Plateau Perspectives website


Biodiversity Protection and the Search for Sustainability

in Tibetan Plateau Grasslands (Qinghai, China)


By J Marc Foggin

(Arizona State University, 2000)


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Grasslands have provided fundamental goods and services to humankind for millennia. In many of the world's mountain regions, pastoralists (livestock herders) have benefited from and maintained alpine grassland biodiversity through sustainable land use practices. In recent times, however, many new factors have begun to impact even the remotest ecosystems. Developments far removed from the grassroots - both literally and metaphorically - now largely determine the future of these critical habitats, both their biodiversity and the local people that they support.

The Tibetan plateau is the highest and largest alpine grassland region in the world. Situated in western China, its vast rangelands form the headwaters of Asia's most important rivers, including the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, and Brahmaputra rivers, and they are home for the internationally endangered Tibetan antelope, wild yak, snow leopard, black-necked crane, and other Central Asian wildlife. Tibetan pastoralists also have inhabited the region for many centuries and their survival in this exceptionally harsh environment is testimony to the sustainability of traditional resource management practices. In recent decades, however, as the Tibetan plateau region has become increasingly integrated with the rest of China, many new socio-economic and political realities have begun to emerge. Protecting the native biodiversity of the Tibetan plateau and seeking sustainable development opportunities for this economically poor region of China are the two parallel and tightly interwoven themes of this dissertation.

In climatically variable environments, such as found on the Tibetan plateau, flexible resource management strategies are essential. The maintenance of mobility and seasonal grazing also promote sustainability, while large fencing schemes and the conversion of high altitude lands to agriculture are unsustainable and decrease grassland biodiversity. Fortunately, several policies and initiatives in China now have begun to rectify some former misguided development practices.

Perhaps most significantly, grassroots participation in conservation and development now is increasing in China. In Qinghai, for example, local leaders in the source area of the Yangtze River recently have established the Upper Yangtze Organization. Based on their experience (reported in this dissertation), local community participation and ownership are found to contribute very significantly to the success of integrated conservation and development projects.