Editorial and Op Ed Articles
Tibetan medicine has become a lucrative business yielding million-dollar profits to large pharmaceutical companies in China. Various new policies have been instituted to standardize the production and distribution of Tibetan medicinal products, mainly for commercial and bureaucratic reasons. These new policies are proving to be a debilitating legal framework for the persevering practitioners of the unique Buddhist healing tradition.
According to a study, there are 75 pharmaceutical companies dealing with Tibetan medicine in various corners of the Tibetan Plateau, out of which 30 are run by Tibetans. While the spiritual guidelines of making medicine according to the Buddhist medical texts – Gyushi – are increasingly compromised with the onslaught of industrial production of Tibetan medicine, an interesting issue that comes to point is regarding the efficacy of the healing powers of these medicine. “Amchi (Tibetan doctor) makes medicine to heal the patient but the pharmaceutical companies make medicine to reap profits,” explained a concerned Tibetan doctor from Amdo (now incorporated in Qinghai Province).
New government regulations require all Tibetan doctors to go through a cumbersome registration process. When approved, they are allowed to sell medicine, but only to their private patients. Rinchen-Tsotru-Dashel, a pill that normally costs 20 yuan, is now being sold for 50 yuan by pharmaceutical companies.
“Soon, we will be barred from producing these medicines as Chinese companies are gaining patents over different Tibetan medicines,” said the doctor. To the Tibetan people, the long-term issues involve the survival of this centuries-old healing tradition, as well as the access members of the community have to the tradition. Surely the ultimate subversion of the Tibetan medical tradition would be if the Tibetan people themselves were forced to purchase medicine invented by their own culture and made from their own land, at a higher cost, and from a Chinese company because of a contrived patent system set-up to benefit large industries to the exclusion of local practitioners.
Commercialization of Tibetan medicine also has environmental consequences. Most of Tibetan medicine’s plant ingredients are rare herbs that are endemic to Tibet’s high mountains. Currently, there are no mechanisms in place to check indiscriminate harvesting of these species. The commercialization of Tibetan medicine has dramatically increased demands for these ingredients, resulting in the widespread, unsustainable removal of certain plant species. Utpal Ngonpo (Blue poppy, meconopsis sp.), marketed as a cure for Hepatitis B by Chinese companies, is one such rare plant species that the Tibetan doctor fears might not survive if the current rate of harvesting continues.
The challenge for policy makers in China is not just the integration Tibetan medicine into the mainstream economy and modes of production, but also the preservation and promotion of a unique tradition of medical knowledge and expertise. While greater access to, and availability of, Tibetan medicine is a worthwhile goal, it will mean very little if the tradition which produced it is swallowed up and destroyed in the process.
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Climate Change as a Human Rights Issue for Subsistence-Based Societies
By Julia Klein*
In December 2004, a meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change took place in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in anticipation of the upcoming entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol. At the same time, the Inuit -- 155,000 seal-hunting peoples scattered around the Arctic -- announced they were preparing a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights stating that the United States, by contributing substantially to global warming, is threatening their existence. The Inuit people's lives and culture depend upon the Arctic ice. Scientists have concluded that climate change caused predominantly by human influences is causing that ice to melt and causing other impacts to the Inuit way of life. In their petition, the Inuit assert that because the United States is responsible for 25% or more of the greenhouse gas emissions that are contributing to climate change, the United States has an international obligation to prevent these human rights violations. The Inter-American Commission will forward the petition to the United States, which is the respondent, hold a series of hearings on the matter and determine whether this constitutes a violation of human rights.
Just as the Inuit rely on the arctic ice for their subsistence, Tibetan pastoralists depend on the alpine rangelands of the Tibetan Plateau for their survival. The pastoralists rely on the rangeland vegetation to convert the sun's energy into products - via domestic herbivores - that form the basis of their culture and subsistence. These products include food, clothing, housing, fuel, stored wealth, and transportation. The Tibetans also directly rely on vegetation for goods such as medicinal plants and other products.
Scientists, range managers and development personnell working on the Tibetan Plateau have primarily ignored issues of climate warming effects on the Tibetan rangelands. Rather, they have focused on the Tibetan rangelands with respect to grazing issues. The Tibetan rangeland debate is often couched in terms of whether the Tibetans are "rational" or "irrational" land managers, whether animal densities are increasing or decreasing on the Tibetan Plateau, the merits and drawbacks of fencing and sedentarization, and the effects of small mammal grazing on the rangelands. While most of these issues are very important, they should be studied in the context of a changing underlying climatic condition. These topics also highlight the propensity for scientists, range managers and development personnell working on the Tibetan Plateau to observe rangeland degradation, observe grazing animals (or fences or small mammals), and make a causal connection between the two based on observation rather than a valid scientific analysis of cause and effect.
While very little research has been conducted on how climate warming may affect ecosystem goods and services on the Tibetan Plateau, work has recently been published in the scientific literature (Klein et al. 2004) that shows climate warming could cause as much as a 36% decline in plant species diversity on the northeastern region of the Tibetan Plateau. This includes declines in medicinal plant species and palatable forage species richness. This work also indicates warming could reduce overall vegetative productivity and increase shrub encroachment in this region of the Tibetan Plateau (Klein 2003).
There is a consensus among the scientific community that much of the present climate warming on Earth is due to human activities (IPCC 2001). According to the New York Times, the United States was the only country at the climate meetings in Buenos Aires which continues to question the climate change science. There is also evidence that climate warming is occurring on the Tibetan Plateau (Thompson et al. 2000). China, which ratified the Kyoto Protocol in 1992, is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, but per capita emissions of global warming pollutants in China are just 15 percent of U.S. levels. China accepted no mandatory greenhouse gas emissions target under the Protocol -- only developed countries are subject to binding emission targets in the Kyoto Protocol's first emission control period, 2008 to 2012.
Climate warming is an unusual environmental problem because the primary actors driving the changes can be far removed from the most vulnerable recipients of the climate change effects. This large spatial disconnect between drivers and recipients is due to the nature of greenhouse gases, which mix relatively rapidly in the atmosphere across the globe. The Inuit people can assert their rights in the international arena because there has been careful documentation of climate change in the arctic, because the ecological and social impacts of climate change on the Inuit people have been rigorously studied for over a decade, and because supporters of the Inuit people recognize the links between politics, human rights and climate change. The Tibetan pastoralists, who are potentially highly vulnerable to climate change impacts, will also need to rely on rigorous science and an interested community to assert their rights to a resource base that is being affected by anthropogenic climate changes and to bring this issue to the attention of the international community.
1. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2001. Climate change 2001: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (ed. Houghton, J.T., Griggs, D.J., Noguer, M., van der Linden, P.J., Dai, X., Maskell, K., & Johnson, C.A.). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
2. Klein, J.A., J. Harte & X.Q. Zhao. 2004. Experimental warming causes large and rapid species loss, dampened by simulated grazing, on the Tibetan Plateau. Ecology Letters 7(12) 1170-1179.
3. Klein, Julia A. 2003. Climate warming and pastoral land use change: implications for carbon cycling, biodiversity and rangeland quality on the Northeastern Tibetan Plateau, PhD Thesis, University of California, Berkeley.
4. Thompson L.G., Yao T., Mosley-Thompson E., Davis M.E., Henderson K.A. & Lin P.-N. (2000) A high-resolution millennial record of the South Asian monsoon from Himalayan ice cores. Science, 289, 1916-1919.
[*Julia Klein is a NOAA Postdoctoral Fellow at the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory of Colorado State University, and can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org]
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