Snuffing out the nomads?

Monday, February 23, 2009
Tashi Tsering

A friend brought this Reuters article to my attention. He was baffled by the sheer number of Tibetan herders that the article says will be relocated. According to the article, there are 530,000 nomads in Western Sichuan Province, out of which 470,000 herders will be resettled in the name of environmental protection. If these numbers are true, that’s the last of the nomads in Sichuan. He said this is effectively “a kind of nomad genocide.” Although I never thought of this as such, I was pleased to see that at least someone was paying attention to this issue.

As evident from my earlier postings, I have been very concerned about the many large scale ecological resettlement projects going on in Tibet. To me, this is a far more serious issue than high profile topics such as Hillary Clinton’s China visit or the arrest of monk protestors. Precisely because the resettlement project is a low profile, politically-correct sounding policy, I think it is one of the most far-sighted strategies of the Chinese state to deal with several serious problems on the Tibetan Plateau at the same time. To kill many birds with one stone as they say.

China has designated many areas on the Tibetan Plateau for different environmental protection goals and for experimental purposes. Local people living in these regions are usually forced to sell their yaks and then resettled somewhere. I haven’t dug into the numbers yet, but it is clear from Xinhua and other official reports that several hundred thousand people, mostly nomads and pastoralists, are being resettled from these “protected” areas. This Science magazine article, for example, talks about government plans for the “ecological migration” of nomadic herders living around Kokonor Lake (Tso Ngon) to restore the region’s “degraded” ecology. The power of scientific and environmental discourse makes these projects sound like noble endeavors. How could anyone oppose protection of wetlands, lakes, and endangered animal species?

There are other benefits of resettling Tibetan herders. The government wants to provide access to education, health, postal system and other development schemes in every corner of the country. Promotion of economic development, especially in politically volatile regions, is an important strategy for promoting state legitimacy. The Tibetan herders have been a major problem to state policy makers in this regard. Statistics reflect these people poorly on both economic and human development scales, for which the government receives a lot of criticism, but it is difficult for the government to provide them access to development due to their nomadic and subsistence lifestyle. So settling them in housing colonies is the obvious way to deal with this.

The Tibetan nomadic lifestyle is the heart of the traditional Tibetan economy, which is reliant on yaks and goats and herding of animals. It represents the spirit of Tibet to many people. Romantic notions of Tibetan nomadic life are popular not only among Tibetans and Westerners but also among Chinese people. The government could not have settled the nomads by calling their lifestyle “backward” or “primitive.” The perfect excuse to do this, thus, is within the context of environmental protection. Rallying support for environmental protection on the Tibetan Plateau is easy. Tibet is known for its “biodiversity hotspots”, pristine lakes, old growth forests, “fragile grasslands”, and for being “China’s Water Tower.” And resettling people from nature reserve parks is not a new idea but a well tested strategy. States around the world have declared many areas inhabited by troublesome indigenous peoples as nature reserves in order to control and assimilate them into the economy.

The real issue is not about a clash between romantic notions of the Tibetan nomadic lifestyle and state development. It is about choices, whether the herders have a say in the policies that shape their lives. Do the herders have a choice whether to resettle or not? The issue is also about scientific management. Is it scientifically appropriate to remove herders and halt grazing on the Tibetan Plateau? Julia Klein, a scientist who specializes in climate change impact on the Tibetan Plateau, says that the ecology of the region “is a system that has evolved with grazing; the removal of grazing from the system could have profound ecological consequences.”

Going back to the topic of “nomad genocide,” I wonder if anyone has actually done some research on the numbers. I can only hope the figures quoted in the Reuters article are inaccurate. I wonder how many people have really been resettled so far, and how many more are yet to be resettled? If any of you readers have any information, please let me know. Thanks for reading this, and spread the word!

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