Home on the Range:

The Demise of Tibetan Nomadic Pastoralism?


Daniel Miller



The Tibetan Steppe encompasses an area the size of Mongolia -- 40 percent of China’s total rangeland area.  Here, in what is undoubtedly the harshest pastoral area on earth, some 2 million Tibetan nomads and another 2-3 million agro-pastoralists maintain a pastoral legacy that is thousands of years old.  The survival of Tibetan nomads in this high elevation rangeland ecosystem provides examples of nomadic practices that were once widespread throughout the pastoral world, but are now increasingly harder to find.  The fact that the rangeland still supports nomadic pastoralism indicates the existence of a productive and remarkably resilient rangeland ecosystem.


This pastoral region is the headwaters of many of Asia’s major rivers and what takes place in these rangelands has important implications for millions of people downstream.  The Tibetan Steppe is now recognized as an ecoregion of global priority because of its highly distinctive species, ecological processes, and evolutionary phenomena.  It has been determined to be one of the most biologically important and outstanding examples of the Earth’s diverse habitats and contains one of the last notable examples on earth of a grazing land ecosystem relatively unchanged by man.


The Tibetan Steppe is characterized by highly unpredictable environmental disturbances such as periods of spring drought that retard grass growth and severe snowstorms that can devastate nomads' herds.  As such, much of the pastoral system probably functions as a non-equilibrium system and livestock numbers have been continually checked by climatic factors, such as snowstorms, than by increasing pressure of livestock on the rangelands.  Classical equilibrium theory cannot capture the uncertainty and variability in the Tibetan pastoral system, making such concepts as carrying capacity and stocking rate less effective in predicting ecosystem productivity and dynamics.


Tibetan nomadic pastoralism is distinct ecologically from pastoralism in most other regions of the world.   The key distinguishing factors that separate Tibetan nomadic areas from cultivated areas are altitude and temperature, in contrast to most other pastoral areas where the key factor is usually the lack of water.  Tibetan nomads prosper at altitudes from 3,000 to 5,000 m in environments too cold for crop cultivation.  Yet, at these elevations there is still extensive and very productive grazing land that provides nutritious forage for nomads’ herds. Tibetan pastoralism has flourished to this day because there has been little encroachment into the nomadic areas by farmers trying to plow up the grass and plant crops.  A unique animal, the yak also distinguishes Tibetan nomadic pastoralism, which is superbly adapted to the high altitude, cold environment. The wild yak is the progenitor of all domestic yak populations.   The domestication of the wild yak, about 4,000 years ago, was a key factor in the development of Tibetan civilization.


The nomadic pastoral systems developed by Tibetan nomads were a successful adaptation to life in one of the most inhospitable places on earth.  Over centuries, nomads acquired complex indigenous knowledge about the environment in which they lived and upon which their lives depended.  Tibetan nomads mitigated environmental risks through strategies that enhanced diversity, flexibility, linkages to support networks, and self-sufficiency.  Diversity is crucial to pastoral survival.  Tibetan nomads keep a diverse mix of livestock in terms of species and class; they use a diverse mosaic of grazing sites, exploiting seasonal and annual variability in forage resources; and they maintain a diverse mix of goals for livestock production.  The organizational flexibility of traditional Tibetan nomadic pastoralism, which emphasized mobility of the multi-species herds, developed as a rational response to the unpredictability of the ecosystem.


In recent years, appreciation has grown for the complexity and efficacy of many aspects of Tibetan nomadic pastoralism.   While this is encouraging, current programs to settle nomads and privatize and fence the rangelands jeopardize many worthy aspects of nomadic culture.  Range-livestock development interventions being undertaken now fundamentally alter the traditional nature of Tibetan nomadic pastoralism.  The increased tendency towards year-round livestock grazing around settlements is leading to increased rangeland degradation.  Does a ‘home on the range’, however, have to signify the demise of Tibetan nomadic pastoralism?  Or, is there still potential to engage in mobile livestock herding and maintain some of the best aspects of traditional pastoral practices?


Emerging research findings on the dynamics of Tibetan rangelands, consistent with new thinking in range ecology in other semi-arid pastoral systems, indicate that non-equilibrium models for describing pastoral system dynamics and state-and-transition models for explaining vegetation succession are valuable concepts.  They provide new frameworks for rangeland monitoring and offer promise for improved analyses of Tibetan rangeland ecosystems.  They also suggest that new paradigms for pastoral development in Tibetan nomadic areas should be considered. 


In China, it is increasingly recognized that range-livestock development needs to build upon on the indigenous knowledge of nomads and to engage nomads in participatory approaches, but the concept of mobility is still seen as a problem to be eradicated, rather than a trump card to be strengthened. The migratory movement of livestock is often viewed as ‘wandering’ and an unsound type of use of the grassland, instead of a purposeful and productive means of making efficient utilization of grassland forage.  The structure of nomads’ herds is also thought to be ‘irrational’.  Much of the problem stems from the inability of traditional Chinese society, which is based on labor-intensive agriculture, to accommodate flexibility and mobility that make nomadic pastoralism possible.


The ‘classical’ paradigm for pastoral development, with its emphasis on settling nomads, Western-style, intensive ranching type of operations, a conservative approach to stocking, and fencing has led to misguided policies and projects throughout the world.  In many cases it has led to increased rangeland degradation.  The new mobility paradigm does not argue for the ‘good, old days’, nor trying to maintain nomads in their current conditions.  Rather, it seeks to put in place proper policies, legal frameworks and support systems to enable self-evolution of nomadic pastoralism towards an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable livelihood.  It also presents a fresh framework for analyzing Tibetan nomadic pastoral system issues related to the rangeland resources, the nomads, their adaptive strategies, and their common property regimes.  In the words of Maryam Niamir-Fuller, the mobility paradigm not only gives mobile livestock production systems a raison d’ etre, but also tries to redress the imbalance caused by too much of a focus on intensive livestock production.  The mobility paradigm translates indigenous pastoral knowledge into a language comprehensible to outsiders.  It is an amalgamation of the indigenous knowledge of nomads, with the scientific justifications and theories of outsiders.


So, what would the mobility paradigm champion for Tibetan pastoral systems?   It would advocate that livestock mobility is an essential ingredient for sustainable development in Tibetan Plateau rangelands.  The mobility paradigm would advance that houses, livestock shelters, and privately fenced enclosures for hay production in winter/spring areas could be compatible with the new paradigm as long as livestock are allowed opportunistic mobility.  It would acknowledge the importance of ‘key sites’, or high-value grazing patches and the need for access to these sites.  It would make the case for pooling of household livestock into larger herds to be herded on communal rangeland and seek to revitalize common property regime institutions.   The mobility paradigm would seek ways to better manage uncertainty and risk through risk minimizing and risk buffering.  There would also have to be a commitment to devolution, decentralization, and real participatory processes.



Daniel Miller

5235 Western Ave., NW,  Washington, DC 20015

Tel: 202-363-1415         Email: wildyakman@hotmail.com