Abstract

The establishment of the “Three Rivers’ Sources Nature Reserve” in 2002 - one of China’s largest ecological protection projects - has had a major impact on the lives of Tibetan nomadic herders. This paper examines the ecological viewpoints of Tibetan herders, their conceptions of grassland protection and what they believe to be the best strategies to solve grazing problems. According to the Chinese authorities, the Nature Reserve was established to protect the grasslands, as well as the sources of China’s three major rivers – the Yellow River, the Yangtse and the Mekong. Grazing bans and flock reduction have been two recurring measures in this ecological protection project. Tibetan herders have also often been forced to settle down in new purpose built villages. These “ecological migrations”, as they are referred to in State environmental discourse, are also related to State policies to bolster security through population surveillance and territorial control. Therefore, in this complex context, ecological strategies are combined with political interests. To provide an alternative reading to the existing expert analyses of ecological problems and State reports on grassland and grazing problems, my paper focus on what Tibetan herders, resettled in new villages, think about these topics. Comparing their views against State discourse and policies, it is evident that herders have a different perception of the causes of the current ecological problems and propose alternative solutions, showing a high degree of consciousness of and active concern over grassland problems. Finally, I will argue that, although the ‘ecological migrations’ are often presented as the trigger of the settling of Tibetan nomads, the new resettlement villages are just the latest step in a much longer process of sedentarization, which had already started in the 1980s with the grasslands’ fencing policy.

Acknowledgements

Footnotes: 1. At the end of the 1990s, the “Open up the West” socio-economic development campaign started (Goodman 2004; Cooke 2003). 2. During the course of eleven months, I conducted ethnographic fieldwork in many nomadic resettlements and I lived for several months in one of these resettlements. 3. Prior to 1950, the Tibetan world currently under the administration of the PRC was composed of the three regions of Amdo (a mdo), Ü-tsang (dbus gtsang) and Kham (khams). Nowadays, the Amdo and Kham territories are incorporated into the PRC’s Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan provinces. 4. On the P.R.C.’s contemporary history see Béja 2004; Goldstein 1997; Mac Farquhar 1989; Roux 2009; Samarani 2004. 5. Samarani 2004, 307-313. 6. Goodman 2004 and Cooke 2003. 7. In the Amdo area where I conducted fieldwork, Tibetan people commonly used two words to describe grassland degradation problems. The word brlag is used with the meaning of “degradation” and “something that is corrupted”. The word btshog which commonly means “dirty” is also used with the meaning of “polluted/degraded”. According to my interlocutors, the word “pollution” did not exist until recently. It was introduced from Chinese (wuran) when the P.R.C. authorities started to be concerned by Tibetan Plateau natural environment protection. 8. For a good summary of Tibetan Plateau envirnomental studies see Harris 2009. 9. For further consideration on traditional Tibetan conceptions relating to the environnment see Huber 1991. 10. A medicinal root found only on the Tibetan Plateau the name of which literally means “summer grass, winter worm”. It is so named because the fungus grows out of the body of a caterpillar. For further information see Daniel Winkler’s publications, listed at (Accessed 10 October 2010). 11. Herders’ households lived in units composed of a number of tent/households which moved and camped together. These units, called ru skor in Tibetan (ru means “clan”, but also “bone” and skor means “circle”), set up circular camps, with the center occupied by the flock. They could be composed of different families and lineages, but they should be part of the same clan. The ru skor was the smallest unit of Tibetan herders’ social organization. 12. “Han” is the Chinese name of the biggest population group in the P.R.C., “Hui” is the Chinese name of Muslim Chinese people. They are both often referred to in western countries as “Chinese”. 13. There is of course an important question as to the opportunities for nomads on settlement, but this deserves a study in its own right and will be dealt with in future publications. 14. This information was collected during fieldwork and is also based on prefectural level government documents. 15. The Propery Law specified that the land ownership rights are given to land owners for a determined period of time which vary form 30 to 50 years. Afetr this period, the State can arrogate the right to dispose of lands. (Propery Law: Article 126). 16. For the analysis of the links between politics and ecology see also Agrawal 2005. 17. Another infamous attempt to sedentarize nomads in the P.R.C.is the Mongolian case (Bulag 2002; Even 2006; Seneath 2000). Acknowledgments I would like to thank all the Tibetan herders, living in the resettlements, who shared with me their life for several months as well as their stories, knowledge and opinions. I would like to thank Ka dbang mtsho and Ama Jomothar for their endless patient in teaching me necessary skills of everyday life. I would also like to thank Jane Caple for her corrections, suggestions and critiques which were indispensable for completing this paper. I would like to thank Ken Bauer for his advice and corrections, Geoff Childs and all the people who took care of the publication and my supervisor Alban Bansa. This paper was firstly presented in August 2010 at the 12th Seminar of the International Association of Tibetan Studies (IATS). The support of the Centre d’Études Français sur la Chine contemporaine (CEFC), the “Louis Dumond” Foundation, the “Paola Sandri” Fellowship, the Institut de Recherche Interdisciplinaire sur les enjeux Sociaux of the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (IRIS-EHESS) and the Anthropology Department of the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) is greatfully acknowledged.

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