Climate Change and Development in Tibet Creates Lifestyle Challenges

In 1949, 99 percent of Tibetans were mostly illiterate serfs. Serfs have always been treated as an inferior element in society. As serfs, most Tibetans depended entirely upon the few landowners for survival. In this system of serfdom, peasants could be traded, punished without due process of law, and made to pay tribute to the lord with labor. When China occupied Tibet, all those serfs were freed just like they were throughout China.

Tibet is part of China. Rural Life in China reported, “A typical family of seven described by Business Week in 2000 lived in a four-room house, used 0.64 of an acre for growing rice, used 0.59 an acre for growing other crops and owned four pigs, one horse, and 20 ducks. Their expenditures were $546: $217 for food, $96 for transportation, $72 for fertilizer and pesticides, $48 for medicine, medical services, $36 for local taxes; $7 for road building and improvement; $4 for power station maintenance; $6 for education and culture and $60 for cloth and clothes.”

Did you notice there was no mention of rent or a mortgage payment? My mortgage payment in the United States is almost 38 percent of my income and a friend and his family of three pay more in rent for less space in the same area. But in urban China,, renting or owning a home is not free. Tibet is mostly a rural area of China.

“Since 2006, the Tibetan government has mandated that Tibetan farmers, herders, and nomads use government subsidies to build new homes closer to roads. New concrete homes with traditional Tibetan decorations dot the stark brown countryside. But the base government subsidy for building the new homes is usually $1,500 per household, far short of the total needed. Families have generally had to take out multiple times that amount in interest-free three-year loans from state banks as well as private loans from relatives or friends.” [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, July 24, 2010]”

Even the lives of Tibetan Nomads that makeup about a quarter of the population is changing. “Tibetan nomads have a lot in common with Mongolian nomads. Tibetan nomad culture is quickly disappearing as more Tibetans each year are being relocated off of the grasslands.”  But that might have more to do with climate change.

Nature.com reports, “A comprehensive environmental assessment of the Plateau of Tibet has found that the region is getting hotter, wetter and more polluted, threatening its fragile ecosystems and those who rely on them.

The plateau and its surrounding mountains cover 5 million square kilometers and hold the largest stock of ice outside the Arctic and Antarctic; the region is thus often referred to as the Third Pole. And like the actual poles, it is increasingly feeling the effects of climate change, but rapid development is putting it doubly at risk and is also changing lifestyle choices.

Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine, Crazy is Normal, Running with the Enemy, and The Redemption of Don Juan Casanova.

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