Global

  • Misguided environmental policy uproots Tibetan nomads

    Jane Qiu

    13/01/16
  • Tibetan grasslands, which feed Asias major rivers and have been a lifeline for pastoralists for thousands of years, are under increasing threat from climate change and human activities

    Jane Qiu

    A researcher examines the grasslands typical root mats, which teem with organic carbon accumulated over thousands of years. Grassland degradation could release this carbon back into the atmosphere and exacerbate global warming

    Jane Qiu

    Pasture on some parts of the Tibetan Plateau looks like a badly worn carpet, with large patches of lifeless soil exposed

    Jane Qiu

    In Madoi county in the northeastern part of the plateau the headwater region of the Yellow River wetlands are drying up and sand dunes loom over the bleak landscape

    Jane Qiu

    Tibetan grasslands are also undergoing more subtle changes than desertification: the nutritious species preferred by livestock are being replaced by weeds, unpalatable grass varieties and poisonous plants

    Jane Qiu

    Ongoing changes to the grasslands, such as desertification and shifts in vegetation composition, threaten the livelihood of Tibetan nomads

    Jane Qiu

    The Chinese government attributes grassland degradation to overgrazing and has moved nearly 100,000 pastoralists off their land to newly built urban centres. Such ecological migrants are forced to sell their livestock and cannot find jobs because of a lack of education and skills

    Jane Qiu

    Unable to fit into town life, former herders often gather and socialise in tents erected in their courtyard, reminiscent of their past lives as nomads

    Jane Qiu

    As the Chinese government moves Tibetan herders off their land in the name of protecting grasslands, there is a rush of infrastructure construction across the plateau, such as this hotel near Lake Erling in the supposedly protected heart of the Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve

    Jane Qiu

    Road construction is widespread in the Sanjiangyuan reserve, including a US$1.8-billion project to build a 1,000-kilometre highway between Xining and Yushu, both in Qinghai province, which began in 2010 without the standard environment impact assessment

    Jane Qiu

    Siling Co, a glacial lake in central Tibet, expanded by nearly half its original size between 2005 and 2014, and continues to engulf houses and pastures. The Chinese governments imposition of land privatisation and fencing policies have reduced herders mobility and made them more vulnerable to such perils of climate change

    Jane Qiu

    Herders, such as Dolma in Dotse village in the northern Tibetan Plateau, have suffered serious livestock losses in snowstorms in recent decades. The lack of mobility and the erosion of the spirit of cooperation have compromised their ability to cope with climate change and natural disasters

    Jane Qiu

    Scientists attribute some of the rangeland changes to a changing climate. Here, at the Nagqu research station in the southern Tibet Plateau, Cui Shujuan, a PhD student at the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research in Beijing, is studying the effects of warming on grassland biodiversity

    Jane Qiu

    Tsechoe Dorji, an ecologist at the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research in Lhasa, and Kelly Hopping, a PhD student at Colorado State University in the United States, are studying the effects of warming on the reproductive success and long-term competitiveness of the dominant sedge species

    Jane Qiu
Tibetan nomads have been raising livestock on the Tibetan Plateau for 8,000 years. The grasslands, covering 2.5 million square kilometres, are not only their main lifeline, but are also crucial for absorbing carbon from the atmosphere and supplying water to Asia’s major rivers.
 
In recent decades, the Tibetan grasslands have seen widespread deterioration — which the Chinese government attributes to overgrazing. In the past decade, Beijing has imposed strict limits on livestock numbers and moved nearly 100,000 nomads off their land to newly built urban centres. It claims that the policies have improved both the grassland health and the livelihoods of Tibetan nomads.
 
As nomads continue to be moved out of the Sanjiangyuan nature reserve in Qinghai province, there is a rush of infrastructure construction projects across the plateau — even within the reserve’s core zones where such human activity is prohibited but laws are seldom enforced. Across the plateau, miners rip apart mountain slopes and pollute streams and rivers, threatening the health of remaining villagers and their livestock.
 
While the Chinese government regards overgrazing as the key culprit for grassland degradation, scientists think climate change is also to blame. They are conducting experiments on the plateau to test the effects of warming and changes in precipitation patterns on plant growth and vegetation composition. Such knowledge is crucial for predicting how Tibetan grasslands will fare in the future.
 
This photo gallery visits the plateau, from Xining on its northeastern fringe to Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, and meets the relocated nomads who are struggling to come to terms with their new-found urban identity.
 
The trip was made possible by the SciDev.Net Investigative Science Journalism Fellowship for the Global South.