The Chinese government announced this week that it has moved about 50,000 Tibetan nomads out of a nature reserve in the west of the country as part of a resettlement program that began in 2005. Beijing says the program is meant to protect the ecosystem of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. But Tibetan activists accuse the Chinese government of destroying an ancient nomadic culture that treats the environment with respect.
China's government says it has intensified its resettlement of Tibetan nomads in Qinghai Province to stop their herds from damaging a nature reserve.
Along with climate change, China says overgrazing by cattle is turning parts of the Sanjiangyuan reserve into a desert. The region is home to the headwaters of three major Asian rivers -- the Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong.
Rinchen Tashi, who grew up as a herder in the nature reserve, is a China analyst at the Washington-based human rights group, the International Campaign for Tibet. He rejects Beijing's criticism of the nomad lifestyle. "The Tibetan nomads have been living in that area for thousands of years, and generation to generation. They are actually the best protector of the environment for that area," he said.
Tashi says the nomads shift their cattle from one pasture to another as the seasons change to prevent overgrazing. He says herders are brought up to respect the region's ecosystem.
Tashi says that when he was a child, he used to pick up colorful rocks and bring them home as toys, but that his grandfather would tell him to put them back. "My grandfather was a herdsman. He never went to school. But about the environment -- those areas -- I can say he is a Ph.D. expert!," he said.
Tashi says global warming is one factor behind the region's environmental problems. But he says, most of the damage comes from Chinese government infrastructure projects, such as mining and railroads.
Chinese state media say the government has built 86 new communities in the Sanjiangyuan region to house almost 50,000 herders.
They quote environmental official Li Xiaonan as saying authorities have helped the nomads adapt to their new, sedentary life by giving them job training, loans and schools. Li says the villagers' annual per capita income rose to $300 last year -- double the amount they earned as nomads.
But human rights activist John Isom with the Tibet Justice Center in California says the herders remain poor compared to most Chinese. He accuses Beijing of forcing the nomads to rely on state handouts, robbing them of their economic independence.
"You are causing a cultural genocide by removing people from the livelihood they have known for millennia and sticking them in concrete walls they have never lived in before. You do not forcibly remove a people and put them in a context in which they do not know how to earn a living, and then hand them bags full of rice when historically they were not even rice eaters. They were barley growers," he said.
Isom says the Chinese government is removing the nomads from their traditional grasslands, sometimes forcibly, to exercise more control over the Tibetan population.
He says China has been pursuing such a policy not only in Qinghai, but also in Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces and in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. The Chinese embassy here in Washington did not respond to VOA requests for comment on the allegations.
Human rights activist John Isom says Qinghai Province once had about 600,000 nomads. He says official figures show that about 90 percent of them have been removed from their grasslands. Beijing says it plans to complete the relocation of the remaining several thousand Tibetan herders next year.