(Washington, DC) - The Chinese government is forcibly relocating Tibetan herders to urban areas and farmland, destroying their livelihoods and way of life, and denying them access to justice for violations of their rights, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

Since 2000, the Chinese government’s campaign to move Tibetan herders to urban areas has put traditional lifestyles and livelihoods at risk for the approximately 700,000 people who have been resettled in western China. Many herders have been required to slaughter their livestock and move into newly built housing colonies without consultation or compensation.

The 79-page report, “No One Has the Liberty to Refuse: Tibetan Herders Forcibly Relocated in Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan and the Tibet Autonomous Region,”documents how the government’s policy of forced resettlement has violated the economic and social rights of Tibetan herders. It draws on interviews conducted between July 2004 and December 2006 with some 150 Tibetans from the areas directly affected.

“Some Chinese authorities claim that their forced urbanization of Tibetan herders is an enlightened form of modernization,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But those same authorities didn’t bother to find out what Tibetans want, and have been heavy handed with those who have complained.”

The Chinese government explains forced relocations as a necessary policy to protect the environment and to “develop,” “civilize,” and “modernize” both these areas and the people living there. Some Chinese officials have promoted the concentration of herders in urban areas as a way to improve the herders’ access to social and medical services, and also stimulate the growth of urban economies in the poorer, western regions of China. But others arguably have less lofty motives of wanting to suppress Tibetan culture and forcibly assimilate Tibetans into Han Chinese society.

The report documents how Tibetan herders forcibly resettled in urban areas are frequently unable to secure anything other than temporary or menial labor, partly as a result of their inability to speak Chinese or their lack of capital to start small businesses. Some Tibetan herders have been resettled on farmland, despite the fact that these pastoralists have little or no experience in farming.

It is clear that the government faces serious environmental problems in western China, and that poverty remains significantly higher in that region. But the causes of these problems and the validity of official measures taken to address them remain highly questionable, such as the government’s enthusiasm for large infrastructure development projects in areas supposedly in need of environmental protection.

A study in 2006 by Chinese scholars concluded that, “If we cannot find an effective method for solving these problems, then the disputes over grassland brought by the worsening of the environment may redouble, and could severely influence the social and political stability of Qinghai and even of the entire Northwest regions.”

“Several Chinese studies acknowledge that the loss of land rights has harmed the Tibetan herders’ interests, but the policy persists,” said Adams. “These studies also point out how this policy is increasing the possibility of social conflict in western China.”

Human Rights Watch called on the Chinese government to impose a moratorium on all resettlements until it establishes an effective mechanism to review the resettlement policy and its negative impact on the rights of herders. The government should also take all appropriate steps, including the ability to return to a herding livelihood, to ensure that adequate alternatives are available to those who have been resettled and can no longer provide for themselves. In instances in which consultation and compensation have been inadequate, local authorities should offer herders the opportunity to return, to be resettled in an area nearby or like the one from which they were moved, and provide appropriate compensation as dictated by new Chinese law.

“Chinese officials claim to be promoting economic development and protecting the environment, but it is hard to see those goals actually being achieved or benefiting Tibetan herders,” said Adams. “If the Chinese government won’t review this policy, its justifications have to be called into question.”

Selected testimony from Tibetans interviewed for the report:

    “They are destroying our Tibetan [herder] communities by not letting us live in our area and thus wiping out our livelihood completely, making it difficult for us to survive in this world, as we have been [herders] for generations. The Chinese are not letting us carry on our occupation and forcing us to live in Chinese-built towns, which will leave us with no livestock and we won’t be able to do any other work, so we will surely be beggars.”
    —F.R., Tibetan from Machen (Maqin), Qinghai province, November 2004

    “Land suitable for forest should be planted with trees and land suitable for grass should be planted with grass, and the policy of giving up farming for forest and giving up animal husbandry for grass should be diligently continued and carried forward. The traditional livelihood of the [herders] should be exchanged for market economy and prosperity should be embraced.”
    —F.H., from Pema (Banma) county, Golok prefecture, describing Chinese policy in his home district, January 2006

    “Because there are no Chinese living in the remote pastoral areas of Tibet, many of our local people believe that the policy of putting Tibetan herders in the towns is in order to control those areas, and after the older generation passes away, we will gradually be assimilated into the towns...”
    —A.M., from Machen county, Qinghai Province, September 2005

    “No new houses have been built, they have just put new doors and windows in the old prison buildings. The government made a lot of publicity about bringing electric and water facilities, but those who moved there say there is no such facility. The government talks about providing food subsidy eventually, but so far they got nothing...”
    —Z.R., from Chabcha county, Qinghai province, January 2005