For more than 8,000 years, Tibetan nomads have lived in perfect harmony with their surroundings. They have been the virtual custodians of the vast grasslands of whole of Tibet [Central Tibet, Amdo (northeast) and Kham (southeast)], because they know their survival depends upon this land. Nomadic herders range across the Tibetan plateau, using their intimate knowledge of the landscape to find the best grazing for their animals and sustain their families and communities.
Nomads are still found on the Tibetan Plateau and in the Himalayas, known in the Tibetan language as drokpa, translating as ‘high-pasture people’.
There are an estimated two million Tibetan speaking nomads spread over a vast area. Throughout the Tibetan areas and in the northern parts of Bhutan, India and Nepal, nomads are an important element in the local economy and society wherever they are found.
Over the past decade, a huge relocation scheme in Tibetan areas of China has forced hundreds of thousands of people to end their nomadic way of life and settle in towns, posing a new threat to populations already under pressure due to the Chinese government’s repressive policies.
The relocation programmes have already moved more than 600,000 herders off their land and into government-constructed “towns” that have few or no employment opportunities.
Since 2000, the Chinese government has been implementing resettlement, land confiscation, and fencing policies in pastoral areas inhabited primarily by Tibetans, drastically curtailing their livelihood.
The policies have been especially radical since 2003 in Golok (Guoluo) and Yushu prefectures of Qinghai province, but have also been implemented in Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces and the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). Many Tibetan herders have been required to slaughter most of their livestock and move into newly built housing colonies in or near towns, abandoning their traditional way of life.
This is indicative of displacement of native Tibetans and introducing Han Chinese and other mainland China races into Tibetan land.
Migration from rural to urban areas so prevalent elsewhere in China has also been occurring in Tibet. Between 2000 and 2017, the proportion of total population in rural areas declined from 80.7% to 69.1%.
Thus, although it did not match the increase in population in urban centres, which doubled over the period, there was a substantial increase in population in rural areas. This is indicative of displacement of native Tibetans and introduction of Han Chinese and other mainland China races into Tibetan land
China expands Mass Labour Programme in Tibet
A report released (Sep 22, 2020) by the Jamestown Foundation and compiled by Dr. Adrian Zenz, a German anthropologist and an advisor to the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), which works to reform how democratic countries deal with China, exposed how the Chinese authorities are expanding a ‘mass labour programme’ in Tibet mirroring the forced labour operations in Xinjiang (East Turkistan).
The program includes rigorous military-style training, forced indoctrination and intrusive surveillance of the participants. Under the programme, Tibetan farmers and herders are forced to give up their traditional lifestyles to undergo mandatory training in centralized vocational facilities.
The report also revealed how Beijing has exchanged, tried and tested oppressive policies between Tibet and Xinjiang, resulting in half a million Tibetans forced to take part in a coercive program in the first 7 months of 2020.
Reuters in its report (Sept 22) further corroborated his findings from Tibet’s regional government website released between 2016- 2020 that confirmed almost 50,000 Tibetans have been transferred for jobs within Tibet and several thousand sent to other parts of China, which endorses that Chinese government has ramped up its repressive tools to crackdown regions under its occupation.
Chinese government hypocrisy
The Chinese government gives several explanations for its actions, principally invoking concerns for environmental protection but also citing the objectives of “bringing development” and “civilizing” the areas and the people.
Resettled herders and dispossessed farmers are encouraged to take up more “modern” livelihoods and integrate with the new economy.
Chinese officials and Chinese development experts also take the view that these policies will make it much easier for the formerly herding population to get access to social and medical services.
In addition to the significant variations between the TAR and eastern Tibet in the building of the New Socialist Countryside, there are also significant disparities in how these policies are implemented from place to place within the same provincial unit. The degree of coercion and scale of rights violations also vary considerably from place to place.
Interviews by Human Rights Watch suggest that some segments of the Tibetan population have benefitted from relocation or re-housing, including many local Tibetan government cadres, entrepreneurs and their families, as well as ordinary villagers. In some parts of the Tibetan plateau, substantial economic growth and new signs of prosperity are visible, spurred by a combination of state subsidies, massive infrastructure investments, expansion of urban centres and markets, rising demand for local medicinal products, and also by construction-related activities.
Many Tibetans aspire to better living conditions and welcome many aspects of modernization. Some Tibetans have genuinely welcomed aspects of the housing policies and benefited from them, yet many are concerned about their ability to maintain their livelihood over time. The majority consider themselves targets of policies as they are powerless to oppose or affect.
Issue faced in resettlement
Problems with the quality of houses in which communities are resettled or re-housed; Increased financial burdens and indebtedness resulting from relocation and/or reconstruction of housing; and The loss of tangible and intangible assets and dissolution of communities.
Some of the problems identified by the Tibetans interviewed for this report, such as increased living costs, indebtedness, loss of assets, and the profound alteration of community structures, raise concerns about the sustainability of China’s mass relocation and rehousing policies, especially once the tide of initial subsidies and investments from the central government recedes.
For resettled nomadic communities, irreversible dislocation and marginalization are already observable, a fact that even official media are starting to occasionally acknowledge. Underlying all the concerns identified above are fears among Tibetans that these policies will erase their distinct culture and way of life.
This report describes the Chinese government’s relocation of Tibetans as “forcible”, not because we have evidence that officials are using physical force to remove residents from their old homes, but because they are offering them no alternatives.
Under international law, the term “forced eviction” does not require the physical removal of residents from their homes. It also applies to evictions that lack meaningful consultation and compensation, or in which no alternatives to relocation have been presented.
Chinese government relocation and rehousing policies and practices effectively compel communities to follow government orders or—in the case of nomadic communities—to move into fixed settlements through policies that are presented as having the force of law.
Relocated families can be forced to pay three-quarters or more of the cost of their new, lower quality housing.
This forces Tibetans into debt making them unable to feed their livestock or families. Robbed of their traditional livelihood, nomads rarely have the skills to make a living in an urban setting.
Unable to compete with Chinese-literate urban Tibetans or Han-Chinese immigrants, they are hopelessly outmatched in their homeland’s job market. Economically marginalised, nomads may be treated as criminal outcasts and blamed for thievery and other social problems.
Rebuking ancestral survival
Nomadic herders range across the Tibetan plateau, using their intimate knowledge of the landscape to find the best grazing for their animals and sustain their families and communities.
It has moved more than two million Tibetans from the land they have lived off for generations to barrack-like urban settlements. Torn from all they know, nomads face poverty, unemployment and social exclusion.
China has justified its policy – known as ‘tuimuhuancao’ – by claiming grasslands must be protected from overgrazing. But traditional Tibetan farming techniques have protected the grasslands for hundreds of years. Independent experts have shown that China’s policies are scientifically unjustified. Once vacated by nomads, Tibetan land is open for exploitation by Chinese companies. Tibet is rich in natural resources, including gold, copper and water (for hydro-electric power). Mining companies and damming operations have replaced farmers in many areas.
The Chinese want the world to believe that Tibetan nomads have caused untold damage to the vast grasslands and destroyed the natural habitat of the area. They squarely pin the blame for erosion and gradual desertification in the area on overgrazing caused by the nomads’ animals.
Experts, however, hold that unlike the cashmere goats of Kashmir and Mongolia which graze voraciously by devouring greenery and uprooting all grass, the yaks graze lightly and without causing any significant damage.
Julia Klein, an assistant professor of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability at Colorado State University, studied with her team the impact of the traditional nomadic grazing system on the Tibetan grasslands; Klein holds that grazing provides nutrients for the topsoil, thereby helping in the regeneration of grass instead of causing damage.
Living nomad is a tough life, undoubtedly. But that is how they have lived and survived for all these centuries! More than anything else, that is how the nomads want to live — under the open skies, with the freedom to make their own choices.
International efforts to highlight Chinese coercive programmes
In recent years, Xinjiang and Tibet have been the target of harsh policies in pursuit of what Chinese authorities call ‘stability maintenance’. A total of 63 lawmakers from 16 countries had issued a joint statement, urging the United Nations Secretary-General to install a Special Rapporteur to investigate ‘forced labour’ and ethnic persecution in the People’s Republic of China in order to conduct an independent international investigation.
Following the news of China’s coercive labour programs in Tibet, IPAC,called upon (Sep 23, 2020) governments to take immediate action to condemn these atrocities and to prevent further human rights abuses.
During the Westminster Hall debate (Oct 7) on ‘China’s rapid expansion of the labor programme in Tibet’, British MP Sir Iain Duncan Smith urged the British government to support Magnitsky style arrangements against the Chinese officials responsible for the forced compulsory labour in Tibet and called for mandatory sanctions like travel bans or freezing of assets.
Similarly, SikyongLobsangSangay, Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), during a webinar (Oct 9) by Tibet Interest Group (TIG) in the European Parliament, spoke on the labour camps in Tibet and illustrated the ways China has almost managed to change the basic concept of human rights.
Meanwhile, during the UN Third Committee General Debate at the UN headquarters in New York, the German Ambassador Christoph Heusgen read out (Oct 6) a joint statement on behalf of 39 countries, expressing grave concerns about the human rights situation in Tibet and called on China to respect human rights of Tibetans.
While the global community has taken cognizance of these developments in Tibet, their efforts need to be redoubled in view of China’s continuing obstinate postures.