Monday, 28 January 2013


On 25 January 2013, two major announcements were made by China’s official news media: the plan to invest over 3.5 billion Yuan to protect environment and creation of a new county in Nagchu Prefecture in the so called Tibet Autonomous Region (comprising western half of the historical Tibet).

China daily reported that according to the draft budget of 2013 submitted by the finance department of the so called Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), "the region plans to invest 3.5 billion Yuan (USD 563 million) in 2013 […] in environmental protection”. The report further stated that most of the investment (3.23 billion) will be used for “major forestation projects and for compensating and rewarding locals who protect grass and forests, and conserve wetlands, lakes and water resources”. Besides, “over 50 million Yuan will be allocated to support environment improvement projects and preserve resources”. The investment will also “support the building of an ecological safety screen on the plateau”, report said.

Although any investment in environment protection in Tibet is welcoming but it remains to be seen whether these ventures, especially forestation, can help heal the ecological damage caused by decades of failed policies and mismanagement in Tibet. In the recent years, scientists and conservation groups have voiced concerns about the long-term viability of significant aspects of China’s reforestation efforts. Of greatest concern is the planting of large swaths of non-native tree species, many of which perish because their water needs are too great for the arid regions in which they are planted. China also is cultivating large monoculture plantations that harbor little biodiversity.

After an extensive analysis of one such “afforestation” efforts, Beijing Forestry University scientist Shixiong Cao and five co-authors found that, over time, as many as 85 percent of the plantings fail due to the introduction of non-native or maladapted species (Earth Science Review 2011). Jianchu Xu, senior scientist at the World Agroforestry Centre and a professor at the Kunming Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Science, pointed out that plantation forests tend to be driven by commercial considerations aspiring to get economic benefit in the form of saw timber, fiber for the pulp and paper industry, rubber, and even food in the form of fruit (Nature 2012).

Chinese government must understand that merely carrying out big reforestation program is far from enough. The non-native species over years or decades deplete the soil moisture on the surface and at depth, leading to lowering of the water table and high rates of tree mortality when tree roots can no longer reach deep soil water. Therefore, only native species which function in equilibrium with the resources available to it should be restored and promoted during such programs with no commercial considerations, whatsoever. 

On the same day, Xinhua reported the formation of a new county in Nagchu Prefecture (ནག་ཆུ་རྫོང་) of the so called Tibet Autonomous Region.  After approval by the State Council, the present Shuanghu Special district (མཚོ་གཉིས་དོན་གཅོད་ཁྲུའུ་) whose administrative affairs were previously managed by departments in nearby Nyima County (300km away), will be “upgraded to become the World’s highest county”, report said. The Shuanghu Special District (Shuanghu for short) originates from the previous Shuanghu office which was established in 1976 "to develop and construct the depopulated zone in North Tibet by sending 5,000 herdsmen along with half a million livestock".

Location of Shuanghu Special District (in red) within Nagchu Prefecture of the so called Tibet Autonomous Region. Source: wikipedia

With an average altitude of 5,000 meters and an average temperature of minus 13 degrees Celsius, the 116,000-sq km area of Shuanghu comprises seven villages with a total population of over 12,000. The Shuanghu region covers two-thirds of Hoh Xil nature reserve. With long winter, harsh climate, poor road, and high risk of natural disasters, Shuanghu is labeled as “human life limit laboratory”.

It needs to be seen if Tibetans will get any benefit in terms of their right to self-determination after Shuanghu becomes a full functioning county. Needless to say, any infrastructural development in the region should be in accordance with the wishes of Tibetans and sustainability of environment.

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