Presentation given to TIBET POLICY INSTITUTE seminar 29 March 2012-03-27

China has a set of slogans that define its approach to the environments of the Tibetan Plateau. These key metaphors, endlessly repeated, shape China’s thinking, limit China’s imagination, close Chinese minds to the complex circumstances on the ground that are quite different to the clichés of Chinese policy.

Some of China’s familiar slogans are grazing ban, ecological migration, leap-style development, comfortable housing, grain to green. Underlying these formulas for reducing Tibet, making Tibet predictable and governable, is the basic metaphor of rangeland degradation. It’s worth taking a fresh look at the basis of this key term.


China talks a lot about rangeland degradation or grassland degradation (without making much clear distinction between rangeland and grassland); while exiled Tibetans often say the environment in Tibet is fragile. Both terms have similar meaning, suggesting that life, especially plant life, is easily disturbed in Tibet, and once disturbed, it is hard to rehabilitate.

But China and Tibetans draw opposite conclusions. To Tibetans the obvious response to a fragile environment is to respect it, work with it, use the land in a mobile way, moving on before too much pressure is put on any area, not mining, not digging more than absolutely necessary, not cutting the earth for highways, railways, mines, quarries etc. For China, the answer to rangeland degradation is to ban grazing on degrading areas, and remove the nomads, as the only way to let the degraded land heal itself and grow more grass.

Since Tibetans and the Chinese government see the solution to degradation/fragility so differently, it is worth exploring these concepts further.

Scientists would say that rangeland degradation is a scientific term, which simply describes an objective truth, which can be scientifically measured, so it is not a metaphor, it is truth. But degradation is an emotional word, which implies that before the degradation happened there was a stable, entirely natural state of harmony and balance, which has been lost. Indeed China’s official policy is to restore grassland to its natural state, on the false assumption that the natural state of the grassland is a wilderness in which there is no presence of humans and their animals. The official policy of tuimu huancao means remove animals to restore grassland.

This attitude shows a basic ignorance among Chinese officials, of the actual history of nomadic land use, which has lasted almost 9000 years (so the archaeologists say), without disastrous degradation of the kind seen in the past 50 or 60 years. In other words, the Tibetan Plateau has been a stable and productive pasture land for thousands of years, in which the drogpa nomads routinely burned forest patches, and kept pasture land clear of regenerating forest, in order to expand pasture area, while maintaining major forests, and managing the grazing lands sustainably. So the vast pastures of the Tibetan Plateau are not a natural wilderness, they are a man-made, curated landscape. If the objective of policy is to restore a sustainable landscape, that is no longer degrading, then this is an important distinction.

Degradation means a serious loss of that original harmonious, balanced state. Yet the Tibetan Plateau is a young land, continuing its rise to the clouds, and the entire land is unstable, dynamic, filled with energies circulating through the earth. Degradation, in the form of erosion is natural, and in Tibet erosion is extraordinarily strong and directly due to uplift.

Although rangeland degradation seems at first to be an objective scientific term, the science keeps changing. It is decades since the publication of “Uncertainty on a Himalayan Scale”, which first raised doubts about how much we actually know about hydrology and river flows, on both sides of the Himalayas. Still today, the earth scientists are still guessing, and forever changing their models, on how the uplift of the Tibetan Plateau actually works. So much is yet to be understood, yet already it is clear that what goes up must come down, uplift is balanced by the downward force of erosion, and the rivers of Tibet have extraordinary erosive power.

We could go so far as to say the capacity of the mighty mountain rivers of Tibet to cut through mountain chains keeps pace with the uplift., even though this means cutting a gorge that is five kilometres deep, by far the deepest gorge in the world, around the great bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra as it encloses Pemako, the likeliest location for the pure land Buddhists pray to be reborn into. Khamtrul Rinpoche’s memoir of his pilgrimage to this area, while fleeing from the communists, is memorable reading: Memoirs of Lost and Hidden Lands.

Geologists now say that the Yarlung Tsangpo has probably managed to maintain a steady altitude above sea level, even though the entire landscape around it has been rising for millions of years. That is the power of erosion, a power which in turn makes it possible for monsoon clouds to pass through the Himalayas, up the gorge, falling as rain and snow in Tibet, thus contributing further to river flow, a complete circle.


So powerful is the erosion of the Tibetan Plateau that China’s most fundamental metaphor of identity comes from it. The yellow emperor, yellow earth and yellow river are core metaphors of China’s identity, deriving from the colour of the great river of northern China, which delivers an extraordinary burden of yellow sediment along its lowland length, all originating in the erosion of the Tibetan Plateau. So enormous is this burden of yellow sediment coming from Tibet that the loess plateau of Gansu, immediately below the Tibetan Plateau is hundreds of metres of thick yellow sediment deposited there by the yellow river. That yellow silt is so fine, and recent that it has not compacted, water drains away and cannot be stored on the surface, and it in turn very quickly erodes, sending the yellow earth further downstream.

This is the reason why the yellow river has for so many generations been called “China’s sorrow”, because wherever it slows, it drops its sediment, and the river bed rises above the level of the surrounding plain, and massive floods spread out. This is what prompted successive Chinese emperors to prove their power over nature by taming the yellow river, building up its s banks, building dams and many other hydraulic engineering works. It has long been proof of the legitimacy of an emperor (or Communist party leader) that he has hydraulic power over nature; and a sign that he is losing legitimacy (the mandate of heaven) if he fails to control floods. All of these deep cultural meanings are due to the erosion of Tibet.

When Chinese scientists speak of desertification and degradation in the grasslands of Tibet, especially in the region they focus on most, the prefectures of Yushu and Golok, where both the Ma Chu/Huang he/Yellow River and the Dri Chu/Chang Jiang/ Yangtze rise, they assume all degradation to be unnatural, and problematic. But no-one has adequately studied the erosion of the Tibetan Plateau well enough to be able to distinguish clearly how much erosion is natural and how much is due to human causes, whether the anthropogenic cause is global climate change or overgrazing by drogpa nomads.

The metaphor of the fragility of life on the Tibetan Plateau is appropriate. Encoded in this singe term is the suggestion that life, especially plant life biomass struggles to establish itself in such a highly erosive, frigid, windblown, blizzard-prone landscape. The plant species indigenous to Tibet, both the forests at lower altitudes and the grasses and sedges of higher and drier areas, are a miracle. They adapted to their circumstances. The kobresia sedges are amazing. They keep most of their biomass, their living tissue, below the surface, in a dense rootball, which is protected from gales, blizzards, extreme temperatures and the grazing pressure of yaks, sheep and goats. This in turn protects the soil from being eroded away.

When the living turf of the pastures is cut or dug, this exposes the soil to the full force of all the erosive powers of the earth gods of Tibet. Bare black earth soon becomes what Chinese scientists call “black beach”, the start of uncontrollable, ongoing erosion. There are good reasons for the traditional Tibetan prohibitions on cutting the earth unless necessary, in sheltered valleys, for farming.

Chinese scientists have at most 50 years of measurements taken over a huge area, not a long enough time to have much idea of what is normal or abnormal. There is plenty of evidence that the monsoon itself has changed dramatically over the past 100,000 years, and even over the past 10,000 years which scientists call the Holocene, the recent past, that includes human use of the Tibetan Plateau. The general trend seems to be that the monsoon is weakening, which may be a major reason why Tibetans have, for thousands of years, been slowly migrating eastwards, since western or upper Tibet, once suitable for irrigated farming villages thousands of years ago is now a stony alpine desert.

This means Tibet was much wetter, and the erosive power of the rivers much greater, in the past, a past which, in geological terms is quite recent. This makes it even harder to be sure that the erosion in Tibet at present has a human cause, or is natural. China has rushed to blame the nomads, impoverished by being fenced in and restricted in their mobility, as the primary cause of rangeland degradation. Evidence for this is at best unclear.
The concept of “fragility” is problematic. Around the world, wherever environmentalists campaign to save a local area from development, they always say what they are they seeking to protect is a fragile (and unique) ecosystem. Of course this is true, in the sense that all ecosystems are local, and different. All are easily disturbed by human interventions. But if everywhere is fragile, the concept of “fragile” loses meaning.


The other clichés of today’s Tibet are entirely a Chinese choice of seemingly positive phrases to mask socially destructive practices. Grazing ban, ecological migration, leap-style development, comfortable housing, grain to green, are the key phrases used over and over in Chinese propaganda, on the principle of telling people something they will be pleased to hear, even if it has little to do with ground reality.

Although Tibetans have tried hard to expose the catastrophic loss of all meaningful life to the nomads displaced by these policies, we should face the reality that these “greenwash” phrases invented by China do work, and are accepted, by many environmentalists, especially at a senior policy making level, in the institutions of global environmental governance. So there is a need to deconstruct these seemingly reasonable and positive phrases, and expose their impacts more effectively.

China has repeated these concepts endlessly, and often effectively. By telling the world that its motive for building hydro dams, displacing nomads and farmers is to green China and save the planet, China wins friends in the global environment movement who are usually critical because China so strongly resists taking action to reduce its use of coal, or reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, or agree to any global treaty that would impose any conditions on China.

If Tibetans are to fulfil the frequently expressed wish of HH Dalai Lama that environment in Tibet be top of the world’s agenda for Tibet, the starting point is to unravel the lies that bind China’s “green” narrative together.

Unravelling China’s pitch in part means challenging the facts of what it means to be displaced into a meaningless existence in a concrete block by a road, thrown from self-sufficiency into the global cash economy. It means revealing the human stories of nomads impoverished by endless regulations literally fencing them into unworkably small land areas, and then blaming them for the inevitable overgrazing.


In addition to facts and life stories of the living reality behind the “green” slogans, there is also a more fundamental level of Chinese mistake in understanding and then speaking for the nomads and farmers of Tibet. All of China’s “green” buzzwords are deeply dualistic. There is always inherent in them a shift from bad to good, from wrong to right, darkness to light, primitive to civilised, harm to healing. Grain to green means ceasing farming on sloping dryland, and replanting trees and shrubs that are beneficial to the environment, even if the farmer loses livelihood. Removing animals to grow grass means ceasing destructive overgrazing so abundant green grass will naturally flourish. Ecological migration means abandoning an environmentally destructive mode of production, and making sacrifice for the good of the nation, and the planet, by taking up a new life elsewhere.

Implicit in all these dualisms is the most fundamental of dualisms: a split between man and nature. Modern China has adopted this from the modern scientific worldview, which in turn inherits it from the legacy of Christianity. Man and nature occupy separate realms of existence, so there is always a problem of how to negotiate the relationship between them. If it is purely a relationship of dominance of nature by man, it may be materially productive, but in the long run environmentally destructive and unsustainable. But if respect for biodiversity and sustainability come first, human living standards may be threatened. There is always a tension, a difficult, contested negotiation to find the right balance.

But do Tibetans understand man and nature as separate realms? No. Humans and animals are all sentient beings. Unless one lives this life with great compassion, one is likely to be reborn in the next life as an animal, or even a hell being. All Tibetans know this, even those who are not particularly religious. The concern a nomad has for his/her yaks and sheep is not the calculated instrumental concern of an American rancher for dollars on the hoof; it is the naturally arising compassion for a family member.

China has misunderstood Tibet in a fundamental way, and made a serious category mistake, with disastrous consequences. If the starting point is that man exists for himself, and nature is man’s servant, then nomads are selfish, like everyone else, out to maximise benefit for themselves. Since, in Chinese eyes, the nomads are not only selfish but ignorant and backward, unaware of the consequences of their grazing animals on land that they do not own, and then they inevitably overgraze, which threatens Chin’s number one water tower. So the necessary conclusion of this chain of logic, faulty at every step, is that, for the sake of “ecology” grazing must be banned and the nomads removed, to be civilised by the roadside.

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