China: Tibetan herders’ livelihood in jeopardy

Jun. 12, 2007

(Washington, DC, June 11, 2007) The Chinese government is forcibly
relocating Tibetan herders to urban areas and farmland, destroying their
livelihoods and way of life, and denying them access to justice for
violations of their rights, Human Rights Watch said in a report released

Since 2000, the Chinese government’s campaign to move Tibetan herders
to urban areas has put traditional lifestyles and livelihoods at risk for the
approximately 700,000 people who have been resettled in western China.
Many herders have been required to slaughter their livestock and move
into newly built housing colonies without consultation or compensation.

The 79-page report, “No One Has the Liberty to Refuse: Tibetan Herders
Forcibly Relocated in Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan and the Tibet Autonomous
Region,”documents how the government’s policy of forced resettlement
has violated the economic and social rights of Tibetan herders. It draws on
interviews conducted between July 2004 and December 2006 with some
150 Tibetans from the areas directly affected.

“Some Chinese authorities claim that their forced urbanization of Tibetan
herders is an enlightened form of modernization,” said Brad Adams, Asia
director at Human Rights Watch. “But those same authorities didn’t bother
to find out what Tibetans want, and have been heavy handed with those
who have complained.”

The Chinese government explains forced relocations as a necessary policy
to protect the environment and to “develop,” “civilize,” and “modernize”
both these areas and the people living there. Some Chinese officials have
promoted the concentration of herders in urban areas as a way to improve
the herders’ access to social and medical services, and also stimulate the
growth of urban economies in the poorer, western regions of China. But
others arguably have less lofty motives of wanting to suppress Tibetan
culture and forcibly assimilate Tibetans into Han Chinese society.

The report documents how Tibetan herders forcibly resettled in urban
areas are frequently unable to secure anything other than temporary or
menial labor, partly as a result of their inability to speak Chinese or their
lack of capital to start small businesses. Some Tibetan herders have been
resettled on farmland, despite the fact that these pastoralists have little or
no experience in farming.

It is clear that the government faces serious environmental problems in
western China, and that poverty remains significantly higher in that region.
But the causes of these problems and the validity of official measures
taken to address them remain highly questionable, such as the
government’s enthusiasm for large infrastructure development projects in
areas supposedly in need of environmental protection.

A study in 2006 by Chinese scholars concluded that, “If we cannot find an
effective method for solving these problems, then the disputes over
grassland brought by the worsening of the environment may redouble, and
could severely influence the social and political stability of Qinghai and
even of the entire Northwest regions.”

“Several Chinese studies acknowledge that the loss of land rights has
harmed the Tibetan herders’ interests, but the policy persists,” said Adams.
“These studies also point out how this policy is increasing the possibility
of social conflict in western China.”

Human Rights Watch called on the Chinese government to impose a
moratorium on all resettlements until it establishes an effective mechanism
to review the resettlement policy and its negative impact on the rights of
herders. The government should also take all appropriate steps, including
the ability to return to a herding livelihood, to ensure that adequate
alternatives are available to those who have been resettled and can no
longer provide for themselves. In instances in which consultation and
compensation have been inadequate, local authorities should offer herders
the opportunity to return, to be resettled in an area nearby or like the one
from which they were moved, and provide appropriate compensation as
dictated by new Chinese law.

“Chinese officials claim to be promoting economic development and
protecting the environment, but it is hard to see those goals actually being
achieved or benefiting Tibetan herders,” said Adams. “If the Chinese
government won’t review this policy, its justifications have to be called
into question.”

Selected testimony from Tibetans interviewed for the report:

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