At a religious festival in eastern Tibet, a group of young monks squeal with laughter as a dishevelled Tibetan rolls around on the grass, beer bottle in hand, being harangued about the importance of not dropping litter. The scene, in an educational film by Emily Yeh called Shielding the Mountains, depicts a new form of community education in Tibet through comedy sketches promoting environmental protection.
One of the heroes of this community, in the Chamdo area of eastern Tibet, is called Rinchen Samdrup. Together with his two brothers, Karma Samdrup and Chime Namgyal, Rinchen worked tirelessly to set up a grassroots environmental organisation, the Snowlands Great Rivers Environmental Protection Association, engaging local villagers with initiatives of litter collection, monitoring of illegal hunting, and the planting of thousands of trees. Villagers often sang as they worked; Rinchen Samdrup said they used the tree-planting as a time to come together as a community and have fun.
Rinchen Samdrup, a humble and determined man, speaks in the film about the relationship between Tibetans and their landscape, characterising it as “the container and its contents”: “The container is the environment surrounding us, and the contents are living beings. The two must be in balance.” He adds, “Environmental protection is critical to everything we do. It is pervasive and inseparable like blood flowing through the body.”
It is only at the end of the 20-minute film (trailer on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MNHw5BU1F-M) that it is revealed to the viewer that all three brothers are now in prison, and their conservation work has ground to a halt.
Charges against the three brothers, whose environmental work was acclaimed both within China and internationally, are widely regarded to have been rigged after their efforts to stop the poaching of endangered animals in their home area in the Tibet Autonomous Region clashed with the local authorities. Rinchen Samdrup, 44, was sentenced to five years in prison in July 2010. His younger brother, 42-year-old Karma Samdrup, was sentenced to 15 years and was severely tortured in detention. I’m told that he is seriously ill.
Their disabled brother Chime Namgyal, serving 21 months in a labour camp, can no longer walk or eat without assistance after being tortured. Their mother, who is in her mid-70s, was seriously injured after being beaten unconscious when armed police detained Rinchen Samdrup from their family home.
Before his imprisonment, Rinchen Samdrup and his village community were recipients of a major Ford Motor Company award for nature conservation — their top environmental prize in China. I called Ford Motor Co after Rinchen Samdrup’s arrest to tell them about his prison sentence. I have not yet been able to establish whether Ford expressed private concern to the authorities. They did not demonstrate any interest in making any public statements to support him.
Prior to Rinchen Samdrup’s arrest, his work was highly regarded by many Chinese officials and conservationists. The Samdrup brothers’ village is in the Yangtze River watershed, so Chinese conservationists regard planting trees there as not only essential for the local environment, but also for the protection of water and soil on the upper reaches of the Yangtze.
Chinese journalist Feng Yongfeng described an incident that vividly reflects his role as a bridge between the local community and senior environmentalists and officials from China. He recasslls an important meeting in which Rinchen Samdrup sits in the front row, wearing a Tibetan chuba and holding up his mobile phone, trying to capture speeches of the important Chinese officials. In an English translation of the article, Feng Yongfeng wrote, “He wants to broadcast all of the voices from meeting directly from his mobile phone to his hometown, to his house. Gathered in his home are all the people who were able to make it and they are all assembled around a landline phone with the speaker-phone activated so the words from a mobile phone hundreds of kilometers away can come to them via their phone. ‘Rinchen Samdrup, don’t hang up, let us hear what people at the meeting are saying,’ said Sonam Chophel, a friend from his village and a member of the association. ‘But you’re the same as me — you don’t understand Chinese,’ said Rinchen Samdrup.
“‘Don’t worry about it, just don’t hang up,’ the villager said. They lean closer to the phone. This is a rare opportunity for them to be in touch with the outside world. Every time they hear laughter in the meeting room the villagers urgently ask Rinchen Samdrup, ‘What are they laughing about? Is it anything to do with us?’”
In the film Shielding the Mountains, Rinchen Samdrup talks about one of his main sources of inspiration, a lama who was a famous practitioner of religious medicine. Although at the time the concept of environmental protection didn’t exist in Tibet, the lama summed up his ethos as “hunting rules and shielding the mountains”, which meant no digging up the land, no cutting down trees, protecting animals, and showing reverence for the spirits of the mountains.
There is increasing awareness about the global significance of Tibet’s environment as the earth’s “third pole”, which is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, and is the source of most of Asia’s major rivers. Indian policymakers are acutely aware of the significance of damming these rivers upstream. At a time of environmental crisis in China, the ground-breaking community conservation work of individuals like Karma and Rinchen Samdrup is essential for the future of China and Asia, as well as Tibet.
The environment is one of the common areas of interest between Chinese and Tibetans, and this case — appearing to serve local and corrupt interests, supported by the Central government — could have been an opportunity for Beijing to demonstrate progress in the implementation of environmental protection measures. Instead, the Chinese authorities chose the opposite route, and used the law and courts to serve political purposes rather than upholding justice.