2015 review of the enthusiasm for REDD in Nepal concluded that: “Nepal’s institutional REDD+ planning structure is highly dominated by techno-bureaucratic topdown practices representing government interests and international donors’ requirements, while subnational and non-governmental stakeholders often find themselves to be merely used to legitimize the policy process rather than to actively shape it.”[7]


Since Tibetans had no opportunity, in the lengthy negotiations leading to the COP21 programs such as LDN, REDD+ and PES, to speak up for themselves, it will not be surprising, in coming years, if China implements LDN, REDD+ and PES in ways that further disempower, fragment, displace and depopulate the land of Tibet, separating the land and the people from each other. This is true also of theSustainable Development Goals  (SDGs), such as poverty alleviation, which sound commendable, but when given “Chinese characteristics” end up as a further rationale for removing Tibetans from Tibet, on the grounds that Tibetans are poor because they live in Tibet, because Tibet by definition is so high, and cold, so remote and lacking in factor endowments, so vast and scattered, that there is no way Tibetans can ever get out of poverty as long as they remain rural. According to this paternalistic logic, Tibetans must be saved from Tibet, since no one would choose to live in Tibet if they had a comfortable urban alternative. Earlier projects, such as NFPP in Kham Dechen, failed to help poor Tibetan farmers.[8]


Note: this blog series is based on the Environment chapter of the 2015 Annual Report of the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights & Democracy





[5] See, for example, a 2010 report by Friends of the Earth: redd: the realities in black and white; Global Witness also monitors REDD implementation, including Honest Engagement – Transparency And Civil Society Participation In Redd, 2009. A Nepalese NGO, Forest Action, in 2015 published several critiques of REDD and its impact on ethnic minorities:

[6] Bryan R. Bushley,  REDD+ policy making in Nepal: toward state-centric, polycentric, or market-oriented governance? Ecology and Society 19(3), 2014: 34., available at

[7] Rishi R. Bastakoti and Conny Davidsen; Nepal’s REDD+ Readiness Preparation and Multi-Stakeholder Consultation Challenges; Journal of Forest and Livelihood 13(1) May, 2015 30

[8] Horst Weyerhaeuser, Andreas Wilkes, Fredrich Kahrl, Local impacts and responses to regional forest conservation and rehabilitation programs in China’s northwest Yunnan province, Agricultural Systems 85 (2005) 234–253


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