Carrying capacity: the gap between theory and practice

By Yonten Nyima, Sichuan University, China

In April 2014, nearly three years after China launched its largest grassland protection program literally known as the grassland ecological protection subsidy and reward mechanism in its pastoral region, the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) as China’s largest grassland area reported that it had paid out six billion yuan for the program (1 ¥=0.16 $ US ). The backbone of the program is to subsidy or reward pastoralists for maintaining a balance between grass production and livestock population through the application of carrying capacity to grassland.

In grassland ecology, carrying capacity of grassland is defined as the maximum number of grazing animals that the grassland can support within a given time without degradation. However, this investment may be cost-ineffective in terms of being beneficial to the grassland as my Area paper finds that in practice the application of carrying capacity to grassland management turns out to be meaningless even though in theory it is considered as a scientific approach.

Tibetan antelopes in a fenced pasture where livestock grazing is banned, Pelgon, Tibet, July 2010 (Photography by Yonten Nyima)
Tibetan antelopes in a fenced pasture where livestock grazing is banned, Pelgon, Tibet, July 2010 (Photography by Yonten Nyima)

When carrying capacity is applied to grassland, two issues arise. One is whether the concept of carrying capacity is relevant to grassland ecosystems and the other is how carrying capacity is determined. My Area paper looks at the latter issue by examining what factors determines carrying capacity in practice, through a case study from Pelgon County in Nagchu Prefecture, the largest pastoral prefecture on the Tibetan Plateau in terms of both grassland area and livestock population, in the TAR.

The case study examines the determination of Pelgon County’s carrying capacity during the implementation of a policy of grassland use rights privatization, which is China’s basic policy on grassland management, in the early 2000s and a pilot programme of a grassland protection reward mechanism in 2010. At both times the carrying capacity was primarily determined by political and economic factors rather than ecological factors, which means the carrying capacity was not determined as it is defined in grassland ecology.

This finding is consistent with earlier research elsewhere in the world that the application of carrying capacity to grassland management in practice has proven to be infeasible even if the concept of carrying capacity may be relevant to grassland ecosystems. Thus my Area paper suggests grassland policy based on the application of carrying capacity should be reconsidered. In a broader sense, the finding is consistent with a prominent theme in political ecology that solutions to environmental problems are always driven by political-economic, social and cultural factors.

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

books_icon Nyima, Y. (2014), What factors determine carrying capacity? A case study from pastoral Tibet. Area. doi: 10.1111/area.12137

60-world2 China Daily 2014 Tibet grassland conservation effort pays out 6 billion yuan 29 April

60-world2 People’s Daily 2011 China launches large grassland protection subsidy program 6 May

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