As a second year graduate student focusing on sustainability and development issues, I wanted to study the problem of waste in Tibetan areas for my master’s paper. Given that the Tibetan Village Project (TVP) had conducted eco-waste projects in Kham, I sought an internship in its Chengdu office in the winter of 2015-2016, where I had the opportunity to go on a short field trip to Minyak area of Kham. I started my trip from Chengdu to Dartsendo (Ch: Kangding), where I met Tenpa, TVP’s field staff, who also served as my driver and guide for the duration of the trip. For the next few days, Tenpa showed me around Dora, Sihurung, and Yoloshi, the villages where TVP has done small waste management projects.
Despite having visited Kham once before, I was still in awe of its beauty; yet also equally disturbed by the sight of garbage littering the streets, rivers, and streams running through the villages. The presence of old shoes, discarded bottles, and other recyclable materials piled up to be burned—an unhealthy waste solution widely practiced across Tibet—was also commonplace. According to the local Tibetans, tourism contributes greatly to the garbage problem in their communities. As Minyak slowly grows in popularity, especially among domestic travelers from mainland China, locals fear that the amount of garbage will grow as well, and with no waste collection service and proper disposal methods to confront the issue, the problem will only become bigger. In an effort to address this problem, TVP initiated some small-scale waste management projects. Waste management training, educational material development, and waste bin installations were carried out in the three villages. TVP also partnered with the University of California-Berkeley on a Conscious Journeys service trip to Yoloshi, where students built an easy-to-install greenhouse made of disposed plastic bottles that they hoped would encourage reuse of waste materials and be replicated in Yoloshi and other villages. Despite these efforts, garbage still remains a persistent challenge in these communities.
In Yoloshi, I learned that the greenhouse has not been replicated and is not being actively used, as vegetables do not grow properly in it. A conversation with a family across three generations about garbage in their community also revealed different understandings and awareness of waste. While the grandfather and uncle, both with limited or no education, pointed only to the visual impacts of waste (harm to animals and visually unappealing), the youngest attending middle school demonstrated a more sophisticated understanding of the unseen impacts on health, something he had learned in school and on his own from the internet. Dora and Sihurung were no different in terms of general awareness about waste and its impact, but what set Sihurung apart was its cleanliness. It turns out that the head of the local monastery, a well-respected leader with a deep interest in conservation, is very hands on when it comes to helping his community. He regularly speaks to the young in his village about the environment and personally ensures that the village is kept clean by leading and volunteering in community cleanup activities. However, he too is skeptical about the sustainability of his efforts as he recognizes that volunteer based initiatives may not last long.
When I returned to Chengdu and discussed my observations with my colleagues, we all agreed that waste is a complex issue that cannot be addressed by the local community and their friends alone. While small scale eco-waste projects can be short-term solutions, there is a greater need for systematic waste management services and infrastructure for the collection and disposal of waste, something that is financially unfeasible for a local community or non-governmental institutions to undertake. With the rise of tourism, an increasingly growing means of livelihood for the Tibetans, a change in attitude and waste disposal habits of both the Tibetan communities and the millions of tourists visiting Tibet is also needed.
As a student and a Tibetan trying to understand the environmental challenges on the Tibetan plateau, my visit to Kham was both illuminating and instructive in helping me understand the local context and perspectives on waste. Yet, I am also left with many more questions on how to solve the problem. The answers are not easy and the task ahead is daunting. However, one thing is certain: the local and global problem of waste cannot be ignored. And, any step taken to resolve this problem must prioritize the role, voices, and knowledge of locals in each Tibetan area. As I graduate this year, lessons learned from my internship at TVP have given me a lot to think about. Venturing into next steps, I now look forward to exploring how I may be able to contribute towards solving the challenges of waste on the Tibetan plateau (to see how you can help Tibet via TVP, please click here).
About the author: Tenzin Kunsang is a graduate student pursuing a degree in Sustainable International Development at the Heller School for Social Policy & Management, Brandeis University.