Business, Finance & Economics

Resettling Tibetan nomads

The edge of a highway isn’t a traditional place for Tibetan nomads to bring their herds to graze, but these sheep and goats are nibbling here nonetheless. Their owner, Jixian Cairong, is one of hundreds of thousands of Tibetan nomads whom the Chinese government has moved from the mountains into dense communities, near roads.

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The government says it’s moving Tibetan herders from a subsistence living into the modern economy. But the Tibetans themselves have mixed feeling about the move, since most didn’t have a choice in the matter.

Jixian Cairong said the change hasn’t been all bad. The new homes are better built than the old ones – for instance, they’re less likely to collapse in an earthquake. But he adds that he and other Tibetans around here tend to just live in these new homes in the winter, and in tents in the mountains in the summer. That allows them to rent out their houses to tourists – who come to visit the vast Qinghai Lake, just a few miles down the road.

The village’s 70-year-old Communist Party Chief Lafdan said resettlement is giving the 700 or so Tibetans in his village more options for earning a living, while also helping to restore overgrazed pastures. “We needed to strike a balance between herding practices and environmental protection,” he said. “We reduced our livestock from 30,000 to 20,000, but reducing the human population on the grasslands is trickier.” He added that the idea is to get more Tibetans educated in Mandarin Chinese, and trained for jobs in towns and cities — leaving a centuries-old nomadic culture behind.

Nicholas Bequelin, a China researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the Chinese government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on resettling Tibetan nomads, in part to try to win them over, but also to better control them. “The baseline, of course, is that China has a problem with the Tibetan population, Bequelin said. “They fear that their political loyalties are not with the Chinese state, and that they stand in the way of exploiting the natural riches of these areas, natural riches that are needed to fuel China’s economic development.”

Bequelin wrote a report on resettled Tibetans two years ago, and he said of the 100 who were interviewed, many cited the same systemic problems with the resettlement process. “One of them was lack of consultation,” he said. “Another was the problems with them being forced to abandon their traditional livelihood, which was to raise herds. They were given some kind of job training, but then couldn’t compete with the new Chinese migrants.”

That goes against the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which the Chinese government has ratified. It prohibits depriving any people of its means of subsistence. The U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, pointed this out when he visited China last month. He suggested that a better option in many cases would be to rehabilitate and manage overgrazed pastures in a sustainable way.

But for now, the resettlement program is pushing ahead, and critics, including some within government think tanks, say there’s not enough consultation or follow-up with Tibetans, to see if they’re actually doing better economically.

On the shores of Qinghai Lake, some resettled Tibetans have found a new stream of income, bringing their yaks for Han Chinese tourists to sit on and pose for happy snaps.

Other Han Chinese tourists put on Tibetan costumes, for more photos by the lake. One young Tibetan man, who asked not to be named or recorded, stood near his yak, taking in the scene. “No Tibetans I know like being resettled,” he said, “but what we can we do? The government is stronger, and we can only go along.”