Our journey recently found us  transitioning from the relative comforts of an agricultural Tibetan homestay to that of a nomadic Tibetan homestay. Reaching the nomad’s summer encampment required a lung burning and air sucking hike to their location at close to 4,000 meters in elevation. The welcoming atmosphere, cheerful smilles, and caring warmth remained the same amongst the Tibetan nomads, however, the livelihoods that sustain nomadic people has little in common with the Tibetan families that comprised our village homestay. These differences provided a unique perspective with regards to human dependence on the environment and the uncertain future that these people face. 

I take pride in being an environmental steward and strive to limit my impact upon the environment. Whenever I travel to new places I always seek to understand the locals relationship with their environment and any problems that confront the region. Usually I am the one asking prying questions to determine whether issues of environmental degradation are being addressed, but before I could inquire into what these nomads are doing to preserve their environment, our guide pointed out a sign that displayed a local environmental protection organization’s rules and regulations for traveling on the grasslands. 

Our guide discussed at length how in the Qinghai Lake region cimate change is already having a significant impact on the local environment. The number of rivers that feed into Qinghai Lake have decreased from 49 in 2012 to less than 40 in 2015, with many of the remaining rivers under stress from development and erratic water levels. In addition, climate change is degrading the quality of the grasslands. The guide commented that more land is now required to support the same amount or fewer yak and sheep because of the grasslands rapid degradation. 

Tibetan nomads are keenly aware of any changes in their environment. The nomad’s dependence on their flocks of sheep and yak require them to be cognizant of grassland conditions, as the quality of these grasslands directly influences the amount of animals that each family can maintain. In order to ensure the sustainable use of the grasslands Tibetan environmental organizations are forming in an effort to protect their environment in the face of a changing climate. These organizations are comprised of members from the local area that are in charge of monitoring and evaluating environmental conditions, and when necesary, enforcing the agreed upon rules within the community. 

Sadly, the efforts of Tibetan nomadic communities and their environmental organizations to protect their grasslands and livelihoods is undermined by Chinese government policy. The Chinese government is in the final stages of a 15-year campaign to settle millions of pastoralists and nomads. This massive experiment in social engineering is based partly on the official view that grazing harms grasslands, yet most ecologists believe that the scientific foundations of nomad resettlement for the sake of grassland protection are dubious. I am of the opinion that this policy is a sad excuse to resettle and gain greater control over people that the communist party views as backwards barbarians and are enacting this policy with environmental protection as their means. The grazing of animals on the Tibetan plateau has been occuring sustainably for thousands of years, but now, according to the communist party this practice suddenly threatens the source off the Mekong, Yellow, and Yangtze rivers. This claim by the communist party, among many others, screams of hypocrisy.

If measured by the accumulation of material possessions, these resettled nomads could be considered better off, but when looked at in any other respect the reality is much different. Government-built relocation centers are notorious for their chronic unemployment/underemployment, alcoholism, and the fraying of acient traditions. Relocations are often accomplished through coercion, leaving former nomads stranded in grim, isolated locales. Protests by displaced herders occur almost weekly, which prompts increasingly harsh crackdowns by security forces that contribute to the rising number of Tibetans that find themselves unjustly incarcerated. 

Looking over the pristine beauty of Qinghai lake, I said gooodbye to my host father and found myself wondering for how many more years his family will maintain their nomadic lifestyle. I truly cherished the unique experience of being able to experience a way of life that may cease to exist within my life span. I will never forget my host father leading Parker, Sonjay, and myself out to our “sheep guarding” tent to protect the flock against wolves and then the laughter that ensued after our host father vigoriously tucked us in under a pile of blankets. The memory of my host father’s smile while explaining the cancer healing benefits of tsampa (a combination of roasted barley flour, butter, dried cheese, and sugar) will forever hold a special place in my memory. 

What I struggle to imagine though, is the anger that my host father will one day feel as he reflects on the loss of his independence. I fear that the demands of a cash economy and the belief that his family was displaced with false assurances will be too much for him to cope with. For centuries Tibetan nomads have managed to avoid a tragedy of the commons scenario and live a life of minimal environmental impact because of their deep connection with and respect for the land. The current tragedy is not of the commons, but that the communist party is managing to wipe out entire indigenous populations within the span of a few years…