Sweet words, empty promises: Since the 1990s, Chinese officials have created “paper parks” all over Tibet. This appears to be justification for kicking out upwards of two million Tibetan nomads, the stewards of Tibet’s immense grasslands. The creation of paper parks in Tibet paves the way to exploit pristine regions for vast mining and dam-building ventures. Chinese greenwashing in Tibet flies under the radar in the West. In fact, the UNESCO World Heritage Site committee has been hoodwinked several times by Chinese proposals. And a new proposal is coming up in mid-2017 to inscribe Hoh Xil in northern Tibet as a World Heritage Site, meant to protect the highly endangered Tibetan antelope.
In 1990, according to official figures cited by People’s Online Daily, nature reserves accounted for 4 percent of the land area of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). By 2012, that figure jumped to over 33 percent of total land area, with over 60 nature reserves established, encompassing 158,300 square miles. And that is just the TAR. Outside the TAR, in Tibetan areas of Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan, more vast nature reserves have been established, such as Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve, which covers 20 percent of the land area of Qinghai Province (later it was boosted to 54 percent of Qinghai’s land area—read on…).
Why such a meteoric rise in the number of nature reserves? Why such big reserves? And why in Tibet? There’s no clear answer, but the timing—from 1990 to 2012—coincides with large-scale removal of nomads from their grassland habitat. Along with the establishment of national parks come coercive laws that severely limit the rights of people in and around the designated areas—usually Tibetan nomads. Yet within the boundaries of these reserves, there seems to be very little in the way of protection going on: nomads are pushed out, grasslands are mismanaged, herbs are harvested unsustainably, wildlife is poached, trees are felled, and illegal mining takes place. And creeping desertification plagues the land. Desertification is a huge problem within Tibet and across China. The grasslands provide a buffer against desertification—but only if the grasslands are taken care of. The stewards of Tibet’s vast grasslands are the Tibetan nomads, who rely on these grasslands to graze their yaks—and have done so for over 4,000 years.
The strategy of using the creation of nature reserves to oust indigenous populations is not new: it has been used by unethical rulers around the world. A prime instance of this is the ousting of the hunter-gatherer Bushmen in Botswana through the creation of Central Kalahari Game Reserve, located between two of the largest diamond mines in the world.
The fact is that the Chinese overseers of Tibet have virtually no experience with grassland management. They claim that the nomads are degrading the grasslands by over-grazing their yaks and sheep and goats. Which is a decidedly odd claim, since the grasslands have remained sustainable for four millennia. More likely, the problem is the Chinese policy of mandatory fencing, introduced in the 1990s. The forced fencing pits nomad clans against other clans, vying for territorial rights—and it undermines the entire principle of nomadism, which is moving around, rotational grazing, sharing land with others, keeping the yaks moving from pasture to pasture. With grassland pasture fenced in, of course the yaks are only grazing in a confined area, so no wonder that area becomes rapidly degraded.
Environment writer Emily Yeh notes that Chinese managers of so-called nature reserves are more interested in generating revenue through exploiting the reserve than in protection: “Many protected areas are ‘paper parks,’ with at least one-third lacking staff, management and funding. The Nature Reserve Law of 1994 did nothing to remove control of the land under protection from the government that was managing it when it became a reserve. Moreover, except for national-level reserves, it failed to provide a guaranteed source of funding for reserve administration and staffing. This has led to a situation in which reserve managers’ primary goal has become revenue generation rather than biodiversity conservation.”
Henan-based environmental activist Huo Daishan, quoted in an article by Radio Free Asia, claims that designation of national parks or nature reserves is tied up with vested interests that often propose the parks in the first place. He says that local governments are adept at retaining control over areas given nominal protection under central government laws. “According to what we are seeing on the ground, and from what the NGOs are able to observe, there is a huge gulf between [laws protecting parks and reserves] and the local government’s implementation of them,” Huo says. “There are always local interests bound up with protected areas. In the end, this entanglement…this conflict between the designation of a protected area and local development interests, destroys the protected area.”
Hoodwinking the UN World Heritage Committee
Some of these parks do not cover a single area with clear boundaries: they are broken up into different zones, making protection vaguer. The Three Parallel Rivers region in Yunnan, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003, consists of eight geographical clusters divided into protected nature zone areas and scenic areas. No sooner was this region declared a World Heritage Site than megadam building started up on these same river stretches, thus endangering the riverine ecosystem that supports the incredible biodiversity of the region. The mighty rivers and canyons that give the site its name are not part of the World Heritage site, it seems. There have been calls to change the status of Three Parallel Rivers to a World Heritage in Danger site.
Within the Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage Site lies Mount Kawakarpo, a highly revered mountain with a pilgrim path around it. In February 2011, a Chinese gold-mining operation started up close to the pilgrim circuit. Infuriated Tibetans pushed equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars into a river far below. The mining operation was shut down. But protests against dam construction on the rivers running close to this nature reserve have not been successful.
More recently, the region of Kekexili (Hoh Xil), in northern Tibet, has been put forward as a candidate for World Heritage List status. The decision on its status comes up in Poland in mid-2017. Kekexili, established in 1995, is prime habitat for the highly endangered Tibetan antelope, and for other rare wildlife. The region became famous in China through the showing of the film Mountain Patrol, made in 2004. This gritty film shows Tibetan volunteers taking on Chinese poachers in the reserve, and confiscating thousands of antelope skins. However, the Tibetan volunteer band, dubbed the “Wild Yaks” was eventually disbanded. This region is home to some 90,000 Tibetans—mostly nomadic. If declared a World Heritage Site, you can be sure that China will try its time-tested trick of dividing the place up into “core zones, buffer zones, and experimental zones.” And the rules for each zone will shift around like the desert sands. A better alternative is one proposed by Conservation International: to create a Sacred Natural Site, managed by Tibetans, which allows for community access to the zone. Both Conservation International and the WWF have been working with nomadic families in this and adjacent regions to employ Tibetans to patrol wildlife areas, though not much is known about the success of these initiatives.
Sanjiangyuan exists only on Paper?
In Yushu, northeast Tibet, Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve was created in 2000, supposedly to protect the headwaters of the Yellow, Yangtse, and Mekong rivers. Sanjiangyuan covers an immense area of 58,800 square miles—the size of England and Wales combined. A map of Sanjiangyuan did not appear in any official source until early 2009. That’s because the whole exercise appears designed to bamboozle not only Tibetan nomads but also watchful foreign outsiders. The official map of Sanjiangyuan that finally surfaced is a chaotic jumble of zones: core zones, buffer zones, and experimental zones. The latter two allow for “development” and “green industries.” This seems to refer to options for mining and for building of hydropower stations (in Chinese references elsewhere, dams are considered “green”). In 2005, part of a core zone was adjusted to a buffer zone to allow gold-mining company Inter-Citic to start up operations.The company alluded to the region as being “uninhabited.” What they failed to mention is that all the nomads of this region were forcibly shifted off the same grasslands to make way for mining exploitation, which caused extensive damage to the region.
In mid-August 2013, Tibetans from Dzatoe County staged a three-day sit-in protest against an illegal mining operator in Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve. The operator’s license to mine turned out to be fake: he obviously paid off corrupt officials. Protesters put up a gate flying Chinese flags and bearing posters of President Xi Jinping, quoting from his May 2013 speech about the importance of guarding the environment for future generations. The protest in Dzatoe was broken up by over 400 military and paramilitary troops using tear gas and electric batons and firing machine guns in the air. At least one protester was killed. Fourteen protesters were hospitalized, and a large number arrested. Video footage of the protest was taken by Tibetans using smartphones: this was smuggled out of Tibet and posted to YouTube—confirming that gunfire was used against unarmed protesters.The video is a rare chance for the outside world to see what actually happens at a mining protest within a so-called Nature Reserve. Against all the odds, the Tibetans of Dzatoe later achieved a rare victory: they took their case to Beijing and argued that the mining was illegal. The credentials of the miners were found to have been forged, and the mining was shut down.
Over 400,000 nomads have been forcibly resettled in Qinghai, with a significant number of those coming from the Sanjiangyuan area. This is being done under the cloak of conservation. Fiercely independent and reliant on their own resources—their yaks, goats, sheep and horses—the Golok nomads, the toughest and most stubborn of all Tibetan nomads, have now become beggars in their own land. Shifted into concrete ghettoes, they have been deprived of their regular food sources, and live off Chinese government subsidies—which are not enough to buy the tea, cheese and other commodities they once had in abundance. This is a form of cultural genocide.
Installed in ghetto-housing, former nomads even have to buy bottled water: before they got abundant water for free from rivers. These former nomads have been offered no job retraining, and as they cannot speak or read Chinese, they are unlikely to be employable in towns. However, during the spring, a number of ex-nomads venture into the high-altitude mountains to collect rare mushrooms and exotic herbs (like Chinese caterpillar fungus, highly valued for medicinal properties and as an aphrodisiac), thus generating decent income.
Meanwhile, state-run mining companies have moved into the so-called nature reserve; also moving in are hydropower consortiums building a bevy of small dams within the region. Sanjiangyuan may become the starting point for the ambitious water diversion of the Yangtse River headwaters to the Yellow River headwaters. Is this vast nature reserve protecting the headwaters of the rivers, or opening the door to their exploitation by state-run companies? In December 2013, it was announced that Sanjiangyuan’s area would double in size to 152,500 square miles for the purposes of “rehabilitation” of the land. That size represents around 54 percent of the land area of Qinghai Province, and the real target of this “rehabilitation” appears to be the last remaining nomad strongholds. By more than coincidence, at the same time that expansion of Sanjiangyuan was announced, another official site said that 90 percent of nomads in Qinghai would be resettled by 2016.
In June 2008, a Reuters article reported a story from Lhasa on a proposed “ecological security plan” to counter the impact of receding glaciers and shrinking grasslands in Tibet. The report quotes Zhang Yongze, director general of Tibet’s Environmental Protection Bureau. According to Reuters, the plan, which could initially cost 10 billion yuan (US$1.5 billion), would involve turning grasslands into protected forests, restricting grazing, and creating “green jobs” for Tibetans that would ease pressure from population growth and development. “The solution to problems like global warming is out of our hands, but this document will give us a framework to work in,” Zhang says.Tibet would also have to develop more hydroelectric power stations on the region’s many rivers—an option opposed by some conservationists—to provide enough power, he says.
The rhetoric gives an idea of Chinese doublespeak on the environment. Creating green jobs for Tibetans? Chinese officials have taken away over a million “green jobs” from Tibetans by removing nomads from the grasslands. If you want to save the grasslands and keep Tibet green, the nomads are best left alone. If you want to ease pressure from population growth and development, that’s simple: stop waves of Chinese miners and immigrants from flooding intoTibet on the railway. Turning grasslands into forest? That’s not feasible as large areas of the Tibetan Plateau lie above the tree-line. The plan calls for building of dams to “provide enough power.” Power for what exactly? Why is dam building mentioned in connection with environmental plans? Zhang Yongze goes on to cite the usual Chinese take that dams are green, and thus better for the environment than burning coal, but he fails to mention that Chinese mining and industry need power from megadams, not Tibetans. Meaningless eco-babble like this is regularly churned out by Chinese official sources to make everything sound clean and green in Tibet. Plans for establishing an “ecological security barrier” in Tibet speak about pouring billions of yuan into setting up more national parks and protected reserves—which may exist only on paper.
And that is the trouble with China’s approach generally. The government has environmental laws that exist only on paper; they do not seem to be enforced. China is signatory to the UN Convention on Biodiversity, and signatory to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. But these appear to be worthless scraps of paper: China signs international agreements protecting the rights of indigenous peoples—and then turns around and sets about snuffing out their culture by taking them off their traditional lands. The real stewards of Tibet’s grasslands are the nomads—they are a major part of the solution, not part of the problem.
—this material is excerpted and adapted from the author’s book, Meltdown in Tibet (Macmillan, 2014) and from his digital photobook, Tibet, Disrupted (Apple iBooks, 2016).