Leslie Hook has written an extensive article in FT Magazine on how climate change is affecting environmental conditions on the Tibetan Plateau, and how China’s attempts to address these changes are often driven by misunderstandings of the human-environment relationship there, as well as the state’s political and economic agendas for governing the region and promoting its economic development. The article discusses, among other things, the government’s resettlement of nomadic herders in newly constructed villages. These ‘ecological resettlement’ programs have been justified in environmental terms: protecting the Plateau’s delicate ecosystem from overgrazing at a time of climate change and its degrading effects. However, resettlement has been criticized for its scientifically outdated assumptions about how grasslands respond to grazing, the impacts of increased herd sizes, and the role of extreme climate events. Some have argued further that environmental degradation becomes a pretense for social policies, like resettlement, that make the Tibetan population more amenable to Chinese government control.
While it’s an oversimplification of a complex group of actors with various motivations to say that resettlement is all about social control, it’s worth pointing up the fact that climate change and environmental protection are being used to justify some very significant – and for some, disturbing – changes on the Plateau. The article profiles Madoi New Village, a 10 year old resettlement site.
Rows of identical concrete houses built just 10 years ago are already starting to crumble. Inside, the stories are largely the same. “I don’t have anything here,” says Nantsere, a former herder who keeps two horses in his yard. “Life on the grasslands is much better. On the grasslands we had yaks and sheep, and here we have nothing to do, no work.” Nantsere still wears the trademark cowboy hat of a herder, even though it is now eight years since he moved off the grassland.
He agreed to move because the government provided a free house and offered him a monthly stipend of Rmb200-Rmb300 (£21-£31). Nantsere’s two sons, seven and eight, now attend the local primary school, where they learn Mandarin – a language their father neither reads nor speaks.
The neighbours have similar stories. Wangden, 45, says the government stipend is barely enough to live on. Before the move, his family relied on its flock for meat, butter and milk; now they have to buy everything. “Our situation here is bad,” he says, as his youngest son, who is five, runs around in the yard. “Things were better before, when we were raising sheep.” One of Wangden’s relatives prepares tea – using store-bought cow’s milk, instead of the yak’s milk they used to have. No one in the new village seems to have a job.
The only sign of the vaunted government training programmes is a small shop in Madoi that advertises “Handicrafts made by ecological migrants”, as if they are a tourist attraction.
Similar relocation programmes are being implemented across the plateau. A recent study by Human Rights Watch calculated that across all Tibetan areas more than 600,000 nomadic herders have been moved into government-built towns, many falling into poverty as they go.
Local officials in Madoi say that moving herders into settlements is not only about saving the environment but about improving quality of life – bringing them closer to schools, medical care, electricity and running water. Just like every local government in China, the officials in Madoi believe they have a duty to boost GDP, and the town’s propaganda magazine is filled with colourful charts that illustrate local incomes increasing and GDP rising year after year.
This, then, is the ‘gift’ of development that my colleague Emily Yeh writes about in her forthcoming book: Taming Tibet: Landscape transformation and the gift of Chinese development (Cornell University Press).