For millennia Tibetan nomads have been living on the Tibetan Plateau, however since China’s invasion in Tibet in 1949, millions of nomads have been forced off their land.
The Chinese Government is using the impact of climate change on the Tibetan plateau was a means to whitewash their politically motivated reasons for forcing Tibetan nomads off their land, claiming that resettlement increases living standards and accuse nomads of ‘over-grazing land’. In reality the Chinese government wants to clear the grasslands in order to achieve a range of social, political and economic goals: greater political control over Tibetans and the exploitation of Tibet’s natural resources like minerals and water.
For close to 9000 years nomads have co-existed with Tibet’s unique environment as one interdependent ecosystem and consequently their way of life is intimately related to the territory. Resettlement is a Death Sentence to Tibetan nomads and Tibet’s culture.
1. Myth: China says grassland degradation in Tibet is caused by over-grazing. The solution is the removal of nomads: called “tuimu huancao” meaning ‘removing animals to grow grassland’. China is therefore engaged in responsible environmental conservation, creating vast nature reserves that have global benefits.
Fact: Tibet’s nomads have lived sustainably on the grasslands for almost 9,000 years. Their mobility and skill ensured the grasslands were not over-grazed. A recent scientific study by Chinese scientists calculated that climate change (see below) – not land use – was responsible for 81% of grassland degradation near the headwaters of the Yangtze on the Tibetan plateau (joint study by China Academy of Sciences, the China Meteorological Administration and other academic bodies.) Degradation is also linked to the disastrous collectivization policy from the 1960s to 1980s when nomads were forced to live in communes and increase herd sizes to intensify meat production. The role of nomads in any solution is increasingly recognized among Chinese, Tibetan and Western scholars (examples include Liu Shurun, Katherine Morton, Daniel Miller).
2. Myth: China says the nomads need to be removed to mitigate the effects of Climate Change and protect China’s Number One Water Tower. Huge areas require “treatment” to reverse desertification and degradation of the rangelands.
Fact: Tibet is called the Earth’s Third Pole because it has some 40,000 glaciers, storing more freshwater than any other region except the North and South poles. Chinese meteorologists say Tibet is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world (0.3º increase per decade; study by the Tibet Autonomous Region Meteorological Bureau, 2007). At present rates, almost two thirds of the glaciers on the plateau could be gone by 2060, according to Chinese glaciologist Yao Tandong (quoted in China Daily, 2004). These glaciers feed the rivers that are the lifeblood of Asia, providing water for more than one billion people in ten nations downstream of Tibet. Since invading and occupying Tibet in 1949, China’s policies of mining, urbanization and infrastructure development have aggravated the environmental degradation that is affecting the quantity and quality of Tibet’s grasslands and water resources. These policies may also be accelerating warming of the plateau. (Oliver W Frauenfeld and Tingjun Zhang, “Is Climate Change on the Tibetan Plateau Driven by Land Use/Cover Change?”, 2005.)
Grasslands that are not grazed lose biodiversity, and inedible shrubs start to take over (sources Klein, JA; Harte, J; Zhao, XQ, 2007). Chinese scholar Wang Xiaoyi from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences says that after years of investment to tackle desertification in Inner Mongolia there is no sign of degradation coming to an end or even slowing. Another Chinese scholar, Liu Shurun, said “Why has so much effort achieved so little? Is it because the underlying policy is wrong?” Liu Shirun advocates a return to the nomadic style of living and production (see chinadialogue.net). In Tibet China has no program of treatment of degraded pasture, no budget or employment to sow seeds and carefully rehabilitate degraded areas.
3. Myth: China says that the nomadic way of life is against modern, socialist society and resettlement will improve the lives of nomads. Resettled nomads have access to electricity and television; their children can go to school for the full nine compulsory years. Their measurable cash income will be higher than before, and they can transition to the modern economy.
Fact: A number of Chinese scientists have challenged the policy of displacing Tibet’s nomads. Drawing on studies of townships in Tibetan areas, as well as Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang, where China began coercively “settling” nomadic people in the 1950s and 1980s respectively, scientists have found that the policy is creating unemployment, poverty, loss of social cohesion, community and family breakdowns, alcoholism and crime. One field researcher observed in 2007 that the new permanent housing was creating “inner city”-type problems even in small rural towns. Such problems include the concentration of poverty, high levels of unemployment, and increased dependency on the state for subsistence. Some resettlement villages already are being called ‘theft schools’”. See also Feng Yongfeng, www.chinadialogue.net October 2008.
Nomads may incur debt to pay for house instruction, may have to sign an undertaking not to keep any animals, and their land use certificates are nullified, so they have no right to return to their old pastures. Although they are promised compensation, provision of survival rations, vocational training, schooling for their children, access to electricity and urban services, the ground reality is that in many resettlement blocks there is no school and almost no adult education providing useful vocational skills, in a language the nomads understand. (Source Human Rights Watch, Free Tibet)
4. Myth: China says settlement is voluntary. Noone is forced to settle against their will.
Fact: There are strong human rights concerns about the way China is implementing its nomad policy. In their 2007 report, Human Rights Watch said “the relocations often have not been carried out transparently, with the advance consultation and post-relocation compensation required under both domestic and international law” (See ‘No-one Has Liberty to Refuse’ link below)
ICT writes in ‘Tracking the Steel Dragon’ “Resettlement policies are generally implemented without consultation or consent, and local people have no right to challenge them or refuse to participate. This is despite the fact that Chinese law requires that those who are to be moved off their land or are to have their property confiscated must be consulted, and, if they are moved, compensated for their losses.”
There is a long history in China of millions of people forced to relocate to make way for dams, who are promised land and a higher income than before, which usually fails to materialize, with several independent research reports verifying such negative development outcomes.
5. Myth: China says nomads can go back. Xinhua quoted a local official saying in October 2006 “Relocation greatly transforms the life of herders, but if they want to go back to the grasslands to continue raising livestock, there won’t be any interference. The government respects the right to choose of herders”. (Xinhua: “The ecological resettlement work in the Three rivers area perfectly respect the right to choose of Tibetan herders”.)
Fact: Human Rights Watch’s research also found that some Tibetan herders were told their relocation was only a temporary measure to allow for rejuvenation of the pasture; one Tibetan in Golok said he had been told herders could return to their pasturelands after 10 years. Human Rights Watch concluded that resettlement was “an experience characterized not by choice and consultation, but often by coercion and arbitrary action.” However, such promises by officials should be upheld, and nomads allowed to return. In some areas, a few nomads have managed to return, but not legally.