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China’s poverty alleviation programs impoverishing Tibetan nomads

Tibetan nomads protest mining at sacred Gong Ngon Lari mountain in in Amchok, Tibet, 2016.

Last month, Chinese authorities announced the acceleration of the ‘pairing assistance’ program as part its overall goal to end poverty in Ba (Ch: Tongde) County (also called Ba Dzong in common Tibetan parlance) in Tsolho (Ch: Hainan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai Province, in the Tibetan province of Amdo. The ‘pairing assistance’ program is a nation-wide initiative of dispatching party members and local cadres to gather information on rural residents and adopt preventative measures to combat sensitive political issues from gaining traction among the masses.

The program is, for all practical purposes, a means to monitor and control the thoughts and activities of local Tibetans in the name of poverty alleviation. It requires party members and cadres to stay at the homes of local Tibetan nomads and farmers for weeks conducting political education sessions and gathering sensitive information. It has existed since 2012 alongside a host of other so-called ecological and poverty alleviation programs that are designed to facilitate mass surveillance and thought control.

In Tibet, the program was introduced in late 2011 as one of the activities under ‘Benefit the Masses’ campaign. In 2016, 775,000 officials were stationed in the PRC’s countryside to ostensibly to relieve conditions in impoverished areas in one to three-year posts. Many of these are drawn specifically from the Organization Department of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), serving to imbed the party in the grass roots drive to reshape and reengineer rural communities. In 2016, as part of the sixth batch of ‘village-based cadres’ in TAR, a total of 22,000 party members and government cadres were stationed in 5,467 villages and neighbourhood committees, including also the 1700 religious institutions. With the indefinite extension of the program in 2016, this lowest level of domestic surveillance unit has become a permanent fixture in the lives of Tibetans.

A major part of the program is to conduct political education campaigns to ensure the ideological and political compliance of the masses. Chinese president Xi Jinping has identified poverty alleviation as one of the three“tough battles” (the other two being, risk prevention and pollution control) from 2017 to 2020. Government institutions at all levels are tasked with lifting another 10 million out of poverty in rural areas in 2019. Achieving the 2020 target would require China to lift nearly one million people per month or 20 people per minute out of poverty. The swift implementation of rural relocation and resettlement programs has spawned a variety of human rights violations.

Criminalising pastoralism

Another prominent component of the anti-poverty policy is the rural resettlement program initiated in 2003 to recover degraded landscapes and to improve the living standards of local people. Thousands of Tibetan nomads were forced to live a settled life in the urban towns relinquishing their land and livelihood under the policy of ‘converting pastures to grasslands’ (Ch: tuimu huancao) that China implemented as a strategy of ecological resettlement.

The overriding goal of this policy is to ensure the security of China’s water resources that led to the creation of the Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve in 2003, the world’s second-largest nature reserve located in Tibetan areas in Qinghai Province. The reserve was later promoted to a national park status in 2016 that means stricter protection and is one of the 10 new national parks put on trial operation until its opening in 2020. The higher status also means direct central government management and supervision in order to balance mining and tourism with ecological protection in the Sanjiangyuan area.

Peripheries in service of mainland

When PRC’s eastern and central provinces reaped benefits of the economic boom in the 1980s, Chinese leadership rejected criticisms over its poor economic and human development records in its western parts by stating that these areas were helping the eastern and central provinces to prosper and waiting for their turn for prosperity, which ostensibly came in the form of Western Development strategy (Ch: xibu da kaifa) in the 1990s.

Promoting the ideology of ‘sacrifice small families for our great country’, Chinese government now encourages Tibetan nomadic resettlement by highlighting the key role played by the ‘three-rivers headwater region’ or Sanjiangyuan as a source of fresh water and ecosystem services for central and eastern PRC. Sanjiangyuan is the headwaters of the Drichu (Yangtze/’river of the female yak’), the Machu (Yellow/’river of the peacock’), and the Dzachu (Mekong/’mother of all the rivers’) rivers. The ecological resettlement program is an important part of the Western Development strategy to improve economic conditions and promote environmental protection in Tibet.

The Sanjiangyuan national park covers four Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures (TAPs) and 21 counties in Kyegudo (Ch: Yushu), Golog (Ch: Guoluo), Malho (Ch: Huangnan), Tsolho, and Tanggula Town of Golmud City. China refers to the Sanjiangyuan area as ‘Asia’s Water Tower’ because it supplies 60 billion cu m of water annually to lower lying lands of the region. With a total area of 363,000 sq km (50.4 per cent of Qinghai’s total area), the park comprises 42 per cent of the Sanjiangyuan, covering an area of 152,300 sq km from where grazing is banned and human activity is criminalised.

The Sanjiangyuan General Plan, approved by the PRC’s State Council in 2004, linked ecological resettlement to the tuimu huancao policy and called for the relocation of 55,774 people (10,142 nomadic households), the reduction of livestock by 3.2 million sheep units, the imposition of a ten-year grazing ban, and a period of off-season and rotational grazing. The nomads in Khyungchu (Ch: Heyuan) County and Golok prefecture, abandoned their grassland user rights under a permanent grazing ban in exchange for each household to be given accommodation (about 80,000 yuan), and an additional annual subsidy of 8,000 yuan for ten years. Typically each resettled household was provided with a 45 sq m house, a 120 sq m barn, and a 400 yuan one-off taxi fare for one family to move to a new town. In addition, families (regardless of family size) were paid a compensation amount of 8,000 yuan annually under the ten-year grazing ban. Although resettled nomads receive annual subsidies from central and local governments, the amount is too meagre to afford the necessities of life. The annual ecological migration subsidies mainly included subsistence allowance of 8000, 6000, or 3000 yuan per household per year; subsidy of 500 yuan for living fuel per household per year; and 800 yuan per person for the vocational training of the ecological migrants, etc. The actual annual living expenditures of a resettled nomad is estimated at 17,000 yuan per household, in addition to fuel expenditures of 2,394 yuan per household; and vocational training costs of more than 2,000 yuan per person.

Campaign to end nomadic way of life

In an interview with TCHRD, a 22 yr-old postgraduate student from Ba Dzong’s Gartse Village, who currently lives in a Chinese city and asked to remain anonymous, said, “I think the goal behind [the policy of] urbanisation and converting pastures to grasslands is to end nomadic way of life and all its cultural traditions, facilitate resource extraction, and exploit hydropower resources. Many local Tibetans share this view and do not support these policies. Others who are less informed about the government’s intention speak favourably about the financial subsidies for fencing pastures and resettlement housing and amenities.”

The postgraduate student is from Gartse Gyalmo village in Ba Dzong. There are two villages of Gartse: the upper and lower Gartse. He is from the lower Gartse village. In total, there are 18 nomadic villages in both upper and lower Gartse out of which five are located in lower Gartse. The major sources of income in his village are animal husbandry involving mostly yaks and some sheep and harvesting yartsa gunbu (caterpillar fungus), which is abundant in the region.

The tuimu huancao policy in Ba Dzong was introduced in 2011 when local nomads were made to fence their pastures and reduce their cattle size. The government set a quota on the number of animals allowed to graze a plot of land. A quota also determined the size of herd each family is allowed to keep; the rest have to be slaughtered or sold. This led to the fragmentation of pastures and restrictions on the mobility of nomadic herds to graze diverse pastures resulting in overgrazing and degradation.

The nomadic population in Ba Dzong was relocated to new and emerging resettlement camps in the outskirts of the county town. Some other nomads voluntarily sold all their animals to move to urban towns mainly for the future of their children since better educational and health facilities are mostly available in urban areas. There are still some families that have refused to relocate. Some 160 nomadic households in lower Gartse village have been relocated but during springtime, they are allowed to harvest yartsa gunbu in their pastures. In some cases, half of the family lives in the resettlement camp and the other half in the nomadic area. The student’s family used to own about 300 sheep and 100 yaks before the enforcement of tuimu huancao policy. It is no longer possible to do that now. The Chinese authorities claim that bigger herd size is inimical to its ‘ecological civilization’ policy the goal of which is to turn everything ‘green’.

The lower Gartse village is located about 100-km distance from the county town, with Ragya village towards south in Golok Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and Machu County towards north in Kanlho (Ch: Gannan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. Some of his relatives who live near the Machu River had once told him about huge deposits of white coral at a bend of the Machu River where this precious stone was being extracted and how parts of Machu was blocked to build hydro dams.

Apart from the brief harvesting season in spring, many relocated nomads earn their living doing unskilled, lowly paid, temporary jobs in the numerous construction sites. If not for the yartsa gunbu business, the livelihood prospects of these nomads would have been extremely dire.

Urbanization and displacement

The deprivation of nomadic livelihood sources is also caused by the urbanization policy that involves the creation of urban towns by concentrating many townships in one location. According to the Tibetan postgraduate student, this program has proven disastrous in Tanggu Town, a township-level administrative unit under the jurisdiction of Ba Dzong that consists of 17 villages. The town was created in 2006 with the merger of Thangkan (Ch: Tang Gan) Township and Gomang (Ch: Gumang) Township. Located 17 km away from the Ba county town, 98% of its population is Tibetan.

“Many nomads have been made to sell their livestock and live as farmers in the new urban towns. Their economic condition has become very poor. No wonder they have been identified as one the poorest under the current policy of ‘targeted poverty alleviation programs’. I have some relatives living in these towns whose condition has worsened due to the sudden change from nomadic to farming lifestyle. I am a living witness to their destitution and deprivation. I have actually visited the homes of some and the situation is distressing,” according to the postgraduate student.

This was corroborated by Ms Dolma, a former journalist and resident of Ba Dzong who has been living in Paris since 2012 after leaving her job at Qinghai News Network. “Most nomad families are unemployed and unable to find stable jobs in the new resettled community. With a lot of idle time on their hands that had hitherto been used to tend to nomadic activities, men and women no longer have to graze and milch the cattle. Men succumb to gambling and alcoholism and women give in to snacking and sunning. Extramarital affairs are becoming more common causing unnecessary rifts and conflicts. In the cramped spaces of the resettlement houses that are built closely together, neighbours get into frequent squabbles and fights making it difficult for the community to build social cohesion and ensure the psychological health and wellbeing of the residents.”

“It is hard to believe the abject descent into poverty in these so-called modern times. Even the meagre compensation money that these former nomads get annually from the government for giving up their pastures and livelihood does not fully reach the intended beneficiaries due to rampant corruption among local government cadres. During the official inspections conducted by central government officials about the progress of the poverty alleviation programs, local Tibetans are unable to air their grievances due to fear of reprisals from local government authorities. In fact, local cadres issue strict verbal instructions to representatives of all families to what and what to speak about in front of the inspection officials,”said the postgraduate student.

In April this year, Chinese government media published a glowing update on the lives of former Tibetan nomads in the resettlement town of Changjiangyuan village in the suburbs of Gormo (Ch: Golmud) city, 500 km from their hometown of Tanggula Mountains. All of them had to sell their yaks and sheep before relocating to the new urban town in 2011. Like most resettled nomads, many villagers earn their livelihood from digging for yartsa gunbu or herding in the pastures in the summer. The establishment of the resettlement town has proved advantageous to the Chinese authorities in consolidating its political and ideological control over Tibetans as can be seen in the cultivation of more than 100 party members and continued efforts to recruit party members. The 59 surveillance cameras assist in preempting untoward incidents and maintaining stability in the village.

Despite this, local Chinese authorities admit, “A small group of [resettled nomads] have been trying to move back to the grassland.” There are other indications that the nomad resettlement policy faces continued resistance from local people. In the Tanggula town, local residents are currently in a dispute over grassland use rights with the Hoh Xil preservation station. The Hoh Xil National Nature Reserve in Qinghai province is a UNESCO World Heritage.

The protection of human rights of those held in suspected involvement in violating local laws on grassland use rights is a matter of concern due to the high level of swift conviction rate in majority of the criminal cases. Given the secretive and opaque nature of Chinese legal system, there is no objective information available on how many were convicted and for what charges or whether the suspects were able to access due legal process. This month, the PRC’s forestry and grassland bureau reported that there were 8199 criminal cases registered in connection with grassland law violations in 2018. The courts have settled 7586 cases so far, about 95.1 percent. The cases involved the destruction of about 11.4 per cent grassland nationally by violating the tuimu hancao policy.

Grassland degradation narratives

Resettlement and the grazing ban policy have had profound implications on the lives of resettled nomads mainly because pastoralism is the backbone of local economy. The government’s rationale that overgrazing is the main cause of grassland degradation is flawed and simplistic.

In Matoe (Ch: Madoi) County in Qinghai, local nomads and officials agree on a range of causes for landscape degradation among which are climate change, resource exploitation, and improper management of grassland due to weak land tenure security for nomads. In 1986, more than 10,000 Chinese gold miners from eastern Qinghai descended on Matoe that had a population of 9,466. The fight for Matoe gold mine ended in 231 people injured and one dead. The mining activities poisoned the local water sources, destroyed natural habitat, scarred the traditional grazing lands and produced vast tracts of waste and debris. In many ways, the Matoe mining history is unexceptional and common to all other resource-rich parts of the Tibetan Plateau that has suffered irreparable damage due to decades of China’s predatory development policy.

Most academics conclude that the current ecological resettlement policy is improper and have negative impacts on nomadic livelihoods, nomadic society, and the ecosystem. Many local Tibetans advocate grazing to be permitted for different livestock to improve the condition of degraded pastures. The grazing ban severs the intimate link between grassland and livestock, which is important for the overall health of the grassland. Based on the centuries of accumulated local knowledge on grassland dynamics, the nomads believe that grassland conditions are closely connected to weather and grazing patterns and evolve from a long interaction between humans and nature. The old wisdom considers grazing with an appropriate number of animals beneficial to the restoration of degraded grassland. From the perspective of local Tibetans, the current policy of protecting grassland by ecological resettlement is questionable.

Myth of free housing

The Sanjiangyuan General Plan had provided free housing for all the resettled families but after their marriage, the children in the families were not provided separate space to start new families. An expanding family has to continue living in cramped spaces sharing the same house. Some with big families have been forced to live in tents built in the courtyard.

Land tenure and land use rights are poorly protected in domestic Chinese law. This has resulted in the government taking advantage of the vague legal provisions on land access and rights for individuals and implementing improper rural development policy through unsustainable use of land and resources. Without secure land tenure rights, sustainable rural development is nearly impossible.

The UN Special Rapporteur on right to food has long expressed concern over China’s nomad resettlement policy because it has destroyed livelihood sources of nomadic and farming communities and deprived them of their economic independence. Food security issues for relocated or rehoused rural residents, that the Special Rapporteur identified in his assessment after visiting PRC, include “loss of land, limited ability to keep livestock, relocation in areas unsuitable to agriculture, and generally a disruption of traditional patterns of livelihood.” As a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on Biological Diversity, the PRC is obligated to cease depriving any people from its means of subsistence and prioritise the role of indigenous communities as guarantors and protectors of biodiversity.

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