The Chinese authorities have issued a notice prohibiting access to the Hoh Xil nature reserve in Qinghai – which was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in July – except for security personnel or other authorized officials.
The notice raises further concerns about the exclusion of Tibetan pastoralists who have made skillful use of the remote, wild landscape here and across the plateau for centuries, co-existing with wildlife and protecting the land. It appears to counter Chinese assurances to UNESCO that they would “fully respect” local herders and “their traditional culture, religious beliefs, and lifestyle”. The role of nomads in preservation of the landscape and the need for their free movement was recognized during discussion over China’s nomination for UNESCO status for the Hoh Xil area, including by international conservation body the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which carried out an evaluation mission to the area.
The notice, published in the Chinese state media on November 27, 2017, states that “any unit or individual” would be prohibited from entering three major nature reserves including Hoh Xil (Achen Gangyap in Tibetan, Kekexili in Chinese), an area of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau that is twice the size of Belgium. The reports state that the restrictions also apply to two bordering nature reserves, the vast Chang Tang (Chinese: Qiangtang) Nature Reserve, and the Altun Shan Nature Reserve in Xinjiang to the north-east.
The Director of the Hoh Xil nature reserve was cited by the state media as saying that the joint notice “aimed to crack down on illegal crossing and mining” and that anyone who did not follow the ruling would “be punished by the Public Security organs.” China’s regulations on nature reserves allow for the presence of tourists and state security police. Regulations specifying relocation of Tibetans from core areas are set out in Chinese law, while another article of the same law states: “The public security organ of the region where the nature reserves are located may set up its dispatched agency within the nature reserves to maintain public security if necessary.”
The new circular issued by the Chinese authorities on Hoh Xil is consistent with the Chinese government’s approach in labeling traditional pastoral land-use of the Tibetan plateau as a ‘threat’ to the environment, although the opposite is the case. The involvement of Tibetans – and nomads in particular – as stewards of the fragile high-altitude landscape in Hoh Xil and adjoining areas is essential to sustaining the long-term health of the ecosystems, and the water resources that China and Asia depend upon.
Chinese government policies of settling Tibetan nomads, confiscating their land, and fencing pastoral areas are threatening one of the world’s last systems of sustainable pastoralism, and leading to increasing poverty and social breakdown. Scientific evidence shows that these policies are threatening the survival of the rangelands and Tibet’s biodiversity. Chinese, Tibetan and Western scholars have pointed out that settling nomads runs counter to the latest scientific evidence on lessening the impact of grasslands degradation, which points to the need for livestock mobility in ensuring the health of the rangelands and mitigating negative warming impacts.
Hoh Xil nature reserve, now granted UNESCO World Heritage status, is in the middle of three major nature reserves stretching across the Tibet Autonomous Region and Qinghai that increasingly exclude normal Tibetan land use such as nomadic herding, situate the state as the sole agency of control, and encourage mass tourism. Traditional productive and sustainable activities as pastoralism and gathering medicinal herbs are banned in areas such as Hoh Xil that are now nature reserves.
An article in the English-language state media publication Global Times earlier this year stated that visitors had been banned from crossing the Changtang National Nature Reserve. The November circular appears to be a reiteration of an earlier announcement in 2015, in which the state media underlined the intention to “share intelligence networks” among the three major nature reserves, although the circular issued last week is the first since Hoh Xil was granted UNESCO status in July (2017).
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) had made a clear statement on the importance of respecting Tibetan herders’ rights in Hoh Xil, stating: “The traditional use of the site by nomadic herders has co-existed with nature for millennia. The World Heritage listing unequivocally supports the rights of the Tibetan pastoralists in the area.”
 Statement made to UNESCO World Heritage Committee in Krakow, Poland, July, 2017; see International Campaign for Tibet report, ‘UNESCO approves controversial World Heritage Tibet nomination despite concerns’, July 7, 2017, https://www.https://savetibet.org/unesco-approves-controversial-world-heritage-tibet-nomination-despite-concerns/
 International Campaign for Tibet report, ‘Nomads in ‘no man’s land’: China’s nomination for UNESCO World heritage risks imperiling Tibetans and wildlife’, June 30, 2017, https://www.https://savetibet.org/nomads-in-no-mans-land-chinas-nomination-for-unesco-world-heritage-risks-imperilling-tibetans-and-wildlife/
 ‘China’s largest nature reserve group notice: prohibit all illegal crossing’, Xinhua, November 27, 2017, in Chinese, published by China News Network at: http://www.tibet.cn/news/focus/151176158366.shtml . The ban was also reported by the Chinese language website: http://en.tibetol.cn/html/News/Exclusive/2017/1128/1862.html, ‘Illegal entry banned in China’s three major nature reserves’, November 28, 2017.
 ‘Illegal entry banned in China’s three major nature reserves’, November 28, 2017, http://en.tibetol.cn/html/News/Exclusive/2017/1128/1862.html
 Regulations of the People’s Republic of China on Nature Reserves 中华人民共和国自然保护区条例 [已被修订CLI.2.10458(EN), Decree No. 167 of the State Council, 10-09-1994 includes the following: “Article 27. Nobody may be allowed to enter the core zone of nature reserves. If it is necessary for the residents living in the core zone of a nature reserve to move out, the local people’s government shall make proper arrangement to have them settled down elsewhere. Article 24. The public security organ of the region where the nature reserves are located may set up its dispatched agency within the nature reserves to maintain public security if necessary. Article 25. The units, residents in the nature reserves and the personnel allowed to enter into the nature reserves shall comply with various regulations of administration, and subject themselves to the management institutions of the nature reserves.”
 For further details on Tibet’s environmental significance, see International Campaign for Tibet report, ‘Blue Gold from the Highest Plateau: Tibet’s water and global climate change’, December, 2015, https://www.https://savetibet.org/new-report-reveals-global-significance-of-tibet/
 See for instance report by Gabriel Lafitte for the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy, ‘Wasted Lives: A critical analysis of China’s campaign to end pastoral lifeways’, May, 2015, http://tchrd.org/wasted-lives-new-report-offer-fresh-insights-on-travails-of-tibetan-nomads/
 International Campaign for Tibet report, ‘Nomads in ‘no man’s land’: China’s nomination for UNESCO World heritage risks imperilling Tibetans and wildlife’, June 30, 2017, https://www.https://savetibet.org/nomads-in-no-mans-land-chinas-nomination-for-unesco-world-heritage-risks-imperilling-tibetans-and-wildlife/
 Article 26 of a set of official regulations promulgated in 1994 governing the creation and administration of nature reserves states: “In nature reserves, such activities as felling, grazing hunting, fishing, gathering medicinal herbs, reclaiming, burning, mining, stone quarrying and sand dredging, shall be prohibited unless otherwise stipulated by relevant laws and regulations.” Regulations of the People’s Republic of China on Nature Reserves 中华人民共和国自然保护区条例 [已被修订CLI.2.10458(EN), Decree No. 167 of the State Council, 10-09-1994
 The circular “specifically mentions that people should not pass through the CNNR to reach two other state nature reserves”, Hoh Xil and Altan Shan. Global Times, ‘Tibet bans crossing of nature reserve’, citing Xinhua as the source, May 6, 2017 at: http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1045641.shtml
 ‘Three major nature reserves in China jointly crack down on illegal crossings’, Xinhua, April 1, 2015, http://news.xinhuanet.com/politics/2015-04/01/c_1114835327.htm
 IUCN is the official advisory conservation body to the World Heritage Committee.
 IUCN website, posted July 7, 2017, https://digital.iucn.org/worldheritage/key-habitats-new-world-heritage-sites/ In its advocacy work at the World Heritage Committee, the International Campaign for Tibet argued that for these reasons and others, inscription of Hoh Xil without further assessment contravened both UNESCO and IUCN guidelines, including the principles of FPIC (free, prior and informed consent) and UNDRIP (UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) which are recognised in UNESCO Operational Guidelines. (International Campaign for Tibet blog, ‘Nomads Land: ICT Advocacy at UNESCO’, August 17, 2017: https://weblog.https://savetibet.org/2017/08/nomads-land-ict-advocacy-at-unesco/).