China's promise of easier living herds Tibetan nomads into jobless penury

Tibetan girls carry water to their new homes in a resettlement village.
Tibetan girls carry water to their new homes in a resettlement village.

LOSANG, a dark, stocky man, with wavy, jet-black hair, is known as the happiest man in his village. It is easy to see why; the former nomad cackles with infectious laughter even when telling of his own misfortune.

Chinese authorities told him that if he gave up herding yaks and sheep in exchange for a house in a Tibetan nomad resettlement camp, he could buy a car, open a business and get government support. He now has the house - two rooms, each about three metres across and four metres long - but not much else.

''We were happy to move, but now there is nothing,'' Losang, 46, says, laughing loudly.

Having moved into his new house in Maixiu, Qinghai, three months ago, he found employment opportunities were more limited for him and his 25-year-old son than he was promised. He survives on the odd construction job during the summer, where he can make about 70 yuan ($10.40) on a good day.

''There are no good jobs, we just dig holes,'' Losang says.

The family is just one of more than 100,000 who have been moved from the grassland plateaus into permanent homes in government-commissioned nomad resettlement camps in Qinghai, as part of an enormous scheme across the Tibetan-populated regions.

Since 2009, Sichuan has ordered the construction of 1400 new communities for 100,000 households, enough to resettle all of its Tibetan nomads. In Tibet itself, 1.85 million herdsmen and nomads, or 60 per cent of its population, had been resettled as of last year.

The policies stem from Beijing's stated desire to preserve the area's environment. Qinghai's Sanjiangyuan is China's largest nature reserve and headland of the country's three major rivers, the Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong. But suffering the effects of climate change, the government says overgrazing by Tibetan nomad herds is exacerbating the problem. Rights groups argue that nomads are being cleared so their land can be mined.

Another motivation is a desire to boost the region's socio-economic standing through rapid urbanisation.

But Robert Barnett, the head of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University, says it is a blunt one-size-fits-all approach to put people in houses near roads and turn them into consumers. ''They are very clumsy in China at recognising that you can have different kinds of development,'' he says.

One particularly large village, in Tongde, has rows of identical one-storey houses. And with space running out, Tongde has taken to building dozens of high-rise dwellings. There are also plans to provide centralised healthcare and education (in Mandarin).

Tibetan nomads roam the grasslands at high altitudes in summer, usually in village-like communities of a dozen or two - free to herd their yaks and sheep in whichever direction the grass is lush and weather fine. Their yaks are their best friends, used to lug tents and equipment, for meat and milk, which is in turn used for butter and yoghurt. Even their dung is dried and burnt for fuel. Family, song and dance are vital to the culture, as is faith - just about all nomads in the region are devout Tibetan Buddhists.

For Losang, a lifetime in the expansive grasslands of Qinghai's mountains has ended abruptly. He knows he's likely to never earn enough to accumulate a self-sustaining herd again, having spent most of the money he got from selling his herd on his house. He also finds he has greatly underestimated cost of living in a world where nothing comes for free.

''When I was a nomad I ate meat everyday, drank yak milk tea and wore sheepskin robes, now I can't. I have to buy everything. And I even have to eat [vegetables],'' he says.

Names have been changed to protect those interviewed.