Exploring political-economic influences on official environmental reports

By Yonten Nyima, Sichuan University, China

Yonten
A local government billboard that reads, “Implementing the policy of grassland ecological protection subsidy and reward, to restore natural grassland ecosystem functions”, Shentsa, Tibet, March 2017 (Photography by Yonten Nyima)

 

Not long ago, China’s state media, Xinhua News Agency, reported that grassland cover in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) has increased by 2.5% since 2010 according to the regional Department of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry (Liu, 2017; Xinhua News Agency, 2017). According to the report, the increase results from an ongoing grazing ban and a destocking policy implemented to prevent and reverse grassland degradation (Liu, 2017). Grazing has been banned on approximately 10% of the region’s total area of grassland and the number of livestock has been reduced to 18 million from 23 million in 2010, as per the report(Xinhua News Agency, 2017). The report does not detail how this increase in grassland cover was figured out. Nonetheless, my recently published Area paper suggests that it is sensible to be skeptical about the credibility of such reports as they are often influenced by political-economic factors (Nyima, 2018).

China claims that, with a total grassland area of 400 million hectares (a total usable grassland area of 313 million hectares), which it says accounts for 13% of the world’s total area of grassland and 41.7% of China’s total area of land, it has the world’s second largest grassland area after Australia (Han, 2011). Within China, the TAR is believed to have the largest grassland area with 25% of China’s usable grassland area (Han, 2011; Zhaxi, 2016). In China, narratives of grassland degradation underlie ongoing state policy on grassland management and pastoralism. As it believes that there is pervasive rangeland degradation across the country due to overgrazing, China has launched two large grassland protection programs since 2003. The programs call for grazing restrictions and destocking through a reward mechanism.

My Area paper critically examines the credibility of official reports on grassland degradation through a case study from the TAR. It analyses the political-economic motivations behind official reports on grassland degradation over two decades, between 1992 and 2011, in the region. It reveals internally inconsistent or contradictory figures and statements regarding the magnitude and extent of grassland degradation and shows political-economic factors influencing official reports on rangeland degradation. Specifically, the government tends to play down the problem of grassland degradation when it responds to criticisms for its alleged environmentally damaging activities. The opposite is true of official reports on grassland degradation produced for economic motivation, i.e. government agencies tend to overstate the problem of grassland degradation in order to capture funding. The paper concludes that political-economic motivations behind official reports on grassland degradation may prevent alternative input about the actual condition of grassland, and alternative policies to be considered and adopted.

This finding is consistent with research elsewhere in the world; non-environmental factors play an important role in shaping environmental narratives. For example, Sayre’s review of the global history of grassland science shows that grassland science is guided more by capital and the agendas of state agencies (Sayre, 2017). Another example is Davis’s study of arid lands in North Africa, which shows that desertification assessment has been politically motivated and exaggerated, and yet such assessment still frequently informs policy (Davis, 2016). Lastly, it should be stressed that pointing out that non-environmental factors shape environmental narratives is not the same as denying environmental problems, but it is vital to have a more accurate understanding of environmental realities.

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

References

Davis, D. (2016). The arid lands: History, power, knowledge. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Han, J. (2011). Survey on ecological issues of China’s grasslands (in Chinese). Shanghai, China: Shanghai Far East Publishing House.

Liu, H. M. (2017). Grassland cover in the Tibet Autonomous Region exceeds 45%; grassland ecosystems recover well (in Chinese). Xinhua News Agency 25 December. http:// www.xinhuanet.com/politics/2017-12/25/c_129774826.htm

Nyima Y. (2018). Political-economic factors in official reports on rangeland degradation: A critical case study from the Tibet Autonomous Region. Area. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12418

Sayre, N. (2017). The politics of scale: A history of rangeland science. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Xinhua News Agency. (2017). Tibet sees expanding grassland. 25 December. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2017-12/25/c_136850815.htm

Zhaxi. (2016). The rangeland area of the TAR exceeds 1.3 billion mu (in Chinese). China Today

1 November. http://www.chinatoday.com.cn/chinese/society/xzrys/201611/

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