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The Fate of Tibet's Nomadic Peoples and the Decline of Global Cultural Diversity



Mark Kernan, Tibet Post International
16 August 2012

16 august 2012 003Dharamshala: Tibetan nomads make up approximately one third of Tibet's population, over two million people; however to a large extent many of them are now only nomads, or even semi-nomads, by name only.

Many have been forcibly housed into concrete ghettoes under a controversial resettlement scheme enacted by the Chinese government in 2003 and as a result their customs, social institutions, beliefs & spiritual traditions, farming systems, livelihoods: in fact, their entire 'cultural universe' is now under serious threat. A threat shared with many of the world's nomadic and indigenous peoples.

It is difficult to convey the threat being posed by the Chinese government's modernization plans for Tibetan's Nomads and their lands. China's controversial 'ecological migration' scheme is now well under way. The charge is that China is now attempting to engineer an entire ecology just as it tries to engineer an economy and, the vast Tibetan plateau, the Nomads home for thousands of years, is undergoing rapid 'scientific development' -and potential environmental destruction.

The nomads way of being in the world, they call themselves 'the richest people in the world' despite having very little material wealth, is being consciously eroded by state power. The consequences of China's policies for the Nomads are sadly predictable: dislocation, loss of identity, loss of community, alcoholism, unemployment and more, much more.

Traditional societies are under threat throughout the world. Indigenous peoples' cultures, a rich source of disparate knowledge and cultural diversity, is threatened by encroaching economic globalization in the form of state intervention, cultural homogenization, and increasing pressure from big business interests. Land, rivers, forests, jungles are being expropriated by a rapacious economic system bent on acquisition and domination.

For Tibet's nomads, it was only a matter of time before China's 'economic miracle' arrived on their doorsteps. For the Chinese authorities, it has been said of their attitude towards Nomads that they regard them as just 'wanderers in the wilderness' or even worse, parasites mismanaging the environment and therefore being in the way of socio/ economic progress and 'development'. Or, as Hu Jintao, the current Chinese Prime Minister asserted in coded and rhetorical language: development is the foundation of resolving Tibet's problems.

The question however is, and always has been: whose development? And ultimately whose problems, and ambitions, are being addressed by development?

Xibu da Kaifa-'Open up the West'

'Stability and Development' are the key tropes being used by the Chinese communist party in Tibet in order to transform the western part of the country. Xibu Da Kaifa is an economic development strategy, beginning in 1999, which aims to transform the Tibetan plateau forever. For example according to the World Bank, approximately 220,000 kilometers of roads were built between 2000 -05 alone, of which almost 7000 kilometers are major highways. In addition, over 5,000 kilometers of railways were built in the same period and ten airports were, or are being, constructed.

For such rapid economic expansion to happen, and succeed, in a relatively short space of time Tibet's nomads must therefore be corralled, managed, and ultimately controlled. There is of course an historical precedence to all of this-Native Americans in the 19th century were also in the way of economic progress, consequently, much of their culture and 'way of being on the land' was lost and destroyed forever.

The effects of such accelerated development are manifold, for instance, nomads have for thousands of years have used bartering as a form of economic exchange, in common with many other traditional societies, and paper money was largely unheard of. The Chinese have been actively discouraging the practice and have instead imposed a paper money system in order to regularize the economy. Subsequently, Tibet's nomads, lacking formal education and skills are at an immediate disadvantage as they are compelled to discard their traditions and compete with others in a constructed capitalist economy.

And, in what can only be described as a tragic ironic twist, Tibetan nomads have been blamed by Chinese scientists for the desertification of the regions mountain grasslands. Grass is being eroded, according to the authorities, by overgrazing and other traditional nomadic practices. Under the pretext of ecological protection, Beijing's resettlement scheme of Tibetan Nomads is an attempt to 'restore and revitalize' the local ecology, and thus improve living standards.

However, according to the Tibetan government-in-exile the real motive of the scheme is not in restoring the environment, but rather to clear the land for mineral extraction-zinc and lead mostly- and moreover to forcibly move nomads into purpose built housing where they can be more easily monitored and controlled by local authorities.

Nomads, stewards and protectors of the land for thousands of years, are now, according to Beijing, the primary problem.

The Tibetan nomadic story is an urgent and compelling narrative of cultural loss-but also; it is an interesting phenomenon that loss of cultural diversity is often combined with the loss of biological diversity.

Cultural Survival, an organization dedicated to defending the human rights of traditional peoples, state that everyday an indigenous homeland, similar to the Tibetan nomad's homeland, will be strip-mined, clear-cut, or flooded by a dam.

In effect, one set of 'losses' is intrinsically connected to the other.

Unfortunately, the nomadic story of Tibet and its characteristics are being replicated across the earth; amongst, for instance, the Indigenous and traditional peoples of the Amazon, Malaysia, Cambodia, Guatemala and Botswana and many more.

The loss of cultural diversity and biological diversity-language, medicine, plant life, spiritual traditions and much more- is almost incalculable.

See also, China's forced assimilation campaign-A policy of cultural control-and use of the world's resources

Society for threatened peoples.com

Rukor.org

Nomads Rights.org

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