UN Special Rapporteur warns of consequences to nomad settlement

Nomad resettlement site in Darchen

Nomad resettlement site in Darchen, Ngari prefecture, Tibet Autonomous Region. The majority of
Tibetans live in rural areas, and for centuries many have sustained themselves through a nomadic
herder lifestyle, uniquely adapted to the harsh conditions and fragile ecosystem of the Tibetan plateau.

At the conclusion of his mission to China today (Dec. 15 – 23, 2010) the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, said that Tibetan and Mongolian nomads should not be compelled to settle. It is Chinese government policy to implement policies of settling Tibetan nomads, confiscating their land, and fencing pastoral areas, which is leading to increasing poverty, environmental degradation and social breakdown.

The Special Rapporteur’s report, released today, stated: “[…] While there is little doubt about the extent of the land degradation problem, the Special Rapporteur would note that herders should not, as a result of the measures adopted under the tuimu huancao (‘removing animals to grow grass’) policy, be put in a situation where they have no other options than to sell their herd and resettle.” (Preliminary observations and conclusions: Mission to the People’s Republic of China from Dec. 15 to 23, 2010, December 23, 2010. http://www.srfood.org/images/stories/pdf/officialreports/de-schutter-china-statement.pdf)

Since the beginning of the Western Development Strategy in 1999 – 2000, the Chinese government has been implementing policies of settlement, land confiscation and fencing of pastoral areas in both Tibet, dramatically curtailing nomadic herders’ livelihoods. These policies give the authorities greater administrative control over people’s movements and lifestyles. Tens of thousands of Tibetan nomads have been required to slaughter their livestock and move into newly built housing colonies in or near towns, abandoning their traditional way of life. In the past few years the government program to settle nomads in Tibet appears to have been stepped up, with the arrival of the Qinghai-Tibet railroad adding further impetus to the implementation of these policies throughout Tibetan areas of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

The intent to end the nomadic lifestyle, imposed from the top-down in Beijing, applies throughout the PRC. Similar policies of moving Mongolian nomads off the steppe in Inner Mongolia have been pursued since the 1950s. Kazakh nomads in northern areas of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) were subject to settlement policies instituted in the late 1980s, with over 80% of Kazakh pastoral families settled by 2000. (ICT report Tracking the Steel Dragon).

Not only are these policies threatening one of the world’s last systems of sustainable pastoralism, but scientific evidence shows that these policies are threatening the survival of the rangelands and Tibet’s biodiversity. Chinese, Tibetan and Western scholars concerned about the impacts of these policies have pointed out that settling nomads runs counter to the latest scientific evidence on lessening the impact of grasslands degradation, which points to the need for livestock mobility in ensuring the health of the rangelands and mitigating negative warming impacts. (http://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/2961).

The Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food noted in his report: “The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights prohibits depriving any people from its means of subsistence, and the 1992 Convention on Biodiversity acknowledges the importance of indigenous communities as guarantors and protectors of biodiversity (Art. 8 j). China has ratified both of these instruments. The Special Rapporteur encourages the Chinese authorities to engage in meaningful consultations with herding communities, including in order to assess the results of past and current policies, and examine all available options, including recent strategies of sustainable management of marginal pastures such as the New Rangeland Management (NRM) in order to combine the knowledge of the nomadic herders of their territories with the information that can be drawn from modern science.” (Section included below, and Special Rapporteur press release: Press release: “From food security to the right to food: UN expert highlights China’s next steps”, December 23, 2010 (http://www.srfood.org/images/stories/pdf/press_releases/20101223_china-mission-press-release_en.pdf)

There is an increasing consensus among Chinese, Tibetan and Western scholars that the traditional ecosystem knowledge of nomadic pastoralists protects the land and livelihoods and helps restore areas already degraded. The involvement of Tibetans ­ and nomads in particular ­ is essential to sustaining the long-term health of the ecosystems and water resources that China and Asia depend upon. The section from the Special Rapporteur’s report on nomadic herders is enclosed below.

Threats to nomadic herders

Nomadic herders in Western Provinces and Autonomous Regions, especially in the Tibet (Xizang) and Inner Mongolian Autonomous Regions, are another vulnerable group. The Grassland Law adopted in 1985 both in order to protect grassland and in order to modernize the animal husbandry industry towards commodification has now been complemented by a range of policies and programmes, including tuimu huancao (“removing animals to grow grass”) and tuigeng huanlin (“Returning Farmland to Forest”). These programmes, part of the 1999 Western Development Strategy (xibu da kaifa), seek to address the degradation of pasture lands and control disasters in the low lands of China. They include measures such as grazing bans, grazing land non-use periods, rotational grazing and accommodation of carrying capacity, limitations on pastures distribution, compulsory fencing, slaughter of animal livestock, and the planting of eucalyptus trees on marginal farmland to reduce the threat of soil erosion. While there is little doubt about the extent of the land degradation problem, the Special Rapporteur would note that herders should not, as a result of the measures adopted under the tuimu huancao policy, be put in a situation where they have no other options than to sell their herd and resettle.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights prohibits depriving any people from its means of subsistence, and the 1992 Convention on Biodiversity acknowledges the importance of indigenous communities as guarantors and protectors of biodiversity (Art. 8 j). China has ratified both of these instruments. The Special Rapporteur encourages the Chinese authorities to engage in meaningful consultations with herding communities, including in order to assess the results of past and current policies, and examine all available options, including recent strategies of sustainable management of marginal pastures such as the New Rangeland Management (NRM) in order to combine the knowledge of the nomadic herders of their territories with the information that can be drawn from modern science. The Special Rapporteur also encourages the Chinese authorities to invest in rehabilitating pasture, and to support remaining nomads with rural extension. The potential of livestock insurance programmes should also be explored, as tested successfully in Mongolia. Such programs, which pay nomads to restock and recover after a major disaster, encourage nomads to keep herds at much smaller scale as they would not fear losing their herding activity after such disasters if covered by such insurances.