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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

A Culture Endangered: Depopulating the Grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau (excerpt)

July 30, 2012

Author: Tenzin Norbu

Overview: Melting Tibetan Plateau

With an average elevation of 4,500 meters, the Tibetan Plateau is one of the most distinctive land-features on earth. It occupies an area of 2.5 million square kilometers—more than one quarter of the size of China—and is the world’s highest and largest plateau in the world. For many generations, this Plateau has provided the basic necessities to sustain life, allowing human civilization to flourish beyond its vast border. The modern era now begins to acknowledge the significance of its strategic location for both developing peace and harmony within the region or conflict.

The Tibetan Plateau, also referred as “The Water Tower of Asia,” is the headwaters of major rivers that flow into India, Bangladesh, China, Nepal, Pakistan, Thailand, Myanmar, and Vietnam. Approximately 1.3 billion people are directly dependent on the health of ten major rivers that originate in Tibet. The total river basin area is estimated to be greater than 5.6 million square kilometers. With its snow peaks and glaciers, the Plateau provides freshwater resource to a wide swatch of Asia, in areas ranging from the deserts of Pakistan and India to the rice paddies of southern Vietnam, from the great Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia to the North China Plain.

In recent years, critical components of Tibet’s ecosystem are undergoing major transformations due to climate change. For instance, climate change has led to receding glaciers, shrinking and disappearance of thousands of lakes, drying of wetlands, thawing of permafrost, and reduced flow regimes in many rivers. Abnormal weather conditions due to climate change have made subsistence farming and herding more unpredictable, thus impacting the livelihoods of a majority of Tibetans. These days, on the Plateau, the spring thawing is earlier and the permafrost is melting away before the growing plants can access the water. These changes affect not only the crops but also the native vegetation of Tibet, especially in wetlands and other low lying areas. The loss of wetland in turn threatens the migratory birds that are used to making Tibetan stopovers during the mating season.

Endangering Pastoralism and Grasslands Stewardship in Tibet

Pastoralism on the Tibetan Plateau is an adaptation to a cold environment at elevations above the limit of cultivation. For centuries, the Tibetan nomads, drogpas, in Tibetan, and herders have successfully maintained a sustainable and mobile lifestyle, traveling from winter to summer pasture lands and from autumn to spring pasture lands (Figures 2 & 3). The grasslands on the Tibetan Plateau represent one of the last remaining agro-pastoral regions in the world. Almost 70 percent of the Plateau itself is covered in these precious grasslands. The pasture lands are made habitable through the co-existence of the Tibetan people and their yaks. Through their efforts, they have maintained sustainable use of this area for many centuries.

China’s grassland policies over the past several decades, however, threaten the sustainability of this delicate environmental balance. The policies have reduced the flexibility and mobility of the nomads, which are the key components of nomadic pastoral production. At the same time, the livestock has been blamed for overgrazing the grasslands.

Read the full article, including sections on failed policies and grassland degradation, at

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