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28. May 2007

ISSN: 1864-1407

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Consolidating a 'mini-revolution'

As part of a campaign he launched in April 2005 in collaboration with Care for the Wild International (CWI) and the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), the Dalai Lama, in January 2006, issued an emotional message exhorting Tibetans to stop wearing fur products or skins from endangered wildlife. Despite the exiled leader's total absence from the state-controlled media, the message, couched in a mixture of environmental and Buddhist terminology, swiftly reached the Tibetan masses within Tibet and resulted in a success whose speed and thoroughness is unprecedented in nature protection. Beginning in Rebkong (Amdo), bonfires were lit throughout Tibet, burning the skins of endangered animals in their tens of thousands. More than a year after these dramatic events, Tibet is still virtually free from clothing made from, or trimmed with, wildlife products. Two major Tibetan festive seasons, the summer horse festivals in 2006 and the New Year celebrations (Tib: Losar), held in late February 2007, which have traditionally been the main events where Tibetans dressed in animal skins, have passed with an almost total absence of people wearing fur confirming the lasting impact of the campaign. This 'mini-revolution' has had an unforeseen side effect in that it has also invigorated the Tibetan fashion industry and has led to financial benefits for Tibetans, and is making significant contributions towards badly needed funding for education and economic development. Many Tibetans are confident, the horse festivals in Summer 2007 will show the durability of the trend. Meanwhile, environmentalists have emphasised the importance of making the Dalai Lama�s initiatives on environmental and animal protection sustainable by placing them in a wider, non-political context.

Tibetans like to dress ostentatiously and New Year is an opportunity to flaunt one's wealth through dress and jewellery. Prior to the Dalai Lama's anti-fur speech, no festival occasion would be celebrated without young men and women draping themselves in the skins of endangered animals such as tigers, leopards and otters. However, during the New Year celebrations in 2007, such skins were nowhere to be seen. Tibetans still wore traditional dress - bright and colourful shirts and sashes, coral and turquoise necklaces, huge yak-hide belts with large silver studs and daggers sheathed in silver encrusted with pieces of semi-precious stones. And on close examination of their clothing, one could still see the traces of fur-trim in the form of fading marks or loose, exposed and now functionless threads, but no one yearned for the fur skins that only a year ago had been symbols of wealth and prestige.

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Not using endangered wildlife skins has also had significant social and economic effects. Hitherto neglected traditional handicrafts specifically associated with Tibetan dress have been revived. In recent years, the strong emphasis on the use of tiger, leopard and otter skins, a trend encouraged by the state authorities, had resulted in the neglect of design, cut, decorative patterns and motifs of Tibetan dress, and actually a vulgarisation of Tibetan festive dress. Tibetans have now become more attentive to the way traditional festival clothing is designed and made. They engage in very creative competitions in artistic craftsmanship, displaying in the process flair and skill in stylish design and complex needlework and embroidery. The New Year festivities in 2007 showed that the quality, design and decorative flourishes of traditional dress are becoming the principal feature of Tibetan finery during the festivities. Even the Chinese state-run TV celebrations of Tibetan New Year, under the gaze of Chinese dignitaries, the absence of endangered wildlife skins was conspicuous. Neither Tibetan performers nor spectators could be seen in fur, showing an apparently lasting change in attitudes. It might also indicate that the authorities quietly moved on to a more pragmatic and less confrontational approach by tacitly acknowledging the will of the overwhelming majority of Tibetan people in an essentially non-political issue, even though this has come about due to the influence of the Dalai Lama.

But beyond these trends in fashion, the Dalai Lama's anti-fur message has had a far-reaching impact on Tibetan livelihoods in that it has rescued many Tibetans from the financial burden caused by the social pressure to purchase expensive furs. In order to earn respect and social status, Tibetans had competed with their neighbours in buying endangered animal skins to upstage one another in finery. Costs had spiralled out of control but still many families spent two or three years' hard-earned income in order to lay their hands on such skins. The Dalai Lama's message put a halt to these financially disastrous activities. A Golok nomad's comment epitomised the sentiment of relief among Tibetans when he stated in graphic terms: "It is such a relief that we no longer need to throw a dead tiger or leopard around our necks when we, young men, get together for any special occasion". A scholar from Nyachu echoed this view by saying: "What His Holiness' speech has achieved is revolutionary. As you can see with your own eyes its impact is obvious all over Tibet". He added, somehow over-enthusiastically: "It is a revolution, like a small Cultural Revolution!"

Increasing numbers of families are putting the money saved towards socially rewarding and economically viable concerns, such as education, healthcare and small business investment. Although China recently pledged to provide free primary education to all children, money is still badly needed to pay for expensive tertiary education if children are to land a profitable job upon graduation. Capital is also required to compensate for the lack of social welfare in contemporary China, which leaves the poor to fend for themselves in times of illness and poverty. The remarks made by a nomadic trader from Chamdo were telling in this regard. When asked what he would do with the money he had saved by not spending it on pricey animal skins, he promptly replied: "If everyone stays healthy, we will save it towards my eldest son's higher education and a pickup truck for our family. The truck could then be used to ferry goods for neighbouring nomads and thus it could get a return on our money".

Despite the remarkable success of the Dalai Lama's anti-fur speech, independent environmental activists within Tibet point to the necessity of carrying the nascent sense of Tibetan ecological and animal protection into a depoliticised framework. "His Holiness' initiative has been tremendous; we would never have been able to have such success on our own. We are endlessly thankful for that and this is a great victory for environmental and animal protection. However, from the point of view of the Chinese authorities, this extraordinary development can easily be seen as a defeat just because it demonstrates to the whole world his continuing influence on the Tibetan people. It is therefore of prime importance that people move on and understand that the rejection of endangered wildlife relies on a wider basis - on Chinese nature protection laws, on Buddhist ethics in general, and on a modern, scientific understanding of ecology. There is now a huge educational effort to be conducted among Tibetan masses".

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