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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?"

Tibetan nomads struggle as grasslands disappear from the roof of the world

September 7, 2010

Scientists say desertification of the mountain
grasslands of the Tibetan plateau is accelerating climate change
Jonathan Watts in Madou
September 2, 2010

Tibetan nomad Phuntsok Dorje outside his tent on
grasslands turning to desert, Tibet Tibetan nomad
Phuntsok Dorje outside his tent. The green
prairie that used to surround it has become a
brown desert. Photograph: Jonathan Watts for the Guardian

Like generations of Tibetan nomads before him,
Phuntsok Dorje makes a living raising yaks and
other livestock on the vast alpine grasslands
that provide a thatch on the roof of the world.

But in recent years the vegetation around his
home, the Tibetan plateau, has been destroyed by
rising temperatures, excess livestock and plagues of insects and rodents.

The high-altitude meadows are rarely mentioned in
discussions of global warming, but the changes to
this ground have a profound impact on Tibetan
politics and the world's ecological security.

For Phuntsok Dorje, the issue is more down to
earth. He is used to dramatically shifting
cloudscapes above his head, but it is the changes
below his feet that make him uneasy.

"The grass used to be up to here," Phuntsok says,
indicating a point on his leg a little below the
knee. "Twenty years ago, we had to scythe it
down. But now, well, you can see for yourself.
It's so short it looks like moss."

The green prairie that used to surround his tent
has become a brown desert. All that is left of
the grasslands here are yellowing blotches on a
stony surface riddled with rodent holes.

It is the same across much of this plateau, which
encompasses an area a third of the size of the US.

Scientists say the desertification of the
mountain grasslands is accelerating climate
change. Without its thatch the roof of the world
is less able to absorb moisture and more likely to radiate heat.

Partly because of this the Tibetan mountains have
warmed two to three times faster than the global
average; the permafrost and glaciers of the "Third Pole" are melting.

To make matters worse, the towering Kunlun,
Himalayan and Karakorum ranges that surround the
plateau act as a chimney for water vapour – which
has a stronger greenhouse gas effect than carbon
dioxide – to be convected high into the
stratosphere. Mixed with pollution, dust and
black carbon (soot) from India and elsewhere,
this spreads a brown cloud across swaths of the
Eurasian landmass. When permafrost melts it can
also release methane, another powerful greenhouse gas.

Xiao Ziniu, the director general of the Beijing
climate centre, says Tibet's climate is the most
sensitive in Asia and influences the globe.

Grassland degradation is evident along the
twisting mountain road from Yushu to Xining,
which passes through the Three Rivers national
park, the source of the Yangtze, Yellow and
Lancang rivers. Along some stretches the
landscape is so barren it looks more like the
Gobi desert than an alpine meadow.

Phuntsok Dorje is among the last of the nomads
scratching a living in one of the worst affected
areas. "There used to be five families on this
plain. Now we are the only one left and there is
not enough grass even for us," he says. "It's
getting drier and drier and there are more and more rats every year."

Until about 10 years ago the nearest town, Maduo,
used to be the richest in Qinghai province thanks
to herding, fishing and mining, but residents say
their economy has dried up along with the nearby wetlands.

"This all used to be a lake. There wasn't a road
here then. Even a Jeep couldn't have made it
through," said a Tibetan guide, Dalang Jiri, as
we drove through the area. By one estimate, 70%
of the former rangeland is now desert.

"Maduo is now very poor. There is no way to make
a living," said a Tibetan teacher who gave only
one name, Angang. "The mines have closed and
grasslands are destroyed. People just depend on
the money they get from the government. They just
sit on the kang [a raised, heated, floor] and wait for the next payment."

Many of the local people are former herders moved
off the land under a controversial "ecological
migration" scheme launched in 2003. The
government in Beijing is in the advanced stages
of relocating between 50% and 80% of the 2.25
million nomads on the Tibetan plateau. According
to state media, this programme aims to restore
the grasslands, prevent overgrazing and improve living standards.

The Tibetan government-in-exile says the scheme
does little for the environment and is aimed at
clearing the land for mineral extraction and
moving potential supporters of the Dalai Lama
into urban areas where they can be more easily controlled.

Qinghai is dotted with resettlement centres, many
on the way to becoming ghettos. Nomads are paid
an annual allowance – of 3,000 yuan (about £300)
to 8,000 yuan per household – to give up herding
for 10 years and be provided with housing. As in
some native American reservations in the US and
Canada, they have trouble finding jobs. Many end
up either unemployed or recycling rubbish or collecting dung.

Some feel cheated. "If I could go back to
herding, I would. But the land has been taken by
the state and the livestock has been sold off so
we are stuck here. It's hopeless," said Shang
Lashi, a resident at a resettlement centre in
Yushu. "We were promised jobs. But there is no
work. We live on the 3,000 yuan a year allowance,
but the officials deduct money from that for the
housing, which was supposed to be free."

Their situation was made worse by the earthquake
that struck Yushu earlier this year, killing
hundreds. People were crushed when their new
concrete homes collapsed, a risk they would not
have faced in their itinerant life on the
grasslands. Many are once again living under
canvas – in disaster relief tents and without land or cattle.

In a sign of the sensitivity of the subject, the
authorities declined to officially answer the
Guardian's questions. Privately, officials said
resettlement and other efforts to restore the
grassland, including fencing off the worst areas, were worthwhile.

"The situation has improved slightly in the past
five years. We are working on seven areas,
planting trees and trying to restore the
ecosystem around closed gold mines," said one
environmental officer. The problem would not be
solved in the short term. "This area is
particularly fragile. Once the grasslands are
destroyed, they rarely come back. It is very
difficult to grow grass at high altitude."

The programme's effectiveness is questioned by
others, including Wang Yongchen, founder of the
Green Earth Volunteers NGO and a regular visitor
to the plateau for 10 years. "Overgrazing was
considered a possible cause of the grassland
degradation, but things haven't improved since
the herds were enclosed and the nomads moved. I
think climate change and mining have had a bigger impact."

Assessing the programme is complicated by
political tensions. In the past year, three
prominent Tibetan environmental campaigners have
been arrested after exposing corruption and flaws
in wildlife conservation on the plateau.

Another activist, who declined to give his name,
said it was difficult to comment. "The situation
is complicated. Some areas of grassland are
getting better. Others are worse. There are so many factors involved."

A growing population of pika, gerbils, mice and
other rodents is also blamed for degradation of
the land because they burrow into the soil and eat grass roots.

Zoologists say this highlights how ecosystems can
quickly move out of balance. Rodent numbers have
increased dramatically in 10 years because their
natural predators – hawks, eagles and leopards –
have been hunted close to extinction. Belatedly,
the authorities are trying to protect wildlife
and attract birds of prey by erecting steel
vantage points to replace felled trees.

There is widespread agreement that this
climatically important region needs more study.

"People have not paid enough attention to the
Tibetan plateau. They call it the Third Pole but
actually it is more important than the Arctic or
Antarctic because it is closer to human
communities. This area needs a great deal more
research," said Yang Yong, a Chinese explorer and
environmental activist. "The changes to glaciers
and grasslands are very fast. The desertification
of the grassland is a very evident phenomenon on
the plateau. It's a reaction by a sensitive
ecosystem that will precede similar reactions elsewhere."

Phuntsok Dorje is unlikely to take part in any
study. But he's seen enough to be pessimistic
about the future. "The weather is changing. It
used to rain a lot in the summer and snow in the
winter. There was a strong contrast between the
seasons, but not now. It's getting drier year
after year. If it carries on like this I have no idea what I will do."

Additional reporting by Cui Zheng
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