Negotiating uncertainties on the Tibetan plateau in China

The pastoral areas of the Tibetan plateau in China have been through numerous upheavals over the past decades. From collectivisation to the household responsibility system, to increasing individualization and marketization in recent times. Over the last decade in particular, massive investments have been made in infrastructure development, with roads, rail lines and new towns and cities being built across the plateau.

This has been combined with a deluge of policies that have been promulgated from the centre, aimed at modernising pastoralism, reducing poverty and bringing remote areas into the core of the economy. These have included policies aimed at individualising land holdings through ‘contracted’ lands; efforts to counter assumed environmental degradation, including the ‘retiring’ of grazing lands from livestock production; programmes of resettlement, encouraging sedentarisation and joining an urban economy; and various efforts to protect watersheds, rare species, wetlands and so on under broad conservation and environmental preservation goals.


Over the past ten days, the PASTRES team has been travelling across Sichuan and Qinghai areas exploring potential study sites and learning from pastoralists in different settings. In China, the PASTRES team is led by Gongbuzeren of Southwestern University of Finance and Economics and we were joined too by the newly-recruited PASTRES PhD student, Palden Tsereng.  It has been an extraordinary (and sometimes very cold, snowy and icy) experience, especially for someone more accustomed to the dry savannah rangelands of Africa.


Yet, many of the dynamics remain the same, and the parallels between our three PASTRES case studies – Sardinia in Italy, Isiolo in Kenya and the Qinghai Tibetan Plateau in China – are striking. In all cases, major changes in environmental conditions, precipitated both by shifts in climate, but perhaps more significantly by changes in land control regimes are evident; markets in each site are increasingly connected regionally and globally; and institutional arrangements are in flux, due to shifts in policy/subsidy regime, changes in governance through devolution and so on. But there are of course contrasts between our sites, and it is the pace and scale of change that is occurring in western China that is particularly striking.

Rapid change, new uncertainties, yet simplistic policy narratives


Such changes have created many uncertainties – over land access, tenure, settlement, mobility and market access, for example – and pastoralists have had to negotiate their way through these major changes. This blog is being written in Xining, a town now of over two million people, in a multi-story hotel that has been built on what was farm land only ten years ago, and surrounded by huge apartment blocks with thousands of new dwellings and a four lane highway that crosses the city. But it is not just in urban areas like Xining, where the changes are felt, and where many former pastoralists end up seeking out new livelihoods in rapidly growing cities. In the more distant rangelands, villages and small towns are now linked by new roads, where only a few years ago access to markets was only by horse or yak transport.

How then do pastoralists navigate their way in the context of such rapid change? There are two contrasting narratives that dominate the contemporary literature on Tibetan pastoralism. One argues that such transformations are inevitable and that pastoralism is an archaic and backward system in need of modernisation. Much-disputed environmental narratives about widespread ‘desertification’ argue that pastoralism is environmentally destructive and damaging to biodiversity and so stocking rates and movement patterns need controlling.  Such a modernity, the narrative suggests, will bring people in remote areas into the modern economy and reduce poverty and suffering, and so benefit everyone. This can be brought about through clear, directed state planning and policies. This narrative is contrasted with a view that state-led development is universally detrimental to a pastoral ‘way of life’, that ‘traditions’ are being destroyed, and that impoverishment and inequality will result from sedentarisation, urbanisation and privatisation of land. State intervention may, it is argued, undermine flexibility and sustainability. Environmental narratives argue that opportunistic mobility in response to variable environments will not generate degradation, and indeed measures are inappropriate and estimates of degradation extent are inaccurate.

Room for manoeuvre: an adaptive approach to policy implementation

These polarised positions are unhelpful. Both derive more from predetermined standpoints and visions of modernity, than empirical engagement on the ground. But there is a growing, but still small, body of work by Chinese scholars based on intimate and engaged fieldwork on the ground that challenges both views, and argues that things on the ground (as ever) are more complicated. This was borne out by interviews undertaken during our PASTRES scoping visit. A much more variegated picture emerges, where multiple modernities are negotiated in context. State plans and policies must be adapted to local contexts with lessons learned from successes as well as failures.

Contrary to many simplistic  views on Chinese policymaking and state intervention, such an adaptive, experimental, learning approach is central to China’s policymaking style, which is vital for responding to variability and uncertainty, and has deep historical origins. China is a huge country and a standardized, imposed approach would not work anyway. Big overarching policies are made at the centre, and, depending on local circumstance and political-economy dynamics, are adapted at the local level through a process of ‘directed improvisation’, as long as the core essence is maintained.

At a national level this is an important way of responding to and managing uncertainty, and responding to variability.  At a local level it is a way of refashioning policies to suit local circumstances. For sure, some interventions are non-negotiable. A road or railway, for example, is decided upon – often part of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative – and then is built in a few years (at most), with people moved and compensated. Other infrastructure investments, including massive wind or solar farms, phone masts and electricity pylons that dot the landscape are similarly imposed.

But other policies offer more ‘room for manoeuvre’, with scope for policy interpretation at the local level.  Here state institutions must interact with local community institutions and, in Tibetan areas, cultural institutions, including monasteries. What ends up happening on the ground is a result of an interaction, often with intense debate and sometimes dissent. Final outcomes may have family resemblances to state edicts, but there is much more variety, as memories of past practices and policies are combined and long, embedded histories of engagement with external forces are negotiated at village, township and county levels.

Hybrid governance of rangeland areas: single policy, multiple outcomes


Take for example grazing management. In the limited number of villages we visited in each the system was different. You would believe from some commentaries that everywhere the official policy of individualised, private land was enforced. Far from it. In each village we visited (a small sample admittedly), there was a mix of contracted (private, individual), group and communal land use in different combinations – on winter, spring, summer and autumn pastures – and with different local regulations. In one instance, as the community had decided that there were too many livestock on the key crunch-time spring pastures, a system of stocking rate regulation was created. This was their own invention, and did not follow a simple ‘carrying capacity’ logic, but incorporated concerns for equity and distribution among herders as well as stocking rate.


Differences between sheep and yak were taken into account, based on deep knowledge of where and how animals grazed and when. In the collectively managed spring and summer pastures infringements could be spotted and reported (on phones, via the social network, Wechat) to villages leaders. Sanctions were imposed for those who disobeyed the rules. These involved local community sanctions, but importantly also wider cultural-religious regulation. At summer festivals celebrating mountain deities, monks from nearby monasteries encourage villagers to take vows to respect local rules; those who flout such culturally agreed norms will be cast out from the cultural circle, left to face uncertainty on their own. Maintaining community cohesion and avoiding conflict is essential to managing uncertainty collectively, many herders argued.

In other villages we visited, there were different combinations of private, group and collective use of land, dependent on local conditions; a finding echoed in other recent work on institutions and sustainability. Some of our informants argued that contracted, individual plots for the winter pastures made sense as it allowed a reduction of herding labour in the cold winter months, and increased ease of winter supplementary feeding. Others were unable to individualise their land as their winter pastures were in deep valleys, sheltered from the wind and snow, and could not be easily divided up, so other labour arrangements, sometimes involving entrusting animals to others in more accessible grazing areas, or hiring private land through rental agreements. The increase in fencing reduces labour demands and makes harsh winter herding less of a burden, especially when people have moved to settlement areas, although there are implications for selective grazing pressure. Yak and sheep moved in relation to their feed requirements and impacts on vegetation, and conditions and availability of pasture is communicated by mobile phone amongst Wechat groups.

In some places, herders argued that the ‘land was no longer enough’. Poorer villagers were renting out their land and outsiders had animals grazing in the village, and at the same time regular feeding in winter/spring with externally produced fodder was reducing livestock mortality but increasing pressure on the land, suggesting perhaps that a non-equilibrium system is being undermined. Extending land through new forms of movement (often through land rental/animal entrustment arrangements) or reducing livestock numbers and intensifying production were seen as essential. The diversity of solutions was immense, even in a small number of cases.

Whatever the solution found locally, a flexible response to diverse rangeland conditions over space and time is vital, even if this means an increasingly complex – and so transactions cost heavy – marketized system of labour hiring and land rental. Most herders no longer traverse the landscape, moving in tents strapped to the backs of yaks and riding on horses, as the romantic, idealised images of tourist brochures and some older anthropological accounts portray. Instead, many people live for part of the year in permanent (and warm) housing, sometimes in town, and herd using motorbikes and cars. Yet, nevertheless, the pastoral principles for addressing uncertainties are sustained, with new innovations and adaptations.

In sum, despite the assumption that the policy position is for the creation of individualised, private use, the reality is more complex, more interesting and more appropriate.

Pastoral settlement: reconfiguring lives and livelihoods


The same applies to another controversial policy – the settlement of pastoralists. Since the 1990s, there has been a big push to provide settlement housing for pastoralists and encourage people to move to towns, and become incorporated into growing urban economies in the region. The policy justifications are many: social (providing schooling, health care, sanitary housing), economic (increasing employment opportunities) and environmental (‘retiring’ livestock and reducing ‘overgrazing’). Settlements come in many shapes and forms; once again the policy has not been applied or adopted uniformly.

In some cases, moves have been involuntary, especially when linked to a development project or the creation of nature conservation areas, such as in the headlands of the ‘three rivers’. But in other cases, a more partial, selective and negotiated implementation has taken place. We heard many views on settlement, ranging from those who regarded living in town destroying pastoral culture, allowing young people to lose the skills of livestock husbandry through enjoying the benefits of town life. It is a mixed picture, as more nuanced accounts in the literature assert.

Others, by contrast, argued that a winter settlement home is compatible with continuing grazing, especially if the settlement was not too far from the grazing area, and fencing could assist with herd management in this period. Having a warm home for winter was seen as positive (I would have to agree, given night-time temperatures were near minus 20 degrees when we were there). Such homes could be places where grandparents could live year-round and they could look after kids who could go to school. Even if used for only some part of the year, or held on to for the future, for a different period in the demographic cycle. Quite a few of our informants argued in favour of settlement options, but with certain conditions, including proximity to grazing areas, continuity in links to monasteries and homes with outside spaces; apartments in multi-story blocks were not preferred for sure.


During one of our village visits, a now-retired former village leader explained how the settlement policy panned out in his area in 2009-10. Initially, when proposed, the village leaders argued with state officials that such a policy would be unacceptable; that they could not sell it to the villagers. The state officials at county level said that the policy had to be implemented, and that they needed to proceed. The leaders then went to the community to discuss, and to their surprise, a number of households made the case for taking up the offer. The state after all was going to offer a massive subsidy, and each household had to raise 10,000 RNB (about $1500) for a two-bedroom house, with outside area, glass conservatory for space heating, electricity and full water and sewage connection near the local town, on the road, and between grazing areas. The leaders were surprised, but went along with the idea.

In the first instance, 37 houses were offered for those who could come up with the funds. In the following years, seeing that the option was a good one, others joined, until all 80 houses were acquired. This was inevitably a selective process (there are 300 households in the village), with only those with funds able to join up. But, the former leader explained, it was not only rich herders who got homes; poorer families took loans to pay as they had few animals and were seemingly in the process of abandoning pastoralism, whilst some of the richer families with very large herds needed to maintain their presence on the rangelands. Managing uncertainty – depending on herd/flock size, on the demographic cycle and on the need for economic alternatives to pastoralism – was at the centre of these decisions, and the flexibility offered (at least in this case) in policy implementation assisted with this response.

Innovative responses to uncertainty


Whether from environmental, market or institutional/policy drivers, uncertainties in China’s rangelands are everywhere, and accelerating. Navigating through these, in the context of intense and rapid change, is essential, as pastoralist construct new modernities, but always ones that draw from the principles of pastoral practice everywhere – mobility, flexibility and adaptation, emerging from culturally and institutionally embedded networks that persist, yet change with new social arrangements and new technologies.

For example, during our travels there were a couple of days of heavy snowfall. Grazing areas were covered with thick layer and animals in need of food. Making connections through the now near-universal phone network coverage, herders were able to buy in hay and other supplementary feeds within hours. Along the icy roads that we were travelling nearly the only other vehicles were trucks carrying fodder from the lowlands. This is a response to uncertainty that was immediate and rapid; and only made possible by new technology and infrastructure.

Across our PASTRES cases studies in three continents, pastoral principles as a way of responding to uncertainty come through time and again. Together, the three cases make up a fascinating set and the coming years’ research will be an exciting learning journey for us all.


Image credit: Prof. Ian Scoones

One thought

  1. no doubt the shifting, diversifying and at times contradictory policies and programs of the Chinese government have kept herding communities on the plateau busy into coping with and adapting to critical changes and challenges in the last decades


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