Protecting Traditional Tibetan Pastoralism in the Face of Climate Change
The earth is warming. Since the industrial period began in 1760, human activity has released enormous amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into Earth’s atmosphere. Today, greenhouse gases are more abundant in the atmosphere than at any time over the past 800,000 years. These gases have intensified the planet’s natural greenhouse effect and raised average global surface temperatures. The consequences of this warming are complex, far reaching, and in a few years, irreversible. Even if the international community acts swiftly and aggressively such that global warming is limited to 1.5°C, the consequences will be dire. Heat waves, droughts, and wildfires will become increasingly frequent and prolonged; insect-born illnesses will spread faster and farther from the equator; oceans will acidify and submerge islands and coastal areas; growing seasons will shorten; storms will become stronger; and extinction rates will accelerate. Together, these effects will lead to the destabilization of entire ecosystems. Despite often living in sanitized, synthetic environments, humans are, in fact, a part of nature, and will suffer from these adverse effects like all other species.
Some regions are particularly susceptible to the effects of climate change, and act as a bellwether for consequences that will soon spread across the globe. The three poles are emblematic of such regions. People are likely familiar with the planet’s north and south poles, but few are aware of the Earth’s third pole: Tibet. While not a magnetic pole like its north and south siblings, the Tibetan plateau contains extensive ice fields with the largest reserve of fresh water outside of the Arctics. These provide water to over 1.9 billion people — more than 24% of the world population.
The Tibetan plateau is highly sensitive to changes in climate and weather patterns. It is warming three times faster than the rest of the planet and losing over eight billion tons of glacial ice annually. This increased rate of warming means that while other areas of South Asia will likely warm by 1°C by the end of this century, Tibet could see a rise of 4.5–5°C. Such a dramatic change will put even more stress on Tibet’s already fragile ecosystems and require aggressive environmental protection efforts.
Since invading in 1950, China has controlled Tibet’s environmental and development policies. Despite some commitments to environmental protection such as signing the Paris Climate Accord, domestic environmental law reform in the 13th Five-Year Plan and the 2015 Environmental Protection Law, and investments in renewable energy, China remains by far the world’s top greenhouse gas emitter. Many Chinese activities in Tibet such as mining for coal, copper, and lithium, building extensive road and rail systems, and damming rivers for power and irrigation, do not align with China’s public pivot towards sustainable development and environmental protection, nor with the objectives of its international and domestic environmental commitments.
One Chinese initiative that appears positive on the surface is the launch of a system of national parks across Tibet. China argues that limiting the use of these lands is necessary to protect species and ecosystems threatened by climate change. However, to create these parks China first had to displace millions of Tibetan nomads from their ancestral lands. China alleges that traditional Tibetan living practices — many of which have been used for close to nine millennia — are incompatible with China’s environmental responsibilities. China’s plans for protecting biodiversity and mitigating the effects of climate change come at the expense of Tibetan nomads’ cultural rights by prohibiting traditional nomadic pastoralism and replacing nomadic communities with scientists, park staff, and tourists. In many cases, once a region has been designated a “national protected area” and therefore uninhabitable in the name of environmental conservation, mining companies and hydropower projects have moved in and started operating. This greenwashing of Tibetan nomadic resettlement is a convenient means of furthering China’s sinicization of the region.
China has a legal obligation to transition away from fossil fuels and safeguard its ecosystems threatened by climate change. However, these obligations must not infringe upon the cultural and political rights of communities where such efforts occur. Data suggests that Tibetan practices are more sustainable than the alternatives implemented by China, but regardless of whether Tibetan or Chinese land management practices are better, China has an obligation to respect the right of Tibetan nomads to maintain traditional herding practices.
Tibetans’ pastoral rights are clearly protected under international law as well as China’s own domestic law. Article 4 of China’s own constitution states that all nationalities in China have the right to “preserve or reform their own ways in customs.” As a party to the International Covenant an Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, China agreed to recognize the right of everyone to take part in cultural life. China has also ratified the Declaration on Cultural Diversity, and has voted in favor of the Convention on Biodiversity which names local and indigenous communities as the most successful protectors of biodiversity and articulates processes to ensure traditional spaces are granted comparable status to national parks. The agreement also dictates that “indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture” and requires that states provide a mechanism for the prevention and redress of any action with the effect of dispossessing indigenous people of their lands, territories or resources and any forced population transfers.
Climate change is here to stay, and unfortunately it will get worse. Countries have a duty to steward their natural resources and ecosystems through this storm. But that stewardship does not need to pit environmental protection against the political and cultural rights of indigenous communities. The world’s third pole is incredibly fragile and provides an essential resource to billions of people. However, protecting it neither necessitates nor permits the destruction of a 9,000-year-old way of life. Traditional Tibetan nomadic life and twenty-first century environmental conservation can coexist. China is not alone in performing this balancing act, but as the world’s greatest polluter, it has an incredible amount of ground to cover as the international community fights to limit global temperature rise. China must be aggressive in its transition to clean energy, sustainable development practices, and environmental conservation, but that does not give China license to disregard the rights of Tibetan nomads in the process.
Michaella Coughlin is a third year student attorney with Boston University’s International Human Rights Clinic. Michaella is part of the Tibet Advocacy team, focusing on human rights violations faced by Tibetans.