Conservation Gone Wrong: Converting Tibet’s Qinghai Plateau into a National Park

This is an example of conservation gone wrong. Very, very wrong.

Conservation strategies that involve forced displacement of rural, land-based and Indigenous communities are nothing new and stem from a twisted worldview in which humans and nature have nothing in common.  Conservation International and other Big Green groups are masters of this devastating “human exclusion” model of so-called environmental protection.

But ironically, removal of the communities that depend on these ecosystems also means that there is no one left to REALLY protect them–leaving forests vulnerable to illegal logging, and wildlife unprotected from poaching. Meanwhile, the people are forced into cities where they experience grinding poverty, loss of culture, and exploitation.  It is a lose-lose model that benefits only the elites.

In the instance described below, nearly 8 million people in Tibet will be removed for China to establish a “national park,” in what is being called the largest peacetime displacement in history.

GJEP has long fought this racist top-down model of “conservation,” collaborating with threatened communities to help them stay on their lands.  GJEP co-founder Orin Langelle was part of and documented one such successful campaign in Chiapas, Mexico. You can view his photo essay here.

– Anne Petermann, GJEP

 

Converting the Qinghai Plateau into a National Park

By Ahalya Mahindra

Originally published on the Boston University Earth and Environment Review

 

China’s conservation efforts are familiar to Tibetan dwellers, but the latest proposal to turn the entire Qinghai-Tibet plateau into a national park is quite extraordinary. China has proposed to preserve what they consider the “last piece of pure land”, according to the scientists brought in for this operation. According to the South China Morning Post, the project has unofficially been named the “Third Pole National Park”, as much of the Tibetan environment is strikingly similar to the North and South Pole. If the project were pursued, it would be the world’s largest national park, spanning an area of 2.5 million sq. km. This would be about 250 times the size of Yellowstone National Park, and would far surpass the Northeast Greenland Park, which currently is the world’s largest national park.

During the summer of 2017,  the Chinese government launched a large-scale scientific survey of the Tibetan plateau, with the aim of establishing a well-defined boundary for the park. Currently, it is said to be within the counties of Baingoin, Xainza, Nyima and Shuanghu. For a project this expansive, reliable data is critical. The survey would require the use of high-end research equipment such as satellites and drones. Neighbouring countries such as Pakistan and Nepal have decided to accompany China in this extensive survey; India has refused to contribute due to ongoing border disputes. China has submitted its plan to UNESCO, however several groups question China’s intention.

Monetary concerns, rather than the devastating changes to the native tibetans and their lifestyle, concerns some scholars. Professor Liu Jingshi, a researcher at the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, questions the feasibility of such an expansive endeavor. The project would displace approximately 7.8 million Tibetans who reside on large swatches of the plateau; this project would have to consider the multitude of Tibetan nomads that have lived in this region for generations.

Scotland has a great interest in this matter and is working closely with a cross-party group named Tibet, and Scotland hopes to build relationship between the two countries and their people, and those interested in Tibet. Scotland’s interest is due to the Highland Clearances which involved in eviction of the inhabitants of the Scottish Highland, resulting in the rapid loss of clan culture. Linda Fabiani, a member of the Scottish National Party, spoke about the group’s concerns about the ongoing clearances in Tibet, stating “ The plans for this national park are massive and there is much suspicion that the motivation is less about protection of the land than political expediency…The environmental degradation of the Tibetan Plateau, displacement of people and disruption of traditional ways of life is ongoing in Tibet, with any protest being silenced or crushed. Extremely sad.”

The organization Free Tibet, whose mission is to end the Chinese occupation of Tibet, does not view the Third Pole National Park positively. The vast zones allotted to the park would greatly impact Tibetan nomadic communities, whose livelihoods, language, culture, and lifestyle are intimately connected to the land, and also end sustainable lifeways practiced by nomadic groups.

Yi Chaolu, who works with the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, believes, the national park is a political issue, rather than a scientific one. China and Tibet are currently not two separate entities, as some strongly would encourage. This political issue has been ongoing for decades, since the incorporation of Tibet into the People’s Republic of China in 1950.

For centuries Tibet has retained a unique identity, with a distinguished language, its own religion and political system, and the 13th Dalai Lama, Tibet’s political and spiritual leader, proclaimed in 1912, Tibet’s independence from the Qing dynasty. The Communist regime in China invaded Tibet in 1950, declaring a “peaceful liberation”. Tibet is a vital asset, with ample natural resources and a strategic location next to to India, Nepal and Bhutan. This incorporation was extremely tactical, and some would argue, advantageous.

The occupation was met with severe resistance, and ample uprisings and protests have occurred since 1959. Protesters continue with the call for the protection of Tibetan identity, human rights, and freedom. The issue is not simply about a national park but about the sovereignty of the Tibetan people and the right of China to displace the Tibetan people and use their resources as they desire. Many have debated the issue, with advocate groups such as Free Tibet claiming that China’s presences in Tibet is unlawful, and the Chinese government, who believes that Tibet has always been an integral part of Chinese history, was rightfully taken back.

According to Stila-Nicholas Puerava, separatism and unity are core interests for China. Separatism has been viewed as a threat ever since China endured years of degradation, during which China lost many of its territories to other countries. The shame China endured during this period, called the “century of humiliation”  is the justification of the unification between China and Tibet. China views itself as multinational state, composed of one race of Chinese origin, and the Tibetans are one of the ethnic minorities of Chinese origin. This prevents China from acknowledging a true Tibetan identity outside of the Chinese state.

The issue ultimately boils down to a misunderstanding between both parties. On one hand, protesters in Tibet feel the need for a separation from the imposition of the Chinese culture on them, as well as the need for autonomy over their resources and their economic activities. On the other hand, China’s current narrative is deep rooted in its imperial history and legacy and calls for a need for this unifying nation-building. With regards to the park, the Chinese government currently has the power to implement the project, irrespective of the consequences to the livelihood of the nomadic people in the region.

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