CONSERVATION OF THE

ENVIRONMENT AND

THE FUTURE OF TIBET'S

INDIGENOUS NOMADIC

PASTORALISTS

Page175.gif (94864 bytes) PRESERVATION OF CHINA’S GRASSLAND EWRONMENTS is an issue of concern among scientists and development planners in China today The extent of ecological degradation is unclear, but the Englishlanguage China Daily newspaper (discussing an article in China's Economic Daily) reported that 15% of China's grasslands had deteriorated by the mid '70s, and that this had increased to 30% by the mid-'80s (China Daily 1987).

The existence of a grassland ecological crisis in China proper has been extended to the more remote and underpopulated region of Tibet, where the government has intervened to protect the environment. However, the evidence of overgrazing in Tibet appears to be based not on the direct monitoring of the environment, but rather on inferences and assumptions derived from livestock census data-for example, on data such as that produced by a major Chinese study on pastoralism in Tibet which reported that there was a 113% increase in the number of livestock in Tibet in the Z3-yedr period from 1956-1961 despite the disruption of the 1959 u rising and the Cultural Revolution. The government’s attitude appears also to be strongly influenced by the view widely held in the field of economic development that traditional pasture strategies are inefficient and destructive and pose an obstacle to implementation of efficient livestock production and range management. The goverrunent of the TAR, therefore, is following the policy prevalent throughout the rest of China and intervening to reduce herd size - placing limits on the number of livestock individuals can own or ordering annual or occasional herd reductions such as a 20% reduction implemented in Pala in 1987. It also is working to develop programs that will replace the traditional system with modem methods of animal husbandry, including the introduction of new species of livestock and vegetation.

In Pala this has produced a classic confrontation between the government and the indigenous Page176.gif(95844 bytes) pastoralists.

The Pala nomads disagree with the government's view as well as the specific proposition that there is overgrazing in Pala. They contend that their traditional system has allowed them to subsist on the Changtang for uncounted centuries precisely because it and their livestock are well adapted to the plateau's extremely harsh conditions and do not destroy the viability of the pasturelands. The nomads' pastoral management strategy reasons that insurance against the inevitable bad years of drought, snow, or disease lies in increasing their herd size during good years. Each household, therefore, believes that prosperity requires having many livestock which are culled only for food or trade, i.e., never just to maintain an artificially determined herd size or internal composition. They claim that this strategy does not result in rapid growth of livestock numbers.

The nomads' emphasis on increasing herd sizes, however, is precisely what appears ecologically destructive to most officials, and it is not surprising that it has received little sympathy in China and the TAR. As one Tibetan county official commented about Pala and the surrounding nomad areas; "The nomads have to be educated to understand that just rearing more and more animals is not the answer." This attitude, which appears pervasive among government officials, dismisses the traditional local system as destructive, and rejects a priori the possibility that it might allow the nomads a decent livelihood over the long term without exponential growth in herds and the destruction of their resource base. Our findings, in fact, suggest that the traditional pastoral system was sophisticated and may have done just what the nomads claim.

The 1987 decree ordering the Pala nomads to reduce their livestock by 20% reflected the govenunent's concern that overgrazing exists. The need to balance herd size with available pasture obviously is fundamental to ecological-conservation theory and practice, but overgrazing is a possibility whose presence or absence must be ascertained through detailed analyses of the animal-pasture relationship in any given area-it cannot simply be assumed to exist either by casual observation or data from other areas.

One of the crucial questions, therefore, is whether the Pala herds are actually growing rapidly. We collected livestock census data from the post-commune period. These data reveal an overall eight percent decrease -a four-percent decrease in the number of livestock in Pala between commune dissolution in 1981 and 1987, and another four-percent decrease after the 20% reduction decree between (1987 and 1988). The nomads' strategy of herd maximization, therefore, clearly did not result in increasing numbers of livestock in Pala over this period. Given this, it is reasonable to ask why the officials had such concerns.

Page178.gif (225248 bytes) We suspect that county and district officials had an incorrect impression that herd size had increased. Specifically, we surmise that they inadvertently under-enumerated the number of livestock extant in 1981, the critical baseline year of commune dissolution, and thus overestimated the increase from then to 1987. We discovered that at the time of commune dissolution only the animals owned by the commune were divided equally. An additional number of animals comprising the "private holdings" (gersha) of the nomads remained the property of each household and do not appear in the 1981 records. In Pala, these "private animals" totaled about 1,800 goats-that is to say, the official total was roughly 20% lower than the actual number. When these 1,800 private animals are not taken into account, the records indicate an increase in herd size of 15% from 1981 to 1987, or a 2.4% annual growth rate rather than the actual four-percent decline. It is not unlikely that officials in this county (and possibly other nomads areas of the TAR) were unaware of this discrepancy when they ordered the forced reduction of herds. In the face of these flawed data, it is easy to understand the dismay of the Pala nomads at this order which doubled the existing four-percent decrease in herd size.

Additional data also suggest that the balance of livestock, people, and pasture in Pala is not degrading or overgrazing the pastureland.

First, there are an abundance and diversity of wild ungulates such as antelope, wild asses, gazelles, and blue sheep. We always encountered herds of the first three when traveling between camps. This situation is generally not found in areas where severe overgrazing has degraded rangeland.

Second, the nomads reported and we confirmed that in 1986 some of their more distant fall grazing areas were not used at all since the house-holds that held rights over them decided their nearer pastures were adequate.

Third, on several occasions the members of an encampment willingly accepted a household from another camp even though it substantially increased the number of livestock using that camp's grazing areas. In one instance, for example, the new household's livestock represented an increase of 44% in the total number of animals held by the receiving camp. When queried about this, the nomads indicated that they still had considerable leeway with regard to stocking.

Fourth, qualitative indications of overgrazing were absent. Plant communities remain rich in species; we collected over 75 species of herbaceous plants from actively grazed rangeland, and speculate that there are more to be catalogued in other grazing areas. The observation that in most Pala pastures nearly every perennial grass plant was able to attain seed-bearing stage in 1987 suggests that degradation of the vegetational component of the ecosystem is probably not occurring. Furthermore, we found no visual evidence of severe erosion or soil compaction. Although Pala has large areas with sparse vegetation, Plant density appeared to be a function of seasonal soil moisture and soil texture rather than the intensity of grazing.

Fifth, we also collected data from grazing exclosures, that is to say, we fenced off areas at the beginning of the growing season and compared the amount of vegetation at the end of the season inside the ungrazed area with that outside at the end of the growing season. In 12 of the exclosures the amount outside was almost the same as that inside, and in the four where the amount was ordy 50% of the ungrazed total, we discovered that livestock pass through this area on their way to their daily watering and thus it is bound to be heavily grazed and trampled even under the most careful grazing management. These data, therefore, also suggest that overgrazing is not present, although a longer time frame covering several years is necessary for exclosures to accurately analyze the situation.

Our evidence suggests strongly that the government's decision to force the Pala nomads to reduce Page180.gif (100916 bytes) their herd size was unwarranted. Not only has there been no increase in herd size since commune dissolution in 1981, we found no evidence of overgrazing and pasture degradation. This does not mean that further longitudinal measurements will not reveal problems in Pala or that they do not already exist in other areas, but it does mean that one cannot simply assume that the nomads' verbalized goal to increase the number of their animals necessarily results in such an increase and, in turn, envirom-nental destruction. Indeed, as others have started to assert, it is time to reevaluate past judgments and give more credit to traditional pastoral systems.

The combination of prejudice against the nomads' traditional system of production and management (i.e., the view that it is destructive and not worthy of serious consideration), coupled with a genuine, well-intended belief in Western notions of "conservation," has inadvertently created in Tibet a situation that is detrimental and threatening to the way of life of the nomadic pastoralists. it has fostered the belief that there is no need to implement a serious program to measure "carrying capacity" and monitor range utilization and vegetation condition, and has induced the govemment to impose per-capita livestock limits and to develop plans to modernize what it considers the nomads' "irrationay' production system. Our data demonstrate that the governments assumptions and census information are flawed in Pala, and suggest that they may be flawed in other areas as well. Consequently, we consider it essential that systematic research be conducted on the current ecological status of the western Changtang before additional drastic measures such as the introduction of new species of livestock and vegetation are imposed on the nomads in the name of science and progress. While protecting Tibet's unique Changtang is not only a Chinese but a world Page181.gif (187861 bytes) concern, protection of the indigenous nomadic pastoralists who reside there is an equally important concern. It would be indeed ironic if after surviving the destructive Cultural Revolution, these nomads' way of life was destroyed by modern notions of "conservation" and "development" that are based on faulty evidence and flawed assumptions.

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