border:none;mso-border-bottom-alt: solid windowtext .75pt;padding:0in;mso-padding-alt:0in 0in 1.0pt 0in'>   Lack of historical data on herd sizes prevents testing the nomads’ assertion that this system generated a long-term balance between livestock and pastureland. However, the diachronic persistence of this system is clearly evident. The nomadic, pastoral way of life has a long history in Tibet. It is mentioned indirectly in historic materials dating from the first Tibetan kingdom in the sixth to ninth century A.D. and specifically since the 11th century (Stein 1972). Archaeological research in Tibet is in its infancy and when nomadic pastoralists first utilized the Northern Plateau is uncertain; but recent excavations in southern and eastern Tibetan river valleys have uncovered Neolithic village sites at elevations as high as 3050 m. One of these, Karou, was dariocarbon-dated at ca. 5000 B.P. and evinced farming, hunting, and perhaps the domestication of pigs (CPAM 1985). Given the close association between the appearance of farming and animal husbandry in other parts of the world, such as the Middle East, it is reasonable to expect future archaeological excavations to reveal evidence of the domestication of sheep, goats and yaks or cows in Tibet thousands of years ago.


Table 1. Numbers of Livestock in Phala, 1981 to 1988*






Change from 1981



























































*Data derived from handwritten records found at the xiang headquarters and head counts conducted during the course of the authors’ research.


   The implication of this diachronic persistence is simple. The high livestock growth rates mentioned earlier in Chen et al. (1985) and Tsung (1965) could not have existed for long periods of time. For example, if the 3.3% annual growth rate cited by Chen et al. for the period 1958 to 1981 is applied to a hypothetical herd of 10000 sheep, goats, and yaks (for an area the size of Phala) of 1000 years ago at the start of the 11th century, there would be well over 3 quintillion head of livestock. In fact, a 1% annual growth rate for that period would today yield ~170 million head of livestock. But Tibetan records show that the total population of all domestic animals, encompassing all farming and nomad areas (and including pigs, chickens, etc.), was only 23 million in 1983 (Tshe 1983). Of course, if nomadic pastoralism were assumed to be present in Tibet for 2000 years, the figures would become ridiculous. Thus, the high livestock growth rates claimed above cannot be taken to be intrinsic to the traditional pastoral system. They obviously also cannot be argued to be the result of a post-1959 change in the extremely harsh abiotic environment, or to a dramatic reduction in herd mortality due to modernization. They simply appear to be flawed. Consequently, the authors suggest that the Phala nomads’ traditional pastoral management system was well adapted to their harsh environment and enabled them to use the Northern Plateau’s rangeland for intensive animal husbandry for centuries without exponential growth and consequent destruction of their resource base.


Table 2.           Change in Total Number of Livestock for Households in Three Contiguous Home-base Encampments (Dzuk), 1981 to 1986 and 1981 to 1987




Change from


Change from




1981 to 1986 (%)


1981 to 1987 (%)







Household 1






Household 2






Household 3




















Household 1






Household 2






Household 3






Household 4






Household 5






Household 6




















Household 7






Household 8






Household 9













*The 1987 figures are skewed because a divorcée and her herd moved from dzuk B to dzuk C


Conservation, Development, and the Future


Although Phala shows no evidence of increased livestock numbers and environmental degradation since

decollectivization in 1981, it is not realistic to expect the government to adopt a laissez faire, noninterventionist policy in Tibet. “Development” of animal husbandry is a major government goal. Not only has considerable infrastructure been created (e.g., animal husbandry experimental stations in each of the Tibet’s prefectures), but Tibetan officials have begun to invite Western development experts to assist in the “modernization” of the pastoral economy (Simmons et al. 1989) and the preservation of the environment (e.g., by establishing state parks). The impetus to increase livestock productivity under the “Four Modernizations” policy by the application of “science” is very strong in Tibet and likely to intensify in the years ahead.

   However, intervening in fragile environments with complex ecological systems is a difficult undertaking, and many pastoral development programs in other areas of the world have resulted not in progress, but rather in destruction of the way of life of the inhabitants and an environment in poorer condition than before (Ellis & Swift 1988, Helland 1980, Sanford 1983, Swift 1977, Swift & Maliki 1984). To avoid this, it is extremely important that planners understand the traditional livestock management systems of the Northern Plateau’s nomadic pastoralists-the Phala system is probably just one variant-and also that they utilize those systems as the foundation for development.

   Far from being irrational exploiters of their resource base, the nomads of Phala are shrewd and practical animal husbandrists who could be valuable partners for the government if approached properly. They are open to change when they perceive new options to be appropriate to their particular environmental conditions and to their cultural values. For example, a few are experimenting with trucking sheep to a city three days away to sell, and a number have taken government loans as capital for trading. Many have obtained radios and cassette players during the past few years, and a variety of manufactured goods are popular. More significantly, when asked what kind of assistance they wanted from the government, a number suggested a more sophisticated system of pasture allocation. Although the nomads do not think that overgrazing is currently a problem in Phala, their leaders are concerned about the future, i.e., that some pastures such as dzuk B may become overgrazed as a result of terminating the traditional pasture reallocation system when direct administrative control of Tibet was assumed by China in 1959.

   The impact of this change is not as great as one might expect because pastures were actually reallocated several times between 1959 and 1981 by happenstance. This occurred once in 1961 when the “mutual aid group” economic system was implemented and again in 1969 to 1970 when livestock communes were instituted (Goldstein & Beall 1989). The last reallocation occurred in 1981 when the communes were disbanded and their livestock divided equally among the nomad members. At that time pastures were allocated jointly and indefinitely to several households sharing the same dzuk. Currently there is no ongoing system of pasture reallocation to accommodate local fluctuations in the number of livestock, and there have been no happenstance reallocations since 1981. Each dzuk, in essence, has become a small commons permanently shared by several households.

   Local differentiation in livestock numbers, however, has become noticeable in the seven years since 1981, and as seen in Table 2, the total herd size of some dzuk has grown while for others it has declined. Table 2 also shows considerable individual household variation (and therefore the underlying motivation for the traditional system’s allocation of pastures on an individual household basis). If each of these dzuk had appropriate numbers of livestock for the pasture areas they were allocated when the commune ended in 1981, one must then infer that today some areas, such as dzuk A and C (Table 2), have excess pasture, while others, such as dzuk B, have too little. Nomad leaders, therefore, argue that the current system should be altered so that pastures are reallocated on the basis of herd size, as was done traditionally.

   The nomads of Phala are not only open to change, but their traditional pastoral system cannot be assumed a priori to be destructive. Policy that treats nomadic pastoralists such as those in Phala as irrational and backward and ignores central components of their traditional system is not just shortsighted. It is potentially dangerous for both the well-being of the people and the conservation of the environment.




The available data from Phala provide no evidence that the traditional system of herd management has led to overstocking or overgrazing there. The livestock census data from 1970 to 1988 argue strongly against the presence of large-scale increases in herd size, and firsthand observations from 1986 to 1988 reveal that the problems associated with overgrazing in other parts of the world do not exist in Phala today. Therefore, the government’s 1987 decision to force the Phala nomads to reduce herds by 20% appears unwarranted. While district officials in Tsatsey did not openly admit their mistake despite tactful presentation of data in 1981, when asked in summer 1988 whether they were planning to implement more reductions, they immediately replied negatively, adding that in the future they will look carefully at local conditions.

   Their belated conclusion parallels the authors’-that local conditions on the Northern Plateau are so variable that development and conservation decisions must be made on the basis of micro-level data. However, at present, far too little is understood about the Northern Plateau’s eco-systems for informed decisions to be made about intervening to force the nomads to alter basic components of their traditional system(s). It is essential, therefore, that systematic research on the current ecological status of the Northern Plateau’s grasslands as well as on the effectiveness of the nomads’ traditional methods be conducted before universal livestock reductions or limits are decreed, not to mention other drastic measures (e.g., the introduction of new species of livestock and forage), imposed in the name of science and progress. There may well be serious environmental problems in certain areas of the Northern Plateau, but the nature of these problems (and their solutions) must be ascertained area by area. The careless implementation of  “Western” technology is as likely to create irreversible, iatrogenic degradation as it is to solve problems and improve the life of the nomads. The risk of the former is too great to use a “shotgun” approach to attempt to achieve the latter.

   Protecting Tibet’s unique Northern Plateau is not only a national but a world concern. However, the data collected in Phala raises serious questions about the validity of the government’s claims of overstocking and inadequate pasture there, as well as the pervasive view that the nomads’ traditional system is irrational and destructive. Furthermore, protecting the indigenous nomadic pastoralists and their way of life is also an important concern. It would indeed by tragic if, after surviving the destructive Cultural Revolution and revitalizing their traditional beliefs and customs, these nomads’ way of life were gradually undermined and destroyed by modern notions of conservation and development based on faulty evidence, negative stereotypes, and untested assumptions.




This study was conducted in collaboration with the Tibet Academy of Social Sciences and we thank them for their advice and generous assistance. We also thank the various local Tibetan officials for their cooperation, our research assistants for extraordinary service under extremely difficult conditions, and the people of Phala for enduring our endless questions and measurements with the good humor and dignity that typifies their way of life. Funding was provided by the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee for Scholarly Communication with the People’s Republic of China (the National Program for Advanced Research and Study in China), the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration, and the National Science Foundation. The administration of Case Western Reserve University has played a critical role in this research, allowing Beall and Goldstein leaves of absence and providing financial support for the Center for Research on Tibet. We also thank M. Conklin, T. Hernandez, J.B. Robinson, and P.J. Van Soest for instruction and use of the Cornell Fiber Analysis Lab facilities and A. Goldstein for assisting Cincotta in Tibet during the 1987 fieldwork. We also thank G. Schaller and N. Simmons for their comments on a draft of this paper.



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Manuscript received 17 February 1989;

revision accepted 10 October 1989.