Tue, Oct 01, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Tibetans forced to relinquish nomadic past for China’s future

The formal establishment next year of Sanjiangyuan National Park means Tibetans from the area who migrated to rural townships will not be able to return to their homes, and some people worry about the cost to their cultural heritage

By Ryan Woo  /  Reuters, MADOI, China

Illustration: Yusha

Former nomad Yanglo spent his youth tending yaks and sheep in the highlands of China’s Qinghai Province, but the Tibetan is now often found huddled over a sewing machine in his modest brick home about 160km away stitching sheepskin coats.

The 45-year-old was among tens of thousands of Tibetan nomads who resettled in rural townships in the early 2000s, wooed by financial compensation from a Chinese government keen to pull the region back from ecological disaster.

Yanglo, who makes traditional Tibetan clothing to supplement his income as a park ranger in the upper Yellow River basin, is a model resettler.

“I am used to it now, and I don’t plan to return to the grasslands,” Yanglo said as he worked at his electric sewing machine in a resettlement village on the outskirts of Madoi County, about 2,000km from Beijing.

That is fortunate for Yanglo, as the government plans to declare a 123,100km2 area of alpine grasslands, wetlands and lakes — roughly equivalent in size to England — as a national park by the end of next year.

That will officially block him and many other migrants from ever returning to their former pastoral life.

China says the relocations have been key to saving the grasslands and helping Tibetans escape from poverty, but there is international concern the drive is coming at too high a cost, including the loss of cultural traditions and communities.

The government was spurred into action at the turn of the century when the upper course of the Yellow River began drying up, depleted by agriculture, industrialization and mining. The 5,464km river even failed to reach the sea in some years.


Blaming global warming and overgrazing, China turned the upper basins of the Yangtze, the Lancang (the Mekong) and the Yellow rivers into a nature reserve known as Sanjiangyuan National Park.

The government has invested more than 18 billion yuan (US$2.53 billion) in conserving the local ecology since 2005, and plans to invest 900 million yuan this year.

The government gave families who were willing to move from the area tens of thousands of yuan each in one-off compensation payments and thousands more yuan in recurring subsidies for grain and fuel.

Almost 100,000 Tibetans have shifted to towns since 2005, according to state media.

Yanglo, who like some Tibetans goes by one name, left his home on the shores of Gyaring and Ngoring, a pair of high-altitude lakes near the headwaters of the Yellow River, in 2003.

Last year, he was given a brick house with a walled yard in a specially built village of about 1,000 homes.

There is little in Yanglo’s home to remind his family of their nomadic past. His three children were all born after he had left the grasslands.

“My children are too young to know the difference, so I’ve borrowed a few yaks and let my children milk them,” said Yanglo, speaking in Tibetan. “At least they can be near the animals.”

However, his biggest wish is for his children “to get a better education and acquire some culture” by assimilating further.

Ironically, that is what some human rights groups are worried about, fearing permanent mass migration will end a unique way of life.

For Tibetans, the natural world is more than a source of corporeal sustenance. It is also a spiritual landscape inhabited by deities and demons that demand respect and sacrifice.

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