“Who are these people now?”

Tibetan herders are struggling to adjust to sedentary life on the edge of the city of Golmud. Xia Liwei visited one family and listened to their story.

Tibetan herders are struggling to adjust to sedentary life on the edge of the city of Golmud. Xia Liwei visited one family and listened to their story.

Fifty-eight-year-old Sonka never dreamed he might one day leave his ancestral village of Cuochi, on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, and move to the outskirts of Golmud, a largely Han Chinese city in northwest Qinghai province. Much less did he imagine his family’s entire way of life would change.

An unaffected smile brightened Sonka’s dark face as he welcomed me warmly into his home. His wife and daughter served tea and snacks, while Ouyao, a member of the staff at local NGO, Snowland Great Rivers Environmental Protection Association, translated Sonka’s explanation of how he came to live in Golmud.

In 2005, this family of five, together with almost 300 other herding households from Sanjiangyuan – Qinghai’s “Three Rivers Source” area, which contains the headwaters of the Yangtze, Mekong and Yellow River – were relocated to a settlement eight kilometres south of Golmud. The move was part of the government’s “ecological migration” scheme, designed to protect the region’s delicate environment.

Sonka agreed to move after local government officials told him that herders pose a “threat to the grasslands”, along with the plateau pika, a small mammal considered a pest for competing with other species for food and degrading the land. If moving would be good for the grassland, Sonka said, he was willing to do so. He arranged for someone else to look after the family’s several head of cattle – this would provide some extra money for the family, and also give him a way to return to the village, should he wish to, a decade down the line.

“So, have the grasslands improved since then?” I asked.

“Yes. I go back several times a year, and the grass is looking better and better,” Sonka replied.

For Sonka, another advantage of the move is that his children can go to school more easily. In Cuochi, the elementary school only went up to third grade, and both facilities and teaching were poor. Now the children can go to the elementary school over the road and, later, to middle school in Golmud – no matter what other challenges they face, education here is better than in Cuochi.

That doesn’t mean everything is perfect, however. In fact, the family has plenty of complaints about the local schooling. They have various fees to pay, adding up to 300 yuan to 400 yuan (US$48 to $63) over the year, and Sonka thinks the teachers are too casual about their lessons: one took three weeks sick leave and there was no supply teacher to fill in. His youngest son used to attend the school, but there were so many holidays and so few classes that they worried he wasn’t learning anything. Instead, they sent him to a Buddhist orphan school, much further away from home.

Sonka’s daughter, Wurong Zhuoma, was in fourth grade when she moved schools. She whispered to us that, after a year in the new place, her legs and arms were covered with marks where the teacher had hit her. She said she was too scared to tell her parents in case the teacher found out and hit her more. Not one student in the class had escaped the teacher’s blows, she said.

But Sonka’s biggest worry is that the family is spending more money than it brings in.

The government pays each relocated family an annual subsidy of 8,000 yuan (US$1,266). When they first moved, Sonka thought such a large sum would be enough to feed and clothe all five of them. But he soon found out that, in the new village, everything costs.

In Cuochi, it was different: they had meat and milk from their own cattle, used dung for fuel and wore homemade sheepskin clothing. They rarely needed cash. The family was also used to having meat at every meal, but they can’t afford to buy it at the market in the new place. Sonka keeps in touch with relatives back in Cuochi, and asks them to bring beef or mutton when they visit. And when he goes to Cuochi, he brings back as much meat as he can carry.

Sonka is uneducated, unskilled and can’t speak Mandarin. The only work available to him is basic labouring – construction work, for instance, or moving goods. It’s tiring and the hours are long, and Sonka is often the oldest worker on site. But the family needs the money.

When caterpillar fungus – an ingredient used in Chinese medicine – is in season, the family goes out to pick it. Sonka’s sons are fast diggers and can collect a lot. His daughter also works in a hotel. Between the fungus harvesting and the hotel work, the family makes around 8,000 yuan, but after paying a fungus-collection fee of 1,500 yuan per head, they end up clearing only 2,000 yuan (US$316).

The other families in the village face the same problem: a serious shortage of money. I met Kangzhuo, a nun from a Sichuan nunnery, who was visiting her sister. She said she was disgusted with conditions here: “There’s no grasslands, no cows and no sheep – what have they got? Just a cramped house!”

She pointed at the wasteland surrounding the village. “Who are these people now? They’re not Tibetans and they’re not Han. If they were Tibetan, they would have grasslands and livestock; if they were Han, they could speak Mandarin and work. But they can’t herd, and they can’t work.”

Standing in front of an empty house, she continued to complain: “There’s a government regulation saying you can’t sell these houses. But, if the herders can’t survive here, what else are they meant to do? Some people have sold their houses anyway, at a very low price.”

The relocation policy states that, after 10 years, the herders can decide whether to stay in their new homes or return to their villages. Most say they want to go back. They say they miss the grasslands and life in the new village is tough.

Ma Wenqing is head of the Qumalai county office in Golmud. He said many of the problems in the new village are related to the hukou,or household registration system. Because they are still registered in their home village, the herders are only entitled to free or subsidised healthcare at Qumulai County Hospital, for instance, and making the trip there and back costs 500 yuan (US$79). Ma has encouraged the herders to shift their household registrations to Golmud, saying this would not only bring them preferential treatment, but also make it easier to implement and report on infrastructure projects.

In the nearby Yangtze River village, where residents are already registered in Golmud, the conditions are much better – they even have sports facilities. But Sonka explained that, because many people are reluctant to leave their native land, they are also reluctant to change their registration. “It’s like betraying your home,” he said. And so the problem has not been resolved.

After meeting Sonka, I asked myself whether the relocation policy is worth the sacrifice each member of his family – and others like his – has made. Will it bring them happier lives? Will it protect and preserve the precious Tibetan culture and its simple values? If the answer to these questions is no, then the ecological migration policy should be re-examined.

Xia Liwei was a 2010 participant in the project Grassland Tribes.

Homepage image by Fan Mingxiao