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Story Publication logo October 25, 2012

The Last Nomads of the Tibetan Plateau


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Rising temperatures on the Tibetan Plateau in western China are causing melting glaciers and...


"I was forced to move here three years ago. Before, I was a nomad. I'm not happy with what has happened," explained Dhakpa as we stood on the dusty street corner. (Dhakpa's name and those of other Tibetans in the story have been changed to protect their identity.) The wind swept through the valley in which we stood, dirt and sand swirling around our feet. Nearby, large piles of refuse started to shuffle at the edges as the wind picked up.

We were standing in the outskirts of the town of Zaduo, a bustling little Tibetan community in the southeast of Qinghai Province, on the border with the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Surrounded by mountains and rolling green highland grasslands, it was described in my guidebook as "one of the remote [towns] on the plateau."

Before us lay dusty streets, flanked on either side by a series of one-story yellow buildings that made up a "relocation village" built a few years previously to house the new influx of Tibetan nomads from the surrounding grasslands.

Nestled deep in the Sanjiangyuan region of southern Qinghai, the grasslands are home to the sources of the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong Rivers. In recent decades, however, the grasslands on the "roof of the world" have become progressively degraded, many scientists believe as a result of rising temperatures and drying caused by climate change.

For 5,000 years the nomads of the region have roamed these lands, freely moving their flocks of sheep and cattle with the changing seasons. But over the past decade these people have been moved, often against their will, from the grasslands and into newly constructed towns and villages across the plateau.

In 2000, China's new "Western Development Strategy" was introduced by the central government, aimed at bringing improvements to the poverty-stricken west through infrastructural investment. As part of this strategy, it was deemed necessary to encourage the removal of the nomads of the highland grasslands in order to protect the important headwaters region.

"The basic premise of this policy is that a decade of respite from livestock grazing is necessary for degraded grassland to be restored to its natural state, and therefore domestic livestock (and herders) should be moved away," according to Dr. Marc Foggin, in his paper "Depopulating the Tibetan Grasslands."

"However this premise remains untested at such large scales, and most grassland systems have in fact evolved over time as grazed ecosystems, with either wild or domestic grazers. Now, tens of thousands of families have been asked to move off the grassland and to adopt new livelihoods in farming or to live in new towns. In Qinghai, for example, 35 resettlement communities have already been built and 51 more are under construction. In 2007 a total of 61,899 herdsmen from 13,305 households will be resettled," Foggin wrote.

To date, it has been estimated that up to 100,000 "ecological migrants" have now been removed from nomadic communities on the grasslands.

Towns such as Zaduo saw an influx of these nomads in the mid to late 2000s, causing local government to construct basic relocation villages that would serve as new homes for the nomads. Worries have arisen, however, as these communities have swiftly fallen into disrepair and many of the nomads struggle to find jobs in their new urban surroundings.

"There is nothing to do here except sell caterpillar fungus," explains Dhakpa to us as we wander together through the streets of the relocation village. "This year I sold 600 pieces and earned around 50 yuan ($8) for each. This money has to support me and my family for a year. The fact that the weather is getting warmer here each year isn't good for harvesting caterpillar fungus. If we lose this, what will we do? How will we earn money?"

As we continue to walk around the village, we saw people lingering on street corners and wandering the alleyways that connected the one-story buildings. Piles of refuse had collected in many areas and the village appeared to have become quite neglected.

"I like it here because there are more business opportunities, but I miss the grasslands," said Seldon, a Tibetan store owner who moved to the relocation village two years previously. "There isn't much crime but we worry about the rubbish. It has been like this for over a year. It's the government's responsibility to clean it. We worry about disease."

Other community members express concern about the implications of relocating nomadic people into urban communities. "Life is more convenient now, but I worry that Tibetan culture is disappearing," said one man to us as we stopped for lunch in a sparse restaurant overlooking the main street.

As we look out onto the village, the people wore a mixture of clothing, from very traditional dress to attire that wouldn't be out of place on the streets of Beijing. There appeared to be a clear trend of modern clothing in the young, to more traditional in the old. It could only be assumed that a slow disappearance of traditional dress would be inevitable in the future, as the nomads become increasingly integrated into modern Chinese urban society.

Leaving Zaduo, we followed the one road that leads out of town. We stopped unexpectedly on encountering a large group of Tibetan men, gathered on the side of the road. Unbeknown to us, this group of around one hundred men had gathered to talk to local officials. There was tension in the air. The presence of a foreigner was unexpected and not entirely welcome.

"Okay, we must leave now. These men have come to protect their land," my guide told me.

"The government gives out permits so that people can mine for gold," explained one of the herders as we quickly sipped our remaining yak milk which we had been given as an obligatory welcome. "Local Tibetans believe that when the gold is mined, the grass is disturbed and it is very bad for the sacred mountains. The locals never try to get the gold from the mountains." These men had gathered to talk with local officials in an effort to stop the mines and protect the use of their grasslands.

The Tibetan Plateau has become the frontline for China's new search for metals and minerals as it seeks to exploit its natural resources and continue to fuel development. As a result, mines have appeared across the region, extracting gold, copper, lithium, lead, iron and coal. One newly discovered multi-metal mine has been touted as having "the potential to be among the world's 50 biggest mines of its kind by deposits," according to state media, generating "an annual product value of 4.5 billion yuan ($712 million) by the end of 2015." The inevitable environmental impacts of this development are leading to concerns from the few remaining nomads who inhabit these lands, hence the impromptu meeting we discovered in this hidden valley high in the mountains.

As my journey came to an end, it had become increasingly difficult to discern the true motivations behind the relocation of the nomads from the grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau. Was it a genuine effort to protect the environment and fragile ecosystems in the region, which were clearly suffering as a result of the real threat of climate change? A way to monitor and restrict nomadic populations to settled communities in a politically volatile region? A method to remove people from a land rich in readily exploitable natural resources? A combination of all of these?

One thing was certain however--that a traditional way of life that has existed for thousands of years on the highland grasslands of the Tibetan plateau is on the brink of disappearing, perhaps forever.

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