China is developing at a phenomenal rate, and urbanization may be the most obvious feature of China’s human landscape in the 21st century; yet, we must ask the question: At what price such rapid development? While the issues may be complex, and often it is difficult to weigh one concern over another, one important ingredient of a balanced response that sometimes is overlooked are the matters of equity and justice, both within the present time and vis-à-vis future generations. Within the context of the rapid urbanization observed in China, especially since the onset of the Xibu Dakaifa (Great Western Development Strategy) in 2000, we must also consider three important realities.
First, urban centres both large and small can only survive, let alone flourish, as long as agricultural production in the surrounding region is sustained (with some allowance made for globalization, which can vastly increase the geographic scope of what may be considered the “surrounding region”). Second, agricultural production in different parts of China has been developed, often over millennia, in ways that generally proved to be best suited to the local ecological conditions, which provide both constraints and opportunities for socio-economic development. (Additionally, agricultural production methods in different parts of China have been developed by different people groups, and culture and livelihood often are tightly intertwined.) Third, all the decisions we make now will certainly affect how we live in the future—for better or for worse. Hence, the necessity to strive for more sustainable practices, that is, good stewardship, in relation to the world’s natural resources in order to ensure the well-being of future generations.
China’s rivers are its lifelines. Agriculture and the physical well-being of its people are dependent on having access to good and reliable water supplies, most of which are fed by the Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong rivers. With the source of all these rivers situated in the heart of the Tibetan Plateau, no wonder China has turned its gaze to this ecologically important region, seeking to ensure the protection of this vast “water tower” of Asia. Far-reaching government policies have been put in place, much media attention has been given and new protected areas (nature reserves) have been established. However, similar to the first question are others that must be asked: Must the local residents of the Tibetan grassland region be made sedentary, relocated and urbanized in order to protect the environment? Is urbanization really a necessity to achieve the socio-development goals set before us?
In the case of Tibetan herders, a form of animal husbandry with seasonal mobility has been developed over many centuries. This custom is both sustainable and generally productive and well adapted to the climate and other natural conditions of the Tibetan plateau region. Yet, current development policy seeks to move all remaining herders off the grassland into new towns, from a traditional livelihood and culture based on natural resources to a sedentary life with few opportunities for alternative employment and with no certain improvements in health or education. The fate of resettlement projects attempted over the past two centuries in Canada and the U.S., also undertaken in the name of development, shows numerous aboriginal people and communities in despair, often lasting for generations. Must this sad, avoidable history be repeated for China to develop? Surely not!
To answer this question, first it must be recognized that urbanization does not always improve people’s health (in fact, the opposite may be true), and proximity to schools is not the only measure by which genuine access to appropriate educational opportunities should be assessed. Second, in order to protect the vast grassland and mountainous regions surrounding the source areas of the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong rivers, it is local Tibetan herders still living on the land (and not resettled into towns) that may be our best allies in environmental management and conservation. Their traditional ecological knowledge, supplemented by a dose of modern (formal) education as well as exposure to scientific methodology, can serve well the country’s goal of protecting the integrity and good functioning of these fragile ecosystems that regulate the flow of rivers. Indeed, there are millions of people downstream who may benefit.
While the future remains uncertain, there is at least some hope. China does seek to integrate environmental concerns into its development planning process. At least in theory, it seeks to improve the well-being of all its different peoples. Unfortunately, there also remains a strong underlying belief that “urban” is always better than “rural,” and this may lead to some of the social challenges briefly alluded to above, especially for Tibetan herding communities.
For over ten years, though, more and more of these communities have been contributing to national conservation goals through wildlife monitoring and anti-poaching patrols, thus helping to protect endangered species. These important activities have been supported by several non-profit organizations, including Plateau Perspectives, and now they also are encompassed within the official work plan of the Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve which covers an area larger than the State of New York. Thus, there is some hope that the long-term positive contributions that local herders can make, indeed are making, may be noted at higher levels. If so, then perhaps more choice will be given to local communities in the future, and greater participation will be achieved in decision-making processes surrounding critical conservation/development agendas. If this could be achieved, it would constitute a significant step toward more equitable development and toward a just future—an example of social justice attained in concert with good environmental stewardship.