2015 Student-Faculty Fellows Program: Southwestern University

Environmental Problems, Awareness and Solutions
in Tibetan Populated Areas of Qinghai Province (China)

Mentor: Patricia Schiaffini, Department of Modern Languages and Literatures
Students: Adrienne Dodd’15, Hunter Jurgens’17

Southwestern Team at the Kumbum monastery outside Xining
Southwestern Team at the Kumbum monastery outside Xining

Project Abstract

In summer 2015, Southwestern University researchers Adrienne Dodd (Class of 2015), Hunter Jurgens (Class of 2017) and Dr. Patricia Schiaffini traveled around Tibetan areas in China to study environmental problems and solutions. Prior to the trip, the team engaged in several months of preliminary research, including interviews with Western and Tibetan scholars in the US, as well as academic readings on the effects of global warming on Himalayan glaciers; degradation and desertification of the grasslands; impact of governmental policies on nomadic pastoralism; effects of policies and development on local fauna and flora; garbage collection and recycling; tourism’s impact on the Tibetan ecosystem, and the importance of Tibetan religious and intellectual figures in environmental awareness. In late July and August the team spent three weeks in China. Besides visiting Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu to meet with scholars and environmentalists, the researchers conducted two more weeks of field–work and interviews in Tibetan-populated areas of Qinghai and Yunnan. Although the majority of the data was gathered in the grasslands of Qinghai, the visits to Shangri-la (Yunnan) and to Chengdu (Sichuan) helped the team assess that the environmental problems affecting Tibetan-populated areas in Qinghai were also similar to those in other rural Tibetan areas in Yunnan and Sichuan. During our time in Qinghai, the researchers teamed up with Tibetan environmentalists to print and distribute culturally appropriate Tibetan-language fliers geared to promote environmental awareness among Tibetan children. The team is now working on academic presentations and publications derived from this research, as well as on an outreach project in Tibetan-populated areas in China to distribute information about ways to recycle and upcycle garbage.

Visiting the Rongwo Monastery in Rebkong
Visiting the Rongwo Monastery in Rebkong

Hunter Jurgens
During the tenure of our stay, I had the opportunity to meet a wide gamut of extremely talented, kind-hearted, and inspiring individuals. Whether they were professionally trained scholars or simple herder-nomads, everyone who we met was able to provide a unique, yet important, view of the environmental situation present in Qinghai. One thing was made extremely clear through all of this—the Qinghai area is suffering from increased levels of pollution and environmental degradation, with issues spanning across nearly every possible basis. Through our interactions with Tibetans, we observed that the environment is not the only thing that has been changing in Qinghai. With each passing generation, Tibetan culture is becoming more and more diffused, with less individuals speaking a dialect of Tibetan and even fewer being literate in it. After receiving my B.A., I plan to attend graduate school and specialize in Tibetan studies. Although I am still unsure of the exact profession that I wish to pursue afterwards, I cannot imagine myself not dealing with Tibet in some fashion, whether it be through continuing my research at a professional level, or working in international relations.

This research trip provided the team with a plethora of raw data, largely in the form of in-depth interviews. From this pool of information, each member has enough information to write several articles more focused on his or her specific interest, in addition to several collaborative papers that are currently in the process of being written. Personally, since I am interested in both sociology and politics, my current research analyzes the intersection between religion and political activism. Specifically, my research question deals with the formation of civil society in
Tibetan populated areas of China, and the subsequent role that religious institutions play in this formation. My preliminary research suggests that Tibetan Buddhist Lamas, in conjunction with their temples, have become the primary institutions organizing local efforts to combat environmental degradation. In addition to this project, I also plan on utilizing research performed and connections made during this trip to write my senior honors thesis, which will analyze Tibetan’s cultural identities, and how it is manifested in a political or societal manner.

Southwestern Team at the Museum of Tibetan Culture in Xining
Southwestern Team at the Museum of Tibetan Culture in Xining

Adrienne Dodd
Southwestern University’s research team traveled across China from the cosmopolitan cities of Beijing and Shanghai to the verdant grasslands of Qinghai province on the Tibetan Plateau. We talked with Tibetans from various backgrounds to deepen our understanding of the environmental issues facing Qinghai province. As an Environmental Studies major, I found many of the problems we encountered hauntingly familiar to environmental injustices occurring in the United States. In Qinghai province, we saw the effects of governmental attempts to gain control over ecosystems through replacing natural systems with statewide economic and land-use policies that ignore local history and scientific knowledge. The idea that broad policies developed for generic problems, and new technology developed for broad application can replace complex ecosystem interactions is pervasive in our modern world. This research project allowed me to meet with people from halfway across the world, validate our shared concerns, and discuss possible solutions. As I plan my academic career in the field of Natural Disaster Mitigation and Management, I will take with me the importance of creating policies based on scientific research that take into account cultural and ecological variations between regions.

My research explores the environmental problems occurring in Tibetan areas of China’s Qinghai province, their root causes, and the subsequent grassroots responses to these changes. Through oral interviews and observation, our research team explored the complexities of development and land-use policies in the region. My research thus far has singled out three main sources of the major environmental problems we observed. Scientifically uninformed policies, a lack of waste management infrastructure, and corruption that allows for loose restrictions on mining companies have not only led to the pollution and degradation of rangeland ecosystems, but have heightened the loss of Tibetan culture. We found that Tibetan Buddhist monks and high lamas led much of the grassroots environmental organizing to mitigate the impact of these developments. Continued research is needed to quantify the direct and indirect effects of these environmental problems and to measure the impact of grassroots organizing on mobilizing people and solving problems.