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Tibetan refugees put eco-theory into practice
25 October 2007 Gośka Romanowicz

The Dalai Lama’s green preaching filters down to everyday life in Dharamsala.

Arriving in McLeod Ganj, home to the Dalai Lama Buddhist prayer flags against a shining blue sky and red-robed monks strolling down clean, sloping streets – McLeod Ganj, or Upper Dharamsala, the “Dalai Lama’s village’’, welcomed us warmly after a 1500m climb. Cycling up here was pure pleasure thanks to the clean mountain air – such a relief after breathing a toxic cocktail of pollutants in the plains below – as well as the views from the Himalayan foothills. The monks, the mountains and the souvenir shops were all to be expected in the official abode of the Dalai Lama. The real surprise came with the Tibetan-run Environmental Education Centre, and a village-wide recycling scheme – the first we had seen since … Germany? Austria? Europe, at any rate.

The last attempts at recycling we had come across were in Kashgar, China, and amounted to putting bins marked ‘recyclables’ and ‘non-recyclable’ in English around the city, which the population seemed to be systematically ignoring. In India we have seen effective eco-action – in the green city of Chandigarh, for example, or even Delhi, where all buses and rickshaws now run on natural gas. But most Indian cities we’ve passed so far seem to limit themselves to putting up “Keep City Cean and Geen” notices and – no action.

McLeod Ganj with its doorstep collection of recyclables, a recycled paper mill, a “green shop” providing filtered water to stop plastic bottle waste and regular village clean-ups that see locals and tourists working together are a world apart from the villages around it when it comes to environmental awareness. True, this is no ordinary Indian village – as the Dalai Lama’s abode, McLeod attracts international funds that make the green actions of its citizens possible. But the fact that the will is there among refugees in such a poor country is in itself remarkable.

Their green zeal is partly thanks to McLeod Ganj’s best known resident – His Holiness, as the Dalai Lama is known here, emphasises environmental protection in his teachings as essential for humanity’s survival:

“Morally speaking, we should be concerned for our whole environment. This, however, is not just a question of morality or ethics, but a question of our own survival. ... If we exploit the environment in extreme ways, we will suffer, as will our future generations.” (From "Humanity and Ecology", The Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.)

His Holiness is admittedly not the first to deliver this message, but it is the Tibetan combination of spirituality with pragmatism that makes it so effective. As the Dalai Lama said in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1989, “our Tibetan ability to combine spiritual qualities with a realistic and practical attitude enables us to make a special contribution, in however modest a way.”

The McLeod village community began to put these teachings into practice around 1992 by setting up a recycling scheme to deal with the growing garbage dumps in Lower Dharamsala, and later an Environmental Education Centre to inform local schoolchildren as well as adults and tourists about environmental issues.

“Foreign delegates came to Dharamsala and asked, you say we should live in harmony with the natural environment but what about starting at home? The Tibetan Welfare Office established the environmental programme in response to this,” explained Tenzin Damdul Tenboom, an Environmental Education Centre worker. The village now recycles 60% of its waste and holds daily environmental classes at local schools.

Not all Tibetans are as enthusiastic about recycling as Tenzin – “we could manage to recycle 80% if we had everyone participating, which is not the case at the moment,” he says. Many people don’t separate their waste, which has to be sorted by green workers later on. Nevertheless the recycling scheme pays for itself – at least in “tourist season” when the beer bottles and other high quality recyclables flood in. Another hindrance is the way locals – both Tibetans and Indians – look down on the green workers, he says. “When I got this job (at the EEC) my friends mocked me and said, oh, that’s the people that collect rubbish,” said Tenzin.

Still, it is thanks to schemes like the EEC – and eco-education in general – that attitudes are changing. Tibetan schools are not only telling, but also showing students that the environment matters. The Peton school in McLeod Ganj has adopted the zero-waste concept; at the Tibetan Childrens’ Village (TCV) boarding school we visited in nearby Bir the students separate their recyclable rubbish themselves. We couldn’t have hoped for a more receptive audience when we gave our first Develotour presentation at the Bir school – thanks to the Buddhist spiritual but practical approach to the environment.

“When you talked about the people living around the Aral Sea I was really touched – Tibet has also been polluted by the Chinese,” one student told us after the presentation. Lakes that are sacred to Tibetans have been polluted, and China is using the mountain wilderness of Tibet as a dump for nuclear waste. The students were also interested, but perhaps less impressed than others, by our feat of cycling almost 5000km to see them – most of them had come to India on foot over Himalayan mountain passes, some losing fingers or toes in the process. They spoke very good English and were well informed when it came to issues like climate change and current affairs – they knew that the Nobel Peace Prize had just been awarded to the IPCC jointly with Al Gore for their work on global warming, for example.

When asked why they thought the connection between peace and climate change was, one student said: “To have peace in the world we must first learn to control our minds, and we must strive for a clean, harmonious environment - both outside and within.” Although we were expecting an answer to do with conflict over water, his answer summed up the Tibetan Buddhist approach to the environment, echoing the Dalai Lama’s words:

“In order to achieve more effective environmental protection and conservation, internal balance within the human being himself or herself is essential. The negligence of the environment, which has resulted in great harm to the human community, resulted from our ignorance of the very special importance of the environment.”

Related websites:

Learn more about green action in the Tibetan community of Dharamsala on http://www.twodhasa.org

For more on environmental issues within Tibet see this webpage of the Tibetan Government in Exile: http://www.tibet.com/WhitePaper/whi...

The website of the office of HH the Dalai Lama is http://www.dalailama.com/

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