Qinghai Herders Find Themselves Between a Rock and a Green Place
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2017-07-07 05:39:31

Situated in the northern region of the Tibetan Plateau some 3,400 meters above sea level, M Township in Qinghai province is home to a large Tibetan community. In this vast but sparsely populated region, most herders live alongside their livestock, deep in the mountains and far from roads. All around them, though, industrial development and global warming are diminishing the once-plentiful grassland.

Government-sponsored resettlement plans mean that most Tibetans in the region, and their animals, now lead sedentary lives with increased provision of housing, electricity, health care, and education. Locals allow sheep to range freely on the grassland, selling the older ones based on how many lambs are born each year in order to keep herd numbers constant. Theirs is exactly the type of organic, sustainable grassland farming that has become more and more fashionable in recent years.

At the same time, though, Tibetan livelihoods are being made less sustainable. Herders worry about the diminishing quality of the grassland in the face of climate change. With warmer winters, colder springs, delayed starts to the summer, increased summertime rains, and even floods, the volatility of the climate has given the grasslands an unpredictable future. The rich, knee-high grass that the herders describe has become a distant memory, and the vegetation commonly found around M Township nowadays is, at best, only ankle-high. Grassland degradation has reduced both the height of the grass and the diversity of local plant life. In more severely affected areas, large tracts of soil lie exposed.

Nomadic traditions dictate that herders roam in different pastures during each season. At the end of June, after the horse-racing festival ends, the herders start migrating toward their summer pastures in the mountains. By September, those high-altitude grasslands are already whipped by flurries of snow, and the nomads leave for their winter pastures.

Today, though, the summer pastures tend to degrade far more severely than the winter grounds. Grass usually grows during the summer, but the grassland now does not have enough time to regenerate because the livestock return to feed too soon after the shoots begin to grow back. Moreover, summer pastures are often located on particular slopes nestled deep in the mountains. As grassland degradation and climatic factors produce more precipitation, surface runoff increases, leading to more frequent landslides.

An open-pit coal mining site put on hold and the mining pit it left behind in M Township, Qinghai province, Jan. 1, 2017. Courtesy of Tao Anli

An open-pit coal mining site put on hold and the mining pit it left behind in M Township, Qinghai province, Jan. 1, 2017. Courtesy of Tao Anli

In 1984, the Chinese government implemented output quotas for each farming household as part of its new grassland policy. At the same time, it placed clear boundaries around each household’s land. In order to stop other families’ livestock from grazing on their land, many families chose to erect wire fencing around their property.

Now, three decades after the grassland was divided up, many settled families have had children. In M Township, parents divide their land equally among their children as part of their inheritance. As a result, individual plots of farmland have become smaller, while the number of livestock grazing on them continues to grow. This, along with keeping livestock fenced within a small space, has led to overgrazing, which has profoundly diminished the environment’s natural ability to regenerate.

Wire fencing also threatens wildlife on the plateau by cutting off the migration routes of rare animals like Thorold’s deer, the bharal, and the Tibetan sand fox. With the exception of the fox, most of the region’s animals are herbivores competing with livestock for grassland. Unlike livestock, however, they can jump — but when they try to leap over fencing, the weaker ones frequently become entangled. Without timely assistance, many end up dead.

Another prominent signifier of grassland degradation is the proliferation of pikas, small mammals that look like a cross between rabbits and mice. Exhausted grassland in M Township is now pockmarked with pika burrows. Most herders mistakenly regard these critters as the main culprit behind grassland degradation, which leads to frequent calls for a government-sponsored cull.

It is hard for the traditional farming industry to sustain the local population. At the same time, the fragility of the ecosystem has shown that mining is not the answer.

But studies have already shown that pikas are an indicator of existing grassland degradation, not the cause of it. As the plains deteriorate, the amount of surface-level plant coverage falls, making it ideally suited for pikas. As the grasses recede, fast-breeding weeds grow in their place, many of which are inedible both to livestock and native species. A pika cull would not only fail to protect the grassland, but also weaken the entire local ecosystem.

The grassland around M Township is beset by other challenges, too. In addition to raising livestock, coal mining forms the other pillar of the town’s economy. In the last half-century, mining has transformed M Township into the region’s economic and cultural center. Late at night, the only source of light in the grasslands comes from the mining sites.

Year-round mining brings revenue to M Township, but after a decade, it has also left behind vast pits that are at risk of sinking or caving in. Since 2000, residents have gradually migrated to newer towns about 17 kilometers away. When they leave, they take the doors and windows from these abandoned houses, leaving behind the gaunt face of a town silently staring into the massive cavities left by the mines.

Mining has destroyed large areas of surface grassland and destroyed the permafrost layer of the plateau. This permafrost stores vast amounts of underground ice that serve as an important water source for the vegetation. The mining pits gashed into the landscape have caused these underground pockets of once-pristine ice to disappear. On top of that, heavy metals toxic to grassland plants have seeped into the groundwater.

The local government is working on filling in the disused mining pits. In June, as the weather on the plateau began to warm, authorities also started to restore the grass around the open-pit mining holes. The damage wrought upon the fragile ecosystem, however, is far more difficult to recover from.

Climate change, overgrazing, and economic development pose tough challenges for M Township’s grasslands, making it hard for the traditional farming industry to sustain the local population. At the same time, however, the fragility of the ecosystem has shown that mining is not the answer, which means a step back for local prosperity.

Global issues of economic development, climate change, and ecological protection have all converged in this small grassland town on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. The question of balancing these conflicts remains unresolved; for now, the future of M Township’s inhabitants remains unclear.

Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Lu Hua and Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: Wire fence commonly seen in the grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau, Qinghai province, Nov. 25, 2016. Courtesy of Tao Anli)