On July 12, 2017, after careful consideration of China’s nomination, UNESCO declared the Qinghai Hoh Xil region in Western China a World Heritage Site. The IUCN, a major international conservation body, recognized the strengths of this nomination but raised two concerns— first, threats from development, and second, failure to engage with local communities and cultural values— also echoed by other groups, including the NGO World Heritage Watch.
UNESCO defines a world heritage site as a cultural and/or natural site, area, or structure recognized as being of outstanding international importance and, therefore, deserving special protection. In order to become a World Heritage Site, there is a four step process that must be followed. First, a country must create a tentative list of important natural and cultural heritage spots that it wishes to nominate. Second, a state party decides when they want to present the nomination. The nomination is then sent to the World Heritage Site committee, which, if they approve it, sends it to the advisory bodies for evaluation. The three advisory bodies chosen by the World Heritage Convention evaluate the sites. Finally, the World Heritage Committee makes the final decision on the site’s inscription.
The Qinghai Hoh Xil region, designated a natural world heritage site, lies in the north-eastern part of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau in China. The plateau is the largest and highest plateau in the world, with alpine mountains reaching more than 4,500 meters above sea level and diverse ecosystems, including grasslands, scrublands, glaciers, and tundras. Its unique topography of alpine mountains and steppe systems, and climatic conditions, allow for a multitude of species and diverse plants to thrive. More than one third of the plant species and all herbivorous mammals are indigenous to the area. The heritage site nomination was part of an effort to protect the chiru species, Pantholops hodgsonii to scientists, tsö in Tibetan, commonly known as the Tibetan antelope, according to Chinese officials.
The plateau’s glaciers are an important source of freshwater in the wetland system of lakes and rivers, making up a total area of 180,000 hectares. Due to rising temperatures, about 15 percent of the plateau’s glacial area, about 8,000 square kilometers since 1980, has retreated in the past half-century, according to a Chinese government-related study. Climate change effects would likely result in the destruction of the Tibetan antelope’s habitat, as well as other plant and animal species in the area. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species states that the chiru is near-threatened because the population size can be maintained with higher levels of protection and controls on trade and manufacturing from its fur. The local Tibetan herders protect the antelopes from hunters by patrolling the area, with little equipment or money.
During the evaluation of the Qinghai Hoh Xil region as a World Heritage Site, members of the local population expressed concern about the possibility of being displaced or resettled as a result of site’s new status. The IUCN report states that “it is imperative that questions of rights, access and traditional use are addressed rigorously and carefully by the State Party, and the World Heritage nomination must not be used to justify any deprivation of traditional land use rights of the concerned communities.” The report suggests that local herding communities should be consulted and involved in governing the land. It notes, as well, that the Qinghai Hoh Xil region contains many cultural and spiritual sites valued by its people, and it should be properly recognized.
The Chinese government has affirmed its plan to guarantee the integrity of the region. Han Jianhua, the Vice-Governor of Qinghai Province, in which the site is located, stated “[The Chinese government] made a commitment that [they] would protect the ecological environment heritage in strict accordance with the relevant requirements of the Convention on the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage.”
The decision has been scrutinized by many advocacy groups, such as the International Campaign for Tibet, who have argued that the new site’s status would aid China in displacing tens of thousands of Tibetan nomads from the grasslands to towns, threaten the habitat of the antelope, and endanger the environment. The 2017 World Heritage Watch Report describes the nomination as an “international endorsement for China’s policies of intensified development and mass tourism, and the removal of Tibetan nomads from their lands.” By removing Tibetan nomads, the survival of the rangelands and the plateau’s biodiversity is threatened.
The UNESCO Decision
What does this new status as a World Heritage Site mean for the local populations? In the nomination which the Chinese government submitted to UNESCO for the site, it listed 35 households of 156 herders within the nominated region, and 222 households of 985 herders and 250 other residents in the buffer zone. In the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Heritage Evaluations, one of the three Advisory Bodies, the Chinese government stated that “there will be no forced relocation or exclusion of the traditional users of the nominated site, whether before or after succeeding in the application for World Heritage site.” However, it also indicated that across a large section of the site, the management agency will gradually “impose a ban on herding among sparse residences in the resettlement area and further consider specific voluntary resettlement policies, locations, compensation mechanisms and other measures that can promote the wellbeing of the resettlements.”
One of the goals under UNESCO’s operational guidelines is to establish services for the protection and conservation of the cultural and natural heritage of local and indigenous people. When asked about the effects of UNESCO’s decision on the local people, Marc Foggin, associate director at Mountain Societies Research Institute at the University of Central Asia, said, “consideration of local people’s livelihoods has been explicitly embedded within the review process leading to the nomination/approval of the World Heritage Site (WHS), particularly through the lens of ‘community co-management’. The area’s previous classification as ‘nature reserve’ really considered only the natural heritage, but under WHS both natural and cultural heritages are explicitly considered. The WHS actually may allow for – and to some extent even promote – more equitable forms of resource governance than in previous [protected area] management regimes.”
Recent History of the Region
These uncertainties have raised concerns because of other actions of the Chinese government elsewhere in the Tibetan Plateau. In 2003, a policy called tuimu huancao, or “converting pastures to grasslands,” was established in the plateau, which makes up about 85 percent of the country’s rangelands. The policy puts grasslands into zones where grazing is completely banned, where it is banned to grazing for three to ten years, and where rotational grazing or seasonal bans are put into place.
When the herders, largely ethnic Tibetans, were relocated beginning in 2004, many were not fluent in Chinese or have the skills to earn a fair income in the Chinese-dominated towns, leaving them unemployed. According to the agreements, if the Tibetans resettled, they would receive job training and educational opportunities for their children, but, unfortunately, many did not. When asked about the future impact of the World Heritage Site on the Tibetan herders, Lucia Parrucci, an advocacy officer at the Unrepresented Nations & Peoples Organization (UNPO), said, “It remains to be seen what China’s promise not to displace Tibetan people is worth in practice. In this regard, the role of UNESCO itself is crucial, as it should ensure Tibetan livelihood, culture and way of life remain unaffected.”
Tibetan herders’ economic and social well-being remains at stake. Some have argued that herders are a main cause of grassland degradation, due to overgrazing. As a result, a policy of herder resettlement — now also justified as a form of climate adaptation- has been put in place. “The ill effects of resettlement have now been amply documented by researchers,” Emily Yeh, professor of geography at the University of Colorado at Boulder, told GlacierHub. “They include a lack of job training; a lack of jobs that make use of the linguistic and other abilities the herders do have, leading to idleness and attendant social ills; lowered income, even with subsidies, in part due to rising inflation; subsequent declines in health status; and shoddy house construction.”
Some suggest that the situation is shifting from its harshest phases. Throughout his research, Marc Foggin found that “the focus now is increasingly on working with nomad families in-situ (on the grassland) and providing development support, rather than on their re-settlement.” He added, “In other arenas, I have also come across indications that resettlement policies are (partially) reversing, with some instances of people even being supported to return, if they wish, to their prior grassland homes.” The attention and resources from the new World Heritage Site status could prove positive for the area.