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Community-Generated Solutions for Sustainability in Tibet

by guest contributor, Mara Hvistendahl

From the humble post of an English teacher at China's Qinghai Normal University, Kevin Stuart is changing the fate of entire communities. Stuart first moved to Xining, Qinghai, the capital of this heavily Tibetan province, in 1987, with a PhD in anthropology from the University of Hawaii. Ten years later, he executed, along with Tibetan colleagues, a novel idea: select the brightest Tibetan students from area villages, educate them in English, and arm them with the skills to bring development to their hometowns.

With funding from The Bridge Fund, the Ford Foundation, Misereor, Good Works, and Trace Foundation, English for Tibetans now counts 120 students in its preparatory and college-level programs. By the end of the second year of the preparatory course, most students are nearly fluent in conversational English. In the classroom, they read classics like The Pearl and Siddhartha.

The program's genius is in its sustainability: rather than plucking the best minds out of already impoverished areas and sending them out into the world, Stuart encourages students to use their education to give back to their communities. After receiving instruction from the program's seven foreign teachers on how to write and submit grant proposals, students return to their herding and nomad communities to ask their neighbors to identify their needs – and generate solutions. The students then formulate small-scale projects and secure funding for them. During a few days in Xining, I heard students ask each other questions like, "Have you written the proposal yet?"


Their efforts have brought about a range of grassroots projects, including lamasery restoration, the introduction of running water, and pigsty construction. In Golok prefecture, in the south of the province, students helped devise a yak loan program that follows local norms by giving yaks to village elders, who then lend them to younger adults for breeding. The elders receive allowances of butter and milk, while the able-bodied adults keep the offspring of the loaned yaks.

Several of the projects have a green bent. Thanks to ETP, solar cookers are becoming popular among nomads in Qinghai -- adding to a phenomenon happening across western China. Using donations from foreign organizations and contributions from villagers, ETP students purchase and distribute inexpensive solar cookers to needy areas (in addition to private homes and nomads, cookers go to lamaseries and nunneries where monks and nuns spend long hours gathering fuel). The devices reduce the amount of firewood taken from forests in a region that is already suffering from high rates of erosion and deforestation.

kettle.jpg In addition to facilitating leapfrogging, such projects also help improve health, nutrition, and social rights for villagers and nomads:

+ At one school, children were drinking unfiltered water from the river. Solar cookers mean that this water can now be boiled. In private homes and tents, meanwhile, they allow for more frequent bathing and washing of clothes.

+ Tibetans have found that yaks produce more milk after drinking warm water. Solar cookers thus increase the yield of dairy products.

+ In some villages, women and girls spend whole days collecting firewood and yak dung on baskets strapped to their backs, often traveling for several hours on each end to reach areas with fuel. Families often keep girls out of school so that they can help with these chores. In theory, at least, the solar cookers enable girls to attend school.

Even the grant process is self-sustaining: once villagers experience the effects of the projects, they pressure students and other capable young people to apply for more grants to solve other urgent local problems.


Beyond pure development, ETP students are also encouraged to document and preserve their culture. Several have written autobiographies or produced documentaries (their work can be downloaded here). Under the direction of an ETP teacher from Australia with an ethnomusicology degree, students are recording and cataloguing Tibetan music, with the goal of creating a digital archive. Others are working on preserving obscure dialects; one student is recording information on his village language, spoken by only 500 people.

But the program's focus is not entirely local. Of the 500-plus students the school has graduated, 30 have gone on to foreign undergraduate and graduate universities, often on full scholarship –including Charles University in Prague, Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and Atendeo de Manila University in the Philippines. Even so, many students maintain a strong loyalty to greater Tibet. Lillian Gatubdrolma, a recent graduate of ETP, will leave a poor village in Gansu province to join two other program alums at Duke University this fall. After finishing her degree there, she says, "I want to return to Gansu."

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Great work Mr.Stuart and your Tibetan colleagues! You have been a catalyst to help sustainably improve life on the plateau. Solar cookers are absolutely appropriate technology. I first saw one when I bicycled through Tibet/Qinghai in 1990. This is exactly the kind of sustainable, grassroots type of development the whole world needs.

Posted by: Neil on 13 Jun 07

This just in from a mailing list I'm on:

GI-Net has taken the path of a civilian protection program in Northern Darfur to protect women collecting firewood. Solar cookers have been presented as a possible answer to the problem; however, the consensus on the ground is that they have given up on the idea. They are expensive and the women do not like them because they take an extremely long time to cook anything. While some organizations are continuing to experiment with them, we feel it is better to establish firewood patrols or, where this is not possible, enhance income or reduce price of firewood (not sustainable though).

More at

I wonder what the experience of the Tibetans has been, in reference to cost and cooking time for solar cookers? (Granted, I'm only focusing on a small portion of this WorldChanging article.)

Posted by: c! on 14 Jun 07



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