Who benefits from China’s historic law on the Qinghai-Tibet ecosystem? (commentary)

  • The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau Act is China’s first legislative vision for the environmental protection of the Tibetan plateau and its surroundings, covering an area larger than western Europe.
  • Hailed as a legislative landmark by state-sponsored media, its effects could ripple far beyond China’s borders, with likely effects on international rivers such as the Brahmaputra, Indus, Mekong, Irrawaddy and Salween, which flow from the Tibetan plateau.
  • In a new commentary, a conservation biologist concerned about the QTP ecosystem explains how its 63 articles cover a nearly panoramic selection of topics, making the act a good starting point for understanding the major environmental issues of the region.
  • This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.

In April, the National People’s Congress, China’s legislative branch, passed the “Qinghai-Tibet Plateau (QTP) Ecosystem Protection Act” (hereafter referred to as the QTP Act). The QTP Act is China’s first legislative vision for the environmental protection of the Tibetan plateau and its surroundings, covering an area of 2.6 million km2, larger than the entirety of western Europe. The act is hailed as a legislative “landmark” by state-sponsored Chinese media and follows a series of laws that provide a legal backbone for resolving China’s regional environmental issues along the Yangtze River (2020)Yellow River (2022), and the Northeastern Plains (2022).

But unlike previous regional legislation, effects of the QTP Act could ripple far beyond China’s administrative borders. For example, major international rivers such as the Brahmaputra, Indus, Mekong, Irrawaddy and Salween flow from the heights of the Tibetan plateau, thus its nickname “water tower” for 1.5 billion people in Asia. The Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR, a province-level administrative region of China established after the annexation of Tibet) shares a 2,000 km border with Nepal, Bhutan, India and Pakistan.

Together with China, these five Himalayan nations account for the world’s first, second and fifth most populous countries. Loosely regulated dam construction along the Tibetan segment of the Brahmaputra River (referred to as Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibetan), is among one of many bones of contention along the flammable Sino-India border. The 10 million people living on the QTP, as well as China’s Himalayan neighbors, have vested interest in how China decides to maintain the “water tower of Asia”— especially as its ice reserves continue to dwindle due to climate change. These administrative legalities are laid out in the QTP Act.

Each Mongabay commentary starts with a mea culpa (“views expressed are those of the author”), but I’d like to put my cards on the table—literally. I hold a resident ID issued by the People’s Republic of China. I present my ID at major checkpoints when conducting research across TAR. My research activities are under the jurisdiction of the Chinese government, whose legislation I am about to comment on. Catch 22: readers can be (and reasonably should be) suspicious of me promoting propaganda; meanwhile my colleagues in China are (equally reasonably) wary of me courting a “western” audience by biting the hands that feed us.

I’m here to do neither.

Medog county, on the Sino-Indian border, upstream of the Brahmaputra. Dam construction in this region of Tibet is protested by India. Photo courtesy of Wa Da.
Medog County on the Sino-Indian border, upstream of the Brahmaputra. Dam construction in this region of Tibet is protested by India. Photo courtesy of Wa Da.

I am simply among a growing number of conservation practitioners who are deeply concerned about the QTP ecosystem and its people. Authoritarian regimes often go hand in hand with anthropogenic environmental catastrophes (ranking bottom quarter on all major freedom indices, China’s track record isn’t stellar), but wildlife and their habitats (12,000 species of vascular plants, 230 mammals and 610 birds on the eastern edges of QTP alone) don’t wait for us to resolve issues of reincarnation with a Golden Urn. For the time being, the QTP Act applies to “those who engage in, or whose work relates to the protection of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau ecosystem” (Article 2); it is ipso facto the framework within which I have to make do. I would like to share my thoughts on legislation that for better or worse, will govern conservation endeavors on the Tibetan Plateau.

The QTP Act consists of 63 articles split across seven chapters; its English translation would count less than 10,000 words (roughly four times the length of this commentary). Among rallying cries for “strengthening the protection of Qinghai-Tibet Plateau ecosystem” (Article 1) nests a barrage of specificities ranging from livestock management and crop rotation to invasive species control (Articles 24, 27, 40). It bans peat-digging in several lakes (Article 53); it calls out specific mountains, rivers, and national parks that need special attention (Articles 15, 16, 21); it decrees fines for illegal mining (no less than 10 times of the operation’s profit) and the peccadillo of campsite littering (no less than 100RMB, about $14.50) (Articles 56, 58). No task is below the pay grade of our omniscient legislature:

“All regional levels of the People’s Government at Qinghai-Tibet Plateau should take effective action to promote sewage and garbage processing, and advance the renovation of country-side toilet and country-side afforestation.” (Article 47*)

Beijing is 3,000 km away from Lhasa (the capital of TAR), commandeering the latter’s toilet renovation. On the other hand, habitué can affirm the urgency of developing sewage treatment plans in the region. The meticulousness of the QTP Act suggests that it is not a hastily drafted publicity stunt; instead it has benefited from those with first-hand experience living through major environmental challenges in the region. (A draft of the act was unveiled by the standing committee of National People’s Congress in September 2022, who solicited public comments from its website. During that period, the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, a public non-profit organization, organized meetings with universities and research institutes to compile recommended revisions.)

Due to its (near) panoramic selection of topics, the QTP Act is a good starting point for understanding the major environmental issues of the region (it has been widely shared and read on Chinese social media platforms). For example, even Chinese nationals might be shocked to learn about the vast expanses of wetlands and subtropical forests within Tibet. These sceneries are in sharp contrast to the barren, inhospitable landscapes portrayed in Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun (both use footage from Canada, both are banned in China). Tibet under Chinese legislation is in-your-face assertive and practical, abundant in natural resources, sans traces of elegantly-moving, mantra-chanting priests stuck in a timeless Shangri-La.

Mountain range, Tibet. Photo courtesy of Wa Da.
Mountain range. Photo courtesy of Wa Da.

And so far as leisurely environmental law perusal goes, the QTP Act does have a temporal narrative: after setting out its goals and scope (Chapters 1 & 2), its third chapter (“Ecosystem protection and repair”) elaborates on a plan to recover from past environmental damages, followed by a fourth chapter (“Ecosystem risk and control”) that strategizes about future ecosystem monitoring schemes. In the third chapter, unequivocal demands for ecosystem repair and recovery (from deforestation, desertification, salinization and wetland degradation; Articles 18, 19, 23, 25) are the closest China has come to admitting the environmental toll inflicted by its own action. (The Chinese government has never explicitly acknowledged the environmental devastation of the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s, which, by conservative estimates, decimated 10% of the nation’s forest reserves during a few short months, see Shapiro 2001). More encouragingly, the QTP Act decides to follow a more Taoist approach to ecosystem recovery:

“Protection of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau ecosystem should respect nature, follow nature, conserve nature, insisting on the priority of ecological protection and natural recovery.” (Article 3)

Compare that with the widely publicized Maoism in the 60s — “Battling with nature is boundless joy!” — and one sees how much the country has since furthered its détente with mother nature, with one exception: the QTP Act singles out one enemy to do battle with —climate change. The forward-looking Chapter 4 (“Ecosystem risk and control”) starts with:

“The nation is to establish and make comprehensive a Qinghai-Tibet ecosystem risk control system which takes effective action to improve the ability to control and prevent risk associated with natural disasters and climate change.” (Article 35)

See related: Amazon deforestation linked to reduced Tibetan snows, Antarctic ice loss

Herd of yaks graze among a wetland, Tibet. Photo by Yuriy Rzhemovskiy via Unsplash.
Herd of yaks grazing in a wetland, Tibet. Photo by Yuriy Rzhemovskiy via Unsplash.

Chapter 4 ends with:

“The nation is to strengthen the monitoring of climate change and its effect, establish a prediction and assessment framework for climate change’s effect on the ecosystem… establish complete procedure for ecological risk reporting and warning; strengthen the assessment of climate change’s influence on Qinghai-Tibet plateau and the evolution of high elevation ecosystems.” (Article 41)

China is the world’s largest CO2 emitter. It is reassuring to see her acknowledging climate change as the major environmental threat of QTP. More importantly, the act repeatedly emphasizes particular solutions such as increasing carbon fixation capability, developing low-carbon economy, advocating for low-carbon lifestyles, transitioning to clean energy technologies, and protecting carbon sinks (Articles 9, 11, 26, 45). I’d like to think that this is not lip service to China’s domestic populace and her international audience, but genuine recognition of the catastrophic environmental (and economic) consequences that would ensue if ice reserve at the world’s “third pole”, Asia’s water tower, continues to melt. Water is mentioned 44 times throughout the QTP Act, with its decrees covering dos and don’ts of headwater management, water use security, small dam construction and river navigation rights (Articles 15, 22, 32, 55). The QTP Act has set its priorities straight.

However, another word is used twice more often than “water” — it is, of course, “the nation.” Just as the QTP Act is unrelentingly comprehensive in its vision and unwaveringly explicit about its priority, it is unapologetically assertive about its authority. The remaining chapters of the act specify the agent responsible for its implementation. No twiddling of thumbs here: it is “the nation” that will “provide support for the protection of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau ecosystem,” (Article 44), and it is the government (referred to as “local people’s government above the county level”) that will save the faltering Tibetan Plateau.

Conceptually, nothing wrong with tasking the executive branch of a government with implementing its legislation, but among high-brow concepts such as carbon sinks (Articles 8 & 11), ex-situ conservation (Article 28) and ecological corridors (Article 29), one is left to wonder how exactly local governments are supposed to “consider local situations and decide on specific methods for protecting the ecosystem of Qinghai-Tibet Plateau” (Article 62).

We need to involve stakeholders and scientists to monitor the weather conditions, tally local biodiversity, report illegal construction, check water conditions, and install those sewage pipes!

There are no such mentions in the act. The role of civilian participation is blatantly under-emphasized: the closest it comes to acknowledging any kind of public contribution is the half-hearted statement that “the nation encourages and supports the participation of non-profit organization and social capital” (Article 44, only added after considering suggestions from the Green Development Foundation) and that “institutions and individuals have the right to report and sue illegal behavior that pollutes the environment of Qinghai-Tibet Plateau or destroys its ecosystem.” (Article 48, a rather low bar compared to the act’s other grand rallying cries)

A monastic debate in Lhasa, the main method through which traditional Buddhist knowledge is passed on throughout the Tibetan Plateau. The role of traditional knowledge and stakeholder participation has been ignored in the QTP Act. Photo courtesy of Cheng Wang.
A monastic debate in Lhasa, the main method through which traditional Buddhist knowledge is passed on throughout the Tibetan Plateau. The role of traditional knowledge and stakeholder participation has been ignored in the QTP Act. Photo courtesy of Cheng Wang.

To best illustrate the failure to engage and motivate: QTP residents are predominantly Tibetans, the majority of whom, although conversant in Chinese, are native speakers of one of three dialects of Tibetan (Kham, Amdo and Ü-Tsang, which share the same written script) — yet there isn’t a single Tibetan translation of the QTP Act. This is, to say the least, inconsiderate. Imagine the U.S. Congress passing a bill in Latin and not bothering to translate it for its residents!

Moreover, the lamentable omission of local involvement in protecting their own landscape misses a golden opportunity: most Tibetans believe in some form of Mahayana Buddhism, a religion with interdependence and compassion as its core values. NGOs working with monks in Qinghai have recognized the monks as brilliant naturalists and invaluable allies of conservation. Failing to engage such stakeholders who hold tremendous respect for wildlife and nature, across a 2.6 million kmlandscape, is an immense loss of knowledge and expertise.

This brings us to where we started: if an environmentally devastating dam is planned on the headwaters of the Brahmaputra, could the project be halted because of its violation of the QTP Act? Would we ever witness ‘Darter vs. the Dam‘ on the Tibetan Plateau? Although the QTP Act has categorically outlawed all construction of “small electric dams” (Article 57), it leaves an escape clause covered in echt newspeak:

“Major construction projects should avoid important wildlife habitat…if it can not be avoided, should take action to build migration corridors or conduct ex situ conservation, to avoid or reduce the impact to the natural ecosystem.” (Article 38)

The problem is, when all guardians of the land receive only a symbolic pat on the back, while the state apparatus ravages on full throttle, who decides whether a construction project is one that “can not be avoided?”

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