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Ethnic Conflict and Protest in Tibet and XinjiangUnrest in China's West$

Ben Hillman and Gray Tuttle

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780231169981

Published to Columbia Scholarship Online: September 2016

DOI: 10.7312/columbia/9780231169981.001.0001

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Environmental Issues and Conflict in Tibet

Environmental Issues and Conflict in Tibet

(p.151) 6 Environmental Issues and Conflict in Tibet
Ethnic Conflict and Protest in Tibet and Xinjiang

Yonten Nyima

Emily T. Yeh

Columbia University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the social and economic impacts of state environmental policies in Eastern Tibet.

Keywords:   Tibet, Environment, Conflict, Resources, Forestry, Pastoralism, nomads

Among the Tibetans who have self-immolated since 2009, at least one is reported to have shouted about the need to protect Tibet’s environment while doing so. Both environmental destruction and the destructive effects of environmental improvement policies on pastoralist livelihoods have been cited as major grievances that have fueled the self-immolations (Fischer 2012).1 A connection between the environment and current patterns of conflict and protest across Tibet is also suggested by the dramatic wave of pelt burnings in 2006 in response to the fourteenth Dalai Lama’s Kalachakra speech about the conservation of tigers and other endangered animals, which was followed two years later by political protests across the plateau (Yeh 2012, 2013a). Moreover, among prominent Tibetan intellectuals who have been arrested in recent years, more than a few, including Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, Kunga Tsayang, Karma Samdrup, and Rinchen Samdrup, have been involved in environmental protection activities.2

All of this suggests the need to investigate whether and how environmental policies and problems contribute to current patterns of conflict and protest across Tibetan areas of China. We do so by analyzing different responses across different sectors and forms of environmental intervention, showing that in some cases assumed causal relationships between environmental issues and conflict are tenuous at best. This is the case for (p.152) tuimu huancao (variously translated as “converting pastures to grasslands” or “retire livestock, restore rangeland”), a policy to fence and set aside areas in which grazing is banned for varying periods of time. Examining its implementation in Nagchu Prefecture of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), we stress the importance of ordinary bureaucratic politics, particularly local officials’ drive to seek rents and raise revenues, on the one hand, and be seen to fulfill development targets, on the other. These everyday politics of governance simultaneously plague tuimu huancao implementation but also allow herders space to maneuver to mitigate its impact on their livelihoods. While discussing both the tuimu huancao policy and the history of pastoralism and vulnerability to snowstorms in the region, herders in Nagchu made statements about the benevolence of the state. Exploring these statements, we suggest that the formation of rural subjectivities, inflected by an idiom of the “benevolent State,” contributes to Nagchu Prefecture’s relative quiescence compared to the eastern Tibetan regions in Kham and Amdo and that such orientations toward state intervention must be taken seriously in evaluating conflict and protest across Tibet more broadly.

From here the chapter turns to ecological migration in the Sanjiangyuan area of Qinghai, which has been implemented along with tuimu huancao and which some observers have linked directly to self-immolation. It is difficult, however, to draw any direct link between even this much more disruptive policy and protest, in part because of political dynamics that lead to greatly exaggerated reports of policy implementation. Finally, the chapter concludes with an examination of a controversial sector that has been strongly linked to environmental damage and significant conflict: mining. In addition to material harm in the form of visible scars on grasslands, diversion of water, and water pollution leading to health impacts and livestock deaths, mining also directly influences Tibetan cultural and religious practices. Some of the most damaging alluvial gold mining across the plateau has been facilitated by rent-seeking behavior of local officials. The mobilization of state logics of countering “splittism” to support both small- and large-scale mineral exploitation driven by political economic imperatives contributes to the political destabilization of the region. That is, rent seeking by local officials appears, in the case of tuimu huancao implementation, to contribute to the overall maintenance of the current political structure, while it tends toward the opposite in mining.

(p.153) Material about Nagchu in this chapter is based on research by Yonten Nyima undertaken between July 2009 and October 2010 in three rural counties, specifically two villages in Pelgön County, in western Nagchu; one village in Amdo County, in central Nagchu; and two villages in Drachen County, in eastern Nagchu. The ethnographic fieldwork included focus groups, oral histories, and interviews with householders, as well as national, provincial, prefectural, and township officials. It is also informed by government documents and work reports. Other parts of the chapter are based on secondary source material and data collected by Emily T. Yeh from June to September 2011 and February 2012. Given its sensitivity, firsthand research on mining is virtually impossible to obtain. Instead, we have used accounts relayed in the course of interactions with Tibetans and Chinese environmentalists, corroborating them wherever possible with sources such as newspaper articles and company websites, as well as secondary literature.

The Tuimu Huancao Policy: From Beijing to the Village

Launched nationally in 2003, with the rationale of reversing grassland degradation, the tuimu huancao policy calls for fencing, the seeding of grass, and bans on grazing for ten years (jinmu), or seasonally (xiumu). The policy is based on three basic assumptions: that there is pervasive degradation across China, that this degradation results from overgrazing and irrational management practices, and that degraded rangeland can be restored through seeding and a grazing ban. All three assumptions are flawed. The problems of Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons” thesis, as well as of assuming that the Tibetan Plateau is a pure equilibrium ecosystem, are well established. Furthermore, frequently cited statistics about overgrazing in China are derived from undocumented surveys, conducted by untrained staff, without a baseline, and have not been substantiated by more rigorous attempts to quantify degradation (Harris 2010). The many contradictions within and between official reports further call into question the credibility of claims of generalized degradation, as do place-based studies (Yundannima 2012).

In Nagchu herders contest the assessment that their grasslands are generally degraded. Moreover, they attribute what degradation does exist (p.154) primarily to trampling of forage, which results from the limitations on livestock mobility imposed by the Rangeland Household Responsibility System (RHRS), a policy that tuimu huancao has intensified (Yundannima 2012). Though the Grassland Law allows rangeland use rights to be contracted to groups of households and villages, implementation of the RHRS in practice has focused heavily on contracting to individual households, which is widely viewed by Chinese officials as a key way to transform traditional pastoralism into a modern, scientific industry.

Despite these flaws, central government-level policy makers claim that the rationale for the implementation of tuimu huancao across China is to reverse widespread degradation, which in turn threatens the ecological security of the nation. Five central government-level institutions participated in the formulation, coordination, and implementation of the policy,3 although in practice the Ministry of Agriculture is the actual policy implementer at the central government level. It sets targets for the areas to be fenced off and seeded each year, and the Ministry of Finance allocates the funding.

In most provinces pastoralists and provincial governments are responsible for 30 percent of the costs of fencing material. In the TAR, by contrast, the central government budget covers the entire cost of fencing material, including transportation costs (to the township headquarters), as well as compensation to herders. Given that it is not required to provide matching funding, the TAR government is particularly interested in the policy as a way to capture central state subsidies. Indeed, in an interview with Yonten Nyima the head of the Grassland Office of the Department of Animal Husbandry under the Ministry of Agriculture stated that the TAR was not initially a target region when tuimu huancao was implemented in 2003 because it had already “enjoyed special preferential policies and funding from the central government for socioeconomic development and ecological construction. But since 2004, the TAR has been included in the program because the TAR government and its pastoralists requested the program.” Between 2004 and 2009 this amounted to a total central government investment of RMB 1.929 billion, of which 1 percent, or RMB 19.29 million, was allocated directly to the TAR regional Department of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry (AAH) as its operating budget.

Although the aim of tuimu huancao is the reversal of rangeland degradation, previous implementation of the Rangeland Household Responsibility (p.155) System was made the primary prerequisite for the program by the five implementing agencies at the central level. The TAR lagged far behind Inner Mongolia and other parts of the Tibetan Plateau, where the RHRS was implemented in the 1980s and 1990s, but started to implement the RHRS widely in 2005 in order to be eligible for tuimu huancao.4 The sequence of tuimu huancao implementation at different sites in the TAR suggests that site selection was indeed determined primarily by extent of previous implementation of RHRS to the household level rather than extent of purported or actual grassland degradation. The Nagchu Prefecture Bureau of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry (BAAH) explicitly decided that tuimu huancao would not be implemented anywhere that rangeland use rights had not been allocated to the household level, and two years after tuimu huancao was implemented nationally, the central government issued a document stating that rangeland use rights privatization was one of its key achievements.5

The imperative to capture central level subsidies results in perverse policy implementation by local governments. For example, the seeding component of the program was an utter failure in the first few rounds of the project in western Nagchu. Nothing grew. County AAH officials, who stated plainly that seeding “is just a total waste of money and labor,” suggested not participating in future rounds or growing fodder instead. But they were pressured to report success in seeding and to continue with new phases of the project. Furthermore, a document jointly issued by the TAR Department of AAH and the TAR Development and Reform Commission calling for project implementation for the fiscal year 2005 reads, “This year, tuimu huancao will be implemented on a large scale in the region for the first time. Success or failure of project implementation will have an impact on state investment in the region hereafter. Prefectures and municipalities should install the fencing on a large scale and make sure that the fencing is not fragmented and that they are good for show.”6

Indeed, as is also the case in other provinces where tuimu huancao has been implemented, the criteria by which its “success” has largely come to be judged in practice is the fencing itself rather than the state of the grassland the fences enclose. The Ministry of Agriculture’s criteria for evaluating the implementation of tuimu huancao allocates thirty out of one hundred points to “task fulfillment,” but this refers to whether a certain amount of rangeland has been fenced off, and to the quality of fencing (p.156) materials and installation, rather than rangeland condition.7 The difficulty of traveling to remote areas, the time and effort required to evaluate grassland condition, and the interests of all levels of government from the region down in keeping the subsidies flowing or passing performance evaluations and achieving targets means that fencing is given a cursory examination, and reports of success are submitted regardless of grassland condition. As a former township party head in Amdo County explained: “When we learn an evaluation team is coming, we township officials ask the village heads to arrange for people to drive livestock out of the fenced zones. … The evaluation team just assesses the quality of fencing and estimates the area of the fenced zone. … The evaluation team uses telescopes to look around and make sure the fencing is installed where local pastoral-ists and officials tell them it has been set up.”

While national level tuimu huancao policy makers are informed by flawed environmental rationales, TAR regional- and county-level officials appear to be motivated primarily by the logic of capturing state subsidies (see also Bauer 2005), both as a form of rent seeking and because performance evaluation is based partially on their ability to generate funding. This reflects a broader characteristic of governance in contemporary China, in which a primary task of local governments has become the generation of revenue (Hillman 2010; Smith 2013). With few enterprises to attract investment, this takes the form in the TAR of what local officials call pao xiangmu, or chasing after state subsidized projects. Officials tend to express consensus (tongyi koujing) about tuimu huancao, saying that pastoralists welcome the program and that it has been very successful. In the absence of proper measurement against stated policy goals, the combination of rent seeking and emphasis on performance evaluation produces a situation in which policies, as they are currently implemented and evaluated, appear most successful in maintaining the political status quo.

In contrast, township government and AAH County Bureau officials from local pastoral areas tend to view tuimu huancao as environmentally useless and, aside from providing free fencing material and compensation for pastoralists, of no benefit to rangeland. While the township level does not receive implementation funding, a powerful driver at this level is the cadre responsibility system with its performance targets. As a result township officials risk much by openly expressing views about the failures of the policy. Moreover, some officials at the township level in Nagchu complain (p.157) they cannot fully participate in government discussion because Chinese language is used at the county level, precluding their comprehension of proceedings. Because of their desire to keep their jobs, pressure to not make trouble, and language barriers, officials often find themselves implementing policy with which they do not agree.

Once the decision is made to go ahead, the AAH County Bureau and township governments implement tuimu huancao through a combination of incentives and warnings to villagers, depending on pastoralists’ desires for or against the project, which in turn depends on where and on what type of pasture the project is implemented, as discussed below. The process often begins with a seemingly “bottom-up” approach, wherein officials present the scheme to villagers and advise them that if they so request, it will be implemented. If villagers decline, officials do “thought work,” which in this case consists of “educating” villagers about the benefits of the project, including compensation, and pointing out that acceptance of this project paves the way for future development projects. If this is refused, then negative consequences, such as the cessation of future government projects, are threatened. In addition villagers are told that by going against a mandatory project (in fact the scheme is not mandated at a central government level, rather regional-level governments request it in order to capture subsidies), they are in effect going against the wishes of the state and that they will bear the responsibility for any negative consequences. With the link now made between environmental policy and (negative) political consequences, implementation proceeds. The lack of consultation of individual pastoralist households for whether and where tuimu huancao fencing zones are implemented is summed up in the words of one pastoralist in Pelgön: “No, [we were not consulted] at all. … We have to do as we are told. We will eat the fencing if we are told to do so!”

The process of implementation is neatly illustrated in the case of a village in Pelgön County. A county government work team comprising a government leader and officials from the AAH County Bureau and the township government, went together to the village leadership to explain the project and ask if the village had any area that could be fenced off. The team then advised the village leadership they could request the project if they wished. The village leaders said they did not have anywhere they could ban grazing long-term (jinmu) and asked for a xiumu (seasonal) grazing ban zone. Needing to fulfill their quotas, however, the county (p.158) government, through the township government, argued that the village should instead agree to a long-term grazing ban zone and promised that those who did so would receive decent compensation and future development projects. Thus, the village reluctantly accepted a long-term grazing ban. To mitigate its negative effects, they divided this into two separate areas. However, AAH County Bureau officials, worried because higher-level officials preferred larger zones, and also partly because they had originally suggested fencing sites by the village should be in only one area, ordered the two be recombined into one larger grazing-free zone. Otherwise, they threatened, the fencing would be removed, and the village would not be given future development projects. Moreover, they advised that if this resulted in any problems for the township or county as a whole, these villagers would bear the responsibility. Thus, the village leadership felt it had no choice but to agree to a large long-term grazing ban zone. The village leader opined, “Other than for the sake of compensation and for [the possibility of] future development projects, the tuimu huancao fencing is just useless.”

Project Implementation Sites and Villagers’ Negotiations

Given the lack of meaningful consultation in the implementation of tuimu huancao, villagers’ reactions are mixed and depend in large part on what kind of vegetation is fenced. In practice county officials determine the presence of “degradation” by rangeland type rather than the health of the vegetation. Alpine meadow pastures are the only type of pasture eligible for short-term grazing bans, whereas sandy pastures are designated for long-term grazing bans. Pastoralists in eastern and central Nagchu prefer to fence off alpine marsh meadow pastures in order to reserve forage for the lean times of late winter and early spring, for snowstorms, for calving and lambing, and for fattening livestock.8 They welcome free fencing and compensation if they are able to use it to reserve alpine marsh meadow.

County-level officials do not approve of this use of fencing on the best quality rangelands, however, since the purpose of the program is to fence off degraded rangeland. Thus, they require fencing of alpine meadow pastures and sandy pastures, not alpine marsh meadows. Pastoralists generally view fencing of the alpine meadows and sandy pastures as useless; (p.159) their local knowledge suggests that fencing will not cause vegetation to be “restored” to a higher density; furthermore, what vegetation there is will simply be blown away by the wind in the winter if it is not grazed. Thus, they view it not only as useless but also as a waste of needed pasture.

An exception is when seeding has been implemented along with the long-term grazing ban. One elderly herder in Pelgön stated, “If the seeding of the grass works, this would be beneficial to us. I am hopeful about it as the state (rgyal khab) says it will work. However, I am not speaking from experience.” Villagers at the western site were enthusiastic about the possibility of seeding when that component of the project was first implemented in 2009, but nothing came of their efforts over a period of two years. Because of the higher precipitation in the east, seeding was much more successful in Drachen, though some of the vegetation was destroyed by voles. Pastoralists there wanted to receive more seed from the government. This was not possible, however, given that quotas were allocated across different counties without regard to ecological data regarding where seeding would more likely be successful.

Where seeding has not been implemented, pastoralists have viewed long-term bans on grazing in sandy pasture as basically useless but relatively harmless, especially in light of the monetary compensation they receive. One pastoralist stated, “The only benefit from this program is compensation and free fencing. I guess the state has no idea how pastoralism works.” According to another, “We would rather not have the project if we received no compensation as we would end up with no benefit. … As we pastoralists earn very little money, as long as there is compensation it is okay for us to fence off the sandy land for the sake of that money.” Township leaders are well aware of this, stating, for example, that “the pastoralists want to have the project not because they think more vegetation will grow, but because they want the compensation. Of course, if more vegetation grew, that would be great.” In the case of seasonal fencing of alpine meadow pastures, however, pastoralists try to find ways to not fully comply. In Amdo County, the AAH County Bureau decided to pay pastoralists to install the fencing in the first round because they were unwilling to do it otherwise. Even in that case, one group of villages used some of the fencing material designated for “degraded” alpine meadows to fence off alpine marsh meadow for reserve instead. In other cases pastoralists used the fencing to mark boundaries between seasonal pastures instead.

(p.160) Overall, where the policy has been most detrimental, it simply has not been implemented strictly in practice, leading to minimal change in everyday grazing practices. Instead, in Nagchu tuimu huancao has largely been an exercise in subsidizing villagers and installing fences. Grazing has not been effectively banned. Even if it had been, and even if the ecological rationale of the program were sound, an improvement in ecological conditions would likely take some time. Nevertheless, local officials report very impressive improvements in grassland condition, and these reports, which suggest that pastoralists have lost access to far more land than is the case in practice, make their way up to the national level.

The “Benevolent State”

In the course of discussions about pastoral production practices, herders young and old in Pelgön, Amdo, and Drachen counties in Nagchu often deployed the term benevolent State (ryal khab drin can). Here we present several examples and speculate that it is related to the relative quiescence of Nagchu compared to the eastern Tibetan regions in Kham and Amdo.9 It has been suggested that Nagchu has been comparatively free of protests because of preemptive policing and perhaps, like other parts of the western TAR, a relative lack of access to mobile phones and other communication devices (ICT 2008). On the one hand, there is no doubt that heavy policing and mobility restrictions continue in Nagchu, but these conditions have also been in place in Ngaba, where they have arguably contributed to more, rather than fewer, protests. On the other hand, while mobile phone coverage is rapidly spreading in Nagchu, the area is indeed more remote and less well connected than in more restive areas to the east, a factor that appears also to contribute to herders’ interpretation of certain aspects of state policy and presence through an idiom of benevolence or gratitude.

Nagchu herders’ references to the “benevolent State” contrast significantly with the casting of the Chinese state by Labrang region elders as “Apa Gongjia” (Father State), where Gongjia is a Chinese loan word for public property and the party-state (Makley 2007).10 As Makley (2007, 105) and others have argued, “understanding the process by which locals imagine their relationships to state agents, especially in the case of ethnic Others within the PRC, is essential for grasping the practical efficacy of state projects (p.161) locally—despite the actually fragmentary and variable nature of state institutions and their capacities to control subjects over space and time” (see also Anagnost 1997; Mueggler 2001). The use of the term Apa Gongjia empties local Tibetans of agency and presents the state as an anthropomorphized, masculinized, fearsome colonizing agent; at the same time, the term “sarcastically denie[s] CCP leaders’ unspoken claims to absolute and unmarked authority” while “mock[ing] state claims to paternal benevolence” (Makley 2007, 107, 108).

While also marking the state as a distant and paternal authority, the “benevolent State” idiom employed by rural herders in Nagchu does not share these other effects. In discussing livestock feeding, a pastoralist in Amdo County stated, “In the past, I mean a long time ago, when we did not have much to eat, we ate livestock intestines and the like. Today, as our life is better thanks to the benevolent State, people do not like to eat sausage. So when we slaughter yaks, we process all the intestines specially to feed calves by filling them with tsampa, blood, poor quality meat and water.”

This term also arose spontaneously in discussions about heavy taxes in pre-1950s Tibet. Memories of harsh taxation and the relief immediately afterward, before the Cultural Revolution, still strongly shape the subjectivities of some older rural pastoralists in Nagchu, much as was the case with the oldest generation of women factory workers studied by Rofel (1999), and early workers on Lhasa’s July 1st State Farm (Yeh 2013b). When asked when the expression “the benevolent state” first started to be used, one elderly herder explained:

As you know, drin can means to whom you are grateful because they have been so kind or good to you. For example, drin can pha ma (parents), drin can rtsa b’ai lama (root lama), sman pa drin can (doctor), and so on. In 1959, the work team that came to tell us about reform told us that from now on we did not have to pay heavy taxes because the state really cared about its people. This was the first time we heard of the term rgyal khab. So we, particularly very poor people, started to say rgyal khab drin can to express our gratitude to the state.

While the older generation uses the term benevolent state to reference the removal of heavy taxes in 1959, middle-aged pastoralists in Nagchu use it to mark the relief of the post-1980 period compared to the Cultural (p.162) Revolution and high socialism. Despite the ongoing restrictions on religious practice and the tightening of control since 2008, this critical post-1980 shift still apparently evokes a sense of limited gratitude. As a fifty-two-year-old woman from an average household explained: “I got married when I was twenty-one years old in 1981. … My husband and I got ten yaks and thirty-two sheep. … We were determined to work hard to escape the hunger and cold and hard life we experienced since our childhoods. Back then we often went hungry because there was not enough food to eat, let alone the tremendous variety of food available today thanks to the benevolent State.” Younger herders, too, appear to be influenced by the narratives of their elders. As one younger pastoralist in the eastern county stated, “My grandpa and parents often say my generation is so lucky to be born into this best time of history … and we should cherish the good life today. From this I see I cannot complain.”

Some herders also interpret provision of material goods from state programs through their understanding of the Buddhist principle of karma, or cause and effect (las rgyu ‘bras). This is illustrated by an impoverished pastoralist family in eastern Nagchu, a household of three who owned only eight yaks in 2009. They lost their twenty-two-year-old daughter, the most capable herder in the family, in a severe snowstorm in 1990. They also lost many livestock in the snowstorms of 1990, 1995, and 2002. Consequently, the village leader arranged for the head of the household to become a village party leader in order for him to earn a salary. For this he and his family are grateful. In the course of an interview about relief they received after a major snowstorm in 2002, he remarked that he asked that the amount of tsampa he received be recorded as sixty gyama, a bit more than he estimated he had actually received. He did not want to underestimate the amount: “Please record sixty gyama of tsampa because if we report less [than we actually received] we will be punished by the law of karma as the benevolent State has been very kind to us.”

The invocation of benevolence in reference to the state can also be double-edged in the context of development and the provision of material resources. For example, discussing an increasing tendency for young men not to wear traditional robes, an old pastoralist in the central site explained, “Today, young people do not wear slog pa because they are too heavy for them as they are spoiled by the benevolent State. So we can just cut them apart and cover the livestock with them.” By describing the provision (p.163) of material resources from the state as a form of “spoiling” Tibetans, this pastoralist suggests the ambiguity of state development, as something both desirable and dangerous (see Yeh 2007).

The discourse is also mobilized in making claims on development aid from the state. For example, some herders discussed how the provision of shelters has helped livestock but has also made it harder for them to survive when they move to places without shelters, because they become accustomed to the warmth. One herder explained:

This year we did not move our goats with the sheep to the spring pasture. We were afraid once the goats left the shelter, they might die if severe weather hit just like last year. … It did not snow [but] … we had to make that decision as we cannot foresee the weather. Ideally we wish to have a shelter at each of the three seasonal camps, especially at the winter camp, which we wish, dare we suggest it, the benevolent State would fund. Alternatively, if we did not have one at all, then the goats would not be spoiled in the first place.

Like people, then, livestock are spoiled by the generosity of the state’s material provisions. Embedded within the discourse of gratitude for material provisions is a sense of an emerging critique. At the same time, the relative mildness of the critique compared to the experience of the state as “Apa Gongjia” may also reflect the unevenness of experience that leads to an unevenness of protest and discontent across Tibetan areas of China.

Ecological Migration

Andrew Fischer (2012) has recently argued that the region of concentrated self-immolations since 2011 is precisely the area that has been the focal point of pastoralist resettlement programs “due to their ecologically strategic location as part of, or adjacent to, the Three Rivers Source [Sanjiangyuan] area.” He adds that “those who have immolated themselves so far have not made any explicit connection to the resettlements” but that it is nevertheless “striking the degree to which the occurrence of self-immolations has corresponded, with a few exceptions, to this zone of intensive resettlement.”

(p.164) But there are several reasons to be doubtful about a link between pastoralist resettlement and self-immolation protests. Most important, the “zone of intensive resettlement” does not in fact correspond very well with the places of the most intensive self-immolations. Ecological migration has, as Fischer notes, been implemented in the roughly 150,000 km2 Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve in Qinghai.11 This does not overlap at all with the two counties with the highest number of self-immolations, Ngaba and Rebgong, both of which are agricultural rather than pastoral counties; nor has it been implemented in the other locales with larger numbers of self-immolations, including Amchok Bora, Luchu, and Labrang in Gansu Province.

Where ecological migration has been implemented, in the Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve, it subsidizes herders to sell their livestock and move to resettlement areas of varying distance from their former homes for a period of ten years (Foggin 2008; Du 2012). Studies indicate that the program is disruptive and generates considerable dissatisfaction. Former pastoralists generally do not have the skills to find employment in town, and where technical training has been provided, it has nevertheless been quite difficult for factories established for former pastoralists to stay afloat and in operation. Obstacles to employment have made those resettled dependent on subsidies, which have often been insufficient. Herders comment that they did not realize the extent to which cash was necessary in town and regret having moved, particularly in the face of reduced living and health conditions and a forced change in diet (given the high cost of meat). Housing provided is of poor quality and insufficient size for growing families, and the move from skilled pastoralist to unskilled laborer or unemployment in towns has provoked identity crises for former herders. There is little question that the program creates social dislocation (Dell’Angelo 2007; Du 2012; Foggin 2008; Sonamkyid 2008; Wende 2009; Xu 2010).

Despite this, there is also evidence to suggest that, like the tuimu huancao grazing bans in Nagchu, the extent of ecological migration has been exaggerated. The first relocation project, which began in September 2003 for all herders in Gyaringhu Township, Maduo County, was to have involuntarily relocated eighteen hundred people in 388 households. However, strong opposition by herders led to relocation of only about half of the households and a reformulation of the policy to one of voluntary relocation (p.165) combined with local government responsibility for guiding the relocation process (Du 2012). Government reports published prior to 2010 suggested that a target of one hundred thousand herders, or about 50 percent of the population in the Sanjiangyuan nature reserve, would be resettled, but after 2010, reports suggested fifty thousand to sixty thousand had been resettled, though with plans for more waves to follow. This number, too, may be inflated. Studies indicate that some herders simply abandon their settlements and move back to the pastures when they are unable to make a living in town. Others have left their livestock in the care of relatives, rather than selling them, and return to the pastures to pick yak dung for fuel or harvest caterpillar fungus (Xu 2010; Du 2012). Thus, as in the case of tuimu huancao, herders have been able to exercise a degree of agency in maneuvering within the policy of ecological migration. Within resettlement villages herders modify the living spaces designed for them, altering the ideologies embodied in the imposed spaces (Cencetti 2013).

One study of resettlement from Maduo found that 70 percent of those who migrated had very few if any livestock (fewer than twenty sheep per person), and 10 percent were wealthy families who wanted to move to town to pursue business opportunities. The remaining 20 percent moved in order to support their children’s education (Du 2012). Another study suggests that most of those who migrated had few livestock and that a “threshold of dissatisfaction” separates those who owned more than thirty yaks prior to resettlement, who are disappointed with their new conditions, and those who had fewer, who are generally better off though still worried about future livelihood prospects (Dell’Angelo 2007). Some herders’ willingness to take part in resettlement for education is in part a consequence of a national school consolidation policy to close down village (minban) schools and expand township schools, which has meant that young children in sparsely populated areas must now attend boarding schools far away from their parents, compelling parents to move to town to care for children (Postiglione, Jiao, and Li 2012). However, this trend of moving to town for children’s education, or for business opportunities, extends far beyond the scope of ecological resettlement (Yeh and Gaerrang 2011). Thus, while the social dislocation of ecological resettlement has undoubtedly exacerbated the vulnerability of Tibetan livelihoods and deepened a crisis of identity, the relationship between resettlement and increased unrest on the Tibetan Plateau in recent years is not direct. Rather (p.166) than the resettlement experience itself, it is the fact of the ecological migration project, with its powerful symbolic valences, that provides fuel for others in expressing dissatisfaction.


Of all environmental problems confronted by Tibetans, those caused by mining are arguably the gravest. It is more severe than industrial pollution, which is minimal on the plateau, or climate change, which has localized severe effects, such as rising lake levels, and noticeable indicators, such as rising snow lines, but is thus far less prominently or directly perceivable in other parts of the plateau. Given the powerful array of interests that benefit from mineral extraction, mining is a problem that Tibetans can do very little about. Consequently, Lafitte (2013, 87) has recently argued that “objection to mining is at the heart of Tibetan grief at Chinese rule.” Indeed, mining protests have been frequent, despite the harsh repression with which they are met. For example, June 2009 saw a standoff between local residents and representatives of a planned gold mine in Markham County, Chamdo, which led to the suspension of mining until August 2012. When operations resumed, police used tear gas and fired into a crowd of about one thousand Tibetan protestors, reportedly leading to six arrests and one death.12

Of the various forms of mining on the Tibetan Plateau to date, alluvial gold mining, generally small-scale and unregulated, has had the largest impact on people’s livelihoods and land and is thus the major object of protest. This mining has been carried out primarily by Han and Hui migrants and small companies, often using cyanide or mercury (Lafitte 2013). These operations are enabled by the rent-seeking behavior of local governments, which, as we have seen, also shapes the implementation of policies such as tuimu huancao. When conflict occurs between miners and local Tibetans, the twin imperatives of personal and local government profit, on the one hand, and maintaining “stability,” on the other, bring the force of the local state upon the Tibetans who participate.

Higher levels of government have recognized problems with artisanal mining, leading to multiple attempts to ban the practice in Qinghai and the TAR. Instead, the state promises a future of large-scale corporate or (p.167) state mining, which has not to date lived up to its long-standing designation as a “pillar industry” (Lafitte 2013). China’s only domestic source of chromite, a mine in the TAR, has been only halfheartedly exploited, with Chinese industry preferring to source chromium more cheaply from other parts of the world. The only other mineral being extracted on an industrial scale on the plateau is copper, including at Yulong, Gyama, and (soon to begin) Shetongmon, in the TAR, as well as several mines in Tibetan parts of Qinghai and Yunnan. These mines are made profitable by concessional rate financing and state investment in infrastructure, such as extensions to the Qinghai-Tibet railway. Otherwise, it would be cheaper for China to continue to import, as it has done for years. Ironically, Lafitte (2013, 178) argues, “the Tibetan Plateau has gone from being a treasure house in the making to being yesterday’s story, without ever peaking as a source of major industrial raw materials. Its promise remains unfulfilled, yet China presses on with centrally planned mining projects big enough to despoil Tibet, yet not big enough” to be significant in terms of China’s supplies or the world market. That is, the dynamics of state capitalism will combine with resource extraction as a form of state incorporation to fuel industrial scale mining in the coming years, even while from a total supply perspective, China can easily do without Tibet’s minerals, with the possible exception of gold, which has rapidly become a favored means of storing wealth by China’s new rich (Lafitte 2013).

Conflicts over mining have occurred because of pollution, death of livestock, and broken promises for both compensation and restoration. In several pastoral villages in Tagong, Ganzi Prefecture, Sichuan, for example, herders working with an international NGO on comanagement in the early 2000s attributed rangeland degradation to the mining of gold and tungsten between 1981 and 1999. Though both state-owned and private enterprises had a contractual obligation to restore the pastures they mined, they failed to do so. Some miners also left without paying promised compensation. This has led to erosion, mudslides, and the filling of mining pools with water during the rainy season, leading to livestock deaths. One local leader acknowledged that “there is no way to describe how bad the gold mining is,” particularly for the winter pastures on which pastoralists spend most of the year.

In addition to damage to livelihood resources and issues of compensation, conflicts around mineral extraction are also very much engendered (p.168) by the widespread understanding of the harm that results from removing substances that constitute the bcud (nutrition or essence) of the earth, of which minerals are the primary form. Loss of grassland productivity, generalized environmental degradation, and natural disasters such as earthquakes are all attributed to the removal of the bcud. As one elderly pastoralist in Golog put it, “Minerals have [also] been taken [a]way, taking away the bcud of the place. This has made it harder for people in this region to survive, decreasing their fortune (bsod nams) and hindering prosperity.” According to another, “There are very few snow mountains nowadays. … People say it’s because of mining everywhere. The rivers have become smaller, the sources of the springs have dried up, the marshes have dried up. … Because the minerals have been taken, the abundant grass that was here in the past can no longer be seen.”13 Thus, environmental changes that are arguably products of anthropogenic climate change, driven primarily by the emissions of industrialized countries, are also understood as the product of Chinese mining on the plateau.

Tibetans are particularly sensitive to the removal of minerals from sacred mountains, including both Buddhist sacred sites and abodes of local territorial deities. Mining on sacred mountains is widely understood to offend territorial deities, bringing misfortune, including illness and death, to human communities. A Tibetan idiom for explaining why sacred mountains are both places where minerals are abundant and places where digging is especially harmful, is the comparison between such sites and vital organs. Lodroe Phuntsok, a prominent Tibetan medical doctor and polymath from Dzongsar, Sichuan, explained: “We say that the outer and the inner worlds are the same. The brain, the heart, the lungs, the organs: if these are injured, you will die immediately. Sacred mountains are like that for the earth. If your limbs are injured, you won’t die right away, but if you hurt your heart or your brain, it’s over. That’s why sacred mountains are important.”

The seriousness of the offense of mining on sacred mountains is difficult to overestimate. One elderly pastoralist in Dzado, Qinghai, recounted in 2005 that various outsiders came every year to attempt to dig gold on their sacred mountain, Lama Norlha, often bearing official permits from the prefecture and province, but that local villagers always got together to stop them from doing so. He explained, “Digging gold from the mountain is like taking my heart out of my body. We won’t let them take a single pinch of gold.” Indeed, he claimed that the county government had threatened (p.169) local villagers but that they had replied, “Go ahead and kill us” rather than allowing mineral extraction.

As a result, Tibetan protests against mining on sacred mountains are common, sometimes leading to standoffs between local protestors and mining operations or police. For instance, in February 2011 a Chinese mining company negotiated with local officials to open a gold mine near the village of Abin, on the western side of Khawa Karbo, one of the eight most important Buddhist sacred mountains on the plateau. Local residents were not consulted in the negotiations, and the mining would be against the wishes of farmers living nearby—and against official bans on alluvial gold mining in the TAR announced in 2005 and again in 2007. When villagers attempted to negotiate with the company, they were met with harassment, attacks, and death threats by company-hired thugs, as well as by local police. In response, villagers pushed some US$300,000 worth of mining equipment into the Nu River. Subsequently, women and children fled to other villages to escape violent retaliation. Local police arrested a village leader who tried to confront the mining company, leading to a riot by some two hundred villagers. Villagers also tried to appeal to higher levels of authority, writing an open letter to the government listing their grievances and asking for justice, but this had no effect other than targeting those involved in disseminating the letter for scrutiny by the state security apparatus. After several more confrontations the mining company boss fled, and an official ordered the mine shut down. However, the miners soon returned in force (Yan 2012), and as of the end of 2015 the matter remained unresolved.

In cases of Tibetan protests against mining, whether they take the form of petitions to higher levels of government or more direct confrontation with miners, the most common response has been for officials to label the protests “splittism,” a dynamic that effectively creates and fuels interethnic and nationalist tensions where they might not otherwise have existed or been very strong. Tibetans angered by destroyed fields and grazing areas caused by mining in Lhundrub County, near Lhasa, reportedly wrote appeals to local and higher-level authorities about their livelihood concerns, as well as about problems caused for birds and other wildlife by frequent use of explosives. However, they were accused of engaging in “politically motivated” activities and threatened with serious consequences if they continued to complain.14

(p.170) In another case local residents around the highly sacred Amnye Ma-chen mountain range in Golog, Qinghai, are opposed to the extraction of minerals from the Deerni open cast copper mine, which began operations in 2004. Pastoralists state not only that mining sacred mountains leads to diseases and disasters but also that water pollution from the mining has caused livestock deaths and human illnesses. Local government officials are also said to be unhappy about the mine, operated by Qinghai West Copper, a wholly owned subsidiary of Zijin Mining Group, one of the largest gold producers in China and one of China’s biggest state-owned enterprises. Zijin has developed a notorious environmental reputation after two major pollution scandals in 2010. One, the release of more than nine thousand meters of toxic slurry from a copper mine tailings dam in Fujian, which killed four million fish, was not revealed to the public by the company or state media until nine days after the incident (Stanway 2013).

Local leaders in Qinghai are unable to oppose the mine given its close association with the state. As a report about its activities in Fujian notes, state firms like Zijin “were carved out of mining bureaus and never quite lose their role as arms of the government. … For many residents [in Fujian] seeking to complain about pollution, it is often difficult to see where the company ends and the state begins” (Stanway 2013). Herders in Qinghai may not be aware of Zijin’s environmental record, but they do perceive a conflation of state and enterprise, as reflected in local rumors that the company is backed by a high-level central leader, perhaps even a relative of Hu Jintao’s. This close alignment of capital and the state was also manifest in the response to a sixteen-kilometer march in protest of the mine in 2011 by six hundred students from the local minority normal school. The central government ordered an investigation into the protest, based on the logic that this could not be just an environmental protection issue but rather must have had some other ethnic motive behind it. An investigation subsequently uncovered some papers printed with the statement, “You must speak Tibetan,” in reference to a movement that has spread across the plateau since 2009 among Tibetans to speak pure Tibetan rather than code switching with Chinese, as has become increasingly common. Government officials declared that telling other Tibetans that they must speak Tibetan was destroying ethnic unity.15 Furthermore, they declared that this “political” act was the true cause of the demonstration, denying the validity of local dissatisfaction with mining and its effects on water quality, human health, and livelihoods.

(p.171) This squelching of mining conflicts by branding them as political and as “splittist” activities can only exacerbate the conflicts that have increased across the region in recent years. By claiming that opposition to mining is equivalent to arguing that Tibetans should maintain the ability to speak pure Tibetan, and labeling both as antistate, state authorities in effect do the work of uniting a number of disparate sources of dissatisfaction and consolidating them as reasons to protest more generally. In other words, although the “hat” of splittism is an easy one to throw and an effective way to quickly suppress protests in order to protect powerful economic interests in mining, it also works to exacerbate the more generalized discontent and conflict that have been on the rise across Tibetan areas over the past few years.

Conflict between Tibetan villagers and Chinese miners, and between villagers and apparatuses of the state—thugs, police, or paramilitary forces called in to defend mining interests—are only likely to become more frequent and serious as the expansion of infrastructure and the acceleration of investment in mineral resources leads to the realization of long-promised, larger-scale, industrial extraction of resources. Government officials assure that these will be safer and cleaner than small-scale, alluvial mining. But even if this were the case, it would not mitigate the fundamental spiritual objections to mining—removal of the bcud of the earth and the transgression of sacred sites. Moreover, evidence to date does not suggest the achievement of promised improved environmental outcomes.

For example, industrialized, artisanal mining began in 1990 at the Gyama copper-gold mine in Meldrogunkar, near Lhasa, and has been the object of protests since at least 1991, over water pollution among other issues.16 The Gyama Valley is the birthplace of Songtsen Gampo, the seventh-century founder of the Tibetan Empire, making it a particularly historically and culturally significant place. A study conducted between 2006 and 2008 found localized severe heavy metal contamination in the surface water and streambed in the middle and upper parts of the valley, as well as in stream sediments. The authors note that these heavy metal concentrations pose a “high risk for the environment, including local human populations and their livestock. However, no information with respect to the pollution has been provided to the public” (Huang et al. 2010, 4184).

In 2009 the processing sites were closed and the mine turned over to Huatailong, a subsidiary of the Vancouver-based China Gold International (CGI), itself a subsidiary of the state-owned enterprise China National Gold (p.172) Group Corporation. Official news agency Xinhua acknowledged previous dissatisfaction with the mine but promised that with state ownership things would be different:

“Huatailong [will] … bring local residents long-lasting benefits through environmental protection and community-building efforts,” said Sun Zhaoxue, general manager of CNGG. …

To ease the hostility among local residents, Huatailong has spent more than 32 million yuan on land compensations and another 3.5 million yuan to make up for herders’ livestock losses at the hands of former irresponsible miners.17

Indeed, the mine was hailed as the “Jiama [Gyama] model,” and reports described it as “a panorama of lush green trees and grasslands, new roads and infrastructure … giving the local people a better life” (Wong 2013).

Nevertheless, conflict has continued since the replacement of the unregulated, artisanal enterprises by Huatailong. In 2009 a conflict between local Tibetans and Chinese mine workers reportedly occurred after the latter tried to divert irrigation water during a drought, leading to serious injuries, as well as detentions of Tibetans.18 Mandatory resettlement of one hundred pastoral families also generated considerable resentment, particularly because state authorities presented it as being for the purpose of development, while pastoralists understood it as being for the mine. In March 2013 a major landslide at the mine buried eighty-three miners, all but two of whom were Chinese migrants. This raises serious doubts about the possibilities of an improved environmental record with future large-scale mining. Moreover, as the case of Zijin also suggests, mining by state-owned enterprises, or private corporations with significant state backing, is only likely to strengthen the current response, which is to squelch mine-related conflicts by branding them as political and potentially “splittist” activities.

As we have argued elsewhere, the environment can be and has been an avenue for interethnic cooperation rather than conflict. China’s environmental movement in the 1990s was galvanized by several campaigns around the protection of wildlife in Tibetan areas and, in that sense, had (p.173) Tibet at its very core. Transnational and domestic Chinese interest in the potential of Tibetan culture and Tibetan Buddhist religious authority to protect biodiversity produced many instances of Chinese-Tibetan cooperation while opening up a space for the assertion of Tibetan culture and identity, in the alignment of Tibetan cultural practices around sacred lands with conservation science (Yeh 2013c, 2014). But the issue of mining on sacred sites is the limit point of this cooperation. While many Chinese environmentalists and organizations would like to support Tibetans in their opposition to mining in sacred areas, the state’s politicization of all things Tibetan, and the powerful political and economic interests at stake in mining operations, discourage them from doing so for fear that they too will be tainted with charges of splittism. Faced with evidence of government-sponsored mineral exploration in core areas of nature reserves on the Tibetan Plateau, conservation organizations feel they have no choice but to throw up their hands in despair at a battle that they fear cannot be won.

Indeed, it is often the dynamics of what gets labeled politically sensitive, rather than the environmental issues themselves, that lead to an escalation of tensions that can foster protest and conflict. This label, in turn, is often driven by rent seeking and the interests of capital accumulation of officials and enterprises of or closely aligned with the state. The implementation of tuimu huancao in Nagchu is not seen as ideal by local residents, but they are pressured into accepting it through recourse to threats about “political responsibility.” In most cases where tuimu huancao has been implemented, the dynamics of ordinary bureaucratic politics, which produces fences for show but not strict implementation of a grazing ban, has allowed ordinary villagers a way to tolerate it and sometimes even to benefit by capturing cash subsidies. At the same time, some herders in Nagchu retain and transmit memories that predispose them to understand these small state subsidies in a positive light.

With tuimu huancao, and even more so with ecological migration, herders maneuver within highly constrained circumstances. While policies are not as “voluntary” as officially claimed, neither are they as rigidly or fully implemented as state authorities claim. Thus, even in what seem to be extraordinary political times, logics other than those of ethnic harmony and state sovereignty continue to play roles in governance. Revenue imperatives, rent seeking, and the importance of measurable and visible targets in the judgment of cadre job performance contribute to the maintenance (p.174) of the political system, as well as to quiescence through not only coercion but also the ways in which officials benefit and the ways in which herders, through compromise, can also benefit, if only in small ways, from environmental policies. At the same time, the very facts of these policies, particularly the deeply symbolic act of resettlement, can and do add fuel to the fire of broader discontent in other parts of the Tibetan Plateau. Mining, in particular, engenders disputes as the imperative of revenue generation leads here to the failure to respect core cultural sensitivities and to implement policies to limit harm to human and environmental health. Thus, it produces not quiescence but conflict.



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(1.) For example, Wande Khar called for the protection of Tibet’s environment as he self-immolated in Tsoe on November 28, 2012. See www.savetibet.org/resources/fact-sheets/self-immolations-by-tibetans/. See also ICT 2012.

(3.) These five institutions are the Office of the State Council Leading Group for Western China Development, the National Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Finance, and the State Grain Administration.

(4.) At the beginning of 2005 the CCP Committee and the TAR government issued “opinions on further implementation and improvement [of] the Rangeland Household Responsibility” (zhonggong xizang zizhiqu weiyuanhui xizang zizhiqu renmin zhengfu guanyu jinyibu luoshi wanshan caochang chengbao jingying zerenzhi de yijian); on Jan. 29, 2005, the CCP Committee and the TAR government endorsed “a pilot implementation plan for the RHRS” (xizang zizhiqu caochang chengbao jingying zerenzhi shidian gongzuo fan’an).

(5.) Material on the tuimu huancao program in Nagchu Prefecture (naqu diqu tianran caoyuan tuimu huancao gongcheng jiaoliu cailiao), Nagchu Prefectural Bureau of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry, March 26, 2009; and “Notice Regarding Doing a Good Job in the Tuimu Huancao Work in 2005” (guanyu zuohao 2005 nian tuimu huancao gongzuo de tongzhi), Office of the State Council Leading Group for Western China Development, the National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Agriculture, State Grain Administration, April 30, 2005.

(6.) “Notice Regarding Preparing and Proposing Implementation Plan for the Tuimu Huancao Program in 2005” (guan yu zuzhi bianbao 2005 nian tuimu huancao xiangmu shishi fang ’an de tongzhi), May 30, 2005. (p.175)

(7.) “Notice on Issuing Detailed Codes for Evaluating the Tuimu Huancao Program in the Western Region” (guanyu yinfa xibu diqu caoyuan tuimu huancao gongcheng xiangmu yanshou xize de tongzhi), Ministry of Agriculture, Oct. 7, 2004.

(8.) Alpine marsh meadows contain Kobresia schoenoides, which is hard, tightly rooted, and more than fifteen centimeters long. Alpine meadows are Kobresia pygmaea, which is soft, loosely rooted, and fewer than three centime-ters long.

(9.) Nagchu has been more restive in recent years than other regions of the TAR, particularly Ngari, Nyingtri, Lhoka, and Shigatse. However, of the 159 protests recorded by the International Campaign for Tibet between March and August of 2008, only one took place in Nagchu. More recently, of the more than 130 Tibetan self-immolations that have taken place within the PRC to date, four have taken place in Nagchu, all by men from Driru County, in eastern Nagchu. Driru appears somewhat exceptional in Nagchu given its history of a revolt in 1969 and memories of those killed during that time. Other residents of Nagchu describe the situation in Driru with the phrase, “the chang brewed by the government is ready to drink” (lang, meaning “rise,” is used both to indicate that the chang is ready and in the sense of “rise up”), meaning that the children of those killed in 1969 are seeking revenge in the larger context of pan-Tibetan protest. Perhaps because of this history, eastern Nagchu, and Driru in particular, has been considered a center of political instability in the TAR for a number of years.

(10.) In Nagchu herders generally used the term ryal khab, or state, to refer to the central government, whereas they used the term for “government,” srid gzhung, to refer to other levels of government, particularly the township, county, and region (provincial-level).

(11.) This is distinct from the even bigger “Sanjiangyuan Area,” a 363,300 km2 area (half of Qinghai) that does not have any special legal status. The Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve includes all of Golog and Yushu prefectures (except for the western half of Zhiduo), and two counties each in Hainan, Huangnan, and Haixi prefectures.

(13.) From Nature Repaying Kindness (in Tibetan), unreleased documentary by Nyanbo Yuze Environmental Protection Association, 2011.

(14.) See www.rfa.org/english/news/tibet/mine-01182013161904.html. “Political” in this context names anything that state authorities interpret as being against its interests or position, which is implicitly made “truth” rather than “politics.” Thanks to Gardner Bovingdon for this point.

(15.) Ethnic unity (minzu tuanjie) never refers, of course, to unity within a minzu but only to minority-Han relations. Thanks to Gardner Bovingdon for this point.

(18.) See Wong 2013.