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Tibetan Cowboys' Last Stand: Globalism Sets Grasslands on Fire

New America Media, News Analysis, Yoichi Shimatsu Posted: Mar 20, 2008

Editors Note: Tibetans are waging a battle for the grasslands the most important commodity for the economic survival of herders. NAM contributor Yoichi Shimatsu is a media studies lecturer at Tsinghua University in Beijing and former editor of the Japan Times Weekly in Tokyo. Shimatsu is a mountain-environment consultant currently working on grasslands restoration projects in the Tibetan Plateau and other arid uplands of western China.

XIAHE, Gansu Province As Tibetan horsemen charge like fiery embers over withered grass to attack a Chinese government outpost, the Dalai Lama and the Beijing government point fingers of blame for the firestorm sweeping the Tibetan Plateau. Far away from these vast grasslands, neither authority religious or secular has much of a clue as to what is happening here on the ground a range war, the likes of which havent been seen since the gunfights of the American West in the late 1800s.

This battle for the grasslands has been smoldering for the past decade, over the volatile price of livestock and food-cost inflation, largely due to the skyrocketing market value of meat. While Buddhists around the world may practice vegetarianism, red meat is essential to the Tibetan diet especially for monks known as lamas since it is the only effective means in these cold climates of transforming the abundant grass into protein.

tibetan yak herderIn an annual cycle of pasturage, Tibetan herdsmen herd their sheep, yaks and cattle up and down between altitudes of 3,000 and 5,500 meters. Tibetan Buddhist strictures, however, prohibit devout believers from slaughtering animals. The bloody job is consigned to neighbors, the Hui Muslims of Gansu Province, whose ancestors converted to Sufism about 200 years ago in the late Ching Dynasty.

As is the case for workers in the meat industry worldwide, herders and family farmers here are at the bottom rung of the economic ladder, receiving the least cash for the most work hours spent. Tibetan herdsmen are scattered, often illiterate, and unable to converse in Mandarin. They are even discouraged from owning trucks, since lamas tell them that their scant earnings are better spent on lavish cash donations to the Buddhist monasteries.

Pastoral isolation leaves the herders open to undercutting by Muslim middlemen, who arrive in the highland pastures each summer in open-top trucks. Ten years ago, the price of a fat-tailed sheep was 100 yuan, about $14. Four years ago, as the newly constructed western highways were being extended, the average price per head tripled to 300 yuan due to rising demand for lamb chops in wealthy cities of the distant Pacific Coast. This sudden boom led to encroachment by one group of herders onto the lands leased by other groups. Range wars erupted between odd coalitions of Tibetans, Mongols and Muslim Salars and were fought with rocks, knives and sometimes guns.

Here, money is meat, meat is grass, and people kill for grass. Though the bloodshed in the high prairie may seem anachronistic, it is directly linked to the global economy that Chinese leaders in Beijing have so eagerly embraced. Far away in the capital, foreign executives can tuck into a business lunch featuring an 8-ounce rib-eye with potatoes, vegetables and salad for a mere $4 at a steakhouse affiliated with Cargill, the gigantic U.S. grain conglomerate. A medium-rare steak is surely a sign of reform and free trade but the delivery mechanism remains hidden from view.

In more recent years, huge feedlots supplied by American grain companies, which import soybeans and purchase corn on the domestic black market, have sprung up in Inner Mongolia, the Shantung Peninsula and outside of Shanghai. Their purchasing agents from Hong Kong and Shanghai ply the Muslim truckers with fistfuls of cash for shipments of thousands of live animals. Even when the wholesale price per sheep rose to 550 yuan, the herder was lucky to get 400. With so much demand from the rich cities, meat became scarce in local markets, and food prices shot up for town dwellers in Lhasa, Qining and Xiahe, many of whom still own herds of cattle in their native rural districts.

Tibetans were buying a leg of lamb for the price of a whole animal, and few would ever stop to consider the inflated price of fuel and truck leasing for the Muslim middleman. A peaceful rally on March 10 by monks of the Dalai Lamas Gelugpa, or Yellow Hat, school was all it took to spark uncontrollable fires across the Plateau. In the first day of the Lhasa riots, most of the casualties of arson were Hui Muslim noodle-restaurant workers who migrated to the newly prosperous provincial capital over the past decade just as Mexican immigrants have immigrated to Chicago and New York to work as dishwashers.

PlainThe frustration and anger of the Tibetan mobs will not immediately result in either independence or genocidal repression only a heightened state of anxiety and distrust. As in the question of animal slaughter, the rules of Tibetan Buddhism have curbed the native population from the common trades practiced by the citizens of a modern secular nation-state. Instead, a multi-ethnic caste system is being perpetuated, with the Muslims doing the butchering, running restaurants and driving, the Nepalese crafting the jewelry and brassware, and the Chinese laborers building roads and raising power lines. Since the fifth Dalai Lama allied himself in the 18th century with a Mongol general and the Manchu emperor in Beijing, Tibet has been an ethnic checkerboard. And with rising expectations and ruthless greed, cultural and religious difference is a formula for ethnic vendetta.

After tempers cool, and in the unlikely case that Muslim reprisals are averted, one solution lies in establishing a fair trading system for poverty-stricken Tibetan herders and for the Muslim meatpackers, neither of whom now possess bank accounts or social insurance. The solution is not easy, given the steady loss of grassland and glaciers to global warming. The only consolation from this vicious cycle is that long after the global economy collapses under its own unsustainable weight, the Tibetan and Mongol herdsmen will still be grazing their sheep in these uplands, while their Muslim neighbors grow golden fields of wheat in the arid valleys below. For the foreseeable future, Shangri-la remains a dream.


Photo credit: Yoichi Shimatsu


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