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Editorial and Op Ed Articles

    Issue 3, October 30, 2003


    By Tenzin Choezin, Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center, New York Translated by Tenzin Bhuchung, UC Berkeley Rotary Peace Scholar

    Tibetans’ traditions and their way of life are intimately linked to the landscape: its spectacular high mountains and pristine lakes. The significance of landscape finds meaning and expression both in pre-Buddhist Bon tradition as well as in Tibetan Buddhist culture.

    According to the indigenous Bon tradition, Tibetans believe that mountains, lakes, ponds, springs and river sources are dwelling places of the protector gods of Tibet and most of these sites are named, often in a modified version, after the name of a particular deity believed to be dwelling there. Furthermore, all mountains and lakes have at least one amazing legend surrounding them. The sky-touching mountains are believed to be stairways to heaven (Lha-yul) and the crystal clear lakes as gateways to the underworld realm of the Nagas (Lu-yul).

    From a Tibetan Buddhist interpretation, mountains like the Jomolangma (Everest), Ghung-gyal, Amnye Machen and many other high mountains of Tibet are regarded as abodes of the gods and the twelve female guardian deities that were believed to be present at the formation of the Tibetan landscape and civilization. Mountains such as Ghang Rinpoche (Mount Kailash), Mount Tsari Tsagong and Mount Khawa Karpo are regarded as heavenly dwelling places of various trans-worldly deities.

    Even lakes such as Mapham Yutso, Namtso Chukmo, Yamdrok Yutso, Trishor Gyalmo and others are widely revered as abodes various female deities such as Dorji Phagmo (Vajra Yogini). There are also lakes that Tibetans believe reveal prophetic visions in them such as Lhamo Lhatso, Thod-lung Tsehu, O’lkha Tsehu, and Tsari Yutso. These lakes are revered as miraculous sources of protection and are believed to have helped in identifying the next incarnation of Lamas (spiritual teachers) including the current Dalai Lama.

    Three lakes in eastern Tibet—Kyaring, Ngoring and Doring—are surrounded by high mountain ranges with one mountain rising distinctively higher. Tibetans regard this area as the dwelling place (trans lit: bla gnas) of King Ling Gesar, and have named the highest mountain after the legendary King. It is a common practice for local Tibetans to offer prayers in these sacred sites. There are also numerous natural fountains and hot springs that Tibetans believe are blessed by the Medicine. Tibetans believe that when they drink or bathe in them, many chronic diseases can be cured. Then there are lakes such as Nagphak Tso and O’tso that serve as winter migration places for rare and endangered species of birds like the black-necked crane.

    In particular, Ghang Rinpoche (Mount Kailash) and the River Ganga are sacred places of worship not only for Tibetans but also for many in India and Nepal. Many of Tibet’s high Lamas (Dharma teachers) have built monasteries and meditation houses near these sacred sites, while others have spent their lives there in solitary contemplation. Thus these places are considered doubly blessed. Animals dwelling in these sacred places are regarded as divine manifestations. Respect for the lives of these animals is such that not even a small plant is cut, let alone the animals killed. Instead, Tibetans customarily pile white pebbles into a heap in such places to symbolize the enhancement of their pure motivations. Instead of fishing, Tibetans throw precious objects into the lakes as offerings to the deities believed to be residing in them.

    Even today, the Tibetan people deeply believe in the world of gods and demons. In all their worldly activities, they evoke gods and spirits for their accomplishment. Such traditional practices and belief systems associated with local ecosystems are an inseparable part of Tibetan culture and way of life.

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    (News analysis)

    The failure of the fifth World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference, held in Cancun, Mexico from September 10-14, 2003, to achieve consensus on entrenched trade issues between “first” and “third” world countries, may send mixed signals about the popularity of the global free trade regime. Noting the modest progress made at the WTO ministerial conferences since the 1989 Seattle meeting, the global free trade regime appears to be in a gridlock. However, in Asia, most notably with Chinese leaders, the free trade mantra is stronger than ever in negotiating multi-lateral and bi-lateral trade agreements, with almost no report of protests.

    Since the last issue of Trin-gyi-pho-nya, the new Chinese leadership has signed various free trade agreements and expressed its ambitions to set up free trade zones, from Russia in the north, to Kazakhstan in the west and Indonesia and Australia in the southeast. The fact that “terrorism” and “nuclear proliferation” were added to the agenda of the recently concluded 21-member economies’ Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum at President Bush’s behest may not be as curious a development as the fact that the Chinese Premier Wen Jiaobao has proposed turning Shanghai Cooperation Organization (Members: China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan), an international alliance formed specifically to battle terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan, into a free trade zone (People’s Daily, September 23, 2003).

    To the Chinese leaders, globalization (quanqiuhua) is clearly the main long-term geo-economic and, by extension, geopolitical strategy to make China rich and strong. Since China opened trade with the outside world, with exceptionally high investment and credit expansion, its economy has been surging with a GDP growth rate averaging 8% per year. Even in poorer regions like the Tibet Autonomous Region, owing to “improving investment environment,” Xinhua reports that the regional government has been able to approve “14 joint ventures with contractual overseas investment amounting to 4.31 million US dollars since 2001,” out of which 2.16 million US dollars have “already materialized” (Xinhua: September 17).

    The 12th Asian Development Bank’s Greater Mekong Subregion Economic Co-operation Programme (GMS) Ministerial Conference was recently held in the town of Dali, in Yunnan Province of China. China wants to use GMS as “a model programme for forming a free trade area between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)” (China Daily: September 19). ASEAN is an international organization of nine member states (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand), formed to promote regional stability and economic development.

    A few weeks after the GMS Ministerial Conference, China’s President Hu Jintao attended the ASEAN Summit in Bali, Indonesia, where he is said to have made “important progress in establishing a China-ASEAN free trade area” (Xinhua: October 8). On October 1, China and Thailand signed an agreement to remove all tariffs on 1,188 farm products, mostly vegetables and fruits, to strengthen bi-lateral trade (Xinhua: October 18). How this agreement will affect ordinary farmers, particularly Tibetan farmers in southeast Tibet, remains to be seen.

    The implications of the global free trade regime for the disenfranchised people of occupied Tibet are a scarcely debated topic. Technically, people in Tibet are subject to all the free trade agreements to which China is signatory. In a press statement dated September 10 in Cancun, Canada Tibet Committee explained, “under China's WTO accession agreement, tariffs for cereal grains must be reduced from 91.1% - 3%, and for oil seeds from 96.9% to 3.9%.” “These 2 categories account for most of the crops grown by Tibetan farmers - barley, wheat and rapeseed. The resulting downward price spiral will lead to further reductions in household incomes and to increased poverty among Tibetans." Thupten Samdup, National President of the Canada Tibet Committee, called on the WTO to adopt special rules for people living under foreign occupation and to extend “least-developed country (LDC)” status to Tibet.

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    Last month, China’s State Development and Reform Commission approved a dam project on a sacred lake in the Kham region of Tibet, now incorporated under Sichuan Province. The decision to build a dam at Megoe Tso (Mugecuo in Chinese, also called Yeti Lake) came several weeks after a investigative team sent by Premier Wen Jiabao pushed the fate of the project in favor of the builders by overlooking local socio-economic and environmental costs. Earlier this month, several international environmental non-governmental organizations, along with the International Tibet Support Network, requested that the Chinese Premier conduct a thorough needs and options assessment of the project as per World Commission on Dams guidelines before commencing the project.

    The rich water resources in Sichuan Province attract an increasing number of Chinese and overseas, state-owned and private investors for its exploitation. There are hundreds of dam projects (of all sizes) that are being planned and currently under construction in the region. Plans for the Megoe Tso project are to build a 50 m high and 260 m wide dam at the exit of the lake, connected to another downstream pumping storage power plant and Jin'gai hydropower plant through tunnels and channels to generate electricity and maintain water flow between the flood and dry seasons. Hua Neng Co., a Beijing based power company is the main “owner” of the project, with plans to invest over $300 million, along with the government of Kartse Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture.

    Oppositions expressed against the project mainly revolve around the immense environmental costs of the project and local people’s spiritual and socio-economic concerns. Megoe Tso lake area is a bio-hotspot, surrounded by other beautiful lakes, pristine glacial waters, hot springs, and primeval forests, all of which sustain more than 1,000 species of rare tropical plants and 2,000 varieties of animals and birds. People whose lives would be directly affected by the project are mostly ethnic Tibetans, mainly pastoralists, farmers, and medicinal herb gatherers by occupation. To these people, Megoe Tso is the most sacred lake in all of Kham. Local people’s written opposition to the dam project were submitted to concerned authorities, representations of which were reported to have been made to the Chinese Premier.

    There are other issues surrounding the project. These include impacts of the project on the local tourism economy and seismological threats to the dam structure as the project site falls within the Luhuo-Kangding fault lines of Western Sichuan Province. Although seismological threats are less knowable, most analysts agree that it is in the long-run interest of Sichuan’s tourism economy to save the lake. “Tourists, botanists, photographers and spiritual pilgrims from around the world visit the area every year, and the number of interested people is bound to keep increasing if the area is kept in its pristine condition,” said Doris Shen of the International Rivers Network.

    The Megoe Tso dam project now stands as an avenue for the new Chinese leadership to practice some of the democratic reforms that they said will be introduced in the governance of the Party-state at an internal meeting last month. A re-assessment of the project through a genuine multi-stakeholder dialogue, a practice that the government has been touting in the past, is urgently needed. A multi-stakeholder dialogue, if facilitated properly, is, at least, more possible in this case, considering the host of issues raised about the project, especially by local leaders, environmental groups and scientists. Their voices must be heard before Megoe Tso’s cultural and natural heritage is compromised for short-term economic gains.

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    By Tenzin Wangyal, Middlebury College, Vermont

    Will the Tibetan nomads (Drokpa: Tibetan) and their way of life survive as a culture in this age of modernization or will they, in the words of Ekvall, “slowly and surely become compromised?” In this essay, I will briefly outline the reasons why I believe that Tibetan nomads do not stand a chance to withstand the current waves of marginalization, exploitation, modernization and globalization, owing to its unprecedented magnitude and the changing attitudes of the nomads themselves.

    Contrary to Chinese policy-makers’ opinions, many scholars have acknowledged the traditional Tibetan nomadic way of life to be a successful adaptation to one of the world’s most inhospitable environments. The Chinese unduly regarded Tibetan nomads as “unsophisticated and backward, clinging to traditional practices because they are ignorant” (Daniel J. Miller). It is noteworthy that Tibetan pastoral nomadism does not fit into the Marxist theory of the socialist state and consequently, the Chinese policy makers in spite of their initial assurances, wanted to get rid of this unproductive and uneconomical segment of Tibetan society (Robert B. Ekvall). The primary purpose of sedentarization of nomads was to facilitate collectivization and control, as illustrated by Chu The’s statement that “all nomadic herdsmen should settle in order to facilitate socialist transformation and socialist construction.”

    The traditional Tibetan nomadic system came under attack as early as 1960 with the implementation of the “mutual-aid program” (rog-ras: Tibetan). In 1966, people’s communes replaced the private ownership of animals. Nomads earned work-points for work performed and received food and necessities based on the number of points they had received (Daniel J. Miller). The Chinese imposed draconian rules that the drokpa were forbidden to even practice Buddhism. Their religious articles such as books, images, and shrines were destroyed.

    The worst period for the nomads was during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) when the Red Guards attacked the “four olds” and imposed a new “atheistic Communist class system.” Almost all the programs by the Chinese government failed for the Tibetan nomads. Finally, thanks to Hu Yaobang’s visit to Tibet, the Chinese Politburo found out that conditions in Tibet were not as sanguine as they were reported earlier. Subsequently, in 1981, the commune system was dissolved and the household “complete responsibility” system was established. Subsequently, many of the traditional nomadic pastoral practices were reinstated and nomads began to prosper again.

    Much of the current problems confronting millions of Tibetan nomads today could be easily attributed to the ill-conceived Chinese policies, born out of antipathy toward the nomadic way of life, leaving the nomads at the mercy of market forces. Under the current market system, nomads have lost their traditional economic enterprises such as the salt trade. Barley, which is the Tibetan staple grain, is not subsidized like rice or wheat, which are consumed by the Chinese settlers. Wool, another commodity produced by the nomads is also not protected. Wealthy rural Tibetans choose to invest their savings in China where profits are better. In responding to the market, they have only seen marginal success as retailers of medicinal herbs and mushrooms.

    Moreover, the Chinese government has recently been trying to entice the nomads with incentives such as exemption from both taxes and the quota system in the hope that they may gradually take up a sedentary lifestyle. Recently, there have been many reported incidents of in-fighting among nomads over land because of fenced pasturelands. The fencing of traditional grasslands—a government policy aimed at settling herdsmen—has resulted in the death of at least 29 nomads in the last two years, according to Tibet Information Network. During such incidents, the Chinese authorities have been reluctant to intervene and there are reports of authorities actually providing weapons and training the nomads on how to use them. Even the traditional role of lamas as mediators has been condemned and punished by the authorities. There are no punitive measures taken against those nomads who kill other nomads. Many nomads view this abetting of in-fighting as a strategy of the Chinese government.

    Enclosed pastures and fencing have also resulted in environmental problems such as grassland degradation and overgrazing. Moreover, the nomads themselves must pay exorbitant rates for the fencing; ironically, some are able to do this only by selling their cattle. Recent government directives require all families to have a winter house. And dates of migration are also being set by the state. In addition to the aforesaid threats and problems, there is Tibet’s already unpredictable and inhospitable climate. One disastrous winter and the resulting lack of fodder can decimate an entire flock.

    Even more worrisome than the threats posed by outside factors are changes in attitudes of the nomads themselves, especially among the younger generation. Young couples prefer to live in permanent houses than in their yak-tents. In Qinghai province, for example, according Xinhua reports, over 67% of herdsmen have already settled into houses. This gradual shift can be seen in the new trends such as the motorbike becoming a status symbol for young nomads. Moreover, many parents encourage their nomadic children to continue school in order to find other “jobs” in the new market economy.

    In conclusion, though Tibetan nomadism has shown resilience and has revived in the past, this time it faces an even greater threat. Tibetan nomadism faces its challenge in time, modernization, the lure and comfort of sedentary life and the ever-deteriorating conditions of their life owing to discriminatory government policies.

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    1. Tibetan Antelope
    (Source: Chinese government sources)

    “The US government listed the Tibetan Antelope, called chiru, as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. The listing was made in response to a petition filed by the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Tibetan Plateau Project” (ICT: October 22). The population of Tibetan antelopes has been declining in the recent decades due to relentless poaching for its “shatoosh” wool, considered to be one of the finest animal fibers in the world.

    In recent years, however, according to Xinhua, there have been remarkable increases in the endangered animal’s population —as much as 50% in some areas—due to national conservation measures (Xinhua: September 16). Tibetan antelopes are reportedly thriving in various state level nature reserve parks like the Jhangthang Nature Reserve, Hoh Xil Nature Reserve and Sanjiangyuan Reserve and the sources of the three major rivers—the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong—in the northwestern Qinghai province. A film crew, sponsored by the State Council’s Information Office and the Ministry of Public Security, is to shoot a documentary on the living conditions of these animals and the conservation efforts that are undertaken by the authorities (China Daily, October 10).

    2. Tibet’s Mineral Water Likely to be Developed with Foreign Capital
    (Source: Interfax News Agency)

    A large natural mineral water source that was apparently discovered two years ago in Damshung (Dangziong: Chinese) county of Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) may be “further” explored with “certain foreign companies” (China Metals Report Weekly, September 30). The head of the Geothermal Geographical Prospecting Division of TAR, Suo Jia, is reported to have confirmed with Interfax that plans are currently at a “negotiation stage.”

    “According to Suo Jia, any geographical prospecting discovery is usually released two years after the discovery, counted from the day the discovery takes place. The discovered source is claimed to have the best flow, stability and exploration conditions of any in the province, since Tibet [Autonomous Region] began prospecting and developing for drinkable natural mineral water sources.”

    3. Pandas
    (Source: China Daily, September 22)

    Eight giant pandas (“Jhila-dhom” in Tibetan)—seven males and one female, all aged between two and five years—are reported to have been moved from Wolong Reserve in Sichuan Province to a new home in Ya’an in the same province. The giant pandas will be raised separately at the new breeding center to mitigate the potential for disease spread. “They will be released into the wild when the conditions are ripe,” said He Guang-xin, Deputy Director of the China Giant Panda Propagation Technologies Committee. “Jhila-dhom” is considered to be the most sought after of animals for zoos around the world.

    4. Mines Closed Along Gormo-Lhasa Railway
    (Source: Xinhua, September 3)

    Xinhua reports another step taken to protect the environment along the controversial Gormo-Lhasa Railway (also called Qinghai-Tibet Railway). Tibet Autonomous Region’s government bureaus have cancelled permits to 29 mines that were to be set up “around scenic spots and in major grasslands and wetlands” in Ngari, Nagchu and Chamdo Prefectures (Ali, Nagqu and Qamdo in Chinese).

    5. Oil and Natural Gas
    (Source: Xinhua, September 5)

    Xinhua reports that oil has been “gushing out” from the Mabei No. 1 well in Tsaidam Basin since August 28. The daily oil and gas output from the well is reported to be 32.4 cu m and 2,962 cu m, respectively. Tsaidam Basin (Qaidam in Chinese) in the northern Amdo region, now incorporated into Qinghai Province of China is one of the major oil and natural gas reserves on the Tibetan Plateau.

    6. Nature Reserve Park For Golden Monkeys
    (Direct quote from TIN News Digest, September 26)

    “The Chinese government has established a state-level nature reserve to protect the rare golden monkey in Markham county in Chamdo Prefecture, (Chin: Mangkang county Changdu Prefecture) eastern Tibet. The reserve covers 185,000 hectares and is home to approximately 750 golden monkeys. The total number of golden monkeys worldwide is estimated to be over 1,000. Li Hong, an engineer with the natural protection department of the autonomous regional forestry bureau, said that zoologists discovered traces of golden monkeys in the area in the late 1980s. More than 120 other animal species have also been spotted in the Chamdo area. Local government opened a nature reserve for golden monkeys in the area in 1993. High quality facilities would be built to protect the golden monkeys within the next three years, Li said.”

    7. Shangri-La Ecological Tourism Zone
    (Source : Yunnan Daily : October 27)

    Officials of the Yunnan Province are conducting a second seminar with their counterparts from Sichuan Province and Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), on establishing the "Shangri-La Ecological Tourism Zone," the world’s biggest highland reserve. On October 26, the representatives held a preparatory meeting and discussed proposals for zoning of the "Shangri-La Ecological Tourism Zone." From October 29 to November 2, the delegates will visit Lijiang and Dechen (Diqing: Chinese) Prefectures on a field trip.

    The "Shangri-La Ecological Tourism Zone" will include Sichuan's Kartse (Ganzi: Chinese) Prefecture, Liangshan Prefecture and Pengzhihua City, Yunnan's Dechen (Deqin: Chinese) Prefecture, Lijiang Prefecture, Nujiang Prefecture and Dali Prefecture, and TAR’s Chamdo (Changdu: Chinese) Prefecture and Nyingtri (Linzhi: Chinese) Prefecture. The eco-tourism zone of “Shangri-La” will cover picturesque areas of the Mekong and Salween river basins that are known for its rich biodiversity, magnificent snow mountains and the cultural heritage of local Tibetans.

    8. International Campaign for Tibet Releases Gormo-Lhasa Railway Report
    (To order the report, see www.savetibet.org)

    On September 1, the International Campaign for Tibet released a well-researched, 70-page report on the political economy of the Gormo-Lhasa railway project. Apart from its extensive research, “Crossing the Line: China’s Railway to Lhasa, Tibet” has used interviews with railway experts, helpful charts and maps, and satellite imagery to make a compelling case that the railway to Lhasa is designed to serve the Chinese government in consolidating its political control over Tibet and will result in further marginalization of Tibetans under the current framework of Chinese rule. Assuming that it is not sensible to directly oppose the project, the report ends with a list of recommendations for the Chinese government to help address some issues of concern to Tibetans, and requests international governments and business entities to stay away from the project unless China implements its recommendations, amongst others.

    9. TIN Releases an Analysis of Tibetan Population
    (Full report at: http://www.tibetinfo.net/news-updates/2003/3009.htm)

    Tibet Information Network has released an analysis of Tibetan population based on the 2000 population census of the People’s Republic of China. Following are excerpts from the report:

    “According to the census data, the entire population of Tibetans within China in 2000 was estimated to be 5,416,021. In the TAR, the total was 2,427,168, in Sichuan, 1,269,120, in Qingha, 1,086,592, in Gansu, 443,228, in Yunnan, 128,432. 61,481 Tibetans labelled ‘other’ in the census were living in inner China or abroad (this figure does not include Tibetan exiles).”

    “On average, throughout the Tibetan regions, on the first of November 2000 (the date of the census), 87 percent of Tibetans were rural, living in neither cities nor towns, large or small.”

    “The rate of natural increase of Tibetans is one of the highest among all of the ethnic groups in China, much higher than current Chinese rates, and so changes in the ethnic shares of the population depend on whether the net migration of Chinese compensates for differences in the natural increase rates.”

    “Because the towns and cities hold the levers of economic and political power, the key issue is not whether the population balance has shifted towards Tibetans or Chinese. Rather it is that economic and political dominance has shifted towards the Chinese because they have become increasingly concentrated in the cities and towns, regardless of their overall position in the population balance.”

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