Voices from the Plateau

Here is a brief video compilation of footage from the Tibetan Plateau, as well as a few interviews with nomadic herders.  I quoted one of the interviews in a previous post regarding Cultural Erosion.  I believe these interviews point to the importance of preserving traditional livelihoods, calling for a re-shaping in how we conduct development.  It’s not just about making sure everyone has the comforts of an urban lifestyle, but addressing the hopes and dreams of rural people.

Note: I can’t confirm the accuracy of the translation yet as it is still in draft form.

Punakha Dzong


Dzongs are unique mountain fortresses found throughout Bhutan.  Originally they were meant to act as protective measures against invading armies, such as the Tibetans in the 17th century.  However, now they act primarily as administrative centers and accommodate monk bodies.  They are also the locations used for annual festivals such as Tshechus (Masked Festivals) and Drubchens (reenactment of Bhutan’s victory over Tibetan invaders).

The Punakha Dzong is the 2nd largest Dzong in the country (biggest being Trongsa) and viewed by many locals as the most picturesque.  Found at the confluence of Pho Chhu (river) and Mo Chhu this ionic image dominates the landscape, which is otherwise dotted with small homesteads, pine forests, and the foothills of the Himalayas.

My family and I have had the opportunity to visit the Punakha valley a number of times, with much to explore we have enjoyed the hospitality of the locals, set up camp on the riverside, walked the longest suspension bridge in the country, river rafted the Mo Chhu, and enjoyed the silence the valley has to offer.  In fact, I’m surprised to see such a massive structure and to see it accompanied by such quietness.  Driving through the valley for the first time and seeing the Dzong in the distance, I expected to see a busyness associated with such large structures in other countries.  But when I arrived, the rural nature of the valley hit me.  Some peace and quiet that is hard to find in Thimphu, or even a college campus of 1,000 students (Royal Thimphu College).

Punakha- Punakha-1


Institutions and Development

Many Tibetan families send their children to live at and attend this school.  Although, many herding families see education as unnecessary and keep children at home to answer more immediate needs.

School children in rural China memorizing homework as they walk around their school before classes begin.

Institutions are essentially societal standards for governing a particular realm. For example ‘banking’ is an institute in which we have put in place to govern the exchange of monetary funds. ‘Education’ is another institute that we have in place to, well, educate. But both are administered in a way that it is in line with the values and expectations of a particular society. So education may look very different from one country to another.

Banking and Education are good examples of what are called ‘formal institutions’ as they have specific processes that are followed and agreed upon by those who take part, usually through some type of contract or agreement. However, a very important role is also to be played by ‘informal institutions’. Such institutions are not spelled out in laws or agreements and rather evolve/emerge from societal norms of behavior. For example, land rights or land use is an institution that has been heavily formalized in many countries, however there are many nomadic communities that have little use for a formalized contract to partition land. Rather, such communities have unspoken rules and ‘laws’ that guide how they conduct their movements, how they share grazing land, how they share water sources, etc. Granted, these informal institutions may not always work and there is sure to be conflict at some point, but we have the same conflicts with formal institutions as well. So it is important not to view formal institutions as ‘good’ and informal as ‘bad’.

The institution of marriage, in the west, is very much a formal institution. However, in many cultures around the world such a formal institution does not exist. There is no paper work or lawful recognition that a couple is married, rather, if the couple lives together, shares in the managing of the home, have kids together, then they are married. There is an understanding in such a community that the couple is married, not due to a contractual agreement, but due to how they have conducted themselves. And one can propose that such an informal institution likely gives rise to a more recognized formal institution in time.

This transition is of great interest as it shows that formal institutions are likely the outcome of support from successful informal institutions that have been sustained for many generations. This understanding has much to offer in terms of shaping our development approach to developing nations. Most development efforts have largely tried to mimic formal institutions from the West because they have had a successful track record in the West. Banking, the Market Economy, Land Rights, and Education are all examples of institutions that we have tried to transplant to the developing world. Sadly, there has been limited success in some of these areas. So what’s wrong? Partially, I think it has to do with a lack of recognition for how the established informal institutions play a role in guiding the actions of a society. By ignoring these values and practices that have promoted the survival of a society for many generations we prove ourselves ignorant by thinking we can find a one-solution-fits-all sort of approach.

I’m not saying that Education or Banking is a bad thing; in fact they offer a great opportunity for developing nations. But in order for such formal institutions to be successful in a new context, we need to account for the underlying informal institutions already in place and adapt as necessary. And we need to be okay with the fact that the newly established formal institution may look different than the one we are used to.

For more info see the following Cambridge podcast which inspired my thoughts on the topic: https://itunes.apple.com/ca/podcast/development-institutions-institutions/id380452650?i=84523118&mt=2

Cultural Erosion

Yak Milk

Nomadic life, I can’t say that its not good.  We have enough food and clothes, but nomadic life is tough.  Movement is inconvenient, we have to move around constantly.  But it’s also good, and our ancestors experience this way of life.  Local people always hope that their life condition can get better……..more sheep and yaks, more stout and strong.  We are the same.  The increase in our livestock determines the condition of our lives as nomadic people.  We hope that we can continue relying on our livestock and their products such as yak hair, cheese, milk, and so on.  This is the purpose of our lives and the source of our happiness.  We feel glad to continue herding.  We don’t want to move to town, we have no hope in that.  We want to live here and herd.”  (Tibetan Nomad, Qinghai, China)

These were the words from a Tibetan nomad in Qinghai, China on the eastern side of the Tibetan Plateau.  During this interview he expressed his desire to continue his nomadic way of life.  But there is also an echo of frustration that many his age are experiencing.  They see the next generation of Tibetans placing less value on traditional livelihoods, and ultimately traditional values.  Speaking Tibetan, living as a Tibetan, and thinking as a Tibetan have somehow become ‘backwards’.  More Tibetan youth are drawn to urban areas with the hopes of employment, modern living standards, and security.  All of which are offered by a Chinese agenda committed to development and increased living standards.

So who can blame them?  It’s difficult to find at fault the Tibetan Youth when they are seeking the very thing that many developing countries on a larger scale are trying to obtain.  They desire hope, a sense of ease in their day-to-day life, an escape from the all-consuming effort to meet basic needs.  Sadly, this has come at the expense of traditional cultures eroding into a globalized community, largely driven by economic development.  This has also led to an increase in numerous social problems characteristic of such situations including alcoholism, drug use, depression, and suicide.

But does it have to be this way?  One answer is ‘Yes’.  The traditional form of development based on the liberalization of economies tends to promote such a scenario where local peoples are either further displaced or become heavily integrated into a global market economy.  Rather than promoting traditional livelihoods, this integration demands a highly efficient and productive ‘assembly line’ type of manufacturing based in urban areas.

Alternatively, development practitioners must, and have begun to, shift their focus from pure economic indicators and recognize the social and cultural values that exist.  If development policy and practice are synced with promoting local livelihoods, then the young Tibetan will be in a position to choose, rather than despise, the way of life practiced by his/her ancestors.  I’m not saying that they should shun the comforts and the ease that economic progress offers, but rather our development efforts should seek to answer these issues in the local context, rather than fostering mass urban migration.  By promoting culture in development practice we all have something to gain as we are able to celebrate the diversity of cultures that exist around the world.

Yak Pair200_4628-Edit

Non-Timber Forest Products: Mushrooms in Bhutan

Mushroom-5A forest is more than trees.  We often have a hard time looking past the gold mine of timber products that are available in forests.  The very word ‘forestry’ has come to imply large-scale removal of forested areas on which the economies of numerous communities have been built.  Improved technology and increased demand have provided us with the ability and motivation to continue harvesting this resource at exponential rates.  While quite profitable, short term gains are often the norm and once thriving forestry communities find themselves starving for employment (for another resource example think of the Cod Fisheries in Eastern Canada).

As sustainable development becomes more engrained into our thinking and the way we operate, the forestry industry has fortunately adapted (although perhaps not to the scale that is yet required).  Selective logging, impact assessments, consideration of biodiversity and non-timber forest products often play into the decision making process.


Bhutan is such a country that has recognized the value of intact forests and the ecosystem services they provide (carbon sinks, erosion prevention, water retention, species habitat, air purification, recreation).  Estimates range from 60-80% of original forest coverage that remains in Bhutan, which is a staggering percentage!  As a result, many non-timber resources are thriving in Bhutan, such as mushrooms.

The other day I had the opportunity to take a walk in my backyard, just south of the Royal Thimphu College campus.  What quickly became apparent is that there was an abundance of mushroom species with different sizes, shapes, and colors.  On my return a quick Internet search revealed that in fact Bhutan is quite renowned for its mushroom industry and there is even a Bhutan National Mushroom Center (will be visiting soon), which grows and conducts research on various species.  Foragers have found mushrooms quite profitable and a way to supplement/boost their agricultural income.  However, mushroom harvesting also comes with a number of threats.  Health concerns are widely recognized as many poisonous mushrooms exist leading to local fatalities each year.  As a result the government has initiated education campaigns to inform about such dangers and to help with mushroom recognition.


Environmentally speaking, overharvesting has also become a problem.  As with any resource, there exists an ability to ‘bounce back’, or a resilience.  If mushrooms are allowed to grow to a proper size and develop their intricate mycelium root system, future yields will continue to be prosperous.  However, harvesting has become competitive, leading to early harvesting and decreasing the resilience of various species.  So it seems that, like other resource industries, mushrooms are in danger of the human tendency to overexploit for these short-term economic gains.  I applaud Bhutan for their conservation of forest ecosystems and their recognition that a forest is more than just trees.  Yet moderation is still required as they foster a long term thriving industry for non-timber forest products.

Mushroom-3 Mushroom-2 Mushroom-6

Lessons from a Nomad

200_4491-EditFor the last 18 months I have been working with nomadic herding communities on the Tibetan plateau. It has been a great opportunity as I’ve seen the joys and difficulties of this way of life, which is drastically different from anything I have ever experienced. Weather, isolation, high altitude, and lacking the benefits of urbanization are a few of the difficulties. But there is something admirable and freeing about nomadism. It is not constrained by many of the distractions and problems of our urban landscapes which include environmental problems related to industrialization, loss of the community feel in large cities, marginalization of family farms, and so on. I don’t want to romanticize it too much, as I recognize there are benefits to how society has developed. I’m not ready to trade in my queen size bed and computer for a tent and a herd of yak. However, I feel compelled to support the preservation of this way of life for those who find it so important to their culture and identity.

Nomadism is a part of our human history that predates agriculture and has adopted a fluid perspective to nature and the ever-changing environment. It requires nomads to move according to the seasons, changing weather patterns and the availability of resources. In contrast, the agricultural age was a time of dominance for man, one in which we used our knowledge to adapt the natural world to create an abundance of food, thus minimizing our need for long distance movement. Hunting and gathering were the precursors of such nomadic movements, but eventually the domestication of animals provided more stability. Nomads, and pastoralists being a subset of this group, depend on the health of the environment for their sustenance. They need proper grazing lands for their herds, access to clean water, foodstuff provided by the landscape, etc. So it is in the nomad’s best interest to keep the land in a state that it is able to regenerate and ‘bounce back’ from human use. Thus, movement occurs to facilitate the natural regenerative processes and to stay within the carrying capacity of a particular ecosystem.

In this sense, nomadism is very much a sustainable livelihood that should be encouraged in indigenous people groups. However, it may require adaptation to survive in ever changing ecosystems impacted by urban sprawl, government policy and climate change. This is the difficulty facing nomads across the globe today. The way they used to live becomes more difficult as challenges never before faced are now having critical impacts. How will longer dry seasons as a result of climate change effect the movements of the Maasai in Kenya and Tanzania? How will the grasslands of the Tibetan plateau be impacted by government policy restricting nomad movement? But also, how can policy protect resources from overuse (for which even the nomad is not immune from being a part of)?

The need for adaptation is critical, but equally important is the realization that there is something special about these cultures that should be preserved. Not for the sake of some cultural museum or tourism attraction, but to recognize that their way of life has gone on for thousands of years in a way that has adapted to nature. And we have much to gain from this perspective as we continue to rely on the Enlightenment and the conquest of science, which adapts nature to our needs. And as we have seen in this age of environmentalism, we are beginning to pay a high price for this mindset. We have a lot to learn from a nomad.

See more from nomadic communities of China at Zhiduo Revisited.
Yak Sunrise Head of the Household Nomad Family

Reliance on Tourism

200_5961In 2011 unrest in Egypt caused a dramatic decline of the tourism industry. Two years later, the impact on the industry has yet to recover. As I walked the streets of Cairo and passed through many of the sites I was bombarded by sellers of this-and-that and guides who claimed unique knowledge of famous landmarks. I couldn’t help but feel the strain on their economy through these street interactions and was very much reminded of Nepal in 2004. At that time Nepal was in the heat of a Maoist revolt that crippled their industry for a 10-year span. It was only in 2011 when tourism began to pick back up again and things returned back to ‘normal’.

To see such economies so reliant on tourism is a sad state of affairs. While tourism is a tool that can aid communities in finding alternative sources of income and rounding out their portfolio in terms of income generation, it can be harmful to throw all their eggs in one basket. Prioritizing the industry can also transform local culture, which solely caters to foreigners, and distracts from the indigenous culture that was so attractive in the first place.

What is the answer? I think a careful planning process can aid in avoiding the risk factors associated with the tourism industry. Establish limitations on development as to maintain a healthy vibrant industry. Ensure that local communities are exploring other options to stimulate their economy so that over-reliance on the industry is minimized. Create a quality control program that ensures local cultures stay in tact while unique experiences are provided for visitors. These are just a few examples of things that could be considered in tourism planning. By committing to a planning process you avoid unrestricted tourism, which has negative effects on the environmental, economic, and social capital of a site/region.


As Nepal did, I believe Egypt will also eventually recover from their tainted reputation of political instability, and the tourism industry will again prosper as it did before. However, this macro-view does not account for the individual shopkeepers, business owners and the like that lost so much during the hard times. Many lost their jobs, homes, were not able to provide for their families, etc. It is for their sake that planning is so important and that the extent of a country’s reliance on tourism should be carefully considered.

Motivations for Conservation

200_3633-Edit This last weekend I organized a one night camp-out to escape the ‘city-ness’ of Xining.  Driving an hour and a half south of the city brought us to a location known as the “Hitching Post”.  There we set up camp, explored, hiked, and just enjoyed being outside away from the business of the city.  I spent a fair bit of time reflecting on the outdoors and how spending time outside often gives one a sense of peace and rejuvenation.  It is this feeling that has brought me to the profession I find myself in, working in ways to improve my surroundings and promote sustainability.  Through my work with governments, organizations, and individuals I have found that there are essentially three underlying motivations for conservation.

1) Utilitarian.  People all have needs that can be met in certain ways, and often we like to choose the most effective and economical way to help meet these needs.  In turn, often the best choice of action ends up being one that recognizes long term sustainability and thus more utility gained for an individual.  In plain terms, if it brings me more value/utility, then I will choose that course of action.  While a Frontier Economy mindset (one that views resources as unlimited) has blinded many entities leading to poor environmental decision-making in the past, many have realized the consequences of such actions and are trying to regain ground in terms of strengthening ecosystems.  Such a reversal in decision-making has been motivated by seeing the value in sustainable policy/actions in which more utility can be gained.

2) Legislation.  When it comes down to it, sometimes people are just motivated towards certain actions to avoid negative consequences.  There certainly is a place for legislation in promoting such behavior so that certain entities/businesses do not take advantage of short term gains at the expense of the larger population and environment.  For example, my previous home on Vancouver Island, there was an issue of illegal dumping by those living in the countryside.  Laws are in place to restrict such actions, and once communities were forced to adopt the cost of cleanup they invested in watch programs, cameras, and other strategies for minimizing occurrences by holding individuals responsible.  As a result, illegal dumping is not as much of a problem as it was 10 years ago.  I should also note, that some legislation is put in place to promote actions through positive reinforcement rather than just consequences.  Various tax breaks and investment opportunities are but a few examples.

3) Worldview.  The final category that I have become aware of is that of worldview.  Often our underlying belief system guides our outward actions.  For example, myself as a Christian views the world as a creation of a single deity.  I therefore view the world as something that does not belong to me, but rather something that has been put in my care. I therefore take care of it just as if I borrowed something of extreme value from a friend and would not purposefully bring harm to it.  I also see the negative consequences of unsustainable actions on quality of life, especially in developing nations.  Therefore, motivated to ‘love my neighbor’ by using wisdom in resource management decisions.    Likewise, a Buddhist will view the world as something that provides nourishment to all beings.  Their belief in showing compassion to all will therefore motivate them to use resources wisely as not to directly/indirectly harm others.  No matter what our worldview is, it will certainly motivate us to certain types of actions/decision, some of which will provide motivation towards conservation.

While these are three motivators that I have seen and experienced, I doubt they are exhaustive.  I would very much like to hear from you in terms of additional motivators so please feel free to comment or email me using the contact link above.

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Yangtze River

In recent years tourism has been promoted heavily as an alternative source of income for many remote mountain communities, especially in the Himalayan/Tibetan Plateau region.  Tourism offers an alternative source of income, which is critical in years of drought or heavy snowstorms, which can decimate a family’s income for any given year.  However, tourism can be a dangerous tool as it has the potential to reshape local culture and have negative impacts on the environment.   Eco-tourism, as a subset of tourism, is highly regarded among development professionals as it promotes environmental sustainability and improvement to indigenous social structures.  However, a clear definition of ‘ecotourism’ has yet to be established among practitioners, opening the door to much ‘green washing’.  So what is ‘ecotourism’?  I believe it consists of three key areas:

  1. Environmental Protection – tourism should be applied in a way that the local environment does not suffer/degrade, rather is improved somehow through active efforts in conservation
  2.  Improving Local Livelihoods – tourism should benefit locals.  Local communities are largely dependent on the very resources that make an area attractive (beautiful forests, mountains ecosystems, etc).  So visitors to the area should somehow improve local communities through income generation, improving resources, and promoting cultural/social structures in place.
  3. Education – visitors do not only come to lay on a beach and read a book, but interact in a meaningful way with the surroundings.  They learn about the environment, the culture, and the aspects of that location that make it special.

Ecotourism doesn’t just concentrate on one of these aspects, each one is critical and one should not be stressed at the expense of the other.  Without a balance of these three, in my opinion, we are not talking about ecotourism, but rather another subset of tourism.  In which case, responsible tourism has not been fully actualized.


2012 Nepal Study Tour

South Anaparuna (again)

Recently I was part of a study tour to Nepal, with the purpose of gaining key insights from the tour industry so that lessons learned could be applied to the Qinghai context.  As a volunteer with Plateau Perspectives, a Canadian based non-profit organization working in Qinghai, we have been working with a number of rural communities to establish an ecotourism network, with the purpose of poverty alleviation.  And key to this is not only the establishment of tourism, but responsible tourism that promotes livelihood needs, conservation efforts and environmental protection.  Nepal has a large history of tourism, not all good, but we wanted to see firsthand what some of the positive and negative effects of the industry were, specifically looking at the local community context.

Poon Hill trek

Nepal 2012 -65-4-Edit

Our study tour team was made up of invitees from academia, private sector, local NGO’s, as well as government staff.  It was our hope that such a tour would serve as a foundation for further discussion and partnership in Qinghai.  In our tour we visited a range of establishments from high-end to budget tourist destinations and met with key organizations in Nepal responsible for the industry including WWF, SNV, Nepal Tourism Board, the Department of National Parks & Wildlife, and ICIMOD.  Key to many of our discussions was how communities were involved in planning.  Do communities have the capacity for management?  If not, how are they being trained?  As a key stakeholder, what decision-making power do they have?  How do they access the benefits of tourism, which largely depends on land/resources they use to meet basic livelihood needs?  How are they involved in conservation efforts?  Are their opportunities for co-management in conservation areas/national parks?

School Time

Serving Tourists

Overall, I feel the tour was very successful.  We gained much insight to the tourism planning process and I believe we will learn greatly from the successes and failures of Nepal.  However, in our western China context, we are only a small voice that influences policy and regulations surrounding this industry.  It is our hope that the communities we work with will be a shining example of successful tourism that improves local livelihoods and environmental protection.  As such an example, it may help promote responsible tourism in other regions.