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Relocation Changing Lives on Plateau

Time: 11:16 Dec-16

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Even hardy herdsmen on the "roof of the world" sometimes find they may be pushing the limits of human endurance by trying to make a living above the clouds.

Rigzin, 49, from the autonomous region, is one of them.

Donning a lambskin smock and a fur hat, Rigzin cracks a whip to encourage his flock of sheep to move in a homeward direction. Then he stops for a selfie in front of his house — perhaps his final photo on the prairie he's called home for nearly half a century.

Thanks to a voluntary ecological relocation program in high-altitude areas, Rigzin, along with his wife, Karma Detso, and their son, has decided to leave their hometown in Rungma township, Nagqu, for Lhasa, the regional capital, to start a new life.

"I've been herding sheep and cattle for more than 40 years, and I thought my whole life would be just like this," Rigzin said.

A small television and a machine to churn ghee — a type of clarified butter — are the only electric appliances in his adobe house, which has stood defiantly against a snow-dusted mountainous landscape for decades.

Every day, the family had to make four trips to a nearby river to fetch water. In winter, when the river freezes over, they were forced to trek even further.

Rigzin needed to ride his motorcycle across the prairie to the township seat, about 30 kilometers away, to make a phone call or send a text message via cellphone.

Life in Rungma is anything but modern. Diseases such as rheumatism and heart disease are endemic.

White-haired elderly residents are rare, because the average life expectancy is no more than 60 years, much lower than the region's average.

Harsh natural conditions have also precluded any possibility of improving the standard of living of residents. Blizzards and heavy snows seal the mountain passes every winter.

Due to its remoteness, basic public services — including education and medical care — are not always accessible. The local primary school only offers education for students from grades one to three, and only four students from the township have been admitted to in the past five years.

"One of our colleagues once joked that this area is not suitable for humans and should be left to wild animals," said Jamyang Paljor, the township's Party secretary.

Returning Land to Wildlife

In April last year, the regional government decided to launch an ecological relocation program in high-altitude areas. Rungma was the first on the list.

Relocation is not compulsory. Some 1,102 residents live in 262 households in Rungma.

Among them, 81 are registered as low-income households.

In June last year, a form was sent to Rigzin's home, seeking opinions on relocation. He was excited to have a chance to live in Lhasa, a place he had visited three times.

But many concerns soon dampened his excitement. How would he deal with his sheep and what would he do in Lhasa? So he initially declined to participate in the relocation program.

More than 200 families like Rigzin's initially turned down the offer. Township officials went door to door to explain the favorable relocation policies, including new homes, better education for children and medical care for the elderly. And one of the things that clinched the deal seemed to be an assurance that residents and their livestock would be taken care of.

Rigzin swayed toward relocating after officials visited him a second time. After a family discussion, the next day, he placed his red fingerprint on the form to show agreement.

About 50 km north of Rungma, workers have begun dismantling pasture fences that Dradul spent a fortune to build. The 600-hectare meadow he fenced is within the Qiangtang National Nature Reserve, an important habitat for Tibetan antelopes.

"Antelopes used to get injured on the fences," said Dechen Lhundrup, deputy head of forestry police in Nyima county.

Before Dradul relocated to Lhasa, he called the forestry police to help him dismantle the fences. "The meadow used to belong to wild animals," he said. "Now we're leaving, and it's time to return the land to its original owners."

Rungma is located in the nature reserve. At an average altitude of more than 5,000 meters, the reserve covers 298,000 square kilometers and is home to dozens of protected species.

Due to the relocation program, about 180,000 hectares of meadowlands will be left undisturbed for grazing by wildlife. The local government will gradually dismantle all the fences.

So far, 570 people have relocated to new homes in Lhasa under the campaign. Rigzin's daughter and son-in-law opted to stay behind to look after his flock.

They can entrust the animals to cooperatives when they decide to move to Lhasa, allowing them to continue earning an income from their animals.

According to the regional government, 27,880 residents from 6,910 households will be relocated between 2016 and 2020. Nearly 10,000 people will be able to move into their new homes this year.

Moving for a Better Future

After two days of travel by foot, bus and truck across mountain passes and grasslands, Rigzin's family arrived in Lhasa on Monday afternoon.

Katrug village, their new home 3,800 meters above sea level, has been built at a cost of over 200 million yuan ($31 million). In addition to 266 homes, there is a kindergarten, a village committee office building and other key civil infrastructure.

Engineers estimate that building an asphalt road to Rungma alone would cost at least 800 million yuan, so authorities are keen to encourage more to participate in the relocation.

Each household is allocated a home of 80 to 180 square meters based on the size of the family. The steel-framed structure can resist earthquakes of up to magnitude 8.

The resettled families are required to pay 10 percent of the construction costs per family member, which is about 6,000 yuan per person. Households on the official poverty list are exempt.

Not far from where Rigzin and his family now live, a 33-hectare industrial park is taking shape. Wang Guochen, vice-mayor of Lhasa, said 220 jobs have been created with more to come.

Rigzin's new house covers 150 square meters. As night approaches, he puts away his luggage and boils a pot of water with a gas cooker to wash his feet.

He will take his son to a nearby primary school in the morning, and his wife is expected to give birth soon. The couple have already lost six children due to the harsh natural environment and poor medical conditions.

"I will give the baby a good name to commemorate this life-changing trip. With better medical resources, we believe he or she will be healthy and safe this time," he said.

(Source: China Daily)

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