From “overstocking” to “overgrazing”: more livestock as a symbol of wealth?

By Yonten Nyima Sichuan University, China

In 2011 China, which claims to have the world’s second largest grassland area after Australia, launched its largest grassland protection program literally known as the grassland ecological protection subsidy and reward mechanism in its pastoral region. The backbone of the program is to subsidise or reward pastoralists for not “overgrazing”. Nonetheless, it is hard to celebrate this new program as progress on grassland management and pastoralism because it is merely the latest example of an underlying assumption deeply embedded in state policy on grassland management and pastoralism in China.

In China overgrazing has long been assumed to be a direct or main cause of grassland degradation. Accordingly, adjusting livestock numbers to “carrying capacity” has been both a means and a goal of protecting grassland ecosystems. Pastoralists have often been accused of overstocking because they are believed to want to raise more livestock as a symbol of wealth.

Through a case study from Nagchu Prefecture, the largest pastoral prefecture on the Tibetan Plateau in terms of both grassland area and livestock numbers, in the Tibet Autonomous Region, which is reported to have the largest grassland area in China, my Area paper raises the questions whether more livestock are a symbol of wealth for pastoralists and why pastoralists appear to raise more livestock than they currently appear to need. My research in Nagchu shows that pastoralists do not raise more livestock as a symbol of wealth. Instead, three overlapping reasons explain why pastoralists want to raise more livestock than they currently appear to need.

First, owing to biological, cultural and economic factors, current livestock numbers are not equivalent to actual livestock available for production. Second, pastoralists want to raise more livestock as a long-term strategy for livelihood security and flexibility. Third, pastoralists want to raise more livestock as a means for improving their standard of living. Therefore, for pastoralists raising more livestock is a means rather than an end. My Area paper also shows that in practice, labor power, grassland and economic status are three primary overlapping factors constraining pastoralists from raising more livestock.

A take-home message for policy advisors and policymakers from my Area paper is that pastoralism must be understood from the standpoint of pastoralists and in the socioeconomic, cultural and environmental context in which pastoralist live, rather than from outsider perspectives and values.

Feature image caption: Yaks in a summer pasture, eastern Nagchu, Tibet, July 2010
(Photograph by Yonten Nyima)

The author: Dr. Yonten Nyima is Associate Professor, Institute of Social Development and Western China Development Studies, Sichuan University, China

 Nyima, Y. (2014), A larger herd size as a symbol of wealth? The fallacy of the cattle complex theory in Tibetan pastoralism. Area, 46: 186–193. doi: 10.1111/area.12099


 China to susidize herdsmen to curb overgrazing, China Daily, 6 May 2011


  1. But if they raised more livestock to generate a surplus, as you suggest (and which is a normal human behavior, like saving), then they surely, like farmers, are aware of just how much “too much” they can raise without harming their long-term prospects? Then there should be no such things as overgrazing, unless, like the oceans, we have to deal with a “tragedy of the commons” where the land is “free for all” and if you don’t overgraze then your neighbor will. But that is a matter of private property rights, a thing China may indeed struggle with.

    1. Thank you very much for your comment. As I mentioned in the post, labour power, grassland and economic status constrain pastoralists from raising more livestock. Pastoralists find it senseless to have more livestock than they can manage and their grassland can handle. Satisfactory livestock output and productivity are their criteria for determining whether their grassland can handle a certain number of livestock. I have the following quote from a pastoralist in the paper, which illustrates this point.

      “If I keep more than this, there would not be enough forage. More would die in spring and become useless. That is to say it is useless to keep more than the grassland can support. Even if the livestock survive the spring, but if their meat is barely edible or the females do not produce much milk, then there is no point of keeping many livestock. It would be just more work and more worries without more benefits. Of course, if the grassland is large, the more [livestock], the better if the family can manage them.”

      In terms of the concept of “tragedy of commons”, the government believes that the traditional communally-based grassland management system results in a “tragedy of the commons” scenario, causing overgrazing, which in turn leads to grassland degradation. That is why China has initiated grassland use rights privatization as a basic policy on grassland management and pastoralism. Nonetheless, research shows that in fact the communal grazing system in Tibet is not an unregulated and open access system as many similar systems elsewhere in the world are not.

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