Tibet’s rangeland with an average altitude of 4500 meters, covers approximately 70% of Tibet’s total area. The Alpine grassland at high altitude occupies over 60% of the total rangeland in Tibet. Pastoralism on the Tibetan Plateau is an adaptation to a cold environment at elevations above the limit of cultivation. Consequently, pastoral nomads of Tibet have maintained a unique pastoral culture for more than 8000 years. Tibet’s grasslands represent one of the last remaining agropastoral regions in the world. The pasturelands are made habitable through the co-existence of the Tibetan people and their yaks. According to recent archaeological fieldwork, the Tibetan Plateau has been used extensively by pastoral nomads, who developed deep understanding of grassland dynamics and veterinary knowledge for close to 9,000 years.
According to one UNDP report (2007), Tibet’s grasslands are turning into desert at the rate of 2,330 sq. km per year. Apart from the natural climate warming and its feedback, various anthropogenic (human-induced) factors are also responsible for accelerating the process of grassland degradation. China’s introduction of different grassland policies over the years has threatened the sustainability of this fragile environmental balance. The overall plan during the periods of ‘Collectivization and Household Responsibility’ was to maximize the agricultural production from the grasslands. During that era, almost 20 million hectares of grassland in Tibet and Inner Mongolia were converted to croplands. Tibetan Plateau’s alpine grasslands has been plowed and exposed to hazardous chemical fertilizers causing severe degradation of grasslands.
However, Chinese government has been accusing drogpas, making them scapegoats for causing the grassland degradation and is planning to forcibly resettle all nomads in permanent structures in order to protect their precious water tower! Chinese government’s implementation of the policy to settle Tibetan nomads has led to increasing poverty, environmental degradation and social breakdown. Tibetan nomads, in reality, are the expert custodians of the alpine pastures and their mobile lifestyle prevents the grasslands from overgrazing. Recent researchers have also indicated that managed grazing on these grasslands could actually help to restore the degraded grasslands, and maintain a wider biodiversity of indigenous species of grasses, forbs and medicinally useful plants.
With latest policy of restoring the grasslands (2003), these pastures are now being depopulated in huge scales, making them accessible and more prone to extractive industries and small scale miners. According to the latest statistics, 1.43 million pastoralists have been removed from their ancestral grounds and are being put in concrete blocks. Their lifestyle has been totally changed from once independent, self sufficient pasture dwellers to those who now depend on state rations for their daily sustenance. It is high time that the PRC policy makers should work on the principle of collaborative management attending to the needs of these pastoralists.
Therefore, far from being ‘selfish’, ‘stupid’ or ‘ignorant’ of the consequences of grazing, as China supposes, Tibetan nomads has actually been the natural resource managers over millennia. If at all, the implementation of the current grassland law is necessary to protect the grasslands or the Chinese water tower, why the nomads are excluded and their past experiences are not valued? They could play a key role in rehabilitating the degraded pastures.