Tibet: Nomads caught between climate change and government ‘conservation’

The impacts of climate change on the Tibetan Plateau – melting glaciers, river runoff, rising lakes and increasing rainfall – are well known. Yet the impacts on Tibetans themselves, numbering some 6 million people and occupying almost 2 per cent of the planet’s land, attract far less attention. Instead the focus is almost entirely geopolitical, on global impacts and global responses: actual Tibetan land managers are absent, even though they make land-use decisions daily in a climate that has always been highly variable, requiring great skill in living with uncertainty.

First, the bigger picture. The glacial sources of Asia’s great rivers, at 6,000 to 8,000 metres above sea level, overlooking the vast Tibetan Plateau, are melting fast. Despite some initial confusion within the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as to the likely rate of ice loss, there is now no disputing the accelerating mass imbalance. Similarly, the overtopping of the lakes and heightened river flows are by now all well documented, especially in Chinese scientific publications.

This is where the consensus stops. Although Tibet is the most inhabited of cryospheres, it is also out of bounds to international media and human rights activists. As a result, the experiences of local communities at the frontline of climate change are neither heard nor acknowledged. In the absence of Tibetan voices, the significance of rapid warming is argued by states, scientists and geoengineers, all seeking global results.

For China, short of water for industry, agribusiness and urbanization, increased runoff is a dividend; likewise the prospect of a coming climate more able to support crops and forest species familiar to lowland China. Water provision from Tibet has become the top priority for China’s central planners, resulting in the zoning of prime grassland landscapes as national parks from which most Tibetan pastoralists are excluded, in the name of guaranteeing water retention and downstream provision. This is part of the Chinese government’s strategy to control the hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of alpine meadow between the glaciers and lowland China, which the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers ow through. Ultimately, the official policy is to return huge areas to their original, pristine state as grassland wilderness, ignoring millennia of landscape curation by nomadic herders.

China’s dividend of increased river flows due to glacier melt will turn to de cit when the glaciers are gone. That will take most of this century, it seems, far away enough for little immediate concern, and perhaps compensated for by increasing precipitation. For thousands of years, lake levels across Tibet have been slowly falling, as monsoon rains reaching into Tibet from the Bay of Bengal through the Himalayas have steadily reduced in intensity. Now, especially in the land of lakes of northern Tibet, that trend has reversed. The summer of 2018 was one of the wettest known in Tibet, and Chinese scientists now worry about lakes breaking their banks and flooding far below.

China’s water dividend from Tibet will be locked in legislatively in 2020, when a chain of national parks will be formally launched, including the Sanjiangyuan, or Three-River Source National Nature Reserve, in which all human presence, from mineral extraction to nomadic pastoralism, is categorized as a threat to be excluded. Further enhancement of the water dividend is planned by geoengineers who propose cloud seeding the Sanjiangyuan catchment, triggering precipitation by ring rockets laden with silver iodide at monsoon clouds drifting in from distant oceans. However, it is far from certain that the enthusiasts for geo-engineering, on a scale never seen before, can demonstrate that their technologies are effective, especially at a time when rain is already increasing due to climate change.

Beyond China, glacier melt generates much alarm, yet so far little attention has been paid to the Tibetan lives and livelihoods being removed and shut out in the name of climate change adaptation. China’s desire to recreate ‘original ecology’ in depopulated Tibetan landscapes is explicitly intended to grow more grass and increase biomass by excluding grazing animals, thus capturing carbon and in the process earning China – the planet’s biggest emitter of carbon – accolades and global carbon credits.

Minority and indigenous populations worldwide face pressure from ranchers and plantation growers who want their land, but seldom on such a scale, and in the name not of palm oil and beef but of climate change mitigation. Conservationists who would be expected to welcome a declaration of protected areas will, in 2020, have to carefully consider the declaration of the Sanjiang, Qilian and Panda National Parks, and the exclusion of local Tibetan customary guardians from their lands.

On the ground in Tibet, for both pastoralists and crop-growing farmers, climate change affects everything. Much of the Tibetan Plateau – an area the size of Western Europe – is a permafrost zone, but the permafrost itself is now melting fast, which not only releases methane into the atmosphere but also drains away frozen soil water into the deeper earth, beyond the reach of young grasses and sown crops. The early arrival of spring, months before the summer rains arrive, is now a problematic period, with temperatures suited to growth but on lands that have not in the past required irrigation.

Permafrost melt greatly affects the many wetlands of Tibet, drying them out in spring before the summer rains arrive, in the process compromising habitat for migratory species. As in many areas worldwide, the climate change trend is for more extreme weather. In Tibet, long prone to intense gales and blizzards, this means more sudden hailstorms destroying the ripening crops of barley farmers, and more livestock herds trapped behind snowed-in high passes, perishing because they cannot reach lower grazing grounds. China does not provide insurance schemes for such disasters, relying instead on relief campaigns led by cadres. Meanwhile, in Tibet’s wetter and warmer south-east, habitats change as one ascends any mountain, from subtropical to alpine, on a single slope, creating many habitats suited to varied species of plants and animals. As the climate is warming rapidly, however, there is not enough time for them to adapt and go upslope.

In many Tibetan areas, official policy changes require dryland upland farmers to convert much of their farmland to trees, or to close farms altogether, without effective reforestation. This is known as ‘grain to green’ and the ‘sloping land conversion program’. China has not employed local Tibetan communities to re-forest areas logged intensively for decades. Young trees on exposed slopes, lacking the protective canopy cover of older trees, are extremely vulnerable to frosts. All of this exacerbates the precariousness of Tibetan lives, with Tibetan children already prone to undernourishment.

Tibetans who speak publicly of such issues are seldom tolerated in a highly centralized system where only ofofcial voices are permitted. Although Tibetan non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have discreetly worked to help local communities adapt to climate change, high-profile environmentalists are criminalized and imprisoned. This effectively removes Tibetans from the public sphere, excluding them from any opportunity to shape climate policy.

The end of the pastoralist mode of food production and land-use management in Tibet is in sight. As climate change becomes a core rationale for depopulating rural Tibet, displaced pastoralists – recast in official discourse as voluntary ‘ecological migrants’ – are now resettling in urban fringe settlements. Climate change, and the Chinese government’s response, privileging grass and water over customary livelihoods, may soon succeed in closing huge areas to productive use, ending a strategy that has made Tibet habitable for thousands of years.

The mobility of Tibetan pastoralists, always moving on to avoid exhausting pastures, was in itself a response to an unpredictable climate. That mobility, long regarded with suspicion by China as primitive and uncivilized, has been forcibly restricted through successive strategies, first by compulsory collectivization, then by allocating land tenure to individual families while preventing customary seasonal rotations. With compulsory fencing and enforced stocking ratios further undermining the traditional pastoralist system, increasing blame has been heaped by the state on nomadic communities as the shrinking land allocations available to them have become insufficient to sustain their herds. This vicious circle is now approaching its final spiral. From beginning to end, nomadic lifestyles and the Chinese government’s policies have been driven by differing approaches to climate change. Tibetan pastoralists are now being cleared from their land in the name of environmental conservation, overlooking centuries of accumulated skill and wisdom in managing the vast and challenging space of the Tibetan Plateau.

Gabriel Lafitte

Photo: A Tibetan nomad walks her yaks up a hill. Panos / Kieran Dodds