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UPDATED: August 24, 2015 NO. 35, AUGUST 27, 2015
Cooperative Development
Tibetans change their fortunes by pooling skills, experience and resources
By Hou Weili

Editor's Note: September 1 constitutes the 50th anniversary of the Tibet Autonomous Region. To mark the occasion, ChinAfrica, Beijing Review 's sister publication, dispatched Hou Weili to compose a series of reports on the region and its people. The following three pieces cover the local inhabitants, their education and livelihoods, the rich cultures and traditions they share, and the opportunities lying ahead of them.

Dawa Dolker exhibits a Bangdian apron made with the help of her loom (XINHUA)

The thought of driving 3,300 km for a summer vacation would deter even the most seasoned traveler. Add to that an altitude of over 4,500 meters above sea level, making the trip even more arduous. But that's exactly why Dong Erqiang, his wife and 13-year-old daughter chose not to get away from it all.

Driving along the Qinghai-Tibet Highway from Beijing to the Tibet Autonomous Region on their annual holiday was a great escape for the adventurous family. Along the way, one of the roadside attractions that caught their eye happened to be a local geothermal pool, where they took time to relax after exhausting days on the road.

"We saw the road sign and decided to try out this special pool. It proved to be worthwhile," Dong told ChinAfrica magazine.

What Dong didn't know was that a mere two years ago, the pool attraction comprised a few geysers off the beaten track. Local herdsman Karma Samten from Luoma Town, Nagqu Prefecture in north Tibet, was the first to see the potential in the natural resource. His herdsmen's cooperative then invested 1.3 million yuan ($206,350) to turn this area into a hot spring resort, which provides employment opportunities for local jobless farmers and herdsmen.

In addition to the pool tourism initiative, the cooperative organized local people to optimize the animal husbandry industry and add value to their agricultural and pastoral products. Now about 130 neighboring families are earning a viable income from this industry.

Karma Samten's cooperative is a good example of finding creative ways through which Tibetans can improve their livelihoods and increase their incomes. Tailored to local resources and the realities of the region, an increasing number of farmers' cooperatives specializing in agriculture, animal husbandry and art and crafts manufacturing have been established. As of 2014, there were 2,937 farmers' cooperatives in Tibet Autonomous Region.

Value-added products

Of the 3.17 million population in Tibet, about 75 percent live in rural areas, supporting themselves mainly through agriculture and pastoral farming. With an average elevation of 4,000 meters, grasslands in the region, which used to support a self-sufficient rural economy, now generate hardly any income.

"Previously, my family raised nearly 500 yaks and sheep. Only a few were sold, bringing an annual income of no more than 10,000 yuan ($1,580)," Karma Samten said. Since the founding of the cooperative, his income has increased, reaching 80,000 yuan ($12,700) last year, though the number of animals he raised decreased to 200. He attributed this to the value-added products from his animal husbandry-related business.

Similar problems have also vexed Bunorbu, who lives in an adjacent village.

In the past, the herdsman's family was hard put to find a good use for yak's milk. "Other than processing it into butter to serve on the family's table or presenting it to friends and relatives as gifts, yak milk was of no other utility. Whenever there was a surplus in milk production, it meant a waste," he said. Bunorbu had thought about processing the milk and selling it in Lhasa, the regional capital city. "But the small amounts turned out by an individual family would yield only low profits which could hardly cover the processing and transportation costs," he said.

In 2006, Bunorbu established the first herdsmen's cooperative in his area, specializing in the production and sale of yak milk products like butter and yogurt. "The cooperative helps all member families with finding sales channels for their products as well as transportation, thus lowering their operational costs and risks," said Tsring, head of the Agricultural and Pastoral Bureau of Nagqu Prefecture.

"We purchase milk from fellow herdsmen at a higher price and give them dividends after their milk products are sold," said Bunorbu. So far, 1,933 herdsmen from 386 families have participated in the cooperative and benefited thusly. "With yak milk alone, locals' annual incomes have increased by 1,500 yuan ($238) on average," said Tsring. "By way of cooperatives, the means of production, including grassland, livestock and labor, have been optimized," he said, adding that they have enabled the right people to do the right things, thus generating maximum economic results while easing the burden pastoral farming has imposed on the local ecology.

Pooling in resources

To join the cooperative, local farmers and herdsmen can pool grassland, livestock, expertise, vehicles and equipment, and share the economic benefits of professional management.

In 2013, Karma Samten founded a construction team in his cooperative. As a good salesman, he has always been successful in finding new projects. Surplus labor and skilled personnel such as bricklayers, carpenters and painters in his village are now finding ways to make money outside the busy farming season. The team earned 500,000 yuan ($79,370) last year, enabling 130 rural families to increase their income.

While finding jobs for skilled people, cooperatives provide subsidies for surplus laborers to receive training in new skills tailored to market needs.

In 2007, Menpa, a resident from No.28 Village in Nagqu Prefecture, invested 880,000 yuan ($139,680) to establish a sand transportation cooperative. With his financial support, 38 farmers went to vocational schools and now work as excavator and loader operators, welders and electricians.

Kunzang Dorjee, 28, is one of these beneficiaries. He works as an excavator operator in the cooperative and receives a monthly salary of 5,000 yuan ($794). During the past eight years, the sand transportation cooperative has helped raise the living standards of another 685 villagers just like him.

Farmers who have seen their lands swallowed up by urbanization have become more creative. In Dongga Village in Lhasa's Doilungdeqen County, farmers were pushed to find opportunities as their lands dwindled. The improved modern transportation network and booming infrastructure development provided them with the opportunity they were looking for. With his wealth of experience, his reputation and connections accumulated over 10 years, Jampa led his fellow villagers in setting up a transportation cooperative. He supported poor families and stood surety for those unable to afford vehicle loans. "They can choose to work as drivers in the cooperative businesses. The monthly salary is 3,000 yuan ($476) to 5,000 yuan ($794) based on the transportation distance," Jampa said. To date, the cooperative has accrued 176 vehicles and 70 percent of farmers in the village have secured a sustainable source of income.

Carrying on the culture

With the concept of specialized cooperatives, pastoral farming culture and traditional handicrafts have not been forgotten.

Tibetan Bangdian is a kind of colorful striped apron made of woolen fabrics. It is worn mostly by married Tibetan women indicating their marital status and also as decorative apparel. In 2006, it was listed as a national intangible cultural heritage.

Tenzin Dolma, 22, is a inheritor of this traditional craft in Shannan Prefecture. Tenzin Dolma and her mother set up a Bangdian cooperative in 2011 and taught fellow villagers the weaving techniques. Now they employ 45 workers, most of whom are housewives from local low-income families.

"It is not a laborious job [and yet] I can earn about 2,000 yuan ($317) every month," Dawa Dolker told ChinAfrica. With seven years' experience, she is now a proficient worker who can finish one apron a day.

During the Shanghai World Expo in 2010, Tenzin Dolma attended an exhibition of Tibetan intangible cultural heritage products and promoted the traditional handicraft to an international audience. "As it was summer, the woolen apron didn't sell well. But I felt people loved it and there are potential markets for our traditional cultural products," she said.

Now she is learning marketing skills while creating new patterns and styles for the aprons so that they will gain wider popularity, with the aim of leading her fellow villagers to a better life.

The improved livelihood of these Tibetans has come full circle. Karma Samten's more than substantial income has made it possible for three of his four children to graduate from university. Now his younger daughter is a doctor while her two brothers work as teachers. "My eldest daughter works with me. She will carry on the traditions and culture of my family and our people," he said proudly.

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

Comments to houweili@bjreview.com

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