According to a recent Xinhua news (19 June 2018), the so called Tibet Autonomous Region(TAR) removed around 1100 villagers (nomads) from the Changtang National Nature Reserve in Nagchu region and were relocated at an area of 27 kilometers from Lhasa. The Deputy Head of the Regional Forestry Bureau of TAR cited low oxygen, poor public facilities, lower than the region’s average life expectancy and the need for reduction of human activities that might harm the fragile environment in the nature reserve.
The above news seem like any other news from China in which the state making great efforts in modernizing and improving rural lives and environment. But for a researcher, an unusual element of excessive reporting about the nature reserve by various Chinese news media in the last one year could be clearly noticed. Which finally culminating into the removal of Tibetan nomads from their ancestral homes in recent days.
There are three distinct characters subtly and consistently displayed in the Chinese news reports about the nature reserves;
1. Government news outlets consistently and excessively reporting on the nature reserve and the relocation,
2. Terming 1100 nomads as villagers and deliberately using certain terms to describe the local socio-environmental conditions.
3. The news trying to create a positive narrative about the nature reserve and nomads’ relocation to counter exile narrative.
Beijing has deliberately and systematically released selected news about the conditions of the nature reserve and the nomads living in the vicinity of the reserve. Following are few examples of the systematic over-reporting on the same issue.
• On 6 May 2017, Xinhua reported that China banned visitors from passing through Changtang National Nature Reserve (CNNR). The circular warned tourists, adventurers and tour agencies to comply with the reserve’s laws and regulations.
• On 13 July 2017, China Daily reported that the State Council has announced 17 new national nature reserves across China, including in Tibetan areas. Proclaiming that the nature reserves are an important vehicle to promote ecological protection and enhance and protect China’s stunning natural scenery.
• On 2 May 2018, People’s Daily announced that the Qinghai provincial government revoked 59 mining licenses both within and peripheral of nature reserves in the province.
• On 6 June 2018, China Tibet Online reported that the Qinghai province also has banned travel in various national nature reserves in the province.
• On 17 June 2018, Xinhua reported that the government has started dismantling pasture fences in Nyima county of Nagchu, which is part of the CNNR. Stating that with relocation of the local residents to Lhasa, the fences were no longer necessary.
• On 20 June 2018, Xinhua reported that relocation of nomads has changed lives for better.
First, the Chinese government clearly understands the importance of presenting a narrative in which the removal of Tibetan nomads from the nature reserves are made to seem like necessary and urgent, on both social and environmentally accounts. For such a narrative to emerge, Beijing tasked its news outlets to report about the nature reserve and the nomad relocations before any foreign media or exile Tibetans could. Thus becoming the source of the information which shapes the public perception and influences the direction of the story.
Second, reports were guided by careful and clever usage of terms. For example 1100 nomads were deliberately termed as villagers in the Chinese news reports. Usage of such term greatly changes the meaning and magnitude of the event. Relocation of nomads have been more controversial than relocation of villagers. Relocation of nomads brought abrupt change to their way of life where as relocated villagers often continue the same profession of life. Relocations of villagers have been for betterment of the villagers whereas the relocation of nomads were for resource extractions or creation of nature reserves.
Third, the Chinese government tries to present itself as Champion of environmental conservation by constant release of selected news about improvements in the nature reserve, increase in wildlife population, declaration of more nature reserves and firmer enforcement of nature reserve regulations. Simultaneously, the Chinese government also tried to portray Tibetan nomadic life in the area as harsh, poor, unhealthy and backward. Trying to create such a narrative in which the readers are made to believe that the relocation of the nomads a necessary step for betterment of their life.
The Changtang National Nature Reserve covers six counties of the Nagchu with an area of 298,000 square km and has an average altitude of 5,000 meters. It was established in 1993 as a regional nature reserve and was upgraded to a national nature reserve in year 2000. This makes it the biggest and highest nature reserve within People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Nomads were initially given options to move out or stay back, hoping that subsidies and incentives would attract most of them to the new locations. But due to numerous instances of not implementing promises and the poor conditions of resettled nomads, the residents of Changtang grassland were not lured by the false promises of schools, hospitals, homes and jobs. With fewer than expected nomads willing to move out, the Chinese local governments started making lives on the grassland difficult by introducing new laws and threatening to imprison those refusing to comply. Therefore either by force or by tricks, the nomads were compelled to move out into new locations with very little opportunity to thrive a progressive life.
A strong call for better treatment of the resettled nomads are both urgent and necessary. The social, economic and educational conditions of the resettled nomads are in extreme conditions. Lack of jobs and business opportunities have forced man into alcoholism, women into prostitution, and children into petty crimes. A whole generation of Tibetan nomads are forced into absolute desperation.
The extreme conditions of millions of resettled nomads need to be highlighted at various global stages, and the Chinese government must be questioned on the implementation of promises of homes, hospitals, schools and jobs.
*Zamlha Tempa Gyaltsen is the head of the Environmental and the Development Desk of the Tibet Policy Institute. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute.