Tibetan pastoralism: Hard times on the plateau

Daniel Miller

The winter of 1997-1998 was one of the worst in recent history across much of the nomadic pastoral area of western china. Unusually heavy snowfall m late September was followed by severe cold weather which prevented the snow from melting. Additional storms deposited more snow and by late October grass reserved for winter grazing was buried under a meter of snow. Yaks, sheep, goats and horses were unable to reach any forage and started to die in large numbers.

By early April 1998, it was estimated that the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) had lost over 3 million head of livestock. Nagchu (Naqu) Prefecture in the north and Ali Prefecture in the west were especially hard hit and parts of Shigatse (Rikaze), Lhoka (Shannan), and Chamdo (Changdu) Prefectures and Lhasa Municipality were also affected by the heavy snow storms. Parts of Qinghai Province's south west were also hit hard.

Losses in Nagchu Prefecture in the TAR alone were estimated at 1.03 million animals or about 15% of the Prefecture's total livestock population. Almost all areas of the prefecture were affected by the severe snowstorms but the counties of Amdo (Anduo), Nyerong (Nierong), Lhari (Jiali), Sog Dzong (Sue Xian) and Nagchu suffered particularly heavy losses. In Nyerong County as a whole some 30% of the livestock died, and some townships within the county lost as many as 70%. A number of townships in Nagchu County lost 50% of their domestic animals and three townships in Lhari County lost 40%.

It is estimated that economic losses from livestock deaths alone may reach CNY 1 billion (USD 125 million) in the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

Tibetan nomads, dependent almost solely on livestock for a livelihood, suffered greatly as a result of the heavy snowfalls. Because the snow came so early, 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. Many families fed whatever grain they had for themselves to their livestock to try to save the animals from dying. Thousands of nomad families, who lost most of their animals, are now facing dire poverty. Last year, before the snowstorms began, it was estimated that 20% of Nagchu Prefecture's 340,000 nomadic population (about 50,000 households) were considered to be living in poverty (See box). Now, as a result of the livestock losses experienced over the winter, it is estimated that about 40% of the nomad population in Nagchu Prefecture will be facing poverty. Many other nomad families, although still technically above the poverty line, will have their livelihoods reduced.

Although the winter is over, the effect of last winter's livestock losses will reverberate for years to come. The government has begun restocking programs but resources are insufficient to replace all the livestock lost. It will take considerable time for nomads to build their herds up again to the levels they were at in 1997, and in the meantime thousands of families with fewer animals will face great difficulties in meeting their basic needs.

Many government agencies and various NGOs provided emergency relief assistance to nomads affected by the snowstorms and now wish to assist Tibetan nomads with restocking and pastoral development. This article offers background information about Tibetan nomadic pastoral production and outlines some of the issues and challenges surrounding restocking and pastoral development programs.

Security through diversity

Tibetan nomadic pastoral production systems vary widely across the Tibetan plateau. Nomads usually raise a mix of different animal species. Each has its own specific characteristics and adaptations to the 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 rangeland vegetation than a single species. Different animals also have varied uses and provide diversified products for home consumption or sale. Maintaining diverse herd compositions is also a strategy employed by nomads to minimize the risk of losses from disease or harsh winters, since a mix of different species provides some insurance that not all animals will be lost and herds can be rebuilt again.

The refinement that nomads attained in devising herd compositions is illustrated by one nomad area in northwest Ngamring (Angren) County of Shigatse Prefecture. There, sheep comprised 45% of all livestock numbers, goats made up 40%, yaks made up 14%, and horses were 1%. Such herd composition requires complex strategies for managing livestock, as each species has its own specific grazing and production-related characteristics.

Tibetan pastoral herd design system is not haphazard or irrational, but demonstrates sophisticated adaptive responses by nomads to the environment in which they live and the resources available to them. The, proportion of different livestock species raised varies across the Plateau generally according to rangeland factors and the suitability of the landscape for different animals. Herd compositions within a geographic area can also vary with the skills, preferences and availability of labor of the nomads. For example, in Shuanghu County of Nagchu Prefecture in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, yaks only make up 4% of total livestock numbers; whereas in Lhari County, about 400 km to the least in Nagchu Prefecture, yaks comprise 53% of 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, but in Lhari there is more annual precipitation and vegetation is dominated by alpine meadow which is more conducive to raising yaks. In the very north-eastern part of the Tibetan plateau, in Marthang (Hongyan) County of Sichuan Province, yaks are even more important in the pastoral economy. In Marthang, yaks comprise over 85% of all livestock numbers.

Yaks equal wealth

Yaks are one of the most important domestic animals in most of the pastoral area on the Tibetan plateau. Nomads place so much value on the yak that many refer to them as 'nor', which also means 'precious gem' or, more generally, 'wealth'. The yak, in many ways, defines nomadic pastoralism across most of-the plateau. Yaks provide milk and milk products, meat, hair, wool and hides. They are also used as draught animals and for riding. Yak dung is an important source of fuel in an area where firewood is not available. The yak makes life possible for people 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.

China has a yak population of some 13 million, which is about 90% of all the yaks in the world. There are around 4.7 million yaks in Qinghai Province, four million in Tibet, four million in Sichuan, 900,000 in Gansu, 230,000 in Xinjiang, and 50 thousand in Yunnan.

Numbers of animals that nomads raise vary considerably across the Tibetan plateau depending on herd composition. In Shuanghu and Nyima (Jima) Counties in Nagchu Prefecture in the TAR, an average income nomad family keeps about 250 sheep, 100 goats, 15 yaks and two horses. In Nagchu County, a typical nomad family of five or six people would have 60-80 sheep and composition. In Shuanghu and Nyima (Jima) Counties in Nagchu Prefecture in the TAR, an average income nomad family keeps about 250 sheep, 100 goats, 15 yaks and two horses. In Nagchu County, a typical nomad family of five or six people would have 60-80 sheep and goats, 30-35 yaks and two horses. A rich family in Nagchu County may have perhaps 200-300 sheep and goats and 100 yaks. In Marthang County of north-west Sichuan Province, a typical nomad family would have 100 yaks, five horses and only a few sheep or none at all. Of these 100 yaks only 30-40 would be adult, milking female yaks. In one nomad region of Ngamring County, Shigatse Prefecture, the richest nomad family had 286 sheep, 250 goats, 77 yaks and eight horses.

Almost 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 marketing of livestock products.

Until recently rangeland has remained the property of the state and nomads generally use the rangelands communally, often in groups that reflect the previous communal structure. In some cases, livestock grazing by the nomads now mirrors the traditional management structure that existed prior to collectivization.

Livestock subsists almost entirely on grazing on the rangelands year round. Some hay is made to feed weak animals and horses in the winter and spring but, for the most part, animals acquire all their forage from grazing. Increasingly, nomads are fencing rangeland to reserve pastures for winter and spring grazing, and planting artificial pasture either for winter-spring grazing or for hay making.

Nomads maintain milking and non-milking herds of yaks, sheep, and goats. Across most of the western TAR sheep and goats are more common than yaks, and both sheep and goats are milked in the summer. Sheep in the eastern TAR and in Tibetan nomad areas of Qinghai, Sichuan, and Gansu are usually not milked. Female yaks usually have their first calf when they are four years old and have only one calf every other year, although the yak cow is still milked in the second summer. Where forage conditions are better, yaks will calve every year. Male yaks are usually slaughtered for meat at four years of age. Yaks are generally thought to typify Tibetan nomadic production but in much of the western TAR, sheep and goats are more important economically. For example, in the Phala nomad area of north-western Ngamring County, Shigatse Prefecture, sheep contributed 60% of total income derived from livestock for one large nomad family even though they comprised only 28% of the family's livestock biomass, or Sheep Equivalent Units. Goats, which made up about 21% of livestock biomass, contributed about 35% of total livestock income. Yaks only accounted for about 5% of total livestock income, yet they comprised about 46% of total livestock biomass in the nomad's herd. Sheep and goats require more care and attention than yaks but can deliver handsome economic returns where it is practical to raise them. Since they generally give birth every year, unlike yaks which usually calve every other year, sheep and point to remember when restocking is being considered for nomads who lost animals as a result of severe winters.

Disasters are natural

It should be stressed 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 severe winters in the highly dynamic ecosystem that exists on the Tibetan plateau. Pastoralism in these conditions has always been a high-risk enterprise. Nomads learned to cope with the uncertainties of the environment by adopting a number of flexible production strategies that minimized risk and made optimal use of the resources available to them.

Heavy snowfalls, such as those of last winter, should be viewed as natural events of the Tibetan plateau environment, not as disasters. In fact, snowstorms probably serve a very important natural regulatory mechanism in the grazing land ecosystem. Periodic heavy falls reduce the number of livestock and wild ungulates grazing on the rangelands, thereby enabling the grasses to recover. Unlike severe droughts in semi-arid pastoral areas, heavy snowfalls do not negatively affect the vegetation. In fact, heavy snowfalls can actually lead to improved grass growth the following spring due to increased water infiltration into the soil. So, rather than disasters, heavy snowfalls should be seen as a part of the ecology of the Tibetan landscape. Nomads survived severe snowstorms in the past, when there were no PLA trucks to transport relief supplies, and they will survive winters in the future as well.

Yet many government officials believe that in severe winters of recent years livestock were lost because nomads are backward and do not practice modern, scientific animal husbandry methods. The structure of nomads' herds is often thought to be irrational and uneconomic, with too few breeding females and too many unproductive animals. Many officials also believe that the traditional migratory grazing practiced by nomads is an improper use of the grassland. Since grazing is usually communal, officials argue that there is no incentive for individual nomads to manage the grasslands or invest in improvement.

As a result, many officials say that nomads keep too many unproductive animals just as status symbols, and that traditional nomadic grazing systems do not allow for management of the grasslands which are overgrazed and degrading. In addition, since the nomads are not settled, officials often mention that it is difficult to provide them with social services such as education and health care. Many officials insist that for development to be achieved in Tibetan pastoral areas the nomads must be settled, houses and barns must replace the traditional yak hat tents, rangeland must be divided, fenced and given to nomads on long-term contracts, livestock numbers need to be limited, artificial pasture needs to be grown, and herds need to be restructured. It is widely believed that such changes would help prevent large livestock losses during snow disasters, improve rangeland management, increase productivity and raise overall living standards.

Settling down

Ten years ago the government began programs to settle nomads and divide rangeland between individual households in Tibetan areas near Qinghai Lake, in Qinghai Province,. Starting in the traditional winter grazing lands, each nomad family was allocated an area of rangeland on a long-term contract in what was essentially a privatization of the previously communally managed grassland. Land allocation was based on the supposed carrying capacity of the rangeland and the number of livestock each family had. The construction of houses for nomads, sheds for livestock, fencing, and development of artificial pasture was also heavily subsidized. This program, deemed a success by officials, was later expanded to privatize grazing lands used throughout the year, not just the winter pastures.

This program is now being rapidly extended throughout Qinghai Province and into the Tibetan nomadic areas of Gansu and Sichuan Provinces. Due to the high cost involved in fencing, the TAR is not yet allocating grazing land to individual nomad households. Instead, land is being allocated to nomad groups. But even in the TAR, official policies promote the settling of the nomads, construction of houses and barns, fencing of pastures and the growing of artificial pasture.

Misconceptions abound regarding nomads, nomadic pastoralism and pastoral development on the Tibetan plateau. Sifting fallacies from facts is often confounded by the lack of good data on nomadic pastoral production systems and the often political and donor driven push to alleviate poverty among poor nomads. In addition, there is now increasing clamor to assist with disaster prevention in nomad areas that experienced large livestock losses last year, as if it is already ordained that snow disasters will strike again in the same areas.

Given the generally poor regard that livestock development now has throughout much of the developing world, it may be easier for NGOs to obtain funding to support Tibetan nomads and pastoral development in Tibet if projects are presented as disaster prevention. As a range and livestock specialist, however, I have trouble with calling what needs to be done to assist nomads 'disaster prevention'. Nevertheless, it is still possible to separate out some of the realities and myths regarding nomadic pastoral production on the Tibetan plateau.

The very existence of nomads on the Tibetan plateau - undoubtedly the world's harshest pastoral area - is itself proof of the rationality and efficacy of many aspects of traditional practice. Over centuries, Tibetan nomads acquired complex knowledge and understanding of the environment in which they lived and upon which their lives depended.

The fact that numerous pastoral groups continue to thrive bears witness to their extraordinary knowledge and animal husbandry skills. Unfortunately, pastoral development policies on the Tibetan plateau, as in much of the pastoral world, often maintain that nomads are 'backward' and that their traditional nomadic practices need to be 'improved'. Nomads, however, should be considered as experts even though they may be illiterate. Many old Tibetan nomads have probably already forgotten more about rangelands and yaks than many young range ecologists and animal nutritionists will ever learn in college.

The traditional nomadic herd structure also illustrates expertise in animal husbandry and in managing grazing land. In a nomad area in the north-west of Shigatse Prefecture, around 60% of the adult sheep and goats are females. Adult male sheep and goats make up about 30% 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. The traditional nomadic pastoral system also required pack yaks to move nomads' supplies between different pastures. A nomad family, therefore, had to have a number of pack yaks in its herd in order to survive. Unfortunately, the utility and economic viability existing herd structures are still very much unappreciated and policies for restructuring herds to contain a higher percentage of breeding females rarely acknowledge the reasons for the existing herd structure. Too often, policies for Tibetan nomadic areas are made by officials who do not know which end of a yak gets up first.

Pastoral systems are designed around the movement factors such as past use, snowfall and rainfall, growth stage of the grass, and the condition of animals. Tibetan nomads do not move randomly across the landscape, their movements are well prescribed by complex social organizations and are highly regulated.

Degraded rangeland

Much of the rangeland in the agricultural valleys of central Tibet is heavily overgrazed and degraded, but the situation in many of the nomadic pastoral areas is not as bad. Many rangeland areas in Tibet are, in fact, in good condition, despite centuries of livestock grazing. There is increasing concern with rangeland degradation in pastoral areas, especially in parts of Amdo County in the TAR and in Darlag (Dare) and Machen (Maqin) Counties in Qinghai Province where 'black beach', or badly degraded rangeland with soil exposed, is common. However, the dynamics of the degradation process in these black beach areas is still not well understood and the jury is still out on whether or not heavy livestock grazing is the real cause of the problem or if other factors, Despite their extent and importance, rangeland ecosystem dynamics on the Tibetan plateau are still poorly understood and good, scientific data on ecological processes taking place in the different rangeland types 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. The socio-economic dimensions of the Tibetan pastoral production systems are also not well known. This lack of information limits the proper management and sustainable development of the rangelands.

In recent decades, nomads across most of the pastoral areas on the Tibetan plateau have built houses for themselves and shelters for their livestock, usually in the traditional winter-spring pastures where they may spend six or seven months of the year. As such, the vast majority of nomads are already 'settled' and actually have been for some time, although they have continued to graze their livestock in a nomadic manner. The view of many officials that nomads still need to be settled is, in many respects, a misnomer, unless what the officials have in mind is for nomads to stop their periodic movement to different pastures throughout the year and simply graze out of a home base every day like dairy farmers in New Zealand do on improved pasture. Given the generally poor experience with settling nomads in other parts of the world, it will be interesting to watch the process of sedentarization as it unfolds on the Tibetan plateau. What effect will the grassland contract system have on rangeland condition in the future? Will nomads now overgraze pastures that they view as their own property! What effect will private rangeland and fences have on traditional mechanisms for pooling livestock into group herds and group herding?

With current pastoral development policies on the Tibetan plateau, nomadic herders are being transformed into commercial livestock ranchers. These developments are improving nomads' living standards, but the longer term sustainability of these large subsidized investments in fences, buildings, and range improvements needs to be questioned. Fencing and barns are expensive, relative to the benefits. Is the huge investment being made in buildings and fences really economically sustainable! Fencing is a valuable tool for managing livestock use of grazing lands, but by restricting movement of livestock it can also lead to overgrazing. Rangeland monitoring programs need to be set up to condition where fences are erected.

Many of the current policies for privatization of grasslands are based on the mistaken belief that traditional pastoral systems did not give nomads any responsibility for the rangeland and that, therefore, nomads tried to maximize herd sizes with no regard to carrying capacity. In fact, many traditional nomadic systems were often well regulated and, in some areas, quite elaborate management systems were in place to periodically reallocate grazing depending on rangeland numbers.

Forage development

What can be done to help nomads that lost many of their animals this last winter? Restocking is a valid option, but consideration needs to be given to the type of livestock nomads are supplied with. In many areas, yaks will probably be the animal preferred by nomads, but restocking with sheep and goats, at least initially to provide a base of production for nomads, should not be ruled out. Nomads need to be active participants in any decisions made about animals provided for restocking and their knowledge of which animals are best suited to local conditions needs to be considered.

Animal husbandry will continue to be the major type of land use for much of the Tibetan plateau. In fact, for many areas, extensive livestock production is the only mode of production to support people. The key to improving livestock productivity is providing animals with enough forage throughout the year. The winter and spring are the main forage 'deficit times and more attention needs to be directed towards providing more forage, either in the form of grazing or from hay that is made from native grass or artificial pasture. Growing artificial pasture for hay is a fairly simple technology that could provide additional feed to improve livestock productivity and/or, in the event of heavy snowfall, help prevent large livestock losses. Fencing pastures to reserve areas for livestock grazing in the winter and spring is another option, but the economics of fencing still need to be properly assessed.

Improved pastoral production in Tibetan nomad areas requires that ecological principles regulating rangeland ecosystem functions are linked with economic principles governing livestock production and general economic development processes. New perspectives on the non-equilibrium dynamic nature of rangeland and innovative, pastoral development paradigms that actively involve nomads in the development process also suggest new possibilities for and fresh approaches to working with Tibetan nomads. There are no simple solutions to addressing pastoral development in the harsh environment of the Tibetan plateau 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 centered level; at the level of range and livestock extension services, and among nomads themselves.



Daniel J, Miller is a rangeland and livestock specialist who has been working on the Tibetan plateau since 1988. He previously worked for many years on pastoral development programs in Nepal and Bhutan and on large cattle ranches in Montana, USA. Mr. Miller is an Honorary Professor in the Grassland Science Department, Gansu Agricultural University, Lanzhou, and is currently associated with the Institute of Land and Food Resources, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria, Australia.