Tibetans fight back against declining “reverence for nature”

A group of Qinghai conservationists have spent a month touring the Tibetan plateau in search of ordinary people taking action to protect their environment.

Last year, the entire staff of Snowland Great Rivers Environmental Protection Association, an environmental NGO working on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, set off from the city of Xining for a month-long tour they called “Environmentalists in the Snow”. The group travelled throughout Qinghai’s Three- River Source region (the source of the Yangtze, Lancang and Yellow River), looking for ordinary people taking action to protect the environment. chinadialogue’s Zhou Wei interviewed Snowland’s general secretary Hashi Tashidorjee about the trip.

Zhou Wei: Why did you go looking for “environmentalists in the snow?”

Hashi Tashidorjee: Here in the “third pole”, most of the land is grasslands, populated by nomadic herders. Life here teaches us to respect nature; that you can only survive by adjusting to nature. That’s the “natural education” the plateau quietly gives us. Protecting the environment is a faith here, and the idea of environmental protection permeates people’s lives.

The locals here are the main protectors of the environment. They are permanent residents, nobody understands the grasslands better and they feel close to it and feel personal pain if it is damaged.

So when we started conservation work on the plateau, the most important thing was to involve the locals.

The economy here has developed in recent years. New railways and roads have been built. There are more tourists, more outsiders coming in, and all that has made environmental protection a bigger issue. Also, the locals are gradually losing their reverence for nature as consumerism becomes more powerful here. People are starting to rely on goods brought in from outside, and collecting caterpillar fungus, breeding Tibetan mastiffs and tourism have all become tempting ways of making money. That kind of culture and the disorder of the natural system are causing a lot of concern.

Some locals have started to advocate and act. I know 60 or 70 people, living on different parts of the plateau – in herding or farming areas, in cities or temples. We went to find them and to encourage each other. 

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ZW: What kind of things are they doing?

HT: For example, in the village of Ganda in Yushu, there are three “environmentalists in the snow” – village officials Ye Qing and Qiong Cairen, and a retired teacher Xijiang. They have led the villagers in protecting Yushu’s only water source, the Zhaqu River. 

Everyone in Yushu relies on the river, and all the roads and power lines between Yushu and Ganda follow its course. When they were built, no consideration was given to protecting water sources, there was no environmental assessment or design. Rubbish by the roadside pollutes the river and the trench dug to lay optical fibre has damaged the grasslands and water sources, causing them to dry up for a time.

So the villagers took it upon themselves to protect the river’s sources of water, and they did it meticulously. "Rather than worry about the Yangtze and the Yellow River,” they said, “let’s do something about the stream outside the front door.” Tibetans believe that if the water is damaged it will cause skin diseases and other illnesses. So if you want to be healthy, you need to look after your water.

In accordance with the practices of Tibetan Buddhism, they placed sacred vessels at 16 sources of water, built altars and had eminent monks perform ceremonies. The 10th of September was designated an annual water source festival, making protection of water sources a part of the culture. A team of 16 volunteers now patrol the water sources to keep an eye on them.

Once they started doing that, the water began to flow again from several sources that had dried up – in some cases even more than before. The villagers say that if people are good to nature, it will improve. Now there’s no rubbish in Ganda, and they say the water is clean enough to be offered to the Buddha.

Reconstruction work that started after the Yushu earthquake in April 2010 is still going on. High voltage power lines are going up all over the place, and construction teams have built road after road so as to move the pylons in. All those roads have damaged the grasslands. After a month of talks between the villagers and the engineers, it was agreed that the workers would carry the steel poles used to build the pylons in one by one. The villagers also ensured that the holes dug for the pylons were small, reducing damage to the grassland.

This was the first time the builders had come up against such determined “opposition”. But everyone learned something in the process. The Ganda villagers made sure everyone knew that if you’re going to live here, you’ve got to respect nature. 

ZW: Cuochi village and its Friend of Wild Yak Association have been very influential. Can you tell us about that?

HT: The party secretary of the village, Gama, is one of these environmentalists. Six or seven years ago, when Snowlands had just started working there, there was a big poaching problem. Thirteen herders formed an anti-poaching patrol. Back then, Gama was an ordinary herder, and he was part of that patrol. As we got to know the group, we gave them binoculars and took them to Sichuan for training.

That inspired them to form the Friend of Wild Yak Association. Gama was at the heart of that, and of the village. They have 200 members now – that means one member from every household in the village.

One important part of their work is monitoring wild animals. They ask herders to keep track of wildlife numbers. They never thought that, through doing this, the herders would start to worry about the wild yaks, and the impact of herding on the grasslands. So, to make room for the yaks, the village decided to pull out of pastures used by 12 households. Now the habitat available for the wild yaks is twice as large as before, and the entire village’s understanding of the environment around them has changed.

The 2,400 square kilometres of land belonging to Cuochi is free of rubbish, of poachers and of mines. The annual environmental festival brings the entire village together, and afterwards there isn’t a single piece of rubbish – even the ash from dung fires is cleaned away.

Once I visited a relative in Cuochi. The herders were bringing the cows home, followed by wild Mongolian gazelles. You don’t see that anywhere else. Now wildlife and the people live close together, you can even take close-up shots.

The nearby village of Leichi was also quietly influenced by what happened in Cuochi. The grasslands of Leichi are a well-known habitat for the Tibetan antelope. Leichi’s herders visited the first environmental festival in Cuochi and were inspired to go back and form a Tibetan Antelope Conservation Association to monitor wildlife numbers.

Gasang used to be one of Leichi’s most enthusiastic hunters – he didn’t like to go a day without shooting something. But now he’s given it up and joined in with the monitoring. He uses camera to take shots of the animals, and as he understands their habits he gets the best photos. Looking at the animals through a camera lens has really changed him.

Now Leichi is rubbish-free too. Sometimes I wonder if they’re just doing it for the outsiders. But once I was passing through and saw a jeep parked by the side of the road. I thought it was someone else on their way through who had stopped for a rest, but when I got closer I saw villagers from Leichi picking up rubbish from the roadside. The grasslands there are much better protected now.

The township of Qumahe is working to spread that experience and is preparing to become an ecological township. Little things down build up over the long term and are very valuable.

ZW: Are all of these people locals?

HT: No. The herders aside, lots of people come from elsewhere.

There’s a man called Heipi, who was a radio reporter in Wenzhou [a city in eastern China] until 2002. He heard about the Grassland Tribes – a yearly event where Snowlands brings university students from Beijing to the grasslands – and kept on phoning me, asking to join in. I said no: he wasn’t a university student, and we didn’t need reporters. In the end he just turned up at the gate of our Xining office just before we set off, carrying a huge rucksack.

Heipi has visited every year since then, but he doesn’t make a fuss about it – he just works quietly for the village of Cuochi and the project. That kind of work is very important for the village. That moves me. I wanted to give him a certificate to make him an honorary citizen of the village – it wouldn’t do him or the village any good, but it would please me.

And there are many volunteers in Beijing, Guangzhou or Shanghai whose hearts remain in the grasslands. They are also environmentalists in the snow.