Rangeland Ecosystem & Pastoralism in Tibet

A review of From “Retire Livestock, Restore Rangeland” to the Compensation for Ecological Services: State Interventions into Rangeland Ecosystem and Pastoralism in Tibet, by Yönten Nyima.

In the last decade, circulating narratives considering the grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau as degraded and over-exploited, and presenting serious ecological problems as consequences of human interventions have become quite common in academic and non-academic literature. Nevertheless, an accurate analysis of the actual situation of the grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau is more difficult to find. The grasslands of the “roof of the world” thus remain in this fuzzy perspective and the questions arising about the extent, the significance and the forms of their degradation are barely answered. Yönten Nyima’s dissertation inserts itself in this field of unanswered questions and produces some concrete analysis based on fieldwork and analysis of government documents. This is the evident merit of this dissertation: to relate concrete materials to the current ecological situation of one specific region of the Tibetan Plateau, Nagchu Prefecture (Tibet Autonomous Region, TAR).

Throughout the dissertation, Yönten Nyima emphasizes two main opposing discourses: the State discourse on the degradation problems of the grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau and Tibetan pastoralists’ narratives. Why are these so different? What is behind this discrepancy? The answer that Yönten Nyima offers is based on the assumption that the ecological interventions of any nation-state are essentially political actions over territory and population (see Arun Agrawal, “Environmentality: Community, Intimate Government and Environmental Subjects in Kumaon, India”, Current Anthropology 46, 2005, pp. 161-190; Arturo Escobar, Encountering Development: the Making and Unmaking of the Third World, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995; James Ferguson, The Anti-Politics Machine: Development, Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990). The starting point of this dissertation is thus that the environmental programs promoted by the Chinese government during the last decades are political interventions over the Tibetan Plateau. From this assumption, Yönten Nyima guides us into a study of the overlapping politics promoted by the Chinese government for “protecting” the grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau. This approach shows the politics behind the ecological discourses of both State actors and Tibetan pastoralists.

Tibetan pastoralists consider themselves to be living in an environment which is closely interlinked with animals and rangeland. In the dedication of the dissertation, Yönten Nyima quotes a pastoralist as saying that “Pastoralists depend on livestock and livestock on rangeland (mgo nag brten sa spu nag, spu nag brten sa spang spu)” (p. v). According to Yönten Nyima, these are the three elements which should be taken into account when analyzing the conditions of the Tibetan Plateau. Problems arise since the Chinese government does not take into account the livestock element in promoting its policies and programs for recovering or protecting the Tibetan Plateau natural environment. The consequence is that these official analyses miss the pivotal element linking together the other two elements of the system presented by Yönten Nyima. All the programs promoted by the Chinese government for preserving or restoring the environment of the Tibetan Plateau do not take into account livestock. Yet, for the Tibetan pastoralists interviewed by Yönten Nyima, livestock should be central.

From this discrepancy between the State and pastoralists’ discourses, Yönten Nyima considers three common theories about pastoralist societies employed by the Chinese authorities for analyzing the situation and implementing environmental programs on the grasslands. These are the equilibrial ecosystem theory (J.E. Ellis, M.B. Coughenour and D.M. Swift, “Climate Variability, Ecosystem Stability, and the Implication for Range and Livestock Development” in R.H. Behnke et. al. eds., Range Ecology at Disequilibrium: New Models of Natural Variability and Pastoral Adaptation in African Savannas, London: Overseas Development Institute, 1993, pp. 31-41; Nathan F. Sayre, “The Genesis, History, and Limits of Carrying Capacity”, Annals of the Association of American Geography 98, 2008, pp. 120-134), the Tragedy of the Commons theory (Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons”, Science 163, 1968, pp. 1243-1248) and the Cattle Complex theory (M.J. Herskovits, “The Cattle Complex in East Africa”, American Anthropologist 28, 1926, pp. 361-388). According to Yönten Nyima, this theoretical framework within which the environmental programs of the Chinese government are generated is wrong. He argues that these theories are not applicable to the case of the Tibetan Plateau grasslands and that the intentions behind these environmental programs are closely linked to political aims.

Through the example of Nagchu’s grasslands, Yönten Nyima challenges these theories of pastoralism showing their inconsistency in the case of the Tibetan Plateau. Nevertheless, he also argues that these theories and scientific discourses act in these regions as “received wisdoms” and prevent local people from illustrating to the Chinese authorities their suggestions related to grassland management. Yönten Nyima thus applies this theoretical framework to two environmental programs which the Chinese government has introduced during the last decade. The aim is to understand the political logics behind them, their inconsistencies for solving environmental problems and the way in which they are perceived by local pastoralists.

These programs are the “tuimu huancao” 退牧还草 (retire livestock, restore pastures) introduced in 2003, and the “destocking policy under the Compensation for Ecosystem Services (CES)” introduced in 2009. Yönten Nyima analyzes the implementation of these programs in Nagchu. Firstly, he describes pastoralists’ practices and rangeland management before the introduction of the Rangeland Household Responsibility System during the 1980s. He argues that this system was introduced to avoid the logics of the Tragedy of the Commons theory. Nevertheless, official narratives claiming that there was subsequently an extension of degradation problems over the grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau led to further environmental programs. Yönten Nyima explains that the elements justifying these claims were not based on scientific data and studies, but on generic assumptions and an institutionalized process of “copy-pasting” language from previous official reports in order to promote new programs within the bureaucratic apparatus of the Chinese government. The consequences, according to the author, are the deeper and deeper discrepancy between the environmental programs introduced by the high hierarchies of Chinese government and the actual ecological situation of the grasslands. Local bureaux of the government, even if they are aware of the actual situation of the grasslands, have to follow national plans and to reproduce the national narratives in order to obtain governmental funds. Yönten Nyima thus illustrates this bureaucratic mechanism which, according to him, is not democratic at all since control over and evaluation of the State’s actions is not enjoyed by the people who live with the results of these policies, but by the higher rungs of government.

This was the case for the implementation of the “tuimu huancao” and CES’s destocking programs. The first, aimed to reduce and recover the rangelands ecosystem from degradation through fencing, seeding grass, grazing and restrictions bans. Yönten Nyima reports that this program has been applied in areas where, according to old pastoralists, rangeland conditions have not changed since they were young, or it has caused important economic damages to pastoralists. The logic leading the “tuimu huancao” was not the protection of the grasslands, but the fulfillment, at a local level, of the central government’s expectations. The CES’s destocking program has been similar. The central government, according to theories such as the Cattle Complex and equilibrial ecosystem, decided to reduce the livestock pressure on the grasslands, imputing to livestock the responsibility of environmental degradation. Yet, Tibetan pastoralists and, according to Yönten Nyima, also local authorities do not agree with this assumption. According to them, livestock reduction will cause greater damage since the livestock is an essential element of the grassland ecosystem, which according to the author is a non-equilibrial ecosystem. Nevertheless, this program has been applied during the last years ignoring local people critiques and suggestions.

Yönten Nyima suggests a “way-out” of this governmental impasse which he refers to as the “middle-way approach.” He argues that the actual plan of the Chinese government is not to protect or restore the grasslands, rather it is to transform traditional pastoralism in accordance with current economic and political aims. The benefits of these environmental programs cannot be analyzed because we lack data on the previous as well as current situation of the grassland ecosystem. Nevertheless, transformations in the lifestyle of local people can already be studied. Tibetan pastoralists, in the areas explored by Yönten Nyima, have changed their practices and developed new “desires” linked to the transformations of their lifestyle brought about by these environmental programs. Yönten Nyima also argues that pastoralists do not reject all the plans that the government wants to implement in their region, but they rather wish that their points of view would be listened to by the Chinese authorities and taken into account in policy-making processes. Yönten Nyima claims that if in some areas these plans have failed, in some others they have actually brought some benefits to the grasslands as well as local people. This has happened when environmental programs have been implemented after negotiations with local pastoralists. The middle-way approach suggested by Yönten Nyima is closely linked to this claim. If the Chinese government elaborates and implements environmental policies taking into account local people’s suggestions and points of view, and combines traditional forms of pastoralism with development strategies, this could be beneficial for the government, which could thus implement its policies without having to manage local people’s resistance. At the same time, it could be beneficial for the pastoralists, who could enjoy better living conditions through development policies that allow them to continue their previous pastoralist practices. Finally, the middle-way approach suggested by Yönten Nyima could be beneficial to the grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau, which could be protected and restored as well as exploited according to the Chinese state plans and the practices and desires of local people.

Elisa Cencetti
Young Scholar of IRIS
École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), Paris

Primary Sources

TAR Counties Bureaux of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry
Grassland Monitoring and Supervision Center
Rangeland Research Center of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences
National Agricultural Technology Extension and Service Center

Dissertation Information

University of Colorado Boulder. 2012. 312 pp. Primary Advisor: Emily T. Yeh.


Image: Photograph by Yönten Nyima.

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