The plight of pastoralists

At the Trinity International Development Initiative conference to mark Africa Day on 23rd May 2014, participants were reminded by Gregory Akall (University of Cambridge) of some of the challenges facing Turkana pastoralists in northwestern Kenya, particularly with regard to the recent discovery of oil in the region and their attempts to ensure that its exploitation benefits rather than harms the Turkana people’s livelihoods and development. Globally, pastoralists continue to face very significant challenges to their livelihoods due to poverty, political marginalization, climate change and variability, as well as socio-economic factors such as changes in land tenure, agriculture, sedentarisation and the institutional break-up of large-scale pastoral ecosystems into spatially isolated systems [1, 2].

For the past decade in western China, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tibetan pastoralists have faced concerted effort to resettle in government-built villages in the ethnic Tibetan areas of China (including the Tibet Autonomous Region, Qinghai, Gansu, and Sichuan provinces) [3, 4]. This is the most recent attempt in a long history of the State attempting to intervene in the traditional livelihood strategies of the pastoralists [5]. Through the ‘Open up the West’ policy, the official goal of the State is to eliminate regional disparities and encourage economic development in the poorer western regions through major infrastructure investments and very significant increase in the exploitation of natural resources. The region is also home to the headwaters of three of Asia’s most important rivers – the Yellow river, the Yangtze, and the Mekong river – and the Sanjiangyuan (Three Rivers) nature reserve has been established to protect and conserve the headwaters of these lifelines to the estimated 600 million population downstream that depends on the river for sustenance and livelihood. Pastoralists have been blamed for overgrazing and environmental degradation of the rangelands and up to 200,000 have been forced to sell their livestock and settle in purpose-built settlement villages in Qinghai’s Three Rivers area alone [6]. While the government insists that such schemes are voluntary, researchers have found that fear of repercussions from protesting the scheme was a leading factor in herders going along with resettlement programs [3].

New village built for the settlement of pastoralists on the Qinghai Tibetan plateau (Source)

For most pastoralists this sudden shift to a sedentary lifestyle in the cash economy is a huge cultural shock as they switch to depending on government subsidies to cope with increased living costs, limited employment opportunities and increasing social ills such as alcoholism, while losing the complex knowledge and understanding of the environment that they lived in and managed for centuries.

Yaks being herded along a Qinghai highway (Source)

There have been repeated requests for the Chinese government to halt the resettlement programmes, including a call in January 2012 by the UN special rapporteur on the right to food security, Olivier de Schutter, to “immediately halt non-voluntary resettlement of nomadic herders from their traditional lands and non-voluntary relocation or rehousing programmes of other rural residents” [7]. Instead of the programmes, he advocated meaningful consultations and a careful examination of all the management options by all parties. Yet under the 12th Five-year plan, the central government aims to resettle all herders by the end of 2015 [8]. With regard to the Environmental Migration policy which underpins the central government’s strategy of resettlement in Qinghai, Foggin (2011) [6] notes that lessons can be learned from other regions in the world which have faced similar issues. Foggin suggests the development of community co-management approaches to conserve the environment in the Three Rivers headwaters, thereby giving pastoralists a meaningful role in the area’s conservation and development and allowing them to adapt and modify their livelihoods whilst not feeling a loss of identity and hope for the future.


Authored by Dr. Julian Bloomer, TCD Geography PhD graduate 2008. You can read about Julian’s circumnavigation of the world by bicycle at:



  1. Dong, S., Wen, L. Liu, S., Zhang, X., Lassoie, J.P., Yi, S., Li, X., Li, J., Li, Y. (2011) Vulnerability of worldwide pastoralism to global changes and interdisciplinary strategies for sustainable pastoralism, Ecology and Society, 16(2).
  2. Eneyew, A. (2012) Is settling pastoralists a viable livelihood strategy? Implication for policy dialogue, Journal of Agricultural Science, 2(5), 94-102.
  3. Human Rights Watch (2013) “They say we should be grateful”: mass rehousing and relocation programs in Tibetan areas of China (pdf).
  4. Dell’Angelo, J. (2013) The sedentarization of Tibetan nomads: conservation or coercion?, in, Healy, H., Martinez-Alier, J., Temper, L., Walter, M., Gerber, J-F. (eds.) Ecological economics from the ground up, Earthscan: London, 309-331.
  5. Ptackova, J. (2011) Sedentarisation of Tibetan nomads in China: implementation of the nomadic settlement project in the Tibetan Amdo area, Qinghai and Sichuan provinces, Pastoralism: research, policy and practice, 1(4).
  6. Foggin, J.M. (2011) Rethinking ‘ecological migration’ and the value of cultural continuity: a response to Wang, Song and Hu, Ambio, 40, 100-101.
  7. UNHRC (2012) Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter: Mission to China (Addendum), Human Rights Council: Nineteenth session Agenda item 3 Promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development, General Assembly, January 20, 2012, A/HRC/19/59/Add.1 (pdf).
  8. Fan, M. (2013) Changing pastoralism with settlement of herders in China, presentation to Third Multi-stakeholder platform meeting, Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock, Nairobi (pdf).

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