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Open Forum: Why Tibet matters now

May 17, 2009

By Daniel J Miller
Tibet.net
[chinadialogue.net, 5 March 2009]

*** Part 1

Few places are as globally important as the
Tibetan Plateau, writes Daniel J Miller.
Understanding this means looking at the region
from a holistic, ecological standpoint.

 From a global environmental perspective, few
places in the world are as important as Tibet.
Rising concerns about global warming, climate
change, receding glaciers, desertification, food
insecurity and loss of biodiversity all point to
the significance of Tibet. Tackling these
important issues requires greatly increased
scientific research in Tibetan areas and improved
understanding of current land use practices,
especially of agriculture, forestry and livestock
grazing. Critical examination of existing
environmental conservation and economic
development policies and new thinking on how we
view the Tibetan landscape are required.

In this article, I use the term "Tibetan Plateau"
to refer to a unique geographical area of Asia; a
landscape not marked by lines drawn on a map, but
defined by topography. It is a region with
particular geological, ecological and
socio-cultural characteristics. Tackling global
environmental challenges in the twenty-first
century demands that we view the Tibetan Plateau
holistically to understand its unique ecology,
its natural resources and illustrious cultural heritage.

Encompassing an area of about 2.5 million square
kilometres, or about one-third the area of the
continental United States, the Tibetan Plateau is
the largest and highest region on Earth. With an
average elevation of 4,500 metres above sea
level, the Tibetan Plateau stretches for almost
3,000 kilometres from west to east and 1,500
kilometres from south to north. The Plateau is
ringed by high mountains – the Himalayas to the
south, the Karakorum in the west and the Kunlun
across the north. The Tibetan Plateau goes beyond
political frontiers and encompasses much of the
higher elevation Himalayan regions in Pakistan,
India, Nepal and Bhutan as well as all of the
Tibetan Autonomous Region, Qinghai, western
Sichuan, northern Yunnan, western Gansu and
southern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China.

I have a plastic, raised-relief map of China in
which the Tibetan Plateau and adjoining mountain
ranges stand out clearly. It depicts the vast
area encompassed by the plateau and the abrupt
uplift of the Himalaya rising from the plains of
northern India. Looking at this map you can see
how the Tibetan Plateau dominates the geography of Asia.

Photographs taken by astronauts at heights of 200
to 400 kilometres above the earth also provide an
out-of-the-ordinary observation of the Tibetan
Plateau. Unhindered by the clutter of political
boundaries, the land is defined by watersheds, by
mountain ranges and large lakes; the natural demarcations of an environment.

These views from space provide a perspective that
helps one to think globally and to see the
landscape in its entirety. Environmental
conservation strategies for the Tibetan Plateau
need to encompass a broad scale and implement
programs at the level at which natural systems
operate. This landscape level of attention
ensures persistence of populations and ecological
processes and has to work across political
boundaries. Man-made lines on a map do not stop a
river from flowing downhill nor do they prevent
black-necked cranes from migrating or Tibetan
argali and Tibetan wild ass from crossing
international borders in search of forage. Birds
and animals travel across the earth and we need
to adopt a similar style in how we perceive landscapes.

The American poet Gary Snyder wrote, "Now, with
insights from the ecological sciences, we know
that we must think on a scale of a whole
watershed, a natural system. A habitat. To save
the life of a single parrot or monkey is truly
admirable. But unless the forest is saved, they
will all die." Saving the Tibetan Plateau
requires an approach that recognises watersheds
to define plans of action for conservation and
development. It also requires acceptance of the
complex nature of the Tibetan landscape, not only
in the physical forces that shape it, but also in
the interaction of socio-economic and
institutional forces that impact the nomads and
farmers who use the natural resources.

The Tibetan Plateau plays an important role in
global climate change. With its extensive alpine
grasslands that store carbon in their plants and
soil, the Plateau is a significant carbon pool.
The carbon stored in the grassland ecosystem is
important to regional and global carbon cycles;
it has the potential to modify global carbon
cycles and influence climate. What takes place in
the Tibetan grasslands therefore should be of
increasing importance to a world more and more concerned about climate change.

With thousands of glaciers scattered across the
Plateau and the Himalayas, the region has the
most snow and ice outside of the polar regions.
The glacier-fed rivers originating from the
Tibetan Plateau make up the largest river run-off
from any single location in the world. With
global warming, the total area of glaciers on the
Tibetan Plateau is expected to shrink by 80% by
the year 2030. The loss of these glaciers will
dramatically affect major rivers that provide
water for more than one-third of the world’s
population. The effect of glaciers receding will
be felt well beyond the borders of the Tibetan
Plateau, with profound impacts over a wide area
in Asia and great risks of increased poverty,
reduced trade and economic turmoil. This presents
major political, environmental and socio-economic
challenges in the years ahead.

The Tibetan Plateau forms the headwaters
environment where the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong,
Salween, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Sutlej and Indus
rivers originate. In addition, rivers from the
northern edge of the Tibetan Plateau flow into
the Tarim Basin and the Gansu Corridor, providing
precious water for the oasis towns along the old
Silk Road. The management of these river source
environments has global implications, as the
water from their watersheds will be of increasing
importance in the future. The water they provide
is critical to the survival of millions of people
downstream. The recent floods in the Indian
states of Bihar and Assam draw attention to the
critical role of the Tibetan environment in
regulating water flow to downstream areas. How
many people realise that the Kosi River, which
recently flooded and displaced millions of people
in the northern Indian state of Bihar, actually
has its origins on the north side of Mount
Everest?  Or that almost 60% of the total length
of the 2,906 kilometre-long Brahmaputra River
that floods India and Bangladesh every year is
located in Tibet? Simply for the water that it
provides, the Tibetan Plateau demands greater attention.

*** Part 2

Endangered species, such as the wild yak and snow
leopard, symbolise the fragility of the Tibetan
Plateau environment. Daniel J Miller discusses
the importance of preserving biodiversity on the roof of the world.

A number of biodiversity "hotspots" are located
on the Tibetan Plateau. With their highly
distinctive species, ecological processes and
evolutionary phenomena, these areas are some of
the most important areas on earth for conserving
biodiversity. The Tibetan Plateau is one of the
most ecologically diverse landscapes on earth. It
includes the most intact example of mountain
rangelands in Asia with a relatively intact
vertebrate fauna, and is one of the largest
remaining terrestrial wilderness regions left in
the world. The area is home to numerous rare and
endangered wildlife species such as the wild yak,
Tibetan wild ass, or kiang, the migratory Tibetan
antelope, or chiru, Tibetan argali and snow
leopard. Conserving these animals and their
habitat is an important priority for the global conservation community.

George Schaller, the renowned field biologist who
has spent decades working to conserve the
wildlife of the Tibetan Plateau and adjoining
Himalayan regions, wrote of the vast rangelands
of the northern Tibetan landscape, “The beauty of
these steppes and peaks will persist, but without
wildlife they will be empty and the Tibetans will
have lost part of their natural and cultural
heritage. To bequeath the Chang Tang [the Tibetan
word for the extensive steppes of the northern
Tibetan Plateau] far into the next millennium
will require a never-ending moral vigilance, a
passion to understand the ecology, and a deep
commitment to a harmonious coexistence between
the nomads with their livestock and the wildlife.
Without such dedication there will ultimately be
a desert where only howling winds break a deadly silence."

Schaller’s exhortation for heightened devotion to
conserving the Tibetan ecosystem should be taken
as a wake-up call for everyone interested in Tibet.

The Tibetan antelope, perhaps more than any other
animal, embodies the expanse of the Chang Tang
ecosystem. The chiru is a migratory animal and
needs a vast landscape in which to travel between
its winter ranges and birthing grounds. They
cover distances of up to 400 kilometres, across
the steppes and over mountains on their seasonal
migrations. In 1994, I attempted to follow the
chiru’s migration across the Chang Tang, to their
birthing grounds on the northern edge of the
plateau. Observing herds of hundreds of female
chiru, with their female young of the previous
year, travelling on ancient paths as they have
for thousands of years is to bear witness to one
of the earth’s outstanding ecological spectacles.
Understanding chiru migratory movements could
provide valuable insight into the structure and
function of the Tibetan Plateau ecosystem and
assist in efforts to protect biodiversity.

The continuation of Tibetan antelope migration,
one of the last great natural marvels on earth,
depends on better protection of the species,
improved understanding of their ecology and
better insights into the dynamics of the Tibetan
Plateau ecosystem. It also requires innovative
approaches to conservation and pastoral
development that adopt participatory, integrated
ecosystem management models that work at the landscape level.

If the antelope embodies the expanse, the wild
yak characterises the elemental wild nature of
the Chang Tang. I made a number of excursions to
the Tibetan Plateau to conduct research on wild
yaks. Standing almost two metres high at the
shoulders, weighing up to a tonne and with horns
a metre long, wild yaks are magnificent
creatures. The wild yak is an indicator species;
its presence reveals a special place – a sacred
space. With wild yaks roaming the landscape, an
ecosystem is still intact. If the land can
provide habitat for wild yaks, many of the other
species of Tibetan wildlife will be there as well.

The wild animal most commonly seen by travelers
today in Tibet is the kiang. Galloping across the
steppes, their russet and cream-colored bodies
contrasting with the golden hue of the
grasslands, kiang suggest a sense of unbridled
freedom. The remote, northwestern part of the
Tibetan Plateau offer notable examples of
rangeland ecosystems relatively unchanged by
humans and provide the untrammelled space for
large herds of kiang to still run wild across the
steppes. Wildlife conservation efforts have
succeeded in protecting kiang, and their numbers
have increased in many areas to the point where
nomads now complain that large herds compete with their livestock for grazing.

As a rangeland ecologist, grasses and the
interactions between vegetation and the animals
-- both wild and domestic -- interest me. In my
numerous journeys on the Tibetan Plateau I have
endeavored to understand the ecology of the
rangelands. Why are distinctive plant communities
found in certain areas? What species of plants
dominate these plant communities? What grasses
are grazed by livestock? Do wild ungulates eat
the same plants? Why are wildlife found in
certain locations and not in others? Is there
really competition for forage between kiang and
livestock? These are questions I asked myself as
I walked across the landscape, my eyes trying to
pick out patterns on the ground. To the untrained
eye that is unable to distinguish one plant from
another, Tibetan rangelands, especially in the
vast northern steppes, can appear boring and
lifeless, particularly when majestic mountains
dominate the horizon. But it is the diversity in
plant species and mix of plant communities on the
rangelands that influences the grazing patterns
of livestock and the behaviour of wildlife. And
it is this remarkable variation in vegetation on
the steppe and the ecological dynamics of the
Tibetan Plateau ecosystem that needs to be
understood in order to sustain the natural resources for future generations.

--Daniel J Miller is a rangeland ecologist and
agricultural development specialist with over 15
years professional experience in agricultural
development, natural resource management and
biodiversity conservation in Asia. He has worked
in Bhutan, China, Mongolia, Nepal and Pakistan
and has traveled widely throughout South and
South-east Asia. He speaks Nepalese, Tibetan and some Chinese.
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