Like many traditional cultures around the world, the nomads of Tibet are losing their unique way of life as they become increasingly integrated into modern China. Nomads from this region hold traditional knowledge passed down from generations, which has cultural and ecological value for the future.
For thousands of years, nomadic peoples have herded yak and other livestock throughout the high altitude grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau in what is now Western China. Using knowledge passed down through generations, with the support of tribal communities, nomadic pastoralists have survived in extremely rough conditions. Nomads live primarily from what they create from their herds and they endure rain, snow, drought, and altitudes averaging nearly 15,000 ft.
After China invaded Tibet in 1950, the Chinese government implemented a variety of policies designed to control the Tibetan grasslands and their human and natural resources, including fencing pasturelands and relocating nomads into villages and cities. According to the Human Rights Watch, since 2006, over 2 million Tibetans—including hundreds of thousands of nomads from the eastern Tibetan Plateau—have been "rehoused" through government-ordered programs.*
China's stated goals for relocation include reducing poverty, improving education, and improving quality of life for the nomads, as well as protecting the environment of the Tibetan Plateau—a major water source for the world—from over-grazing. But not everyone agrees that the policies serve the people or the environment of the Tibetan Plateau. According to The New York Times, the ecological foundation for relocation is "dubious" and anthropologists cite "chronic unemployment, alcoholism, and the fraying of millenniums-old traditions" as some consequences of relocation.**
In this photo essay, "Drokpa: the Nomadic Mountain People of Tibet," Diane Barker documents scenes from Tibet's high altitude grasslands from the years 2000 to 2015. Earlier photographs portray the wild beauty of Tibet and the natural spirituality of the nomadic people, while later photographs reveal the effects of relocation and modern technology on the nomads' traditional lifestyle.
Connections to National Standards
Common Core English Language Arts. SL.11-12.1.c. Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that probe reasoning and evidence; ensure a hearing for a full range of positions on a topic or issue; clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions; and promote divergent and creative perspectives.
Common Core English Language Arts. W.9-10.3 and W.11-12.3. Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.
College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies. D2.Geo.6.9-12. Evaluate the impact of human settlement activities on the environmental and cultural characteristics of specific places and regions.
College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies. D2.Geo.2.9-12. Use maps, satellite images, photographs, and other representations to explain relationships between the locations of places and regions and their political, cultural, and economic dynamics.