Inconvenient Truths: De-bunking China’s Plan To Settle Nomadic Populations

Inconvenient Truths: De-bunking China’s Plan To Settle Nomadic Populations

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September 19, 2012

Squat grey housing blocks stand stoically against the elements in Ne’u, Tibet, conspicuously regular against a jagged mountainous back drop. Uniform in its drab greyness and organised into identical utilitarian rows the conurbation appears more like an oddly insecure detention centre than the ‘moderately prosperous society’ the Chinese state supposedly intends it to be. This is perhaps the last place one would expect to find traditionally nomadic communities, famed and yet also persecuted for their mobile lifestyle and singular understanding of communality.

Unfortunately, Ne’u and settlements like it are exactly where many nomadic peoples hailing from within three of China’s most disputed territories have found themselves. It is also, as a result of the Chinese governments new 12th Five Year Plan announced in June this year, where the future of all remaining nomadic groups from these regions lies. Nomadic Pastoralists in Tibet, Inner Mongolia and the Xinjiang Autonomous Region are facing this upheaval whether they like it or not, having been stripped of their legal rights to the lands.

The numbers involved in implementing this policy are huge. Within the five year period, the state intends to settle over 1.5 million nomads into more than 240,000 new homes. But what are the reasons behind this colossal and, according to the Chinese authorities, ‘very popular move’?

The ‘Nomadic Problem’

In short, the plan is designed to ‘solve the nomadic problem’ which the Chinese perceive as existing on an environmental and social level. First and foremost they argue that this measure is being taken to protect the fragile grassland environments traditionally relied on by nomadic groups. Chinese authorities say that 90 percent of China’s 988 million acres of such land shows some sign of degradation and cite overgrazing, perpetrated by nomadic herds, as the key factor.

By moving the nomads off the grasslands, the Chinese argue that they can not only conserve a vital ecosystem; but also, by ending the nomadic pastoralist way of life through settlement, induce the social and economic development of nomadic peoples in the form of increased GDP and access to state infrastructure ‘where possible.’

In the Plan’s own words, all of this is supposedly to be done out of respect and in knowledge of the “actual needs and national customs of the nomadic people, according to their wishes.”(sic) Yet, just as the state flaunts the alleged nomadic support of this policy it simultaneously casts nomadic life and customs as backward. The implicit suggestion of the new Five Year Plan is that nomads are incapable of looking after their environment–hence the blame for degradation, and suffer as social and economic anachronisms in a modern world.

This attitude toward nomadic worth has been more explicitly detailed by other Chinese sources such as the State controlled publication ‘China Daily.’ In 2009 it described the Xinjiang Autonomous Region as ‘stagnant,’ ‘under-developed’ and home to a people who “Before the founding of New China in 1949…led a life of poverty and hardship.” This appraisal refers directly to the nomadic peoples of the region as well as others. In light of the evidence to follow concerning the negative effects of State control and intervention, this demonstrates not only absolute State faith in a chronically flawed idea of development, but also that little respect is truly held with relation to nomadic needs and customs as dictated by the people.

Protest as Expose

Earth Day Protest for Tibetan Nomads. (Photo by SFTHQ on flickr.)Extensive recent protests have also challenged the plausibility of State claims that the new plan has popular nomadic support. In each concerned region nomadic people have persistently responded to plans to end their way of life by offering not compliance, but resistance and protest.

Some of the most striking examples of nomadic anger took place in Tibet in 2011 where a staggering twenty five individuals self immolate in protest. Eighteen of these were herders protesting the pre-12th Five Year Plan resettlement effort which, as of January 2011, had forcibly moved approximately 1.43 million ex-nomads into unfamiliar urban environments. Many of which were less than prosperous.

Most recently, conflict in Inner Mongolia has acted to voice the continuing distress of herding populations at the subjugation of their rights. A letter from the nomads of Imin Sum to the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Centre (SMHRIC) explained how “Through means of deception and force, the government is literally plundering our land.” Protests in this locality (as well as those of Hailut Township and Ar Horchin Banner), though heavily censored via internet policing, reveal the clear absence of nomadic compliance. Voices of discord have also been ignored in Xinjiang with the Human Rights Watch reporting extensive abuses of Indigenous autonomy, including freedom of speech and religious expression, at the hands of the State.

The evidence brought to bear by such acts of defiance and the need for state censorship of protest point toward nomadic perception of these policies as being aggressive attempts at enforced assimilation, not benevolent facilitations of nomadic wishes.

A Planned International Rights Violation

The plan’s clear transgression of the Nomadic Peoples needs and their desire to remain on their ancestral grasslands also has international legal implications. The initiative defies several articles of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). These include Article Eight, part one, which states that:

“Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture”

As well as Article Ten:

“Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories. No relocation shall take place without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned and after agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option of return.”

Numerous other terms of the declaration also stand to be violated by the plan. Despite this–and a damning report from UN Special Rapporteur Mr Olivier De Schutter–the plan has somehow retained a kind of impunity, avoiding worldwide headlines.

De-bunking State Justifications

Given the 12th Five Year Plan’s attempts to disguise its violation of nomadic autonomy, it would be foolish to subsequently accept that its reasons for such violations are genuine. Enquiry into the eco-social history of the relationship between State, nomadic pastoralists and the environment casts doubt over the veracity of State claims that nomads are responsible for environmental degradation. It also radically confronts Chinese pre-conceptions of nomadic peoples as socio-economically backward and poverty stricken. This is vital as these assumptions are key to justifying the means of the plan.

Consulting independent historical, social and environmental sources rather than those backed by the Chinese state again reveals that the new settlement plan has its roots firmly planted in deceit.

The first accusation that requires de-bunking is the assertion that nomadic herds are causing over grazing, damaging grassland ecology. State authorities blame the social backwardness of nomadic commons management and outmoded traditional knowledge systems for this; subsequently stating this as a reason why the nomads are in need of development. Contrary to these claims, a careful appraisal of studies concerning nomadic lifeways suggests this blame is wrongly apportioned.

Though some overgrazing has occurred, it is very unlikely to be the result of traditional nomadic herding methods. Non-state sponsored science has found that traditional, unconstrained grazing activities actually significantly improves the quality of range lands. On the Tibetan plateau moderate and intermittent grazing has been demonstrated to increase bio-diversity, control toxic weed populations and increase soil quality by improving the carbon-nitrogen ratio. Conversely, when traditional grazing methods were observably removed from an area, as the Chinese propose they should be, toxic weed populations increased, permafrost was negatively affected and bio-diversity fell.

Other studies (PDF) in the same region  found that grazing may also be key to mitigating the effects of artificial warming on grasslands in both winter and summer seasons. Traditional grazing activity elongated the growing season, improved vegetative productivity and quality and reduced the tangible negative effects of warming.

Furthermore, the survival of such a way of life until this day through countless centuries suggests that traditional nomadic herd management was and can be environmentally stable and sustainable contrary to Chinese remonstrations. Maintaining the correct herd size in relation to the land’s carrying capacity, avoiding overgrazing, was key to prospering and sustaining life. Far from being a primitive step on the inevitable road to agriculture and industry both experts and the nomads themselves know that traditional methods were key to “a highly sophisticated adaption.”

Fact: The Dukha Peoples of Mongolia relocate 6-10 times each year, ensuring that the land always has time to recover. This is conservation at its best (Photo

Living in accordance with what their environment allows, nomads represent the antithesis of backwardness. According to Tenzin Norbu, Director of the Environment and Development Desk of the Central Tibetan Administration, this traditional knowledge “holds the key to sustainability on the dry lands of the world” for the future.

A History Of Chinese Colonization

The wealth of evidence and opinion that tells of the benefits of traditional nomadic grazing has not stopped States such as China from making the unfounded assumption that nomads and their ways of life are somehow pre-modern and in need of development. The new 12th Five Year Plan preys on this ignorance of nomadic life, but a look at the history of Chinese grassland policy acts to further dent State justifications for the planned upheaval. These policies can lend some clues as to how the Chinese State has deceptively managed to rhetorically cast the nomad as the enemy of nature, making the resettlement plan somehow justifiable.

It is strange that, in the latter half of the twentieth and into the twenty first century, nomadic management strategies should independently fall out of sync with local ecosystems and cause environmental damage. This is a fair contention in light of the facts concerning above-stated traditional nomadic grazing practices. So where does the blame for overgrazing lie?

The sustainability of nomadic pastoralism as a mode of subsistence is reliant on free seasonal rotation and migration. This allows the soil and vegetable matter to recuperate after grazing, preventing over use. If disrupted this sustainability can be damaged; experts have long warned of the danger of State interventions in well-adapted nomadic management techniques, seeing through claims of ‘improvement and ‘modernization.’

Anthropologist GN Appell, for one, suggests that the only things such invasions are key to supporting is “the practice of designing futures for others and imposing their (the State’s) own economic and environmental rationality on other social systems of which they have incomplete understanding.”

The Chinese State is guilty of disturbing nomadic practices and is demonstrably responsible for much of the ecological damage that can be put down to overgrazing. Since 1950 the State, ignorant of the sustainability of nomadic practices, has implemented damaging grassland policies which have gone through numerous harmful phases. From the communes set up in 1958 which encouraged production and over stocking of the land to the fencing schemes which curbed mobility whilst increasing state control, the options needed to keep nomadic herding sustainable have been taken from the people.

Simultaneously, the social ‘improvement’ supposedly afforded by such ‘developments’ has hardly been seen. Again, recent protests demonstrate this, as does the high rate of urban poverty found in forcibly settled nomadic groups. The promises made by the State over the past sixty years are the same as those made by the new plan. It must be stated that the nomads do not want development or a monetary income. A number of different individuals, including Tenzin Norbu, have reported this, that “almost all of the residents of the concrete settlements would prefer to go back to their previous lifestyle.”

A Nomad at Drigung Valley, Tibet. The ropes and tents in the background are sewn by hand using Goat hair. Photo by lylevincent on flickr

These ignorant interventions seem to be forgotten by a State which now conveniently sees the removal of nomadic groups as the solution to a problem of its own making. Designing a sedentary future for the nomads, China is able to deflect the blame for grassland degradation which lies firmly at its own door. History here shows us that ousting traditional knowledge in favour of ‘modern’ solutions is in fact the harbinger of environmental peril.

A Resource-Motivated Deception

The unfortunate truth for the credibility of the State’s justification for the new plan is that Chinese grassland policies, past and present, make very little social or ecological sense. Given the scientific and social evidence the most rational course of action the Five Year Plan could take to conserve the grasslands would be to pour its efforts into restoring a traditional nomadic way of life close to the one that existed before the 1950s. Rather than creating more dependent, impoverished citizens and resource problems, developments should be looking to foster self sustainable populations.

It would be naive to think that the Chinese are ignorant of this fact. The next question that must be asked then, is what does the State stand to gain from settling the nomads?

The most likely explanation is a disturbing one. Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia have been found, relatively recently, to contain monumentally valuable and vast mineral deposits which the Chinese have wasted little time in claiming.

In Tibet, the building of the new Golmud Lhasa railway line across the Tibetan Plateau in 2006 has ushered in a mining boom. The Chinese government, in accordance with its policy encouraging large scale explorations, has since announced plans to exploit one hundred and ten deposits in this fragile area. There is also considerable foreign investment in this venture from European and Canadian mining giants such as Rio Tinto and Eldorado Gold Corp. Nomads have protested claiming the lands have been poisoned along with their herds, yet further rail links and damming projects are under construction.

In Inner mongolia, home to a quarter of the worlds total coal reserves and a large portion of its rare metals, a similar story is unfolding. Greenpeace has warned China that further exploration could cause a water crisis affecting both people and fragile grassland ecosystems. It has also found that numerous areas have already suffered accelerated degradation. Yet the companies involved are still planning to increase production.

Xinjiang Autonomous Region hosts vast coal, gas and oil reserves. In 2008, 27.22 million tonnes of crude oil were extracted. Further growth is forecast with the region partaking in a so called ‘black gold rush.’ The regions largest sector is that of petrochemicals and success and development is consistently judged by the number of large projects in the region.

The details of these extensive resource exploitations are of course omitted from official Chinese explanations. This further suggests that the resettlement of the nomadic population is little more than an attempt to follow the path of least resistance to achieving total control of these profitable lands. It is a story we have seen before, in 1848 in California and all over the world since. Extraction techniques may have moved on, governments may now outwardly mitigate against human and environmental losses, but still cultures are crushed the world over to allow the exploitation of one resource or another.

Such projects are also likely to be accountable for a lions share of the direct (caused by large projects) and indirect (warming effects) degradation claimed by the Chinese authorities.

The Inconvenient Truths

China may have rolled out new tax breaks for sustainable rural initiatives and it may be presenting the world with a seemingly-green solution to nomadic over grazing; but the facts tell us these are greenwashing initiatives. They are designed to distract us from the slew of new and incredibly harmful extractive projects increasing in the same, and soon to be ‘uncontested’, areas. The impacts will not be countered by green industry.

The 12th Five Year Plan pretends to be at home in a sustainable development paradigm. It claims to be acting in nomadic and environmental best interests, but the insistence of these claims is not enough to conceal the increasingly damaging and profitable ecological extraction initiatives which provide the true incentive to State policies.

Hopefully the myths of this plan have been, to a degree at least, dispelled here. The reality which rushes in to fill the gaps left by misinformation is an unsettling one. It is a reality that suggests China stands for illegally extinguishing a whole cultural system and jeopardizing of some of the world’s most precious ecosystems for the sake of economic growth and production. It is also a reality which tells us that it will be achieved via national and international dishonesty.

But perhaps this is not so surprising from a State that does not recognise that development cannot be simply measured in yuan, or that nomads are not a problem to be solved, but a solution in waiting to the ecological issues China has apparently no interest in addressing.

Traditional Kazakh Eagle Hunters, Mongolia. Photo by Jackus Dysonius (Dionysius) on flickr.

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