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Population resettlement in China a lose-lose scenario

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Chinese farmers rake and dry crops at a sunning ground in Chahantonggu village, Barunhaermodun town, Hejing county, Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture, northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, 20 September 2015. (Photo: AAP)

In Brief

According to the central Chinese government, more than 10 million citizens will have to be resettled by 2050 to solve rural poverty and environmental degradation problems in China. This number does not include the 7 million people that have already been resettled over the last 30 years or so. The massive scale of these population resettlement programs was confirmed by President Xi Jinping during his recent visits to some of the provinces most concerned, where he called upon regional Party and state authorities to ‘implement with full force’ the environmental resettlement projects in order to ‘uphold both ecological and development standards’.


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In China, environmental resettlement means resettling entire communities living in areas deemed unable to support sustainable livelihoods due to harsh environmental conditions. Ostensibly, resettlement serves the dual purpose of protecting the environment – by forbidding grazing and logging, reducing population pressure and land use – and helping local communities to break away from the cycle of rural poverty. Over the past few decades, these resettlement projects have been highly publicised and are said to be an integral part of China’s ‘sustainable development strategy’.

Less well known are the negative consequences associated with these resettlement projects, which expose vulnerable migrants to severe risks of social isolation, economic exclusion and material impoverishment.

A review of environmental resettlement programs over the last the 30 years in China shows that priorities of the state apparatus have consistently trumped those of the communities to be resettled. In other countries the promised beneficial results of resettlement programs simply do not materialise and authorities are generally very reluctant to fully involve local communities in the process of their own resettlement. This seems particularly true in China, where resettlement projects seem to put migrants in a situation of chronic impoverishment and higher vulnerability.

Data collected among environmental migrants from the province of Ningxia show that most suffered a sharp reduction in terms of housing size and a substantial increase in living expenses. Furthermore, access to basic social services, like healthcare and education, are not consistently enforced.

Resettlement results also in severe consequences that are not easily quantified but are still deeply disturbing for migrants. Even many years after resettlement, ethnic Mongolian migrants in Inner Mongolia say their new community remains nothing but an ‘empty frame’, leaving them with a deep feeling of confusion, loss of control and longing for their traditional lifestyle. Migrants often end up just as, if not more, vulnerable in their place of resettlement than in their original habitat.

As for the environment, these large-scale resettlement policies have in the past resulted in a lose-lose scenario, where the root environmental problems were far from being resolved by the resettlement of local communities. Although originally intended to protect and restore areas plagued by serious degradation, they have not always led to any sustainable improvements. Some resettlement projects have even resulted in the introduction of industrial livestock productionin areas previously untouched by intensive animal farming. These have had even more dire consequences on the environment than the traditional activities of resettled herders and farmers.

In view of these negative consequences, using alibis of environmental conservation and human development to justify population resettlement policies appears inappropriate, if not outright dishonest. The question of how traditional livelihoods of rural communities and environmental degradation interact is complex, and so far the answers provided by policymakers in the form of population resettlement have failed to solve any of China’s environmental or poverty problems.

While the current Chinese leadership seems determined to pursue and even accelerate these policies, it is not being held adequately accountable for past failed experiences. Sadly, public discourse on these policies in China is severely restricted. Scholars in China can tolerate criticism of these policies poorly despite numerous field surveys suggesting the detrimental results of the resettlement projects.

Other solutions — far less risky and disruptive for local communities — are also available. The example of organised Tibetan communities in Qinghai, among others, show us the benefits of a true local ownership of ecological conservation projects. A key to empowering local communities is ‘to work at the pace of the community, not at the pace of external parties’. These experiences of involving local population in the protection of their habitat (instead of resettling them) have made compelling cases that resettlement is far from the only solution available.

Whether these alternative solutions to resettlement can be implemented depends largely on the willingness of policymakers. For these solutions to be adopted, leadership must not only be aware of the existence of these alternative models but also have the will and the ability to adopt a flexible and participatory approach in the implementation of policies.

François N. Dubé is a PhD candidate at the College of Economic Studies, University of Ningxia. He is also a resettlement intern for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Bangkok.

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