VI. Flaws in the Environmental Policy Arguments

This report does not question the fact that China is suffering multiple environmental crises. However, there are grounds for disputing both who is responsible for those crises and the consequent actions taken by the government in the name of protection in Tibetan areas. Tibetan herders had pursued their way of life for centuries without causing harm to the grassland; damage emerged only after the imposition of policies such as collectivization.113 Forestry is still practiced, albeit generally under stricter control especially in the areas that feed the headwaters of the Yangtse and the Yellow rivers, though it has not been curtailed in the southeastern TAR, where the Brahmaputra, Mekong, and Salween rivers flow into south and southeast Asia rather than China.114

The wholesale deforestation, under state auspices, of the eastern Tibetan areas from the 1960s until at least 1998 was one of the great environmental tragedies of the last century, perhaps comparable to the deforestation of the Amazon, given the importance of the Tibetan plateau to the climate and hydrology of south, southeast, and east Asia.115 For the state to blame the environmental problems in Tibetan areas on subsistence farmers and herders seems a tenuous argument. 

The government’s commitment to environmental protection in Tibet is also undermined by its willingness to promote the expansion of heavy industry in these areas; after all, the 1985 Grasslands Law also forbids that activity on grasslands. For example, mining activity has increased since the launch of the Western Development campaign. In Qinghai and Sichuan, private entrepreneurs built mines, which caused environmental havoc. In 2000 provincial authorities in both provinces banned this type of mining, and similar measures were adopted in the TAR in 2005.  However, there is apparently no intention to limit organized, licensed mining by state corporations and private investors, including foreign mining companies. Encouraging investment is one of the main objectives of “Western Development,” and preferential terms such as exemptions from taxes and fees are on offer.116  Mining is one of the “five pillar industries” singled out as the main force for economic growth in the TAR.117

Although the Chinese government claims that “industrial projects are selected carefully, and pollution prevention and control are strengthened,” 118 the reality is sometimes markedly different. This account from Tsigortang county in Qinghai is typical of many collected by Human Rights Watch:

The place is called Serkhok and there are more than 20 [Tibetan herder] households there. The gold-mining is on the hill and the Chinese are living on the grassy plain... In 1997 houses and roads were built in preparation and from 1999 the actual mining started. It is said that the mining company came from mainland China. There are many people from places like Zhejiang and Shanghai. More than 10 households of our community had to move. Now the mining takes up all the best pasture in our Sertang community and the [herder] households that used to live there had as many as 100 Yak and 600 sheep each. It is said each household was paid 40-50,000 yuan (US$5,177-6,472) and allocated smaller pastures in our area … Our local herders do not like mining in our area because we lost more than 10,000 mu of pasture and this mining site is a sacred hill and they are destroying it … A road was built connecting the site with Chungon township 100 km away which has destroyed a lot of pasture land … The Serchu river has become a place for the Chinese miners to dump waste and sewage and it is polluted … Some cattle have died after eating waste on the plain near the mine. Because of the pollution the grass does not grow … The pasture has been ruined by the digging of soil, the dumping of rock, and road construction. 119

State mining companies rarely pay compensation to Tibetan herders, but private companies occasionally make ad hoc payments, usually to local officials, to dampen hostility to their operations. In at least one instance, Human Rights Watch was told that a mining company paid compensation to the local authorities, but none of that was passed on to Tibetan herders:

In 2003 [herders] tried to stop the Chinese by saying they would not allow mining, but county and township leaders came and told them they should allow mining because the grasslands belong to the nation. Nowadays the pasture of those households has been ruined. The mining trucks don’t use just one road but drive everywhere, so the grass doesn’t grow and the livestock have been reduced. The miners paid compensation to the county and prefecture governments but nothing was given to the [Tibetan herder] households …. Last year many animals from the Kebo household on the edge of the mine died, and they wrote a petition to the mining company and the township government but they didn’t receive any compensation. The miners told them, “We are paying thousands of yuan to the provincial and prefecture governments to mine here, so why should we pay you as well? If you want money, go ask those governments,” and there was nothing they could do.120

Human Rights Watch was not able to document a single case in which Tibetan herders were able to obtain redress in such circumstances. M.S. questioned why only Tibetans were being blamed and asked to sacrifice for environmental protection:

Scarcity of rainfall and pollution is caused [not by us but] by the government. They are the ones who destroyed all the wildlife on the grasslands [in the past] and who are mining there now. Many Chinese and Muslims are allowed to settle there and build all kinds of houses …121

Although the Chinese government strongly repudiates criticisms of its environmental record in Tibet,122 a number of Chinese studies have questioned the validity of the rationale for ecological migration policies. A survey of studies on the subject by the Chinese government itself notes tersely that “the knowledge about ecological migrations is insufficient” and that the local authorities are often guilty of “blindness and impetuousness” in carrying out these policies:

At present, in all ethnic minority areas—and in particular in pasture areas that are subjected to ecological migration policies—scientific environmental guiding principles are lacking, and all related projects are marked by a degree of blindness and impetuousness [xiamuxing he jizaoxing].123

Box 2: The Yartsa Ganbu trade: Emblematic of the failure of resettlement to promote development and environmental protection

The main source of income for many of those who no longer herd has become not trade or business, but collecting and selling caterpillar fungus (cordyceps sinensis, known locally as yartsa ganbu, or bu), a medicinal root that is found on the Tibetan grasslands and that has a very high market value. This outcome undermines the stated policy objectives of environmental protection and pasture renewal in Tibetan areas. Judging from reports Human Rights Watch has received, virtually the entire working population of large parts of these areas now spends the summer months scouring the grassland for this plant.

Nowadays, unless you try making a living by collecting yartsa ganbu, it’s like there’s no other kind of income.124

The response from the authorities has been mixed. In some instances they have tried to prevent yartsa ganbu collecting, resorting to highly aggressive measures in the process. An interviewee from Sichuan province told us,

In March-April 2003 people of three townships in Sershul [county, Sichuan] all agreed that they don’t have pasture to herd their animals which are their livelihood, so they took up swords and axes and went to the grassland and  cut the fences and went in there to collect yartsa ganbu... When the county authorities heard about it they immediately sent six or seven trucks of police and soldiers from the county town. There were probably 50-60 soldiers. People confronted the soldiers saying that if we are not allowed to collect bu today we would not give in easily. This is our land and they are bullying us by fencing it    and not letting our animals graze. There were some Tibetans among the soldiers who urged people not to do this but to discuss the issue [peacefully]. Had they not done so, some people might have died fighting the soldiers. Even so, some elder people pleaded with the soldiers that we would not do this if we could do what we need to live. Later that day policemen from Sershul Public Security Bureau  came and investigated for three days to find the leaders of the protest.  They could not find any but they arrested some people and scolded us, saying that the Lama of Sershul monastery and the village leaders were responsible.... [T]hey arrested about 50 people from the three townships and beat them severely to find out who were the leaders, but no one identified any leader. They were imprisoned for almost one month. I actually saw people who had been beaten by the soldiers, and some of them had to spend about 15 days in hospital.125

Elsewhere the response of local officials is reportedly not to suppress but to profit from the trade, with licensing and taxation. For example, the county government in Tengchen (Dingging), Chamdo prefecture, TAR was among the first to issue passbooks to locals, which are now in general use (see appendix). The purpose of such regulations, which were extended throughout the TAR in May 2006, was to prevent migrants and others from crossing county borders to search for the herb and limit local people gathering the crop, but the use of such passbooks and the new regulations may in reality only contribute to further corruption and discrimination, rather than using the revenue to benefit the population as a whole.  Some claimed that local officials sell the local passbooks to outside collectors for profit,126 and there were similar accounts from Ngaba and Kandze127prefectures in Sichuan and Tso-nub (Haixi) prefecture in Qinghai.128

In the past they used to announce that we cannot harvest yartsa ganbu because it damages the environment. But nowadays, maybe because the local government is getting revenue from it, they don’t say so any more. Now it seems that you can harvest anywhere you like if you pay the tax. It goes without saying that the environment gets damaged. These days it’s not just a few collectors but thousands... In our county, which is the main source of income, so no one tries to stop it.129

In some areas there have been violent conflicts over the trade. Three young people from Qinghai were killed in a dispute over collection in April 2004.130 Clashes between itinerant collectors and law enforcement officers monitoring yartsa ganbu collecting were reported from the Sanjiangyuan reserve area in Qinghai by Radio Free Asia in May 2005.131

113 For a general bibliography, see On the disparagement of traditional herding knowledge by official science, see M. Fernandez-Gimenez,”The role of ecological perception in indigenous resource management,” Nomadic peoples, 33 1992; D.M. Williams,”Representations of nature on the Mongolian steppe: an investigation of scientific knowledge construction,” American Anthropologist, 102(3) 2000; and Miller,”Looking back to move ahead: integrating indigenous nomadic knowledge into the modern range profession.” See also Goldstein, Beall, Cincotta, ”Traditional nomadic pastoralism and ecological conservation on Tibet’s northern plateau”;  Richard and Ning Wu, ”Privatisation of rangeland and impacts on pastoral dynamics: the case of western Sichuan”;  Williams, ”Grassland enclosures, catalysts of land degradation in Inner Mongolia”; Richard, ”The potential for rangeland management in Yak-rearing areas of the Tibetan plateau”; Yan Zhaoli, Ning Wu, Richard, ”Nomad people should be the major concern in grassland policy”; “The barbed walls of China,” Journal of Asian Studies

114 For a desription of the challenges involved see Y. Yang, ”Alpine forests in western Sichuan and the effects of forest management” in the proceedings of the IUFPO international workshop, Ibaraki, Japan 1987, T. Fujimori and M Kimura, eds.; See also Proceedings of the WWF China programme international workshop ‘Tibet’s biodiversity: conservation and management’ held in Lhasa, September 1998.” The fact that deforestation has not been curtailed in southeastern parts of TAR as it has in Sichuan since 1998 raises further questions about the Chinese government’s commitment to environmental protection in this region.

115A great deal of comment has been produced on this matter by the Tibet advocacy community, such as websites and publications of the Tibetan government in exile, International Campaign for Tibet, and Tibet Justice Centre.  But little scientific data exists, as formal research on the environmental impact of late 20th century deforestation has been subject to official censorship.  Some exceptions include ”Watershed management in mountain regions of southwest China,” in ICIMOD Kathmandu/CISNR Beijing, “International workshop on watershed management in the Hindukush-Himalaya region,” 1986; Ang Zhao, “Reflections on the status, difficulties, and trends in the growth cycle of Sichuan’s forests.” Article 12, No.1, 1992; and International Commission of Jurists, “Tibet: human rights and rule of law” (citing a 1992 study by the Policy Research Department of the Sichuan Communist Party committee). See also V. Smil, The Bad Earth: environmental degradation in China (London: Zed Press, 1984); D. Winkler, “Forest, forest economy and deforestation in the Tibetan prefectures of west Sichuan,” Commonwealth Forest Review, 75(4) 1996; and Human Rights Watch, Trials of a Tibetan Monk, p. 37-40.

116 See, for example, Tibet Information Network, “Mining Tibet: mineral exploitation in Tibetan areas of the PRC,” 2002, p. 71-72.

117 "The "five pillar industries" in the TAR from at least 1997 were mining, forestry, agricultural and livestock by-products and handicrafts, tourism, and construction. See "Vigorously implementing the strategy of using pillar industries to bring along other industries and cultivating new economic growth outlets," Tibet Government Work Report, 1997, part 3, published in English by the BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, July 5, 1997. Forestry was withdrawn from the list in 2003 and replaced by Tibetan medicine and “green products.”

118 Information Office of the State Council of the People's Republic of China, “White Paper:Ecological Improvement and Environmental Protection in Tibet,” March 2003, (accessed February 23, 2007).

119 Human Rights Watch interview with M.S., from Tsigorthang county, Tsolho TAP, Qinghai province, May 12, 2005.

120 Human Rights Watch interview with H.D., from Tulan (Dulan) county, Tsonub TAP, Qinghai province, July 8, 2005.

121 Human Rights Watch interview with M.S., from Tsigorthang county, Tsolho TAP, Qinghai province, May 12, 2005.

122 Information Office of the State Council of the People's Republic of China, “White Paper: Ecological Improvement and Environmental Protection in Tibet.”

123 Meng Linlin, Bao Zhiming, “Survey of Ecological Migration Studies,” Journal of the Central University for Nationalities, p. 50.

124 Human Rights Watch interview with A.M., from Machen (Maqin) county, Golog TAP, Qinghai province, September 16, 2005

125 Human Rights Watch interview with B.E., from Sershul county, Kardze TAP , Sichuan province, September 30, 2005

126 Human Rights Watch interview with F.T., from Tengchen county, Chamdo prefecture, TAR, December 28, 2005.

127 Human Rights Watch interview with R.C., from Sershul county, Kandze prefecture, Sichuan province, May 25, 2005.

128 Human Rights Watch interview with U.Y., from Themchen county, Tsonub (Haixi) prefecture, Qinghai province, August 28, 2006.

129Human Rights Watch interview with Y.S., from Ngaba county, Ngaba TAP, Sichuan province, June 6, 2005.

130 Human Rights Watch interview with D.C., from Tengchen county, Chamdo prefecture, TAR, May 6, 2005.

131 “Tibetan and Chinese Security Forces Clash in Qinghai,” Radio Free Asia, June 1, 2005.