The Real Reason For The Tibet Protests
Yoichi Shimatsu  ,
New American Media

As Tibetan horsemen charge like fiery embers over withered grass to attack a Chinese government Catching-the-Shrimp outpost, the Dalai Lama and the Beijing government point fingers of blame for the firestorm sweeping the Tibetan Plateau. Far from these vast grasslands, neither authority  - religious or secular - has much of a clue of the range war happening here.

This battle for the grasslands has been smoldering for the past decade over the volatile price of livestock and food-cost inflation, largely due to the skyrocketing market value of meat. While Buddhists around the world may practice vegetarianism, red meat is essential to the Tibetan diet  - especially for monks known as lamas - since it is the only effective means of transforming the abundant grass into protein.

As is the case for workers in the meat industry worldwide, Tibetan herders and family farmers here are at the bottom rung of the economic ladder, receiving the least cash for the most hours worked. Tibetan herdsmen are scattered, often illiterate and unable to converse in Mandarin. They are even discouraged from owning trucks, since lamas tell them that their scant earnings are better spent on donations to the Buddhist monasteries.

Pastoral isolation leaves the herders open to undercutting by Muslim middlemen. Ten years ago, the price of a fat-tailed sheep was about US$14. Four years ago, as the newly constructed western highways were extended, the price tripled due to rising demand for lamb chops in wealthy cities of the distant Pacific Coast. This sudden boom led to encroachment by one group of herders onto the lands leased by other groups. Range wars erupted between odd coalitions of Tibetans, Mongols and Muslims.

Here, money is meat, meat is grass and people kill for grass. Though the bloodshed in the high prairie may seem anachronistic, it is directly linked to the global economy that Beijing has so eagerly embraced. Far away in the capital, foreign executives can tuck into a business lunch featuring an 8-ounce rib eye with potatoes, vegetables and salad for a mere $4 at a steakhouse affiliated with Cargill, the gigantic U.S. grain conglomerate. A medium-rare steak is surely a sign of reform and free trade - but the delivery mechanism remains hidden from view.

In more recent years, huge feedlots supplied by American grain companies have sprung up in Inner Mongolia, the Shantung Peninsula and outside of Shanghai. Their purchasing agents ply the Muslim truckers with fistfuls of cash for shipments of thousands of live animals. With so much demand from the rich cities, meat became scarce in local markets, and food prices shot up.

Tibetans were buying a leg of lamb for the price of a whole animal, and few would ever stop to consider the inflated price of fuel and truck leasing for the Muslim middleman. In the first day of the Lhasa riots, most of the casualties of arson were Hui Muslim noodle restaurant workers, who migrated to the newly prosperous provincial capital over the past decade - just as Mexican immigrants have gone to major cities to work as dishwashers.

The frustration and anger of the Tibetan mobs will not immediately result in either independence or genocidal repression - only a heightened state of anxiety and distrust. The rules of Tibetan Buddhism have curbed the native population from common trades practiced by citizens of a modern secular nation-state. Instead, a multiethnic caste system is being perpetuated, with the Muslims doing the butchering, running restaurants and driving; the Nepalese crafting the jewelry and brassware; and the Chinese laborers building roads and raising power lines. With rising expectations and ruthless greed, cultural and religious difference is a formula for ethnic vendetta.

One solution lies in establishing a fair trading system for poverty-stricken Tibetan herders and for the Muslim meatpackers. The solution is not easy, given the steady loss of grassland and glaciers to global warming. The only consolation from this vicious cycle is that long after the global economy collapses under its own unsustainable weight, the Tibetan and Mongol herdsmen will still be grazing their sheep in these uplands, while their Muslim neighbors grow fields of wheat in the arid valleys below.

Yoichi Shimatsu is a media studies lecturer at Tsinghua University in Beijing and former editor of the Japan Times Weekly in Tokyo. Shimatsu is a mountain-environment consultant currently working on grasslands restoration projects in the Tibetan Plateau and other arid uplands of western China.