Camp Land: Settler Ecotourism and Kazakh Dispossession in Contemporary Xinjiang

Guldana Salimjan, “Camp Land: Settler Ecotourism and Kazakh Dispossession in Contemporary Xinjiang,” Lausan, 1 September 2021.


In her article, Guldana Salimjan traces how China’s adoption of “ecological civilization” (生态文明) in its 2012 constitution has facilitated and “green-washed” the dispossession of grazing land traditionally used by Kazakhs and other traditionally pastoral groups. Under the guise of discourse about “ecological conservation” (生态保护) and “returning the pastures to the grassland” (退牧还草), the state has dispossessed these groups and commodified their land, culture, and bodies to bolster the increasingly lucrative tourism industry in Xinjiang. Attempts made by Kazakhs to redress this dispossession have dovetailed with the state’s crackdown on the region’s Muslims, leading to the arrests and disappearances of those criticizing these policies. Salimjan also connects these events to a broader history of settler-colonialism, in which settler states follow the forced removal of Indigenous populations with the establishment of tourist sites that trade in images of “untainted” natural beauty and “backward” cultural practices.


On a summer day in 2015, at Tianshan’s Bogda Lake with a friend who came to visit Xinjiang, I felt out of place in my homeland. On the bus terminal by the lake, which Chinese tourists refer to as Tian Chi (天池) or “the basin of heaven,” the tour guide drew upon romanticized cultural stereotypes to introduce my people to the tourists. “The Kazakhs,” she said, “are nomads who move the most in the world” (世界上搬家最多的民族). Ironically, in the past decade, Kazakhs, along with many other mobile pastoral groups in China—Tibetans, Mongols, Kyrgyzs, Tuvans, and Ewenks—have been pressured by the central government to give up their pastoral life via policies that call for “returning the pastures to the grassland” (退牧还草). Once we got off the bus, I was greeted by a sign that read, “Kazakh ethnic culture garden,” behind which stood dozens of yurts tightly packed against one another. At the entrance of this “garden,” there was a cross section of a yurt beside an eagle and several balbal statues;1 Kazakh and Uyghur dancing costumes hung on the yurt wall for tourists to be photographed in. As I was taking in this Disney-fied display of Kazakh nomadic culture, a group of Kazakh locals approached the tourists getting off the bus and asked them if they’d like to stay for a night in their yurts. I realized at the moment that this was their job—to conduct tourism.

Keywords: Ecotourism, Settler Colonialism, Pastoralism