China: Hard times for nomads in Tibet

Across the grasslands of northern China, ethnic minority nomads are being systematically relocated into settled communities as part of a process known as "ecological migration." The government's ostensible goal is to restore degraded grasslands, but many believe this is a convenient way for the state to assert greater control over minority people and their territories, and to facilitate natural resource exploitation.

Since the mid 1990s, “ecological migration” has been used to describe the planned relocation of people from areas under environmental pressure. It was adopted as official state policy in 2002. The major target of this policy has been the Sanjiangyuan (“Three river sources”) region of Qinghai on the Tibetan Plateau, which encompasses the headwaters of three major Asian rivers: the Yellow River, the Yangtze River, and Mekong River.

In the 2005, China’s central government launched a massive project to protect and strengthen the ecology of the region – considered key to securing the country’s future water and mineral supplies – by creating the second-largest nature reserve in the world. Central to this programme has been the relocation and settlement of over tens of thousands Tibetan nomadic herders into camps evocative of those built for First Nations people in the United States.

By 2011, 60,000 Tibetan herders had been cajoled and forcibly transplanted into new villages, and deposited on the edge of Han Chinese towns to counteract the supposed effects of overgrazing. Today, they live in poorly built houses, with inadequate services and often no employment opportunities.

Tibetan nomads have struggled to adjust to urban living. Relocation has taken away their livelihood: they are not herders anymore, but nor are they farmers or urban workers, and poverty has become a major problem. For many, government compensation has been inadequate, especially as inflation drives up costs while subsidies remain the same

Tibetan ex-herders do not have Chinese language and other skills needed to earn an income in the towns. While some are employed as unskilled construction labourers, most are subsisting only on temporary subsidies and income from digging caterpillar fungus.

Some nomads had hoped to improve their lives by moving into towns. But they have not only lost their traditional way of life, but also suffer what they call the “four hardships”: not being able to afford meat, milk, butter tea or heating fuel. Any optimism has dissipated along with their standard of living.

Resettlement areas have major social problems, with some unemployed herders turning to crime; they have come to be seen as “no-go areas” by locals and been given nicknames such as “robber villages.”

The social and cultural disruption caused by the resettlement projects has been so severe that an academic from the Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University, pointed out that the locations of recent wave of Tibetan self-immolations correspond, “with a few exceptions”, to areas of intensive resettlement.

Even the environmental efficacy of this project is questioned by experts. Recent studies suggest that overgrazing may not in fact be the major driver of environmental degradation; other factors such as climate change also play important roles.

There are certainly greater threats to the Tibetan Plateau than the overgrazing of yaks and goats. Recent information has revealed that the borders of the Sanjiangyuan national park have been redrawn to allow extensive gold mining in the environmentally sensitive area around the headwaters of the Yellow River. This provides fresh evidence that China's plans to protect the headwaters of the plateau are disingenuous. Exploration work that is now being carried out by Inter-Citic, a Canadian mining company, has caused damage, far beyond anything nomads’ herds could ever do.

Between 1980 and 2003, China established over 70 nature reserve parks across Tibet. But at the same time, mining and infrastructure projects across the fragile region have gathered momentum. Construction on the plateau now includes the proposed largest dam in the world on the Yarlung Zangbo River; the longest electricity power grid ever constructed at such high altitudes; a massive extension of the world’s highest railway; and continued development of one of Asia’s largest mining projects, in Qinghai province.

The rights of Tibetan nomads have been sacrificed in the name of environmental preservation, but removing nomads has facilitated development projects in the region and the problems created by this social engineering scheme are only beginning to emerge.

Related resources:

For more information, look out for MRG's State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 report (published 28 June).

Photo: Tibetan nomads at Nam Tso lake, Tibet. Credit: mackaysavage.

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Date: 26/06/2012




State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012
Land Rights

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