Protecting the culture and identity of herders on the Tibetan Plateau

Tibetan plateau

I grew up in a rural Tibetan semi-nomadic community where my grandparents mainly farmed the land for their livelihoods. We planted barley and wheat and raised horses, cows, cattle and donkeys. Life in my community was very simple, villagers felt a sense of solidarity and we all held a unique love towards both our community and our surrounding environment.

In my lifetime, I have seen how the livelihoods in our family and village changed due to increased modernization and spread of mechanized farming. Many of the young people moved to work in urban centers. My grandparents began to adopt a semi-herder lifestyle then abandoned it to become full-time farmers. One of the sad memories for me was when I was ten years old; my grandfather sold our last remaining horse, which he used for transportation, ritual ceremonies and festival purposes. Since that time, there were no horses in my village and we would borrow horses from neighboring herder families when we required practicing our cultural traditions. Recently, I asked my grandfather why don’t they simply stop the horse festival as it is becoming harder every year to find horses to borrow for this event. He replied that horses have always been an important feature in Tibetan history related to the religious festivals and horse racing helped to make the local deity happy and prevent natural disasters.

Tibetan grassland

Yaks and sheep in the grasslands. (Photo by Mkha Be.)

In 2008, I went to university in my province. I met many other Tibetans who spoke of their relatives who were herders but sold their livestock and moved to urban centers following the implementation of the state’s “Ecological Resettlement Project”. While the project aimed to improve rangeland conditions and improve herders’ livelihood in their area, compensation was paid to the herders to leave their traditional livelihood or reduce their livestock on their grassland since the grassland was becoming degraded. My new friends spoke of the many difficulties faced by their relatives in their new environment. It brought to mind the words of my grandfather and I began to worry for the future of Tibetan culture. Livestock such as horse and yak has always been an integral part of our identity. Without these livestock, what will happen to our identity? These questions have persisted in my mind through my undergraduate study to the present time.

The Eco-Resettlement Project aims to prevent grassland degradation and improve herders’ livelihood in the area known as “Three Rivers Source” which comprises the Mekong, Yellow and Yangtse Rivers. Meanwhile, the mainstream view of grassland degradation is that is a result of ‘overstocking’ and ‘human intervention’. Overstocking means the livestock population has gone beyond the land’s carrying capacity and human intervention refers to the people’s especially herders’ activities in the grasslands. Furthermore, many studies show that ‘pika’, a small rodent, was one of the main contributors to grassland degradation. Official policy suggests the use of poison to kill the pikas to protect the grassland. However, these conservation strategies could not meet their objectives.

Tibetan woman herder

A Tibetan woman herder. (Photo by Mkha Be.)

From 2011-2013, I got a chance to interview herders in the resettlement area on the Tibetan plateau. Those who had previously earned their livelihoods as herders were unhappy and unclear about their current circumstances. Some had moved back to their pastoral areas to resume their original herding livelihood, while others stayed in the resettlement area mainly for their children’s education and since their families faced labor shortages. I noticed two main issues. First, the issue of grassland degradation is very controversial among the herders, some agreed with government perceptions about the causes while others disagreed. Secondly, resettled herders are facing numerous difficulties included unemployment, social discrimination and maintaining their identity. Traditionally, herders making their livelihood from animal husbandry they do not have much experience to do agricultural and construction work. In addition, many of them cannot speak the local Chinese dialect or Mandarin, which makes it hard to find work in the urban areas. Therefore, herders prefer to maintain their original livelihood. They told me. “At least there’s no need to get hungry if we still maintain our herder identity”. Most importantly, they considered the black tent and livestock such as yak and horse to represent their cultural identity.

The perspectives about grassland degradation vary among government officials, researchers and local herders. However, I found that many people didn’t realize the importance of local herders’ role in the grassland management process and their valuable knowledge about environmental protection. For example, the government and some researchers think that pika is a pest, but local herders view pika as food and a protector of other biodiversity. The herders also view themselves as environmental protectors, because they know how to manage their grasslands by grazing the livestock. One herder said: “Because there’s no rain here, the grass cannot grow very well, so our livestock don’t have enough grass to eat. So it’s not overstocking that caused grassland degradation”. Also, some herders said that, “When the grassland was privatized, and herders set up iron fences introduced by the local government to mark their land boundaries, their livestock became less mobile, and the privatization of the grasslands actually worsened the land quality year by year”.

Resettlement home in Tibetan grassland

The resettlement area for herders under the Eco-Resettlement Project. (Photo by Mkha Be.)

The culture and identity of Tibetan herders is based on their traditional livelihood. The loss of this identity is similar to what I felt when I lost the last horse in our family. In order to preserve the identity of the Tibetan herders and find solutions for better grassland management, the government has to resolve many of the social and ecological problems faced by the herding communities. The government has to carefully rethink its Eco-Resettlement Project that is affecting herders’ lives and livelihoods. Also, government officials and researchers need to take efforts to better understand the non-material culture of the herders living on the Tibetan plateau. It is necessary to combine the scientific methods with traditional knowledge of the Tibetan herders to protect and manage the grassland in the future.

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