A nomadic woman’s story of environmental protection on the Tibetan Plateau

On the Tibetan Plateau, due to land degradation, the Chinese government has sought strategies for grassland protection since 2000 until now, including various environmental conservation projects. However, there has been less attention on local people’s knowledge and their way of life and unique traditional livelihood. Thus, in this article I will share one of the personal stories of Dorlma, a nomadic woman, to show the importance of the herders’ role in the environmental protection of their homeland.

In September 2011, I had a chance to conduct a small research in one of the nomadic areas when I visited an ‘eco-resettlement community’ in XH county. My motivation for visiting there was that I had heard about the negative impacts from this eco-resettlement project to local livelihoods and culture. The eco-resettlement project is one of the biggest environmental protection projects in my region and the government’s purpose for carrying out this project is to protect grassland and improve locals’ livelihood from the government’s point of view. However, this project has many weaknesses, including that it has failed to address the importance of local culture, failed to pay attention to herders’ knowledge on grassland protection, and has not guaranteed herders’ participation in community-based natural resource management.

It was my first time to visit the eco-resettlement community in XH County in 2011 and I observed that the roads there were very bad in the resettlement area. The entire community was covered in dust. There were a few people walking in the community’s streets, but it seemed that they did not know each other. Some small shops were open and people sat outside of the shops for half the day, chatting and drinking cokes. They seemed to have nothing to do in the resettlement area.

Meeting a young Tibetan herder woman

I approached a young woman while she was buying something from the shop. To my surprise, unlike other Tibetan traditional women who feel very shy to speak in front of outsiders or strangers, she was glad to talk with me.

From our conversation, I learned that her name was Dorlma and heard how she was a herder, and her life was tightly tied to raising livestock such as horse, yak, sheep and goat. Dorlma had various skills to take care of this livestock and had developed her own livestock management system. Although Dorlma had not had a chance to go to school, she was proud to be a herder because she could maintain Tibetan nomadic culture. She loved her land more than being in a city.

Dorlma’s family’s winter grassland. (Photo by MKha Be.)

Dorlma’s family’s winter grassland. (Photo by MKha Be.)

However, I also learned that there was a large-scale mining project built nearby Dorlma’s community, and that she was very concerned about the associated environmental impacts. Her community had been polluted, the grassland destroyed, and water sources contaminated by the mining.

Because of this, many herders have had to seek another way to make their living. For Dorlma, she has a small house in the resettlement community. But, she and her family stays there only sometimes because they cannot find a satisfaction to life living in such an urban area. In this resettlement community, she found that her female friends and relatives cannot find a job because many people don’t like to hire nomadic woman. Some business people even look down on them because they think nomadic woman are ‘dirty’, don’t have ‘skills’ to work with them, and overall they perceive nomadic women as inferior.

Managing livestock as a nomadic herder

In October 2014, I went to visit Dorlma again and I stayed in her family’s winter grassland area. Here, I observed this woman’s diligence and talents. Dorlma gets up at 7 am to prepare the tsampa (which is made of barley power), butter, cheese and milk for breakfast. She also needs to milk five cows that had delivered their calves in April; because of the calves’ body condition, she uses 40% of the milk for her family’s consumption and the remainder is for the calves.

After finishing breakfast, Dorlma releases her livestock in four groups of sheep, yak, cows and calves. They herd the livestock in the four groups to keep them in different locations. This prevents the livestock from fighting each other, as among the different types of animals the stronger animals would otherwise bully the weaker animals.

A group of sheep on the community road. (Photo by Dorlma.)

A group of sheep on the community road. (Photo by Dorlma.)

At around 9 am, she guides the livestock to a water tap nearby to the community that is sourced from spring water flowing from an underground source in the mountain. She may have to wait there for one or two hours if there are other herders’ animals also waiting in front of her. A secure water supply is often difficult in her community because there is only one water tap and it is shared between 40 households that are raising a large number of animals.

At 4 pm, Dorlma and her husband prepare barley powder for the livestock whose health is weak. Normally, they only give this barley powder to calves and to cows and yak in their old age. They must do this as there is little grass on the rangeland in winter and weak livestock are at risk of dying from hunger.

She tells me that “the livestock come to her home around 5 pm on their own, because they know that we will provide food to them.”

Befriending Yaks

Yaks are wild animals, and sometimes can hurt people. Yet, women nomadic herders will milk yaks, but can only do so if they build a good rapport with them. Therefore, since they are around seven years old women herders spend their daily lives with these yaks, and they master special skills to understand yaks’ temperaments. Women herders uses their body language to communicate with their livestock; she calls to the yak in a calm voice and offers them barley powder to get a yak’s permission before she makes body contact with them to milk them.

Dorlma milks her yak in the early morning. (Photo by Mkha Be.)

Dorlma milks her yak in the early morning. (Photo by Mkha Be.)

From observation, I learned that the herders treat their livestock as family members. They give human names to their livestock and take good care of them in the daily life. They have a unique way of making a living.

Therefore, it was easy to understand why to become a non-herder is such difficult thing for them. Many herders are unwilling to move to urban areas to lead a ‘modern life’, because they believe that they belong to the grassland where they sustain their traditional livelihood, live with their livestock, conserve grassland resources and protect their ancestors land.

Local knowledge to conserve grasslands

As an outsider myself, I learned from her about how herders’ knowledge makes grassland conditions better. They have many strategies to protect grasslands effectively. For example, they have at least four seasonal movements for the livestock that they believe greatly improves the grassland’s condition and allows the grasses to easily regenerate. Because of this, the livestock have enough grass to eat, whilst the high mobility of the livestock also makes it healthier and stronger.

However, the herders have struggled to have this local knowledge recognized by the government, who treat them as irrational. Instead, the government have introduced so-called scientific knowledge to the herders, which has included the eco-resettlement project and a fencing project.

Livestock manure that Dorlma dries for fuel. (Photo by Mkha Be.)

Livestock manure that Dorlma dries for fuel. (Photo by Mkha Be.)

However, it has been the experience of the herders that this scientific knowledge has not been suitable for solving the issues of the grassland. Dorlma says “we know grassland conditions better than these outside experts and herders are the real environmental protectors, since they love their home deeply.”

More broadly, the nomadic herders consider that they have a wider responsibility to protect the grasslands. Dormla adds “It’s also a moral responsibility that we protect the source of rivers, because many people downstream rely on these great rivers to make their livelihood. So we should stand for our own right to protect this beautiful snow.”
Authors note: The name of the nomadic woman Dorlma is a pseudonym to protect their identity.

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