The centuries-old lifestyle of nomadic herders on the vast plains of northern Tibet could soon be under threat from a Chinese plan to push them into towns built along the route of a controversial new rail line.
The vast region of Nagqu, 4 500 metres above sea level, will lose its isolation forever when 700 kilometres of Tibet’s first rail link with the outside world cuts through it, a process due for completion in five years.
Many herders, whose livelihoods are already being hit by controls on the number of yak and sheep they are allowed to keep — measures designed to prevent overgrazing — could find themselves under renewed pressure to settle.
Authorities envisage regrouping Nagqu’s widely-dispersed herders into 25 towns and 89 large villages running along the eventual length of the railway.
The plan is to increase the region’s urban population from 40 000 to 80 000 people in five years, officials say.
”We have taken measures to encourage the sale of more
livestock,” said Gongbao Tashi, Communist Party secretary for Nagqu prefecture, a massive region of 420 000 square kilometres — around three-quarters the size of France.
”We have also ended herding on some mountains to protect the meadows” from overgrazing, he said, resplendent in a lengthy, sleeved robe with a leopard-skin collar and a broad-rimmed felt hat.
One of the problems was a bigger population, he said, speaking during a traditional horse-racing festival held in Nagqu every August.
”The population has increased from 200 000 from the beginning of the decade to 370 000 now,” he said, adding that of these, around 90% are herders.
Some herders, who live either totally or partly nomadic lives, said they were not altogether happy at the changes.
”For four or five years a law has limited the number of animals per person to five yaks and five sheep, with one yak counting for five sheep. If we have more animals, we must sell them,” complained Qidar.
For six months of the year he lives in a large tent within a fixed encampment, and is on the move with a smaller tent the rest of the time.
”Before the arrival of the Chinese, we lived on the wide open spaces. Now, we’re limited, there are disputes over pastures,” he said.
In Nagqu, like many places in Tibet, greatly increased numbers of Chinese have moved in over the past few years, where they run shops or work on construction sites, particularly those connected
to the railway.
Beijing’s decision to force a 1 118-kilometre rail
line through some of the world’s most inhospitable terrain, eventually linking Golmud in Qinghai province with Lhasa, has been condemned by some rights activists.
They argue the three billion dollar project will accelerate a process whereby Tibet has been flooded with settlers from the rest of China, as well as assist the rapid removal of rich mineral deposits.
Qidar (24) said he did not want to leave the prairies to be moved into a town, but was nonetheless fascinated by the idea of the train.
”I think the train is great, I would like to take one!” exclaimed the herder, who has spent all his life either on foot or horseback.
Party secretary Gongbao Tashi is clear about the impact the line will have on the region he governs on behalf of Beijing, whose troops undertook a so-called ”peaceful liberation” of Tibet in 1951.
”With the construction of the railway, we can expect that many of the herders will leave their professions to find work in industry,” he predicted confidently.
Even now, some herders don’t have any other choice but to head for the towns, just in order to survive.
This is the case for Amit (32) who raises four children on her own.
”I would have preferred to remain nomadic, but I went to the town because of my children, so they can have a better education,” she said.
But Nagqu town, with its massage parlours, discos and alcohol, makes her worried.
”I am happy that they have learned to read and write, but I’m worried about the bad influences.”
Wushong, a ”model herder” of 57, whose living room walls are decorated with pictures of former leaders Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and current President Jiang Zemin, continues to hope his grandsons will follow him onto the plains.
But not his granddaughters.
”I hope they will study and find good jobs. Living conditions are too rough for women round here, especially when times are bad.” – Sapa-AFP