John Yantis, 22 April 1998
An Arizona State University graduate student studying the Tibetan plateau in China is helping nomadic yak herders fight two years of savage winters. Biology student Marc Foggin went to the Qinghai Province of China to learn how best to sustain development and ecology on the grasslands of Tibet, one of the harshest environments in the world. His job is to help nomads, whose livelihood depends on yaks, find long-term solutions to poverty in an environment where the average temperature is below freezing. But thanks to record snowfall, Mother Nature has put the future of the plateau on hold. And while Foggin’s brain concentrates on the answers of tomorrow, his heart cannot forget what he sees today. “The family that sticks out most strongly in my mind is the family of seven people who lost all 34 of their yak and decided to sell their tent in order to buy five yak from their neighbors,” Foggin says through E-mail. “Now four of them have had to leave the family to work for other pastoralists (nomadic herders) that have not lost as many animals, and three of them live in an old tent that is only 3-by-3 meters in area.” The family’s story and other tales of suffering drove Foggin to organize a relief effort for the people of the countryside, an idea that will end with over 60 six-ton trucks of supplies that will be delivered this month to 18 townships. On the Tibetan plateau, it is the yak that gives life. In fact they are called “the ship of the plateau.” But the heaviest snowfall in the area’s history covered grasses eaten by animals resulting in their starvation and frostbitten herders, some of whom also suffer snow blindness.
The nomads, who live at an elevation of between 13,000 and 15,000 feet, live mainly in yak-hair tents and eat a ground barley called tsampa with yak butter and tea. They herd their livestock daily and move between winter and summer pastures with shorter stops in the spring and fall. They use yak dung for fuel and smoke it in their pipes. “They been living on sort of a knife’s edge for the last 30 years,” said Andrew Smith, an ASU biology professor and Foggin’s thesis advisor. Old grazing practices have changed for the nomads as grasslands have been degraded during this period making native animals, such as gazelle and antelope, almost non existent, he said. More than 12,000 herders in a huge, five county area are starving, Smith said. During an assessment trip, Foggin, 28, decided he had to serve the Tibetans. “The need was so obvious,” the Montreal resident said. “Some families had only two or three days worth of food left and their livestock had died. I could not ignore the people’s cry.” In one township, a village sprung up in over just a few years as families that had lost all of their animals moved next to a local monastery to beg from occasional pilgrims, he said. One family had been there seven years and still had no hope to make a living. Another family Foggin visited had sold its only tent to buy food. They are now living in a borrowed house nearby because the owners are temporarily in a neighboring county where the snow fall was less, and their livestock have a better chance of survival. In February, Foggin surveyed these conditions in an area called Yushu and sent his report, with the help of a charity, to the Hong Kong government. He requested funds to purchase supplies for the herders. In March, the Hong Kong government gave him and the charity $120,000. However, by this time, news began arriving about disastrous conditions in another area called Guolou. Knowing that four international relief organizations were already working in Yushu, Foggin asked the government to assist Guolou. After three weeks of deliberation, officials agreed to let Foggin use the money in Guolou, where it continues to snow. The money will be used to provide food and medical supplies in two counties beginning about April 25. His efforts make Smith proud. “Here’s a graduate student on the spot and he rose to the occasion and he’s done this incredible thing all by himself,” he said. For Foggin, it was an easy choice. “There are no easy answers,” he said. “But I know I should be here and I’m glad to help where and in ways I can.”