Tough times for Tibetan nomads in Western China: Snowstorms, settling down, fences, and the demise of traditional nomadic pastoralism[1] 

 

Daniel J. Miller

 

 

Introduction

Rangelands of the Tibetan Plateau in Western China encompass about 168 million hectares, 42 percent of China’s total rangeland area, and support an estimated two million nomadic pastoralists.   As such, the Tibetan nomadic pastoral area, a sub-region of the Tibetan Plateau, is one of the world’s largest pastoral areas.  The fact that this area has supported nomadic pastoralism for millennia while sustaining a unique flora and fauna indicates the existence of a remarkable pastoral ecosystem.

 

Nomadic pastoralism on the Tibetan Plateau is distinct from pastoralism in most other regions of the world, except perhaps the mountainous areas of Mongolia.  On the Tibetan Plateau, the key distinguishing factors that separate pastoral areas from cultivated areas are elevation and temperature, in contrast to most other pastoral areas where the key factor is usually lack of water.  Tibetan pastoralism is found at elevations of 3,500 to 5,400 m in environments too cold for crop cultivation.  Yet, at these elevations, some of the highest inhabited areas of the world, there are extensive, productive rangelands and nomads continue to thrive (Barfield 1993, Goldstein and Beall 1990, Miller 1998a).  Tibetan nomadic pastoralism is also characterized by a unique animal, the yak (Bos grunniens), which is superbly adapted to the high-elevation, cold environment (Miller 1997b).  One important reason Tibetan nomads continue to flourish in this high-elevation and inhospitable landscape is that they have not had to compete with the conversion of their rangelands to cropland. 

 

The Tibetan plateau has a bitter continental climate.  Heavy livestock losses are often experienced as a result of heavy snowfalls and severe cold weather (Cincotta et al. 1991, Goldstein et al. 1990, Miller 1998a, Schaller 1998).  The winter of 1997-1998 was one of the worst in recent history across much of the Tibetan nomadic pastoral area (Miller 1998d).  Unusually heavy snowfall in September was followed by severe cold weather and additional snowstorms throughout the fall and winter.  By the spring of 1998, an estimated three million head of livestock had died in the Tibetan Autonomous Region.  In some townships, 70 percent of the livestock was lost.  Almost one quarter of a million nomads were affected and hundreds of nomad families lost all their animals.

 

The government of China, donors, and relief agencies quickly responded to the disaster situation by providing humanitarian relief (food, tents, blankets, clothing, and medical supplies for nomads as well as feed for livestock) and restocking programs have been initiated to replace lost livestock.  The effect of the heavy livestock losses from the winter of 1997-1998, however, will reverberate for years to come in many Tibetan nomad areas as it will take considerable time for nomads to build their herds up to the levels they were at prior to the snowstorms.  In the meantime, thousands of nomads with fewer animals will face difficulties in meeting their basic needs. 

 

The livestock losses on the Tibetan plateau following the heavy snows are now seen by many officials as proof of the need to settle Tibetan nomads and to introduce more ‘modern’ and ‘scientific’ animal husbandry practices.  Government officials in China generally believe that nomads are backward and that their traditional livestock and grazing management systems an improper use of the land.   Nomadic pastoralism is thought to lead to overgrazing and rangeland degradation.  The structure of nomads’ herds is held to be irrational, with too few breeding females and an excess of unproductive animals, such as horses.   Traditional pastoralism is believed to encourage nomads to keep large numbers of animals only as a status symbol of wealth. 

 

Most officials in China insist that, for development to be achieved in Tibetan nomadic areas, nomads must be settled, houses and barns should replace the traditional nomad yak hair tent, rangeland must be divided into individual family units and fenced, herds need to be restructured,  livestock numbers should be adjusted to carrying capacity, fodder has to be grown for the winter, and, for the rangelands, ‘ecological engineering’ and ‘grassland construction’ needs to be undertaken.  It is widely believed that such ‘improvements’ would help prevent large livestock losses during severe winters, improve the productivity of the rangelands, increase livestock proficiency, and raise overall living standards for nomads.       

 

Are these assumptions about Tibetan nomads and their pastoral production systems valid?  Are current policies and development approaches for Tibetan plateau rangelands appropriate?  What can be done to assist nomads that lost livestock from severe snowstorms?  What types of range-livestock development activities should be pursued on the Tibetan plateau?   Sustainable development in Tibetan nomadic pastoral areas requires answers to these questions.

 

In this paper, I introduce the Tibetan pastoral ecosystem and explore the nature and extent of recent snowstorms and livestock losses on the Tibetan plateau.  Based on fieldwork in various Tibetan nomadic areas on the Tibetan plateau, data on Tibetan nomadic production systems is presented.   Many of the existing negative stereotypes about Tibetan nomads are disputed and assumptions about the unsoundness of traditional nomadic pastoral systems are challenged.  I also discuss present pastoral policies and range-livestock development plans now in place to deal with severe winters on the Tibetan plateau and the implications they have for the future of nomadic pastoralism.  Finally, recommendations for more sustainable development in Tibetan nomadic areas are presented   It is hoped that this paper will stimulate greater interest in Tibetan nomadic pastoralism and challenge officials, scientists, and pastoral development specialists in China to more critically analyze past development experiences and current approaches for one of the world’s most remarkable pastoral systems.

 

Geography, Climate and Ecosystem Dynamics

Comprising 2.5 million km2, about one quarter of China’s total land area, the Tibetan plateau is the largest and highest plateau on earth.  Over 80 percent of the land area is above 3,000 m in elevation, and about half is over 4500 m (Schaller 1998).  The Tibetan nomadic pastoral area encompasses a huge sub-region of the Tibetan plateau in Western China (Fig. 1).   Table 1 shows the total amount of rangeland in the major pastoral provinces and autonomous regions of northern and western China.  The rangelands of the Tibetan Plateau includes all of Tibet and Qinghai, most of the rangeland area of Gansu and Sichuan, and parts of southern Xinjiang; an estimated 1.6 million km2, which is a little more than the entire land area of the country of Mongolia.

 

 

Table 1.  Rangelands of Northern and Western China, by Province or Region

 

Province or Region

Area

(million ha)

Total Rangeland

 (million ha)   

% of Province

rangeland

Useable

rangeland

(million ha)

%

useable

rangeland

Inner Mongolia

Tibet

Xinjiang

Qinghai

Gansu

Sichuan

Heilongjiang

Ningxia

Liaoning

Jilin

Total

China (total)

  118.3

  120.0

  160.0

   72.1

   45.0

   23.6

   45.4

     5.2

   14.6

   18.7

 622.9

 960.0

   86.7

   84.0

   57.3

   38.6

   16.1

   13.9

     7.5

     3.0

     2.0

     1.9

 311.0

 400.0

 73.3

 70.0

 35.8

 53.5

 35.8

 58.8

 16.5

 57.7

 13.7

 10.2

 49.9

 41.7

68.0

67.2

48.0

33.5

  9.7

   --

  4.8

  2.6

   --

  1.3

 

78.4

80.0

83.7

86.8

60.2

  --

64.0

86.6

  --

68.4

Adapted from Grasslands and Grassland Sciences in Northern China.  1992.

 

 

Because of the high elevation, most of the Tibetan nomadic pastoral area has a severe continental climate.  Average annual temperatures in the Chang Tang region of the northwestern Tibetan plateau vary from 0 to -6 C.  There are seldom any frost-free days in this region.  Average daily minimum in July and August in the northwestern Chang Tang was 1.4 C and the maximum was 13.3 C (Schaller 1998).  Average daily minimum temperature in December in the Shuanghu region of the Chang Tang in Tibet was -25.3 C.  Temperatures of - 40 C are often reached in the winter.

 

On the Tibetan plateau, average annual precipitation varies from about 700 mm in the east to less than 100 mm in the west, with most of this falling from June to September, often as wet snow and hail.   Most of the nomadic pastoral area receives less than 400 mm precipitation annually.  Winters are generally dry, but heavy snowfalls occur periodically that bury forage and prevent animals from grazing.  Low temperatures that often accompany these snow storms put additional stress on livestock.   As such, the plateau is an extremely harsh environment – undoubtedly one of the harshest pastoral areas on earth still used by nomads.

 

Rangelands of the Tibetan pastoral area in Western China can be divided into four major regions: (1) the alpine meadow of eastern Qinghai, eastern Tibet, western Sichuan and southwestern Gansu; (2) alpine steppe in western Qinghai and northern Tibet; (3) xeric shrubland and steppe along the valleys of the Yarlung Tsangpo and Indus in southern Tibet; and (4) the montane desert in southwestern Tibet (Chang 1981, Miller and Schaller 1996, Schaller 1998).  Within each region there is a diverse assortment of plant communities, varying in species composition and structure, and based on factors such as elevation, aspect, drainage, and precipitation.  The alpine meadow and alpine steppe regions are where the majority of Tibetan nomads are found.  

 

The Tibetan plateau is a complex landscape.  Unlike the extensive, open steppes of most of Eurasia, pastoral areas on the Tibetan plateau are cleaved by rugged, snow-capped mountain ranges, deep river valleys, and extensive lake basins which gives rise to varying topography, climatic conditions, rangeland types, and different pastoral production practices.  The eastern part of the Tibetan plateau generally receives adequate precipitation during the growing season to promote the growth of forage and the ecosystem there probably exhibits characteristics of an equilibrial system (Schaller 1998).  Periods of drought do occur periodically in the late spring and early summer that delays vegetative growth, but rainfall is generally fairly reliable and many alpine rangelands have luxuriant growth of vegetation.   In the central and western parts of the Tibetan plateau, however, there is more variation in forage production from one year to another due to varying rainfall.  There are even remarkable differences in grass growth in a small geographic area within one season due to local rainfall events.  Here, non-equilibrial ecosystem dynamics may exert more influence on the landscape. 

 

All across the Tibetan plateau, the severe continental climate and periodic climatic perturbations in the form of sudden and brutal snowstorms add to the complexity and non-equilibrial nature of the Tibetan pastoral system (Ellis and Swift 1988, Goldstein et al. 1990). Therefore, even in areas with sufficient rainfall and where the pastoral system appears to operate in an equilibrial manner with regards to forage production, severe climatic events characteristic of non-equilibrial systems, such as snowstorms, play an important role in the ecosystem. 

 

Severe snowstorms probably serve as an important regulatory mechanism.  Periodic heavy snowfalls reduce the number of livestock and wild ungulates grazing on the rangelands, thereby enabling the range to recover from heavy grazing.  Yet, unlike droughts where the effects on livestock are more prolonged, severe snowstorms are sudden events often causing livestock deaths in a matter of days or weeks.  In contrast to severe droughts in semi-arid pastoral areas, heavy snowfalls also do not negatively affect the vegetation and can actually lead to improved grass growth the following season due to increased water infiltration into the soil from snow meltwater.  Compared to many other pastoral areas of the world then, Tibetan pastoralism presents unique challenges for nomads and pastoral development specialists.   

 

Snowstorms and Livestock Losses on the Tibetan Plateau

Snowstorms are a fundamental component of the Tibetan landscape.   Over 100 years ago, the Russian explorer Przewalski noted a large caravan of 1,000 pack animals on its way from Lhasa to Xining, in modern Qinghai Province, lost all of its animals in a violent snowstorm (Prejevalsky 1876 in Schaller 1998).  From 1955 to 1990, six severe winters with heavy snowfall were reported on the Tibetan plateau resulting in 20 to 30 percent loss in livestock (Jiang in press).   Schaller and Ren (1988) reported an unusually heavy snowfall of 30 cm in October 1985, followed by temperatures that dropped to -40 C, in southwestern Qinghai Province that resulted in large numbers of livestock and wildlife dying.   Goldstein and Beall (1990) found 100 percent neonatal mortality of sheep and goats among nomads in the spring of 1988 in the Phala area of Tibet.   Jiang (in press) reported that the harsh winter of 1989-1990 in Tibet resulted in the loss of 20 percent of livestock in affected areas.  The winter of 1995-1996 was also severe in many parts of the Tibetan plateau, with 33 percent of livestock lost in Yushu Prefecture of Qinghai Province.  During the winter of 1996-1997, some nomads in the Phala region of Tibet experienced death losses of 70 percent in goat kids and 30 percent death loss in sheep lambs and the loss of one quarter of their adult goats (Miller unpublished data).  Livestock losses in summer are not uncommon either.  Goldstein and Beall (1990) found, that after five days of snow in the summer of 1986, one nomad area lost 30 percent of its livestock. 

The winter of 1997-1998, however, was one of the most awful in recent history for much of the Tibetan Plateau.   In late September, unusually early and heavy snowfall was followed by severe cold weather which prevented the snow from melting.  Additional storms deposited more snow and by early November grass reserved for livestock winter grazing was buried under deep snow.  Nomads’ livestock were unable to reach any forage and, since little hay is harvested for feeding livestock in winter, animals soon started to starve and die.  Initially, the younger stock and sheep and goats suffered the most, but, as the snow continued to accumulate, mature yaks were also affected.

 

In the Tibetan Autonomous Region,  Naqu Prefecture in the north and Ngari Prefecture in the west were especially hard hit and parts of Shigatse, Lhoka, and Chamdo Prefectures and Lhasa Municipality were also affected.   Southwestern Qinghai Province was also hit hard by the snowstorm.  Losses in Naqu Prefecture were estimated at about one million animals, or about 15 percent of the Prefecture’s total livestock population.  In Nyerong County as a whole, one of the areas hit hardest, some 30 percent of the livestock died and some townships within the county lost as many as 70 percent.  Many townships in Nyerong and other counties lost 40 to 50 percent of their livestock.   By April 1998, it was estimated that the Tibetan Autonomous Region had lost over 3 million head of livestock.   Almost one quarter of a million nomads were affected and hundreds of families lost all their animals.  Economic losses from livestock deaths alone were estimated at US$ 125 million in the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

 

Tibetan nomads suffered greatly as a result of the severe winter.  Because the snow came so early, many nomads were caught with their animals still in the summer pastures and were unable to drive the livestock to winter quarters where some hay and feed was available.  Many nomads were unable to sell animals they had planned to market in the fall of 1997, or even to barter livestock for barley grain they require.  As a result, nomads lost not only their animals but also their source of income to purchase necessities they require.  Many families fed whatever grain they had for themselves to their livestock to try to save the animals from dying.  Thousand of nomad families, who lost most of their livestock, are now facing dire poverty.   In the summer of 1997, before the snowstorms began, it was estimated that 20 percent of Naqu Prefecture’s 340,000 nomadic population were considered to be living in poverty.  As a result of the livestock losses experienced during the winter of 1997-1998, it is now estimated that about 40 percent of the nomad population in Naqu Prefecture will be facing poverty situations.  Thousands of other nomads, although still technically above the poverty line, have had their livelihoods greatly diminished.

 

In the Tibetan Autonomous Region, nomads are usually considered to be in poverty when their annual per capita income is less than approximately US$ 80.  In terms of animal numbers, around 25 ‘Sheep Equivalent Units’ (SEUs) per person is the generally accepted break-off point for poverty.  Families with less than 25 SEUs per person would not be able to meet their basic needs.  Sheep Equivalent Units are calculated on the basis of one adult sheep is 1 SEU; 1 yak equals 5 SEUs; 1 goat equals 0.9 SEUs; and one horse equals 6 SEUs.  In other words, a person would need at least 25 adult sheep or 5 adult yak to meet their basic needs.

 

Heavy snowfalls and severe winters, such as those experienced in the recent winter of 1997-1998 are usually labeled as disasters by Chinese officials.  It should be stressed, however, that nomads have been herding livestock on the Tibetan plateau for thousands of years.  For millennia, Tibetan nomads and their livestock have dealt with snowstorms and cold weather.   Heavy snowfalls, such as those of the winter of 1997-1998 should be viewed as natural events of the Tibetan pastoral environment, not as disasters.  Nomadic pastoralism on the harsh Tibetan steppes has always been a high risk enterprise.   Nomads adapted to the uncertainties of the environment by adopting a number of flexible livestock production strategies that minimized risk and made optimal use of the resources available to them (Goldstein and Beall 1990, Miller 1998a). 

 

Security Through Diversity

Tibetan nomads raise milking and non-milking herds of yaks, yak-cattle hybrids, sheep, goats, and horses.  The yak is a key animal for the majority of Tibetan nomads and, in many ways, defines nomadic pastoralism across most of the Tibetan plateau. Yaks provide milk and milk products, meat, hair, wool, and hides.  Yaks are also used as draft animals and for riding.  Yak dung is an important source of fuel in a treeless region where firewood is not available.  Although Tibetan nomads also raise other animals, they place so much value on the yak that the Tibetan term for yaks, nor, is also translated as "wealth”.  The yak makes life possible for man in one of the world’s harshest environments.   There is little doubt that the presence of wild yaks, and their later domestication, was the single most important factor in the adaptation of civilization on the Tibetan plateau.

 

Sheep and goats are important species of livestock in many areas, especially in the west where the vegetation is better suited to sheep and goats than to raising yaks.   In western Tibet, where yaks are fewer, both sheep and goats are milked, while in the east, yaks are more commonly used to supply all the nomads’ milk needs.   Sheep provide wool and meat and are also milked in many areas.  Sheep meat is the preferred meat among nomads as well as in agricultural and urban areas where many sheep are sold.  Goats provide cashmere, meat, and milk.  Cashmere from Tibetan goats is one of the best cashmeres in the world.  Sheep and goats are also used as pack animals by many nomads, mainly in the west.  However, with expanding road access, the role of sheep and goats as pack animals has diminished in recent years.

 

Tibetan nomads also keep horses which can make up six percent of total livestock numbers, especially in the northeastern part of the Tibetan plateau.  Horses are used primarily for riding, but are also used as pack animals.  Horses are not milked and Tibetan nomads do not eat horse meat.

 

In Tibetan pastoral areas, livestock live almost entirely by grazing year-round.  Some hay is cut to feed weak animals and horses in winter and spring, but for the most part, animals acquire all their forage needs from grazing.  However, growing numbers of nomads are planting sown pastures for either winter-spring grazing or for hay.

 

In most Tibetan nomadic pastoral areas, nomads usually raise a mix of different animal species.   Each species has its own specific characteristics and adaptations to the rangeland environment, and raising yaks, sheep, goats, and horses together maximizes the use of rangeland vegetation.  Different species graze on different plants and, when herded together on the same range, make more efficient use of the forage available than a single species.  Different animals also have varied uses and provide diversified products for home consumption or sale.  Maintaining mixed species herds is also a strategy employed by nomads to minimize the risk of losses from disease or harsh winters, since a mix of different livestock species provides some insurance that not all animals will be lost and herds can be rebuilt again.

 

The proportion of different livestock species raised and the size of herds differs considerably across the Tibetan pastoral area according to rangeland factors and the suitability of the landscape for different animals.   Table 2 shows livestock herd composition for 13 different counties and townships across a distance of 1,500 km from west to east (see Fig. 2 for location of place names).  For example, in Shuanghu County of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, yaks make up only  four percent of total livestock numbers; whereas in Hongyuan County of Sichuan Province, about 1,200 km to the east, yaks comprise 85 percent of all livestock.  These differences can largely be explained by differences in vegetation between the two areas.  In Shuanghu, it is drier and the dominant alpine steppe vegetation is more suited to sheep and goats.  In Hongyuan, in the east, there is more annual precipitation and vegetation is dominated by alpine meadow which is more conducive to raising yaks.   Herd compositions within a geographic area can also differ with the skills, preferences, and availability of labor of the nomads.  For example, Luqu County, in southwestern Gansu Province, is in close proximity to Aba and Hongyuan and rangelands are comparable, but in Luqu the government has actively encouraged nomads to raise more sheep, hence a much higher percentage of sheep than the neighboring counties. 

 

Table 2.  Livestock herd composition in various counties and townships on the Tibetan plateau, in percentage based on total number of animals.

 

County/Township

Yak

Sheep

Goats

Horses

Nyingo (Phala) Twn.

 14

 45

 40

  1

Shuanghu Co.

   4

 65

 39

  1

Nyima Co.

   4

 57

 38

  1

Amdo Co.

 17

 72

 10

  1

Naqu Co.

 26

 56

 16

  2

Nyerong Co.

 33

 56

 16

  2

Nyima Twn.

 65

 12

 19

  4

Damxung Co.

 33

 44

 21

  2

Sokshan Co.

 42

 26

 29

  3

Jiali Co.

 53

 36

   9

  2

Aba Co.

 63

 31

   0

  6

Hongyuan Co.

 85

   9

   0

  6

Luqu Co.

 33

 65

   0

  2

Source: Interviews and Government Records

 

The number of animals that nomads raise also varies considerably across the Tibetan plateau depending on herd composition.  In Shuanghu, an average-income nomad family of five persons, maintains about 280 sheep, 100 goats, 18 yaks, and four horses.   In Naqu County, a typical nomad family of five people would have 60-80 sheep and goats, 30-35 yaks and two horses.  A rich family in Naqu may have perhaps 200-300 sheep and goats and 100 yaks.   In Hongyuan County of north-west Sichuan Province, a typical nomad family would have 80-100 yaks, five horses, and no, or only a few, sheep.   Of the 80-100 yaks a family in Hongyuan has, only 30 to 40 are milking female yaks.  In the nomad region of Phala in north-west Shigatse Prefecture of Tibet, the richest nomad family in the area with six persons in the household had 286 sheep, 250 goats, 77 yaks and eight horses.  Tables 3 through 7 show numbers of different animal species per family by township for five different counties (Shuanghu, Nyima, Amdo, Aba and Hongyuan).  The data illustrates the tremendous differences in herd compositions and numbers of animals across the Tibetan pastoral area as well as the variation that is found even within one county.

   

Table 3.  Livestock statistics on family basis by township for Shuanghu County, Tibet.

 

 

Families

Persons per family

Sheep per family

Goats per family

Yaks per family

Horses per family

Xiti

244

5.6

328

107

17.8

4.9

Doma

209

5.7

272

  88

19.2

5.3

Tsasang

109

6.4

341

158

16.8

3.2

Garco

  79

5.5

355

108

27.8

1.1

Bailing

177

5.2

265

  79

16.0

3.8

Mema

191

5.0

203

  62

18.0

2.2

Tsolo

340

6.4

203

141

17.1

4.0

Average

 

5.8

282

107

18.2

3.9

Source: Government Records for 1993

 

Table 4.  Livestock Statistics on family basis by Township for Nyima County, Tibet.

 

 

Families

Persons

per family

Sheep per family

Goats per family

Yaks per family

Horses  per family

Oju

271

5.7

222

149

13.0

2.6

Rongma

  83

5.6

297

173

12.7

2.1

Hurdo

295

5.1

197

130

14.4

1.9

Average

 

5.4

220

144

13.6

2.2

Source: Government Records for 1993

 

Table 5.  Livestock Statistics on family basis by Township for Amdo County, Tibet.

 

 

Families

Persons per family

Sheep per family

Goats per family

Yaks per family

Horses per family

Enoma

607

4.9

138

20

32

3.5

Zhaqu

167

5.2

198

59

23

2.4

Qiangma

315

5.2

198

37

24

3.4

Deshu

309

6.7

202

41

26

3.1

Gangni

252

4.1

209

25

38

2.3

Jiago

414

5.4

117

19

35

3.5

Sewa

111

5.1

292

32

42

3.5

Maqu

223

5.9

300

24

75

5.2

Guozhu

354

5.3

105

33

36

2.6

Yaogin

457

5.1

187

13

43

2.5

Jiri

217

5.4

242

19

64

3.4

Dusma

224

5.7

262

29

77

6.3

Bugu

221

5.4

292

  8

93

4.9

Marong

148

5.1

134

12

81

3.9

Average

 

5.3

189

25

45

3.5

Source: Government Records, 1993.

 

Table 6.  Livestock Statistics on family basis by Township for Aba County, Sichuan.

 

 

Families

Persons per family

Sheep per family

Goats per family

Yaks per family

Horses per family

Merma

600

5.3

13

   0

60

6

Jaro

610

6.2

59

   0

93

6

Quijima

350

5.1

26

   0

48

6

Average

 

5.6

34

   0

70

6

Source: Government Records, 1996

 

Table 7.  Livestock Statistics on family basis by Township for Hongyuan Co., Sichuan.

 

 

Families

Persons per family

Sheep per family

Goats per family

Yaks per family

Horses per family

Sedi

771

4.8

4

0

  84

5

Mewa

471

5.4

3

0

  99

6

Wagen

560

5.4

2

0

  89

5

Amuko

332

5.0

0

0

  82

5

Anqu

322

6.3

30

0

105

6

Sizhai

405

5.4

5

0

  63

4

Longzhi

222

5.3

10

0

  83

5

Zamkhar

162

4.9

4

0

  77

6

Average

 

5.3

7.3

0

  85

5.3

Source: Government Records, 1996

 

 

The structure of nomads’ herds also illustrates their expertise in animal husbandry and in managing grazing land.  In the Phala region of northwestern Shigatse Prefecture of Tibet, almost 60 percent of the adult sheep and goats are females.  Adult male sheep and goats make up about 30 percent of the flock, which at first may seem like a high percentage, but a significant portion of the nomads’ income is derived from sheep wool and goat cashmere harvested from adult males and from the sale of adult male animals for meat.  Nomads also raise adult male sheep to slaughter for their own meat needs.  In western Tibet, nomads also maintain sheep and goats as pack animals.  The high percentage of males in a flock, when compared to the low percentage in commercial sheep operations in North American or Australia, makes rational sense once the pastoral system is better understood.  The traditional nomadic pastoral system also required pack yaks to move nomads’ supplies between different pastures, therefore, even yak herds had a high percentage of males in them.

 

Table 8 depicts the herd structure of the sheep and goats for a nomad group of three households in Phala, Shigatse Prefecture, Tibet during the summer of 1997.  In the winter of 1996-1997, there were severe snowstorms during lambing and many lambs/kids were lost.  This explains why 20 percent of the adult female sheep are not being milked, as they lost their lambs.

 

 

 

Table 8.  Structure of sheep and goat flock for one nomad group in Phala.

 

 

Sheep

Goats

Milking ewes

82   (37.3%)

57   (58.2%)

Dry (non-milking) ewes

45   (20.4%)

  0   (  0.0%)

Adult males

69   (31.4%)

31   (31.6%)

Yearlings (male & female)

24   (10.9%)

10   (10.2%)

   Subtotal

220

98

Lambs/Kids

68

39

 

 

All animals are owned by individual nomad families, which has been the case since the ‘household responsibility system’ was implemented in the early 1980s.  Each family is responsible for its own livestock production and the processing and marketing of livestock products.  Yaks are generally believed to typify Tibetan nomadic production but in much of the western parts of the Tibetan plateau sheep and goats are more important economically.  Table 9 portrays the herd composition of milking animals (sheep, goats, yaks) for a nomad group of six households in Phala, Tibet.  Here, goats are an important milk animal.

 

Table 9.  Structure of Milking Herd in Chamar, Phala.

 

 

Goats

Sheep

Yak

Nomad No. 1

Nomad No. 2

Nomad No. 3

Nomad No. 4

Nomad No. 5

Nomad No. 6

  19

  14

  13

    2

  32

  25

    4

  15

    6

  19

  14

  15

    1

    5

    2

    6

  11

    1

Average

  17

  12

   4

Total

105

  73

  25

 

 

With respect to the economic contribution of various livestock species, Table 10 depicts the herd composition for one rich nomad family with six persons in the Phala region of north-western Ngamring County, Shigatse Prefecture, Tibet, and Table 11 shows the income from livestock.  For this nomad family, sheep contributed 60 percent of total income derived from livestock even though they comprised only 28 percent of the family’s total Sheep Equivalent Units (SEUs).  Goats, which made up about 21 percent of total SEUs, contributed about 35 percent of total livestock income.  Yaks only accounted for less than four percent of total livestock income, yet they comprised about 46 percent of total  SEUs in the nomad’s herd.

 

Tibetan nomads developed and maintained complex relations with agricultural communities outside of the pastoral areas, as the nomads depended on farmers to provide them with barley grain, which is the staple of the nomads’ diet and which they cannot grow, in exchange for livestock products. Unlike most other nomadic societies in the pastoral world, Tibetan farmers also occasionally become nomads, often marrying into a nomad family (Barfield 1993, Goldstein and Beall 1990).

 

Table 10.  Herd Composition for one family with six persons in Phala, Tibet.

 

 

Number of animals

% of total animals

Sheep Equivalent Units (SEUs)

% of total SEUs

Sheep

286

46.0

  286

28.3

Goats

250

40.3

  214

21.2

Yaks

 77

12.4

  462

45.7

Horses

  8

  1.3

    48

  4.8

Total

621

 

1,010

 

 

Note: 1 sheep =1 SEU; 1 yak = 6 SEUs; 1 horse = 6 SEUs; 1 goat = 0.85 SEUs.

 

 

Table 11.  Income from Livestock of one nomad in Phala, 1997.

 

Livestock Products

Income

(Yuan)

Percent

Yak cashmere                 20 jin @Y  6

Goat cashmere               56 jin @Y 50

Sheep wool                  300 jin @Y  3

Butter                            14 jin @Y 10

Sheep for sold for meat   13     @Y 80

Sheep traded for barley   25     @Y 90

Sheep skins                     12     @Y 70

Goat skins                       10     @Y 10

    120

 2,800

    900

    140

 1,040

 2,250

    840

    100

   1.5

 34.1

 11.0

   1.7

 12.7

 27.5

 10.2

   1.2

Total

 8,190

 

1 jin = 0.5 kg               1 US$ = 8.27 Chinese Yuan

 

 

Mobility was a central characteristic of traditional Tibetan nomadic pastoralism and is still a vital element in production practices for most nomads, although with the escalating settlement of nomads, livestock movement patterns are being curtailed.  The pastoral system is designed around the movement of livestock to different pastures at different seasons of the year and the tracking of favorable forage conditions.  Nomads rotate between different pastures to utilize growing forage during the summer and to reserve grass growth for fall and early winter grazing in order to prepare animals for the long winters.   All nomads have a home base, usually the traditional winter area where most have now built houses and simple sheds for livestock, and make established moves with their livestock from there to distant pastures throughout the year.   Tibetan nomads maintain permanent camps at as high as 5,100 m, which is some of the highest elevation habitations in the world.

 

Tibetan nomads developed quite sophisticated range-livestock management systems that balanced livestock with the rangeland resources, enabling them to inhabit the rangelands for centuries without destroying their resource base (Goldstein and Beall 1990).  In the most common of the traditional livestock management systems, groups of nomads had delimited grazing land areas, or territory, all members of the group having the right to herd their livestock on grazing sites in the territory at their own selection, although rangelands were often seasonally defined.  In the other known management system, livestock carrying capacities were established for specific pastures over a large territory, and individual pastures for different seasons were allocated to households on the basis of the number of livestock they had.  Every three years the total number of livestock were counted and pastures reallocated.  Nomads whose herds had grown were allocated more pasture, and those whose herds decreased lost grazing land.  In both of these systems, there was an inherent capacity to enable households with increased livestock to access more grazing land (Goldstein 1996, Goldstein and Beall 1990).   However, these sophisticated, traditional grazing management systems are being altered now as modern development processes sweep across the Tibetan steppes like a savage storm.

 

Winds of Change

Many profound changes have taken place on the rangelands of the Tibetan plateau in recent decades that are transforming traditional rangeland use, altering rangeland conditions, and disrupting the lives of nomads dependent on the range resources.  In many cases, these political, social, economic, and ecological transformations have altered previous, often stable, relationships between the nomads and the rangeland environment. 

 

The traditional, Tibetan nomadic pastoral production system that had existed for centuries began to change in 1960 with the implementation of the “mutual-aid” program, which was the first step towards Chinese communist inspired communal livestock production.  In 1966, events took place that totally changed nomadic pastoralism as it had existed for centuries – the private ownership of animals was replaced by people’s communes.  Although extensive pastoral livestock production continued with the communes, all animal husbandry tasks and livestock management decisions were now regulated by the commune.  Nomads earned work “points” for work performed and received food and necessities based on the number of points they had accumulated.  Chinese policy during this period tried to destroy the social and cultural fabric of traditional Tibetan nomadic pastoralism, while, at the same time, maintaining extensive pastoral production (Goldstein and Beall 1990).

 

In 1981, the commune system was dissolved and the household responsibility system was established.  The communes’ livestock was divided equally among its members and nomads regained control over their pastoral production practices.  Grazing land was allocated to small groups of nomads residing in the same home-base camps.  Many of the traditional nomadic pastoral practices were reinstated and nomads began to prosper again.

 

In the mid-1980s, more developments were instated in Tibetan nomad areas with the privatization of winter grazing lands to individual households and the fencing of winter pastures.  This program was first initiated in the Qinghai Lake region of Qinghai Province but quickly spread throughout Qinghai and to the Tibetan nomadic areas in neighboring Gansu and Sichuan Provinces.  Exclusive usufruct rights to specific grazing lands for nomad households, valid for 50 years, have now been established.  The rights to rangeland can be inherited, but cannot be bought or sold.  There is also no apparent mechanism yet in place for the readjustment of grazing land to individual nomads when their livestock numbers fluctuate.

 

In the Tibetan Autonomous Region, however, rangeland is not yet being allocated to individual nomad households.  Rather,  grazing land is being allocated to groups of nomads.  One explanation given for the difference in the privatization process in Tibet is because the rangelands are not as productive and the expenses involved in fencing individual properties would be prohibitive.

 

Now, a new development taking place is that summer grazing lands are also being privatized and fenced, except again in the Tibetan Autonomous Region where rangeland is being allocated to nomad groups instead of to individual households.  To complement the privatization policy in place, other development programs are also now being undertaken in Tibetan nomadic pastoral areas.  For individual nomad households these consist of:

 

·        the fencing-in of about 20 to 30 ha of the most productive winter rangeland, which is reserved from grazing in the summer and fall, to provide grazing during the late winter and/or spring;

·        the construction of barns or sheds for livestock;

·        the construction of homes for nomads in their winter pasture site; and

·        the planting of small (0.5 to 2 ha) plots of annual forage for hay in the corrals around the nomad winter settlements.

 

In some areas, especially parts of Gansu Province, additional interventions include:

·        the fencing of about 20 ha of degraded rangeland which is rehabilitated by planting native grasses; and

·        the fencing of an additional 20 ha of rangeland which is then improved with fertilizer, chemicals, and improved grazing management.

 

These development activities are being undertaken on a large scale, with substantial government and donor investment, in almost all of the Tibetan pastoral areas of Qinghai, Gansu, and Sichuan Provinces.  In the Tibetan Autonomous Region, where rangeland is not yet being privatized to individual nomad households, the scale of activity is less and here the fencing-in of winter rangeland is being done on a group basis.  However, even in Tibet there is great attention being given to “scientific” animal husbandry practices and the settling down of the nomads.

 

The heavy livestock losses experienced on the Tibetan plateau in recent years has convinced many authorities that traditional Tibetan nomadic pastoralism needs to be restructured.  Programs to settle nomads, privatize and fence rangeland, and develop fodder for winter feeding are seen as ways to prevent livestock losses during severe winters and control what is perceived as widespread rangeland degradation.  While some of these interventions have merit, such as the growing of annual forages for hay, the long-term ecological implications of privatizing the rangeland and reducing the spatial movement of herds have received little analysis yet.  The socio-economic ramifications of nomads being settled on defined properties have also not been examined.

 

Nomadic pastoralism on the Tibetan plateau is still in a state of transition and it is not yet clear what patterns will eventually emerge.  Tibetan nomads and their pastoral systems have always been confronted with events that change their lives – droughts that wither the grass, winter storms and livestock epidemics that wipe out herds, and tribal wars that displace people and their animals – but the transformation nomads and their pastoral systems are undergoing today are more profound and likely to have more significant, long-term implications for their way of life and the ecosystems they reside in than any changes that have taken place in the past thousand years.   Goldstein (1996) has rightly pointed out that the privatization of rangeland and the range-livestock development interventions now being undertaken fundamentally changes the traditional nature of Tibetan pastoralism. 

 

Falsehoods and Facts

In China, Tibetan nomads are generally believed to be unsophisticated and backward, clinging to traditional practices because they are ignorant.  The traditional system of nomadic livestock production and grazing management is held to be unsound, leading to overstocking, overgrazing, and rangeland degradation.  The structure of nomads’ herds is presumed as irrational and uneconomic, with too few breeding females and too many unproductive animals, such as horses.  In addition, the large livestock numbers that nomads maintain is taken for granted as just a status symbol of wealth.  Most authorities believe that for economic development and environmental conservation to take place in pastoral areas, animal husbandry practices need to be rationalized and ‘scientific’ and ‘modern’ livestock production systems have to be introduced.

 

Are these assumptions about Tibetan nomads and their pastoral production systems valid?  Are these premises based on a genuine understanding of Tibetan pastoralism or are they just speculations?  Is there scientific data available to support these claims?  Are these statements factual or full of falsehoods?

 

Nomadic knowledge

Contrary to negative stereotypes that Tibetan nomads are unsophisticated, backward, and ignorant, the fact that many, prosperous nomad groups still populate the inhospitable steppes of the Tibetan plateau is evidence of their extensive knowledge about livestock and the rangeland ecosystem.  Nomads may be illiterate, but they, nevertheless, possess incredible indigenous knowledge and wisdom.   Local climatic patterns and key grazing areas are known, enabling herders to select favorable winter ranges that provide protection from storms and sufficient forage to bring animals through stressful times.  Forage plants that have specific nutritive value are known and other plants are recognized for their medicinal properties or as plants to be avoided since they are poisonous.  As recently reported by Wu (1998), and others (Barfield 1993, Cincotta  et al. 1991, Clarke 1987, Goldstein and Beall 1990, Goldstein et al. 1990), many of the nomads’ traditional animal husbandry practices display quite sophisticated indigenous knowledge systems for managing livestock and rangeland ecosystems.

 

Unfortunately, Tibetan nomads’ indigenous knowledge and skills for managing livestock and rangelands are still largely unappreciated by development planners in China eager to develop and modernize the pastoral areas.  As a result, nomads have largely been left out of the development process, with neither their knowledge nor their needs and desires considered.

 

Traditional Pastoralism

Nomads in most areas raise a mix of different animal species.  Herd compositions with multiple species requires complex management strategies since each animal species has distinct adaptations to the environment, specific nutrition requirements and particular production characteristics.   The multi-species grazing system – the raising of yaks, sheep, goats, and horses together – maximizes the use of rangeland forage.  Different species graze different plants and, when herded together on the same range, make more efficient use of vegetation than does a single species.  Different animals also have varied uses and provide a diverse range of products for home consumption or sale.  Maintaining multiple species in herds also minimizes the risk of total livestock loss from disease or severe winter storms since a mix of different types of animals provides some insurance that not all animals will be lost and herds can be rebuilt again.  As such, mixed herds are a rational, risk adverse production strategy in the highly dynamic pastoral ecosystem found on the Tibetan plateau. 

 

There is growing scientific evidence emerging that conflicts with suppositions that the traditional system of nomadic livestock production and grazing management is unsound and leads to overstocking, overgrazing, and rangeland degradation.  As reported by Goldstein and Beall (1990) and many others (Miller 1998b, Miller and Schaller 1996, Schaller 1998, Wu 1997a), the very existence of nomadic pastoralism on the Tibetan plateau today is itself proof of the rationality and efficacy of many aspects of traditional Tibetan pastoralism.   The animal husbandry and range management systems, many of which developed centuries ago, are well adapted responses to the range of environmental conditions found on the grazing lands.  The practices that developed were rational, aggregate behavioral responses by nomads to the resources and risks of the rangelands.

 

Livestock Numbers

With respect to overstocking, more thorough analyses of livestock numbers indicates that the livestock population has actually decreased in some areas in recent years, which directly conflicts with the widespread belief that livestock numbers have greatly increased across the Tibetan pastoral areas.  Goldstein (1996) found that in Dari County of Qinghai Province, livestock numbers decreased by 14.6 percent in the period 1983 to 1996.  In neighboring Maqin County, livestock declined by 1.3 percent in the period 1983 to 1996, but the total number of livestock in Maqin in 1995 was actually 5.7 percent lower than that of 1967.  Research findings from the Phala nomad region of Tibet also argue strongly against the presence of large-scale increases in herd sizes since the end of the commune era in 1981 (Goldstein et al. 1990).   In Amdo County of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, livestock numbers also decreased during the period 1993 to 1998, with yaks declining 14 percent, sheep 13 percent, goats 12 percent, and horses 28 percent (Miller 1998c). While it is recognized that the livestock population has grown in some areas in recent years, it is a fallacy that the traditional nomadic pastoral system inherently leads to large increases in livestock numbers and overstocking.   Periodic severe winters also serve to naturally regulate livestock numbers.   As Goldstein and Beall (1990) stated, official reports of substantial increases in the size of nomads’ herds on the Tibetan plateau probably reflect political propaganda more than it does reality.

 

Overgrazing and Range Degradation

The prevalent view is that rangelands in Tibetan nomadic areas are badly overgrazed and degraded.  The traditional pastoral system is held to result in unsustainable increases in livestock numbers and, supposedly, provides no incentives for nomads to manage the rangelands.  Actually, nomads do not move randomly over the rangelands, rather their movements are often well-prescribed by complex social organizations and are usually highly regulated.   Traditional grazing management systems defined specific, seasonal grazing areas for nomad groups or individuals.  A livestock census was undertaken every three years and pastures reallocated depending on changes in livestock numbers (Goldstein and Beall 1990).

 

While much of the rangeland in the agricultural valleys of central Tibet is heavily overgrazed and degraded with desertification a seriously spreading problem, the situation in many of the nomadic pastoral areas is not nearly so bad.   Recent research provides evidence that many rangelands in Tibetan nomadic pastoral areas are, in fact, in good to excellent condition, despite centuries of livestock grazing (Goldstein et al. 1990, Miller and Schaller 1996, Miller in press, Schaller 1998).   The fact that numerous rangeland ecosystems are still intact with healthy vegetation, viable wildlife populations, and productive livestock herds is indicative of the rationality and sustainability of many aspects of Tibetan pastoralism.  Intact rangeland ecosystems would not be found if the fundamental characteristics of the pastoral system were non-sustainable.

 

In alpine, Kobresia sedge meadows in Dari and Maqin Counties of Qinghai Province and in Amdo County in Tibet, degraded rangeland known as ‘black beach’ or ‘black sand’,  is common.   Rangeland degradation in these areas is usually blamed on overgrazing by livestock and the burrowing of pikas (Ochotona spp.).  However, the dynamics of the degradation process in these black beach areas are still not well understood.  There is increasing evidence (Miehe 1988) that factors other than livestock, such as climate change and the increasing desiccation of the Tibetan Plateau, are responsible for the vegetation changes taking place. Livestock grazing may just accentuate natural ecological processes taking place instead of being the underlying cause for the vegetation changes.

 

Overgrazing is an issue in some areas and rangeland degradation is a problem in some places, but sweeping generalizations about overgrazing and rangeland degradation only confuse the issue.  Due to concern about rangeland degradation, policies for limiting livestock numbers have been enacted, but they are inappropriate when applied to pastoral areas where rangeland conditions are still good and where the nomads could actually be raising more animals.  Rather than an assumed universal problem, the extent and degree of rangeland degradation needs to be considered on a site-specific basis.

 

Herd Structures

The structure of nomads’ herds is thought by most officials to be irrational and uneconomic.  The percentage of  breeding females is believed to be too low for efficient, commercial livestock production and nomads raise too many unproductive animals, especially horses, which are deemed to have no economic value.  In many areas, yaks are held to be inferior to sheep in terms of economic returns and policies promote reducing yak numbers and the raising of more sheep.  Yet, the proportion of different sex and age classes in nomads’ herds well illustrates nomads’ expertise in animal husbandry and their skills in managing grazing land and animal resources.   

 

In many nomad areas in Western Tibet, adult male sheep and goats make up about 30 percent of the flock, which may seem high if the flock is to be producing young stock for meat.  However, it needs to be pointed out that a significant portion of the nomads’ income is derived from the sale of wool and cashmere from adult males and from the sale of adult male animals for meat.  In many nomad areas in Western Tibet, a nomad family would also butcher 20-30 sheep or goats every year for their own consumption.  Large numbers of adult male sheep and goats are necessary for nomads’ survival.  The traditional nomadic pastoral system also required pack yaks to move nomads’ supplies between different pastures during the seasonal migrations.  Nomads, therefore, had to have a number of pack yaks in its herd.  In some areas, large numbers of sheep and goats were also kept as pack animals. The horse also has an important place in the culture of Tibetan nomads even though they may be seen as uneconomic to outsiders.

The composition of Tibetan nomads’ herds demonstrates the sophisticated adaptive responses nomads have made to survive in their environment.   Mixed herd composition requires complex strategies for managing livestock, as each species has its own specific nutrition and production-related characteristics.    Herd structures commonly found in commercial livestock operations in North America, Australia, or New Zealand are usually impractical for most Tibetan pastoral areas, yet many aspects of Western style livestock operations are often recommended for rangelands on the Tibetan Plateau as modern and scientific means of livestock production.

 

Livestock as a Status Symbol

Critics of traditional Tibetan pastoralism contend that nomads maintain large livestock numbers just as a status symbol of wealth and, therefore, do not want to sell their livestock.   However, maintaining large numbers of animals should be viewed as a reasonable, risk adverse strategy in the highly dynamic ecosystem of the Tibetan plateau where storms and livestock disease can quickly decimate nomads herds, especially when livestock markets are poorly developed in most areas.   As McIntire (1993) found in African pastoralism, the central characteristics of Tibetan pastoralism -- low productivity, high variability in forage and livestock production, generally low production density, and high market transaction costs -- has meant that conventional markets in land, labor, and capital have not become well developed.   Tibetan nomads have, nevertheless, often developed quite sophisticated arrangements for meeting their labor requirements, for managing rangeland without exclusive private property rights, and for allocating their livestock as capital in the absence of financial markets.  The absence of viable markets and high transaction costs often preclude nomads from selling more animals to the marketplace.  Since costs for maintaining animals are low, it is usually profitable to hold animals instead of selling them.  Contrary to official views, keeping large numbers of animals often makes economic sense to nomads and is not just done as a show of wealth.  Rather than just status, large livestock numbers can assure survival for nomads in an environment where severe snowstorms can devastate herds.

 

Dire Straits on the Steppes

A critical crisis is emerging on the Tibetan rangelands.  Current pastoral development policies to privatize rangelands, settle nomads, and introduce ‘modern’ livestock production technologies are greatly altering traditional nomadic pastoral production systems that have endured successfully for millennia. The migratory herd movements between seasonal rangelands, a fundamental characteristic of traditional nomadic pastoralism, are being reduced or eliminated with the move towards smaller, fenced pastures and the growing of fodder.  The traditional composition of nomads’ herds, perfected over many years to the intrinsic resources and risks of the environment, are being restructured along Western-style, commercial livestock production guidelines. With present policies and livestock development approaches, nomadic herders are compelled to become livestock farmers.  These attempts to foster sedentary livestock production systems have a high probability of destroying the highly developed pastoral system that has existed for centuries on the Tibetan Plateau.

 

In the last decade, pastoral policies in China have promoted the privatization of rangeland and fencing enclosures as the best solution to maximize livestock production and control rangeland degradation.  As Banks (1997) has outlined, this privatization policy was based on the assumption that, through the better definition of property rights and the introduction of individual land tenure, land tenure security would be improved and this would prevent a “tragedy of the commons” scenario.  This in turn would supposedly give nomads the incentive to better manage their rangeland and invest in rangeland improvement.   This theoretical “tragedy of the commons” problem contends that when many individuals graze their livestock on communal land, it is in the interest of every herder to keep increasing his livestock numbers.  It was asserted that private ownership, by combining interest in both land and livestock, would prevent overgrazing.   This model has been widely rejected by most pastoral specialists throughout the world, who have found it a very poor guide to understanding traditional nomadic pastoralism and for planning development in pastoral areas.  

 

Privatization of rangeland in semi-arid pastoral areas often leads to lower levels of productivity, decreasing numbers of people supported on equivalent land, and in some cases unsustainable or even destructive use of natural resources (Galaty et al. 1994).  The individualization of rangeland tenure can also lead to nomads’ loss of flexibility in grazing management and, consequently a means to manage environmental risk in the pastoral system.   Recent studies from Inner Mongolia (Sneath 1998) found that that the highest levels of grassland degradation were reported in areas with the lowest livestock mobility; in general mobility indices were a better guide to reported degradation than were densities of livestock.  Williams (1996) noted that grassland enclosures in Inner Mongolia actually compound grazing problems by intensifying stocking rates on highly vulnerable rangeland, exacerbating wind and soil erosion processes across large areas only to protect small isolated fields dedicated to poorly financed fodder cultivation.   Findings from work on the Tibetan Plateau in Qinghai (Goldstein 1996), Sichuan (Wu 1997b), and Tibet (Goldstein and Beall 1990, Miller 1998) contradicts the optimism of Chinese officials for privatization and fencing.   The long-term sustainability of the large, subsidized investments in fences also needs to be questioned.  Fencing is expensive, relative to the benefits.  Is the huge investment being made in fences really economically sustainable?  Who will carry out the regular maintenance that fences require?

 

There is increasing evidence that many of the current policies for Tibetan pastoral areas may be based on flawed information about herd sizes and incorrect assumptions about the destructiveness of traditional pastoral systems.  The political and donor-driven pressure to develop the hinterlands of Western China and to alleviate poverty among nomads also means that many of the underlying ecological and socio-economic issues in pastoral areas are not adequately addressed before development programs are undertaken.  As Goldstein et al. (1990) pointed out, it would be tragic if the nomad way of life were gradually undermined and destroyed by modern notions of conservation and development based on faulty evidence, negative stereotypes, and untested assumptions. 

 

Conclusions

There is growing testimony that many aspects of traditional Tibetan nomadic pastoralism are sensible, economically efficacious, and sustainable strategies for livestock production in an environment too harsh for crop cultivation.  As Coughenour (1991) noted for other semi-arid areas, nomadic pastoralism, once it is better understood, often proves to be a rational, efficient, and sustainable system for utilizing rangeland resources.

 

The growing appreciation for the complexity and ecological and economic efficacy of Tibetan nomadic pastoralism is encouraging.   It provides hope that the vast wealth of knowledge that nomads possess will be better appreciated and understood in designing more appropriate development interventions for pastoral areas.  It also purveys prospects that the nomads will be listened to and involved in the planning and implementation of pastoral development programs in the future.  Innovative, participatory development paradigms that actively involve nomads in the development process also suggest new possibilities for and fresh approaches to working with Tibetan nomads.   Development programs for Tibetan rangelands must involve the nomads themselves in the initial design of interventions.  Nomads’ needs and desires must be heard and the vast body of indigenous knowledge nomads possess must be put to use when designing new projects.  An important message for pastoral policy-makers and planners is the need for active participation by the nomads in all aspects of the development process and for empowered nomads to manage their own development.

 

It is also becoming increasingly apparent that many of the existing paradigms for explaining the dynamics of rangeland ecosystems have not captured the vigorous nature of Tibetan rangelands and, therefore, traditional measures for range conditions and carrying capacities may not be effective gauges for management in these pastoral areas.   New perspectives emerging about non-equilibrial ecosystem dynamics and new concepts about plant succession processes in pastoral systems provide interesting frameworks for analyzing Tibetan rangelands.  Exploring the relevance of these fresh viewpoints for the Tibetan Plateau could have important implications for improved management of Tibetan rangelands. 

 

Despite its extent and importance, the Tibetan plateau has received little research attention from range ecologists and nomadic pastoral specialists. This lack of information limits the proper management and sustainable development of the rangelands.  Rangeland ecosystem dynamics are still poorly understood and good, scientific data on ecological processes taking place throughout the Tibetan rangelands are limited.  Many questions concerning how rangeland vegetation functions and the effect of grazing animals on the pastoral system remain unanswered for the most part.  There is a critical need for more in-depth studies of the relationship between herbivores and the vegetation resource and the relationship between domestic livestock and wild herbivores in nomadic pastoralism.

 

The socioeconomic dimensions of Tibetan pastoral production systems are also not well known.  Greater efforts should be directed towards developing a better understanding of current nomadic pastoral production systems and how they are changing and adapting to development influences.  Practices vary considerably across the Tibetan pastoral area and these differences need to be analyzed.  Why do nomads in different areas maintain different livestock herd compositions?  What are current livestock offtake rates and how do increasing demands for livestock products in the marketplace affect future livestock sales?  What constraints and opportunities for improving livestock productivity are recognized by the nomads themselves?  What forms of social organization exist for managing livestock and rangelands?  How have these practices changed in recent years and what are the implications of these transformations?  Answers to these, and related questions, will help unravel many of the complexities of Tibetan pastoralism, of which we still know so little.  Analyses of the socioeconomic processes at work in Tibetan pastoral areas are a key challenge for researchers.  It will also be important to determine which aspects of indigenous knowledge systems and traditional pastoral strategies can be used in the design of new development interventions for pastoral areas on the Tibetan Plateau. 

 

Given the generally poor experience with settling nomads in other pastoral areas of the world, it will be interesting to watch the attempts to foster more sedentary livestock production systems on Tibetan rangelands.  What effect will the privatization of the grazing lands have on rangeland condition?  Will nomads overgraze pastures that they view as their own property now?  What kind of rangeland monitoring programs are needed to look after the privatized rangelands?   What effect will private rangeland and fences have on traditional mechanisms for pooling livestock into group herds and group herding?  These, and other related questions, will be important questions to seek answers to in the future.

 

The challenges facing Tibetan nomads and the sustainable development of the rangelands on the Tibetan Plateau are considerable.  Opportunities do exist, however, for improving the management of rangeland resources, increasing livestock productivity, and bettering the livelihoods of the nomad population.  Programs stressing multiple use, participatory development, sustainability, economics, and biodiversity could be realized through complementary activities in range resource management, livestock production, and wildlife conservation.   Implementing such programs requires a better understanding of the rangeland ecosystem, greater appreciation for nomads and their way of life, and consideration of new information and ideas emerging about nomadic pastoral systems.

 

There are no simple solutions to addressing pastoral development in Tibetan nomadic areas and due to the multifaceted dimensions of the problems, actions will need to be taken on several levels: at the central policy level; at the university and research center level; at the level of range and livestock extension services; and at the nomad level.  Improved pastoral production will also require that ecological principles regulating rangeland ecosystem functions are linked with the economic principles governing livestock production and general economic development processes. 

 

It is argued here that many of the policies and development plans now in place for Tibetan nomadic pastoral areas are based on limited understanding of the nomadic production system and many misconceptions about traditional pastoral practices.  In light of new information emerging on the dynamics of Tibetan rangelands and the efficacy of Tibetan nomadic pastoralism, current pastoral policies and development plans should be re-evaluated.

 

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McIntire, J. 1993.  Markets and Contracts in African Pastoralism, in K. Hoff,  A. Braverman, and J. Stiglitz (eds.) 1993.  The Economics of Rural Organization: Theory, Practice and Policy. New York: Oxford Univ. Press: 519-529.

 

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[1] Published in: Nomadic Peoples, 2000, Vol 4, No. 1, pp.83-109