Walls close in on Tibetan nomads promised better life
Losang, a dark, stocky man with a shock of jet black hair and a beaming grin, is known as the happiest man in his village. The former nomad cackles with infectious laughter after almost every sentence, even when telling the story of his own misfortune.
Chinese authorities told him if he gave up herding his yaks and sheep in exchange for a house in a Tibetan nomad resettlement camp, he could buy a car, open a business and get government support. He has the house – two rooms each about three metres across and four metres long – but not much else. ‘‘We were happy to move, but now there is nothing,’’ Losang, 46, says, laughing loudly at his own expense.
Having moved into his new house in Maixiu, Qinghai, three months ago, he quickly found employment opportunities were much more limited for him and his 25-year-old son than he was promised. He now survives on the odd construction job during the summer, where he can make about RMB70 ($10.40) on a good day. ‘‘There are no good jobs, we just dig holes,’’ Losang says. ‘‘We’re nomads, we’re not used to that work.’’
Losang and his family are one of more than 100,000 families who have been moved from the grassland plateaus into permanent homes in government-commissioned nomad resettlement camps in Qinghai, as part of a scheme involving the Tibetan-populated regions in the mountainous and remote western reaches of China.
Since 2009, Sichuan has ordered the construction of 1400 new communities for 100,000 households, enough to eventually resettle all of its Tibetan nomads. In Tibet, or the Tibetan Autonomous Region, 1.85 million herdsman and nomads, or 60 per cent of its total population, had been resettled as of last year.
In a recent article, a senior Tibet policymaker, Zhu Weiqun, indicated the party was now looking at the adoption of more overt assimilation policies. He identified reserving privileges for ethnic minorities as an obstacle to cohesion.
The resettlement policies stem from Beijing’s stated wish to preserve the area’s environment. Qinghai’s Sanjiangyuan is China’s largest nature reserve containing the headwaters of the country’s three main rivers, the Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong. But it is suffering under the effects of climate change and the government says overgrazing by Tibetan nomad herds is exacerbating the problem. But rights groups say mining in the area should be stopped first. They also claim that nomads are actually being moved so their land can be mined in the future.
Another underlying motive is the desire to boost the region’s socio-economic standing in much the same way as the rest of the country – through rapid urbanisation of its people.
Robert Barnett, the head of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University in the US, lived in Tibet for six years until 2006. He says it is a blunt onesize-fits-all approach to think the only way forward is to put people in houses near roads and turn them into consumers.
‘‘They are very clumsy in China at recognising that you can have different kinds of development and modernisation,’’ he says.
One particularly large village, in Tongde, has row upon row of identical one-storey houses. And with space running out, Tongde is now building dozens of high-rise dwellings, similar to mediumdensity apartments in inner-city Sydney. There are also plans to provide centralised healthcare and education (in Mandarin). Tibetan nomads roam the grasslands at high altitudes in summer, usually in communities of up to two dozen, travelling wherever the grass is lush and weather fine. Their yaks are essential, used to carry tents and equipment and for their meat and milk, which is in turn used for butter and yoghurt. Even their dung is dried and burnt for fuel.
For Losang, a lifetime in the expansive grasslands of Qinghai’s mountains has ended abruptly. He knows he is never likely to earn enough to accumulate a self-sustaining herd again, having spent most of the money he got from selling his herd on the RMB6000 payment for the house. The government covered the remainder (about RMB14000).
He finds he has greatly underestimated cost of living in a world where nothing comes free. ‘‘When I was a nomad I ate meat everyday, drank yak milk tea and wore sheepskin robes, now I can’t. I have to buy everything. And I even have to eat [vegetables],’’ he says. THE colourful Tibetan New Year festival of Losar usually means two weeks of song, dance and merriment with family and loved ones. But for many ethnic Tibetans, this year’s Losar, which starts on Wednesday, will feel more like a wake.
‘‘Everything is cancelled this year,’’ Sonam, a 62-year-old nomad village elder in Zeku, tells the Herald over cups of yak butter milk tea and fried dough, both traditional staples of the Tibetan diet.
‘‘Usually we burn incense in the morning and set off firecrackers at night, but this year we feel very sad about those who lost their lives for us, so we won’t do it.’’
The cancellations come amid intensifying unrest – and increasing military presence – in the Tibetan areas in Qinghai, Gansu, and especially Sichuan.
While much of the focus has been on the dramatic and desperate acts of those driven to set themselves alight, the mass protests, including a recent one in Yushu, Qinghai, have been made up mostly by villagers – and not just purely in solidarity with their respected monks.
Emotions in the numerous government-commissioned resettlement villages visited by the Herald ranged from silent frustration to barely-contained anger over a consistent range of issues: treatment of their monks, perceived restrictions on their own freedom to travel and practice their religion, and their loss of quality of life after being moved from herding yaks in the mountains into nomad resettlement camps.
‘‘We heard what was happening [the protests on January 23] and were thinking of doing the same, but then we heard there were more than 3000 soldiers in the area, so we decided not to,’’ says Namkha , a 55-year-old villager from Tongren, Qinghai. ‘‘The temple leader told us not to for our safety, so we resisted our anger.’’ Barnett says while it is important to point out that there was no deliberate attempt to destroy Tibetan culture, China’s self-proclaimed record in preserving it has been ‘‘erratic and uneven’’.
‘‘To modernise nomad lifestyle is to bring it to an end,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s very hard to describe the nomad settlement policy, which is huge, as not an attack on a major aspect of Tibetan culture.’’
Wilful or otherwise, the net result is the spectre of an ultimate eradication, possibly within the space of a generation, of a way of life that has existed for more than 4000 years. Names have been changed to protect those interviewed for this report.