Going against the grain

Going against the grain

Can you identify the food items shown in this photo?
click image to enlarge
(answers below)

For thousands of years, Tibetan nomads have used their surplus of yak-butter, milk and cheese to barter with farmers for grains — the source of the food staple of tsampa and for making bread. With the large-scale settlement of nomads, this trade has been severely disrupted. Former nomads face a food crisis as both food sources have dried up.

"The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights prohibits depriving any people from its means of subsistence, and the 1992 Convention on Biodiversity acknowledges the importance of indigenous communities as guarantors and protectors of biodiversity. China has ratified both these instruments. The Special Rapporteur encourages the Chinese authorities to engage in meaningful consultations with herding communities [in Tibet]..."

—Report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, December 2010

winnowing grain
© mqrphoto (click to enlarge)

beggars in their own land

Details for the following article have been taken from a 2012 report about the Sanjiangyuan region, in Amdo, northeast Tibet. Here, over 50,000 nomad herders have been re-settled under the guise of 'ecological protection' of this region, at the headwaters of the Yangtse, Mekong and Yellow rivers. Purportedly to save the ecology of the Sanjiangyuan region, the nomads have been shuffled off to settlements, becoming 'ecological migrants' (Chinese terminology). Turns out preserving the ecology of Sanjiangyuan is a joke, as Chinese mining companies have entered the region after the nomads departed.

The nomads got a government spiel about the promised land to coerce them into resettling—but the promised land turns out to be far from the truth. Things that the nomads had in abundance when herding—yak-dung, milk, butter, and meat—are items that they now simply cannot even afford to buy. The items that they could easily barter for before, like tea and tsampa, are now luxury items.

Most ex-nomads of this region rely on an annual 3,000-yuan to 6,000-yuan (US$474 to US$947) “fodder subsidy” from the government. A family of five living in one of the towns struggles to maintain a basic standard of living on this sum. Don't even mention milk and meat; buying dung for heating alone costs 2,000 yuan (US$316) each year, 3,000 yuan (US$474) in some places, and the government's annual heating subsidy is only 1,000 yuan (US$158). The herders complain that everything has gotten more expensive over the past two years: a bag of cow dung has gone from three yuan to 10 yuan (US$0.47 to US$1.60) and a jin of butter has risen from 12 yuan to 20 yuan (US$1.90 to US$3.20). The only thing that hasn't gone up is the subsidies. The ex-herders' standard of living is generally lower now than it was before — and much lower than that of other locals. In Guoluo, a typical ecological migrant's income is around a fifth of that of an established resident. Poor locals, moreover, receive government welfare; not so poor migrants.

Settlement housing projects built for the nomads by the local government are mostly located on the outskirts of towns. In some cases, basic amenities including water, electricity, roads, schools, toilets and healthcare facilities have not kept pace with the rising population. Some local hospitals, for instance, cannot cope with increased numbers of patients, and no new facilities have been added. The report authors saw settlement housing with cable television wired up — but no electricity, or vice versa. Even when television is available, the herders don't watch it much, as many of them don't speak Mandarin. And of course, they can't easily communicate with the rest of the community. Existing residents tend not to welcome the newcomers, and there's little sense of kinship or belonging.

—report source: see www.tibet3rdpole.org

For more about Sanjiangyuan region on this website, see China's Spin Doctors.

Another report from the Three Rivers headwaters region:

The Mani Stones in an 'Environmental Migrants Village'

—eyewitness account by Woeser, aired on Radio Free Asia: this piece gauges the impact of Chinese plans to 'Build a New Socialist Countryside'—and the decimation of nomad culture that has resulted from this policy

In August 2012, I drove back to Lhasa in the car of my friends and spent one night in Gormo, a man-made city with a very short history.

Five years ago, I also stopped here to visit fellow Tibetans living in the outskirts of the city in the Gobi desert. The word “living” is not really accurate, they were migrants who had “been moved” there, approximately 200 to 300 households; all of them had lived in “the first county of the Yellow River”, in Yushu Prefecture, Chumarlep County and were then moved to this place, arranged to live in a migrant village in barrack-like housing. This many Tibetans who used to be herdsmen, keeping livestock, had been forced to integrate in what is referred to as a modern environment. Their language, food and lifestyles underwent great changes, not to mention that there was no place to practice religion in this new place; it becomes clear that this kind of “integration” was extremely passive and painful.

I will never forget the sad conversation that I had with these Tibetan migrants. I asked: “When you moved here did your mountain deity move with you?” My Tibetan friends, dressed in cheap western suits, lowered their heads and said: “How is that possible? We abandoned our deities, we abandoned our livestock, and all that for 500 Yuan per month.”

But in fact, it was not at all because of this little bit of money that these Tibetans abandoned their ancestors and deities of their homeland. In 2003, the Chinese government persisted in claiming that the grasslands of the Tibetan plateau were degenerating, caused by Tibetan herdsmen's several thousand years of nomadic lifestyles, so they launched a massive, never seen before project, moving Tibetan herdsmen from the sources of the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong River to the fringes of towns and cities. To put it positively, they tried to give the Tibetan grasslands some time off to breathe. But the result is probably the elimination of nomadic lifestyles, which is such an important part of Tibetan culture.

According to reports, this project, which is called “Three Rivers Area National Nature Reserve Environmental Migrants Village Project”, migrated 16,129 families, 89,358 people, affecting over 10 towns and counties and autonomous prefectures. Of course, all those people were Tibetan herdsmen, described as “leaving their horsebacks and flocks of sheep”, these people actually transformed into “'outsiders' living at the edge of cities”.

When I was in the newly built migrants village back then, what made me feel particularly desolate was that in this place there was not a single Mani Lhakhang or stupa for Tibetans to practice Buddhism; neither were there any resident monks who could have helped these Tibetan migrants overcome the emptiness in their hearts.

When I entered the migrants village once again last year, I realized immediately that on the once spacious and empty Gobi desert had appeared many tent-shaped sacred flag masts, massive in size and extending seemingly endlessly into the distance, fluttering in the evening wind. Near those flags was a purple-red house, in its centre there was probably a big prayer wheel, existing to comfort those that went to turn it. Opposite to this, there was a building that looked a little bit like a monastery, which was separated from the rows of migrant housing by a road.

I stopped a man who was passing by and got to know that he had been living here for six years but had still not got used to this place. Every year, each household only got about 5000 Yuan, which was nowhere near enough. He was sometimes able to find a job at a building site, digging holes or removing stones, which would earn him no more than 20 or 30 Yuan per day. “Since the monastery is here, I feel much more at ease”, he said turning his head towards the purple-red building that was disappearing in the dim light of the night. “We raised money ourselves to build it, what we are worried about now is whether the government will approve it, they should agree I think, but I really don't know, I just don't know.” After he had explained all the possibilities of what may happen, I felt full of sympathy.

I also went to visit a family; a woman dressed in Tibetan clothes was raising three children, all of them were going to school, they could speak Mandarin, their clothes also resembled those of Chinese kids from the city, only that they were wearing protection cords given to them by lamas around their necks. The woman said that her husband could drive, but they still didn't have enough money to buy meat and real butter, so they had to buy artificial butter to make butter tea.

mani stones made from pool tables
turned-over pool tables become mani-stones at this 'socialist village'

When I was leaving the migrants village, I once more looked at the field of sacred banners and was surprised to see that underneath them there were large mani stones; but they were not real stones, they were turned-over pool tables on which there had been engraved the six words of truth (Om Mani Padme Hum). I suddenly understood what had been going on. The migrants, facing the difficulty of having endless time but not knowing what to do, spent their time drinking, gambling and playing pool and then the pool table had somehow turned into a mani stone. Maybe this happened because of the enlightenment of lamas who passed on the Buddhist teachings, or maybe it happened more because of the strong belief of these Tibetans who had never wanted to abandon their homelands and deities; and only this is what really matters, it indicates the revival and continuation of vitality and the spirit to not perish.

—Lhasa, September 27, 2012

—Edited from a piece written for the Tibetan service of Radio Free Asia, and later appearing on Woeser's blog.

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