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How life is for “The urbanised nomads ”

By Tri Sempa (See the original article in Tibetan)

© jim mcgill photography

© jim mcgill photography

On April 14th 2007 I travelled to the Golok prefecture of our province. It was my first time.  The land of which it was said “The earth is Golok and the sky is Golok” is far away, and so elevated that even though we were in early summer there were occasional flurries of snow, and rude gusts of cold wind. There was no lustre of greenery on the grassland, it seemed pale, and one could see that the maiden of summer had yet to reach the pastures of Golok. This was only in the natural course of things, and there was no-one and nothing to blame or resent, nor any possibility of doing so, yet so miserable was the situation of the region that my mind could not reconcile, nor find consolation.

The relocation of the inhabitants of the Ma-dri-dzasum source region (the sources of the Huanghe, Yangtse and Mekong rivers) is about protecting the environment, for which the state has allocated a great deal of funding, and the justification for this is quite tangible. The pasture renewal project was implemented in 2003 in Kyareng Xiang of Matoe county, Tramar Xiang of Machen county, Hrang Gongma Xiang of Gabde county and Sangruma Xiang of Darlak county, and earlier I translated some reports about it into Tibetan for the newspaper I was working for, giving the thumbs-up for the restoration of the pasture and for a major project with long term goals. But having visited some of the relocated pastoralist households and gained familiarity with their situation, I feel like my earlier perceptions were like those of a blind yak grazing, looking in only one direction and not elsewhere, and the present condition of the nomads has given me a different view, and a most depressing one.

The pastoral community I interviewed is nearby the seat of the Golok TAP prefectural government in Tawo town (Machen), one of the “Urban nomad groups” moved here from Kyareng Xiang in Matoe, now known as “Matoe Chugo Désar”. There are 150 households in all, with over 780 people. There are now several such ‘new communities’ (Désar) around Tawo town. Time did not allow me to visit all of them, but friends living there told me that they are all in the same situation and there was no point in going to each one, which deepened the gloom in my mind.

Arriving at the Matoe Chugo Désar, one encounters a propaganda notice board, which one can read once before getting to know the real situation of the community: “The ‘removing cattle and renewing pasture’ programme in Golok prefecture is a major initiative aimed at improving the environment in the three river source area and the living conditions of the herders. The preliminary phase of this programme involves ending pastoralism in the grassland, resettling the nomads, and fixing the size of herds in proportion to the carrying capacity of the grassland so that, following the principle of putting people first and establishing basic infrastructure in the pastoral area, urban settlement patterns and termination of the pastoral way of life can be realised, the living environment of the nomads can be improved, alternative forms of production can be developed, and subsequently an appropriate model of productive activity can be worked out in practice, in order to restore the natural condition of the grassland….”

Assisted by a young man from this community, I went around some better-off, average and poorer households asking questions, in the course of which I came to realise how much hardship they were facing in making a living. Even the best-off households could only be so described relative to the others, and not one of them was manifestly well-off, while the pain and resentment of the ordinary folk was to be heard all around. In this community there were no more than 20 motorcycles, 10 tractors and 6-7 commercial vehicles altogether. Four households had opened shops, 5 ran pool tables, and about 20 people had employment in a thread spinning workshop. About 40 households enjoyed a slightly higher standard of living, and more than 60 were living in poverty. The rest fell somewhere in between.

One of the nomads I interviewed at that time, Memabelonged to one of the best-off households, and in his house, Tibetan furnishings like trunks and cushions, clothing, washing utensils, and even a few modern appliances were to be seen. There were four members of the household, and their main source of income was the subsidy paid by the government and a vehicle they ran for hire, amounting to an annual income of Y10,000 plus, barely enough to cover daily necessities. “Before the relocation we had an annual income of over Y40,000 on average”, he said, with an air of dissatisfaction. From what he said, I gathered that the state gives Y8000 per household, regardless of the number of members, which is insufficient to cover even the cost of feeding a larger household, and if there are other problems like illness, they cannot imagine how to cope. Most households have 5 or 6 members, and there are those with 12 or 13. Since the relocation their former way of life has changed totally, they have no pasture and not a single domestic animal, and there is not a single item of daily use that they do not have to buy. That means that basic living expenses are very high, and cannot be met with the compensation (subsidy?) allowance, even more so in the case of larger households.

He estimated the following budget: milk = Y2 per Jin (Jin: half kg), butter = Y12 per Jin, Tsampa = Y2 per Jin, meat = Y8 per Jin (Y10 in winter), rice = Y90 per 50 Jin (not best quality), wheatflour = Y70 per 50 Jin (not best quality), coal = Y300 per ton (a household gets through a minimum of 5 tons per year), running water = Y200 per year (after installation), and dry yak dung= Y8 per packet.  There are many more expenses but this is a list of daily necessities.

By comparison with Mema’s household, Göntso’s was very poor indeed. Since the death of her husband, there were only women in the household, facing the utmost difficulty to make ends meet, with nothing but the most elementary possessions, like a metal stove, a bed, a pot. There were 8 members of the household, of whom the eldest daughter was sick and the youngest was mentally disturbed. Göntso’s face was wreathed in layers of suffering, and as we talked, she kept bursting into tears, unable to contain her grief, until I was sunk in depression. From the way she kept swearing on the truth while telling her tale of woe, one could see that she thought I might not believe her, although merely casting one’s eyes over her dwelling gave sufficient validation. Faced with such a situation, I could utter no more than a few words of sympathy. What more could I do?

She told me that when they were in Kyareng Xiang, her household was among the wealthiest in the community, with 140 Yaks and over 500 sheep, not only well able to feed the whole family but with adequate surplus income. Since moving here, animal products like meat and butter are too costly, so they have been living on rice and wheatflour, and when that ran out, they had to go borrowing here and there. Nomads are accustomed to eating meat and butter and drinking milk and yoghurt, having to go without these is like depriving a Sichuanese of rice, and it is very hard without going through a long process of adaptation. Those most in need were her two sick daughters, and as she was explaining this, she kept choking with sorrow, until she could no longer speak. As I was leaving, she told me that they had come for the electricity bill that morning, but as she had nothing to give, the collector had to leave empty handed. Many more households are in the same situation.

After coming to know the real situation, one confronts the following factors:

first, the nomads are accustomed to raising cattle on the grasslands, and when they have to abandon their way of life for resettlement, they are upset and offended, and it is hard for them to simply comply. Second, they do not have the skills or experience to do other kinds of work. Third, their general educational level is low and it is hard for them to cope with spoken and written Chinese. Fourth, they don’t have capital and lack the resources to do business.

In the course of the interviews, one other issue became apparent: on closer inspection, one can see after less than two or three years that these houses were not built to last. Plaster is falling off the walls, or they are cracked, or they leak during the summer rains.

Otherwise, with regard to the development of livelihood for the resettled nomads, while the concerned departments have clearly defined the need for implementation of specific policies, this has not been matched in practice. To realise the goal of “Relocation, settlement, enrichment”, methods attuned to their customs and habits are required, the quality of settlement construction needs strengthening, supervision is needed over the implementation of specific policies, improvement of support for alternative livelihood, rationalisation of the subsidy system (such as matching payments to household size), and prioritising the educational needs of children from relocated families are required, and addressing their livelihood issues is of great importance in my view.

As I left, and they realised that I had come from Xining, they scrutinised me for any prospect that I might be able to help them, although in fact, apart from being slightly better dressed and living in a slightly more pleasant environment than them, there is no other difference. I am a person without means or repute, and certainly without the ability to solve their problems, and apart from simply writing this short piece for what it is worth, what more can I do?

4 comments on “How life is for “The urbanised nomads ”

  1. Hello,

    I posted a link to this article on my blog: http://tibetanplateau.blogspot.com/2009/08/how-life-is-for-urbanised-nomads.html

    Please keep up the great work.

    Best,
    Tashi

  2. It filled my eyes with tears. I have also met Tibetans from nomadic communities. They all have the same stories. We need to make their voices heard to the world and urge the Chinese government to reconsider the current grassland policies. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. Please keep posting.

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