Tag Archives: grasslands

Will urbanisation do away with nomads?

Tibetan couple

This photo was taken near Langmu monastery (Langmusi – 浪木寺) in April 2010. This area marks the administrative dividing line between the provinces of Gansu and Sichuan. According to the Tibetan division, however, the region belongs to Amdo, the easternmost Tibetan region, which covers part of Qinghai, part of Sichuan, and a small corner in southwestern Gansu, also known as Gannan (South Gansu).

Most Amdo Tibetans are natural born nomads. Gannan is a region rich in pastures where herders have rambled since ancestral times (70% of its total area). The yak is closely associated to the Tibetan identity: it provides milk for butter, yogurt and cheese, hair for weaving into tents and rope, with the finer fabric made into clothing, and meat.1 Traditionally, nomads would move with each season, but today their lifestyle is suffering a substantial transformation, perhaps at its most threatened.

The Chinese government is determined to push on with sedentarisation policies. Land degradation is often cited as the main reason for sedentarising nomads. Numerous Chinese scholars support these sedentarisation policies.

Attempts to sedentarise nomads are intrinsic to Central and East Asian history, which has always been characterised by a fight between nomads and farmers. China and Russia have both tried several times to do away with nomadic riders. For over a thousand years horses were an advantage in warfare and nomads bred the best. Therefore, they represented a threat and, at the same time, an appealing booty. In the 1890s, Russia attempted to transform nomads in reliable taxpayers by encouraging their settlement. It did so by fostering a massive colonisation of farmers. Thus, people from different regions occupied the Central Asian pasturelands. It is estimated that between 1896 and 1916, more than one million colonist took over one-fifth of the land. By 1912, Turkestan produced 64% of Russian cotton. These policies would later be reinforced by the Soviet Union, and Central Asia became a mostly one-crop economy.2

In China, grasslands cover more than 40% of the country, which represents four times the area of its forests and three times its total arable land. In contrast to agricultural land, grassland is state-owned unless a collective title can be legally proven.3 This situation has stirred up conflict between local governments and collectives since there seems to be no legal mechanism available to prove property as pasturelands have traditionally been used according to customary tenure.4 Likewise, although the House Responsibility System was successfully implemented in agricultural lands, it brought about many changes to the nomadic lifestyle since nomads’ access to vast expanses of land was restricted as a result. This has in turn led to overgrazing in some cases due to the small size of land available for pasture for each family unit.5

Herders often are deprived of grazing lands due to land reclamation for commercial or farming use. The quest for resources and the consequent mining boom has been another common cause of expropriation in Inner Mongolia (coal production rose almost 50% in 2010). And courts are often reluctant to hear cases related to the inappropriate use of grasslands.6

Nowadays, nomads in China no longer rely on horses, but on motorcycles. Nomadic life has changed somewhat since Tibetans have been provided with houses and a living stipend under the resettlement programme, so they no longer look for pasture during the winter

Infrastructure is improving greatly. Once isolated, the region of Gannan is getting closer to Gansu and Sichuan’s capitals by the day. A modern highway well into construction will soon cross its heart. To make this possible, some mountain zones were dug up to build consecutive tunnels stretching for more than 20 kilometers. Good communication brings tourists and settlers alien to these lands once again.

The term semi-nomadic would be therefore more appropriate to define Amdo Tibetans. They usually just alternate between a winter home and a summer tent. During winter, children attend school. Education is an important part of the resettlement program. According to a report on the resettlement of Kham Tibetans written by Kieran Dodds for the South China Morning Post,7 resettlement is producing an educated but rurally ignorant generation. “Education will ruin our culture”, laments a Tibetan teacher interviewed by Dodds, when describing how compulsory education is driving the resettlement of nomads. As discussed with Norha’s Tibetan entrepreneurs, the problem is that authorities give economic allowances, build houses, but don’t provide job opportunities that may constitute an alternative to herding. Thus, sedentarisation policies often lead to alcoholism and more criminality as recipients of allowances become idle, having given up what they do best.

Bob Dylan is claimed to have said that a man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do. He might well have got inspiration from the lifestyle of nomads in places such as Mongolia, Tibet, and the Central Asian steppes. It would be interesting to see whether Amdo semi-nomads still manage to be a success once urbanisation and sedentarisation policies have been fully implemented. The only clear thing is that no one is immune to the homogenisation of lifestyles taking shape in the world, not even the traditionally most resilient tribes of the northern steppes.


  1. The Yak. Gerald Wiener (2003) FAO. United Nations. []
  2. Peter B. Golden (2011) Central Asia in World History. Oxford University Press. []
  3. PRC Constitution, Article 9. []
  4. Peter Ho (2005) Institutions in Transition: Land Ownership, Property Rights and Social Conflict in China, Oxford University Press. []
  5. Ostrom, E.J. (1999) Revisiting the Commons: Local Lessons, Global Challenges. Science Vol. 284, Nº5412. []
  6. South China Morning Post, Mongolians “sidelined” in mining growth, 1 juin 2011. []
  7. Promised land. SCMP. 6 January, 2013. []

Miguel Elosua

Spanish qualified lawyer; PhD in Chinese Law. UrbaChina Research Officer. Has lived in China since 2006.

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