The Last Nomads of the Tibetan Plateau

Sean Gallagher, 25 October 2012

For 5,000 years the nomads of the region have roamed these lands, freely moving their flocks of sheep and cattle with the changing seasons. But over the past decade these people have been moved, often against their will, from the grasslands and into newly constructed towns and villages across the plateau.
In 2000, China’s new “Western Development Strategy” was introduced by the central government, aimed at bringing improvements to the poverty-stricken west through infrastructural investment. As part of this strategy, it was deemed necessary to encourage the removal of the nomads of the highland grasslands in order to protect the important headwaters region.

“The basic premise of this policy is that a decade of respite from livestock grazing is necessary for degraded grassland to be restored to its natural state, and therefore domestic livestock (and herders) should be moved away,” according to Dr. Marc Foggin, in his paper “Depopulating the Tibetan Grasslands.”

“However this premise remains untested at such large scales, and most grassland systems have in fact evolved over time as grazed ecosystems, with either wild or domestic grazers. Now, tens of thousands of families have been asked to move off the grassland and to adopt new livelihoods in farming or to live in new towns. In Qinghai, for example, 35 resettlement communities have already been built and 51 more are under construction. In 2007 a total of 61,899 herdsmen from 13,305 households will be resettled,” Foggin wrote.

To date, it has been estimated that up to 100,000 “ecological migrants” have now been removed from nomadic communities on the grasslands.