Journeying into the business world... one undiscovered culture at a time

Welcome to [Per]Suit of Anthropology, a blog dedicated to the exploration of modern business trends and perspectives from the view of anthropologist, with a special emphasis on cultural understandings of work-life balance and disability rights in the workplace. This blog is a way for me to connect two sides of my professional self that I see in constant dialogue. Though the business world and the anthropological world may not believe it - they have more in common and more to learn from one another than readily acknowledged. Topics covered include: Western business practices and the impact of those decisions on socio-cultural institutions worldwide, invisible disabilities, Ignatian spirituality, work-life balance, and some discussion of issues of tourism and its impacts on culture, and common human capital practices in private industry and government.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Land, Culture and Development

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a lecture sponsored by Machik, an organization devoted to the "development of education, capacity-building and innovation on the Tibetan plateau." I have been following Machik for a few years now - but this was my first opportunity to attend an event here in D.C. It was so wonderful to walk into a room with people from, and who had visited Tibet. To hear the language spoken (even though I can only understand words here and there) was like a long-lost part of me coming home.

The talk was entitled "Palzan Salon on Water Management in Golok." I know, not too sexy huh? But it was so incredible! The speaker's name was Palzang, from Ngawa (the site of the 2008 earthquake that devastated a monastery I had visited in Summer 2004). He has been working the past few years on helping to clean up area waterways in the Nyinpo Yurtse mountain region. This mountainous area is the home of some of the major rivers of Asia - including the Yellow River, Yangtze River, and Mekong, and Brahmaputra to name a few. Yet in this area the notion of 'trash' is a somewhat novel idea. I saw this myself in 2004 - in the middle of Lhasa. Up until recently (and this was confirmed by Palzang), most of what Tibetans used (or re-used) was biodegradable in nature. However with the influence of 'modern' society - and the materials that accompany a more developed lifestyle, Tibetans were exposed to new materials that are non-biodegradable (plastics, chemicals, etc.). So in Lhasa it was not out of the ordinary to see, for example, kids eating candy and just throwing the wrapper out on the side of the road. My group even remarked that an area outside of Lhasa was known as the Plastic Bag Forest - as the wind would whip through Lasha, pick up plastic bags, and they would get caught in the trees on the outskirts of town making it look like a forest of plastic bags.

At any rate in the Nyinpo Yurtse mountain region this same cultural influence is being felt acutely in the waters. People, nomads in particular, would dump everything, from batteries, to chemicals, to typical waste in the headwaters of some of the major rivers leading to a huge pollution problem. So what to do about this situation?

Well, Palzang decided to take quite an anthropological approach. Despite his own education in ecology and biological sciences - he turned to the local lamas for help in this solution. In particular, he appealed to the local Tibetan's sense of what we can refer to as an 'eco-sacred system,' that is areas where spirits are believed to reside in natural forms. In Nyinpo Yurtse, there are an abundance of Lu, or traditional water spirits that are said to reside at the headwaters. Thus much of Palzang's education was from a religious perspective - appealing to the desire to honor the Lu, or not to anger it. In particular, a common practice among the natives in the area is to make offerings to the Lu, called Ter. As the region has grown in tourist and religious eyes - Ter were sold and thrown into the water at an alarming rate. So Palzang worked with local monasteries to develop bio-degradable Ter that would help lessen the amount of trash in the areas. They also organized entire clean up teams to help rid the rivers of the trash - and they were all locally organized.

The impact was amazing - he was able to help organize whole communities toward a beneficial effort to produce clean water not just for the local communities - but to the benefit of the entire Asian continent (talk about good karma!! - which was, by the way one of the other teachings that was used to teach the importance of not polluting the river). It was just amazing how by looking at a situation from an etic perspective - whereby you understand what is really going to impact the people to change their cultural perceptions is just amazing. The results he has for the clean up effort are quite extensive given the low amount of funding and the difficulty found in reaching these areas; and the success with grassroots organizations.

All in all it was an incredibly refreshing afternoon - and reminded me about all the theology that I had forgotten regarding Tibetan Buddhism and the importance of physical, natural locations to the local culture and populations. Definitely makes me want to pick up some old college books to refresh my memory... and it was just plain inspiring to hear some good news coming from a region that has been hard hit these past few years.

If you are interested in finding out more, Palzang's work was funded by both USAID and Winrock International - though I have had difficulty finding any presentations that are publicly available.