Seeing Pastoralism 2: Dharma on the Left, Conservation on the Right

This is the second post in our series on the exhibition Seeing Pastoralism, focusing on research carried out on the Tibetan plateau.

Palden Tsering, a PASTRES PhD candidate, has been exploring hybrid processes of land control in pastoral areas of Qinghai, within the wider context of rising uncertainties in Tibet.

Palden’s research has focused on the areas of Golok and Kokonor. Golok is around 4200m above sea level, with the ethnic composition made up mainly of Tibetans. Yaks are the most common livestock there, and the area is also known for the caterpillar fungus that grows on hillsides, highly valued for its medicinal properties. The nearest township center for pastoralists is 76km, but in terms of state investment there is only a small-scale tourism centre.

Given the distance to the township, and with the poor road conditions, it takes around 3-5 hours of driving for children to attend the township primary school. Therefore, in Golok, many pastoralists prefer to send their children to the monastic primary school, closer to their winter homes. For pastoralists, the monastic school offers a better chance for their children to learn Tibetan reading and writing.

As yaks have been the main livestock reared in Golok, they have been highly valued by people in the area. In Lun Mo Chee village there is an annual ‘Dre Mo Beauty Contest’, where female yaks compete for the championship and a cash prize. However, not all those who grow up in Golok see yaks as a means to a future in pastoralism. Many young people are selling their yaks at a low price and moving into urban areas, abandoning pastoralism all together. One of the functions of the beauty contest is to to re-establish the significance of the animals among local people.

Our other research site, Kokonor, lies only 4km from a township centre. The provincial government has invested in the area as a tourist hotspot, linked to a proposed Lake National Park. The area is more ethnically diverse when compared to Golok, with Chinese, Hui Muslim and Mongolians joining Tibetans. Sheep and yak are the predominant livestock in the area.

Religion plays a major role in pastoral life in Kokonor, especially when it comes to responding to uncertainty. During the COVID-19 pandemic, pastoralists in the area created thousands of statues and buried them underground for better luck in the coming year.

One statue, however, has been far more prominent. Local pastoralists worship the guru Rinpoche, a well-respected Buddhist teacher from India. To commemorate the guru, the local pastoralists constructed a bronze statue by the lake, which has become a major attraction for pilgrims who make a year pilgrimage to the lake.

Having invested around 150,000 yuan in the statue and its surroundings, the local pastoralists were hoping to recover their costs by charging entrance fees to non-locals and non-Tibetan tourists. However, the expansion of the lake dramatically affected these plans. The area around the statue is now inaccessible, surrounded by water, so the pastoralists had no way of accessing the statue or charging those coming to view it. In the end, they have had to remove the statue. It’s a sign of what Awo, a local pastoralist, sees as an issue with the loss of land:

‘The lake is expanding, pastoralists are losing their land, and the government is using this chance to boast about their conservational effort in this area, which is driving the province to promoting the idea of designing this area into a national park.’

Explore the exhibition

For more on pastoralism in Tibet, and to explore the other PASTRES research sites, visit the exhibition site at Seeing Pastoralism.

View the previous post in the series: Seeing Pastoralism in Borana, Ethiopia.

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