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Depopulating the Tibetan grasslands: national policies and perspectives for the future of Tibetan herders in Qinghai Province, China

22 / 07 / 2008, Eldis Biodiversity

Tibetan grasslands constitute one of the most important grazing ecosystems in the world and encompass the source areas of many major Asian rivers. While a variety of government policies have been applied in recent years to protect the ecology and biodiversity of China’s grasslands, there is growing concern that national and global economic considerations have overshadowed emerging conservation agendas. This article critically reviews several key policies affecting pastoralists, with special attention given to the Sanjiangyuan region of Qinghai Province. The document finds that since 2000, when the Western Development Strategy began, China and the world have come to recognize the global importance of the Tibetan plateau region, both as a “water tower” and as a geographic region with a unique natural and cultural heritage. In practice, however, emphasis has been primarily on conservation matters, including the establishment in 2003 of the second largest nature reserve in the world. In many instances, the socio-cultural impact has been dramatic, demanding much of local people including change/loss of livelihoods and breakdown of community ties.Specific impacts noted include:

the resettlement of villages has occurred as a result of the “Ecological Migration” policy, a dramatic attempt to protect the ecology and biodiversity of the headwaters of the Yellow, Yangtze, and Mekong rivers
a fairly rapid transition from a rural “nomadic” lifestyle toward the increased sedentarization has taken place following the “Four way scheme” to alleviate poverty in rural Qinghai. This has led to a decrease in seasonal mobility and flexibility within livestock management practices, essential components of  Tibetan nomadic pastoralism for centuries
families have been asked to move off the grassland and to adopt new livelihoods in farming or to live in new towns, as part of the Western Development Strategy
the full application in 2007 of the long-standing 9-year compulsory education law requires all children between the ages of 7 and 11 to begin primary education, and complete 9 years of education.

Despite some benefits of these policies, the author argues that the speed and apparent resolve with which such sociocultural and development transitions are being introduced in grassland areas raise the important question whether there is any other way by which so-called “sustainable development” (and biodiversity conservation) can come effectively to the Tibetan grasslands before all alternative doors are closed.The article proposes a contrasting and more people-centered approach to conservation and development, drawing on nearly 10 years’ experience of active collaboration with local communities, NGOs, and government authorities in the headwaters of the Yangtze River. Citing the success of the Yangtze River Headwaters Sustainable Development Project - a collaborative development project of Plateau Perspectives, the Upper Yangtze Organization, and the Government of Zhiduo County - it argues that a model for combining conservation and development through genuine community participation could usefully be applied more widely in China’s grasslands, and possibly more generally throughout western China.

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