Third Pole

Kieran Dodds

The Tibetan plateau gives rise to the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong Rivers, China's three great waterways, which sustain life for some 600 million people. The Chinese government is keen to protect this vital water source but a new nature reserve infringes on local nomadic lifestyles.~~“Education will ruin our culture” laments Dorje, a local Tibetan teacher describing how compulsory education is driving the resettlement of nomads. “These lifestyles are endangered. You rarely see people on horseback nowadays. To improve the living standard depends on education but to save our culture depends more on the people”. The Tibetan plateau is the world’s third pole, with vast icefields giving rise to waterways that influence the lives of 40% of the global population downstream. Sanjiangyuan (or ‘The Three Rivers Headwaters’) Nature Reserve is China’s water tower, strategically vital and jealously guarded. Yet it is also home to some of the last Tibetan nomads whose traditional lifestyle is now, more then ever, under threat. ~“The waters from Sanjiangyuan sustain life for 600 million people downstream but in recent years this vast water tower is under threat,” says Dr Marc Foggin, a conservation biologist~

who has studied life on the plateau for 15 years, “and what affects China affects the world.” In 2000, Chinese officials panicked at the sight of dried-up lake beds and grasslands turning to desert near the Yellow River’s source in Guoluo county. The Yellow and Yangtze rivers are the nation’s two major arteries, flowing through its industrial heartland. The Mekong, the third major river rising in the vicinity, flows through Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. China’s future and that of the surrounding region depends on how this water tower is conserved. China overtook the USA as the world’s biggest polluter in 2007 and the degradation of rangeland on the plateau is directly connected to temperatures here rising at twice the world average.~~The Chinese government’s decision to create a huge new reserve around the headwater of the three great rivers in Qinghai province was aimed at halting further erosion and guaranteeing water sufficiency further downstream. The human cost of this development, however, has been the gradual disintegration of one of the last nomadic populations and ~~its unique lifestyle. By 2014, over 530,000 nomads in Qinghai province are to be resettled under the Ecological Resettlement programme.~~The nomadic identity, rooted in the land and the herding of yak, is facing the most serious threat to its survival through the Ecological Resettlement programme. The ostensible benefits of moving into settlements of pre-fab houses paid for by the government and receiving state school education are far outweighed by the an increasing sense of disorientation and a loss of connection to the land for many resettled nomads.~~”Nomads have started thinking the grass in greener in the city! “ explains former nomad and conservationist Tsera. “At first people think its a good choice but after a while they realise they have to buy meat and yak dung, pay someone to build a toilet and then they don’t have enough money to move back.” 70% of resettled Tibetans end up unemployed, relying on government handouts. This deracination has been blamed for a spate of self-immolations among Tibetans with 6 nomads taking their own lives during the recent Communist Party’s annual congress.~~Yet according to Marc Foggin of Plateau Perspectives, an NGO working with nomads to sustain livelihoods and conserve local wildlife “No culture is a museum piece. Tibetan pastoralism will continue to create and recreate itself. There is a creativity in us that has allowed humans to survive in harsh habitats.” Ancient lifestyles become ancient, he reasons, by surviving and evolving to a changeable environment. For millennia, the nomads have looked for their survival to wildlife and so too today. ~~In November 2012, the Chinese authorities announced that they would employ 10,000 ‘keepers of the grassland‘, an official endorsement of the value of herders to the region. Half of the world’s snow leopards live on the Tibetan plateau and China wants to protect them. The idea is to get ecotourists coming to the region to get a unique wildlife experience in this remote part of China.~~In the words of Dorje: “There is no need to be nostalgic for a past time. Whether the culture survives depends on the people. Every individual has ability to do something to save traditional culture.”~ ~~

 

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