Policies for an eco-plateau

Climate change poses new threats to life on the grasslands of the Tibetan plateau. Beth Walker introduces a week-long series about government responses to the challenge, their environmental and social effects.

Tibetan grasslands constitute one of the most important grazing ecosystems in the world. Since 2000, when China began its “Western Development Strategy”, the global significance of the Tibetan plateau region has been widely recognised, both as the “third pole” – a water tower upon which around 40% of the world’s population depend – and as a geographic region with a unique natural and cultural heritage.

Traditional pastoralism, and to a lesser extent subsistence hunting, have been practiced in this high-altitude, fragile ecosystem for over 5,000 years. However, climate change is now leading to historically unprecedented pressures. For example, at the centre of the plateau at the source of the Yellow River, over one-third of the grasslands have transformed into semi-desert conditions.

The Chinese government has introduced a number of policies aimed at reversing this trend and protecting the ecology and biodiversity of the grasslands over the last decades. Since the 1980s, these have included the assignment of property rights and the fencing of rangeland. As the Western Development Strategy began, the first programme to be adopted and implemented was a nationwide environmental restoration program. The “farmland to forest” policy, or “grain to green” (tuigeng huanlin), which converted steep cultivated land to forest, was one of the most important initiatives. In grassland areas, it is known as the “pastures to grassland” policy (tuimu huancao). The basic premise of this policy is that a decade of respite from livestock grazing is necessary for degraded grassland to be restored to its natural state, and therefore domestic livestock – and their herders – should be moved away. Now, new fencing is being erected at an unprecedented rate in rural grassland areas.

However, this policy has been recently overshadowed by another attempt to conserve the region, known as “ecological migration” (shengtai yimin). 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, situated in the centre of the Tibetan plateau, which encompasses the headwaters of three major Asian rivers: the Yellow River, the Yangtze River, and Mekong River. In 2003, the area became the second-largest nature reserve in the world, as well as the highest and most extensive wetland protected area.

Now, tens of thousands of families have been asked to move from these fragile grassland areas and adopt new livelihoods in farming, or to live in new towns. In Qinghai, for example, 35 resettlement communities have already been built and 51 more are under construction. According to government plans, over 100,000 people (17% of the region’s population) will have been relocated from Sanjiangyuan by the start of this year, with the aim of restoring the grassland ecosystem.

However, these resettlement projects have raised serious concerns, mainly among academics, about the policy and its effects on minority groups in China. According to some scholars, these kinds of projects have historically been as much about the urbanisation of nomadic peoples (in this case, mostly ethnic Tibetans and Mongolians), as they have been about protecting the environment. Moreover, recent studies have suggested that overgrazing may not in fact be the major driver of environmental degradation

In her article for chinadialogue tomorrow, “Restoring the grasslands?”, Emily Yeh reviews recent Chinese government grassland policies and relocation programmes. Yeh writes that recent studies suggest the environmental and social benefits of such measures have been overstated. Later in the week, Judith Shapiro looks in detail at the tragic history of the Lakota Sioux in the American state of South Dakota, and asks what China can learn from the sad history of Native American resettlement.

Beth Walker is a researcher at chinadialogue’s “the third pole” project
Homepage image by reurinkjan