By Dukthen Kyi*
The Tibetan plateau extends over 2.5 million square kilometers of which 70 per cent is covered by grasslands. The grasslands mean differently to different peoples. As Drakyom Palzang, a local Tibetan in Amdo Ngaba’s Dzoge county tackling desertification in the area had said, “for the scientists, a grassland is part of the ecosystem, for businesspeople it is a way to profit, for herders it is a home.”
“A nomad’s life used to be a great one. When I worked at a nomad’s household in Gertse [county] in Ngari before coming to India, they would give us plenty to eat: meat, curd, milk, and everything,” Tsewang, who left Tibet in March 2008 recalls from his days in Tibet. “Now Tibetan nomads in Gertse are bankrupt” he lamented.
Ngari [Ch: Ali Prefecture] is over 1,400 kilometers on the west of Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, in Central Tibet, and has six counties under its jurisdiction. For Tsewang, memories of his nomadic life are clearer than his age. “Gertse is largely nomadic. Earlier, each village in Gertse comprising of 3-7 households would own more than a thousand sheep, 500-600 Dri and Yaks, a couple dozen horses and some goats who were all free to graze over the vast, open hills.” He explained that in the recent times, most nomadic families have sold their herds to Chinese people who purchased the animals for their meat. For Tsewang’s family and other Tibetan nomads, their herd is literally the source of their bread and butter. “Nomads without their livestock is like farmers without farms.” Tsewang added.
Last month, Radio Free Asia reported the Chinese authorities’ removal of Tibetan nomads from their traditional grazing areas in Darlag county in Amdo Golog, which is incorporated with China’s Qinghai province. “The Chinese authorities ordered them off the land while they were grazing,” said RFA‘s source. Those who did not meet the deadline of August 23 were fined 1,000 Yuan (USD 152) each. Tibetan nomads have long followed their custom of releasing their herds in the open hills. Hence, this restriction on grazing by the Chinese officials startled the herders.
For years, China has undertaken restrictive policies and imposed bans on the nomadic practices to “restore grassland” and avoid “desertification”. However, researchers both inside and outside China have raised their doubts on this theory. Fencing of pastures and relocating nomads into settlements changed the nomads’ lives for the worse. Now jobless and having “lost the life that [..] ancestors have practiced for thousands of years“, the relocated nomads are having trouble making ends meet. “[This] idea that herders destroy the grassland is just an excuse to displace people,” Enghebatu Togochog, the director of the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center was quoted as saying in a New York Times article.
Drakyom Palzang has spent the last seven years combating desertification in Dzoge county. With the help of 800 local herders and allowing a “certain amount of grazing”, 10,000 mu of desert has turned green again. Palzang mentioned that “listening to local herders has been key to restoring grasslands” in Dzoge by using “ways which have been passed down the generations.”
As China plans the designation of the world’s largest national park on the Tibetan plateau and succeeded in getting UNESCO world heritage site status for Kokoxili, Beijing would benefit from consulting local Tibetans and including them in decision-making procedures. Ultimately, the local Tibetan herders are the real stewards of the grasslands and there is no taking that legitimate right away from them.
*Dukthen Kyi is United Nations and Human Rights Officer at DIIR