Saving Tibet from the Tibetans; saving Tibetans from Tibet


Tibetans live in Tibet, to state the obvious.

NonTibetans struggle with the altitude and extreme cold of the Tibetan Plateau, and a diet that has little to offer beyond fatty meat, dairy products and barley, surely conducive to heart disease.

Han Chinese struggle to survive in Tibet, and struggle even harder to not only survive but thrive, and live productive lives, in air so thin that each breath seems fearfully to be one’s last. At least ten percent of lowland Han Chinese sent to Tibet, or migrating to seek their fortune, never adapt to the altitude, suffer severe mountain sickness, for which the only remedy is to return to a lower altitude. This is true of Han soldiers too, meant to be fighting fit, not exhausted by just taking a few steps. For foreigners visiting Tibet, it’s a similar story. Even when people take care to gradually acclimatize to air one third thinner than at sea level, with one third less oxygen and everything else, many still get altitude sickness so strongly that they cannot stay.

So it’s not quite so obvious that Tibetans live and thrive in Tibet, daily doing the heavy work of milking, churning, spinning, weaving, cooking, caring for children, piling up the yak dung patties into mounds, energetically mixing and drying them to provide the only combustible fuel available on the treeless high plains. Nomad women especially work all the time, without a break, from the first milking of tethered animals before dawn, through into the next night.

The men get more periods of relaxation, but also intense bursts of activity, rounding up wandering animals, herding them back to camp, hunting  prowling wolves, riding to distant market towns, with no food other than dried meat, roasted barley flour and maybe a ball of butter to sustain them when far from the home tent.

Tibetan nomads like hard work. They know it is good for them. On the few occasions that nomads get to speak directly to the wider world, they make it clear that being a pastoral livestock producer is indeed hard work, and that’s good.



So how Tibetans manage to live energetically in Tibet is not at all obvious. What’s the trick? This is a question that has nagged at Chinese scientists for decades, resulting in dozens, probably hundreds of scientific research publications trying to identify the secrets of Tibetan physiology and metabolism. For China, this research program served the obvious political need to make Tibet habitable, for politically reliable lowland Han, to balance or even outnumber the natives, just as China has done in Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang.

It has taken decades of experimenting and testing, but now a picture has emerged, of how the Tibetans have, not only as individuals but as a people, adapted to active life at 4000 to 5000 metres above sea level.

This new understanding, of Tibetan energy physiology, is not at all what China hoped to find. That may be why, even among educated Tibetans, there is as yet little awareness of the fruits of all that research (mostly in Chinese). China did not find a way to make the Tibetan Plateau habitable for lowlanders, other than to throw money at creating urban enclaves of mechanised comfort that require little physical exertion. China never found the “trick” enabling mass Han colonisation; and it still eludes them, which is why the four million nonTibetans living on the Tibetan Plateau are so heavily clustered in and around Xining, the boom city of Amdo (Qinghai in Chinese), at the much more manageable altitude of 3200 metres.

Not only did the scientists not find some magical solution enabling Han to live long in Tibet, they actually found what they least wanted to know: that over thousands of years Tibetan physiology has adapted, in complex ways, to the cold and the thin air, so much so that the landscapes shaped by the nomads and farmers, and the hearts of the Tibetans evolved over time together, in ways that are unique to Tibet. The only other people able to live at such high altitude, in the Andes, took a very different route of adaptation.

Far from extracting from those thousands of Tibetan blood samples a scientific magic bullet enabling lowlanders entry to all areas of Tibet, the research adds up to the strongest of arguments for the collective rights of populations, as peoples, to access the places with which they have co-evolved. The biological argument about the unique Tibetan energy metabolism is equally an argument about the co-evolution of place and people, belonging to each other.



This is an argument  of crucial importance, coming at a time when Tibetans are increasingly being removed from their lands and pastures, in the name of carbon capture, remediating degraded landscapes, biodiversity conservation, and even poverty alleviation.

In the 13th Five Year Plan, covering 2016 to 2020, China has announced it will “relocate” at least 10 million people of the 70 million officially deemed to remain poor, arguing that relocation is the only solution to the chronic, endemic poverty inherent in having to live in terrible places such as Tibet. To Chinese central leaders it is self-evident that Tibetans are poor because they live in Tibet, scattered over vast areas, suffering unnatural cold and life threateningly thin air. No-one in their right mind would choose to live in Tibet if there is any other choice. Thus the solution is obvious: the Tibetans must be saved from Tibet, by relocating them. It is for their own welfare.

Economists from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences define Tibet solely in terms of what is lacking: “The border areas lie at the bottom of the economic system in China, where the poverty pressure is huge. Border areas are mostly characterized by poor natural conditions, vast territories with a sparse population or huge mountains, high traffic cost, lagging infrastructures, and backward economy. These areas are also the major regions where the impoverished population in China is concentrated with a high occurring frequency of poverty and harsh natural environment.”[1]

“These areas have a cold climate, high mountains, deep valleys and poor infrastructure. The Tibetan-inhabited regions have also historically lagged behind the national average, in terms of social and economic development. This gap has still not been bridged. In the Tibetan inhabited regions, about 70% to 80% of labourers make a living through planting crops, undertaking pastoral activity, collecting and other temporary jobs. The incidence of poverty among the farmers and herdsmen is noticeably higher than the national average.”[2]

The latest research on Tibetan energy metabolism shows that the energetic, hard work of pastoralism and farming is not only humanly possible but in fact essential to human health. Hard work, and the aerobic exercise generated by working hard, are central to the health of the Tibetans. To sedentarise Tibetans in urban fringe concrete settlements, with nothing to do beyond subsisting on rations, no longer active, reliant on sugary drinks from the local store, is a death sentence.



These are not the conclusions of the Chinese scientists, instructed to stay well clear of politics. But European scientists, summing up all the available evidence, paint a complex picture of how the Tibetans do thrive, and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) marked international mountain day in December 2015 by publishing their report.  In an article called Metabolic processes in populations living at high altitudes, Paola Virginia Gigliotti and Francesco Coscia, of the Laboratory of Physiology of Sport, at the University of Perugia explain:

 “Elevation, slope and temperature do affect the productivity of the soils and their nutrient supply and, thus, the nutrient properties of harvested food. As a consequence, mountain people have adapted over the centuries and developed unique metabolic processes.

“People who are born and raised in villages at high elevations, up to about 5 100 m, have adapted to the altitudes over generations. They are genetically able to carry out normal daily activities in conditions that would not be amenable to the health of lowland people.

“The environmental characteristics of mountains – namely dry air, low temperatures and reduced oxygen pressure – are key factors to human adaptation to life in mountains. In fact, the genetic adaptation patterns of the two“highest” populations of the world, the Tibetans and the Andeans, cannot be found in any other populations.”

To create and sustain an entire civilisation at such extreme altitude is to adapt, in profoundly embodied ways, to the evolutionary pressures –dry air, intense cold, low oxygen pressure- inherent to the circumstances of the Tibetan Plateau. Those pressures cause physiological and biochemical effects, and the entire human organism must find ways of dealing with those effects, which could be toxic.

“Adaptation to mountainous environments means the optimization of oxygen use under the conditions of chronic hypoxia (low levels of blood oxygen). Oxygen is used in metabolic processes, both to maintain the basal metabolic rate and body temperature and for the oxidation reactions of the energy substrates that are needed for physical activity.

“Hypoxia also affects protein synthesis and thus the maintenance of muscle mass. Protein synthesis at high elevation is, in fact, reduced by the action of hypoxia on enzymes. This results in a need for meat and milk proteins, enzymes from various vitamins, and amino acids such as arginine, the substrate that allows for the synthesis of nitric oxide. Nitric oxide acts on vascular walls, causing decreases in peripheral resistance and thus vasodilation, better tissue oxygenation and a decrease in blood pressure. An increase in blood pressure in the pulmonary artery, on the contrary, would lead to pulmonary edema.

“Tibetans who live at high altitudes have a greater amount of nitric oxide in their muscle tissue than other mountain populations. They have less mitochondria than usually required for normal activities, and they remain very active.”

Mitochondria are subcellular structures that contain the energy metabolism machinery. Remaining very active while having lower capacity for generating energy, implies Tibetans have extreme efficiency in energy metabolism. Tibetans are uniquely able to make full use of all of the oxygen that is available to them.

“All the metabolic activities described above require catalysts, i.e. vitamins, for the redox (oxidation-reduction) reactions of the energy substrates (proteins, fatty acids, carbohydrates). People living at high altitudes practice mainly aerobic activities. This helps to optimize the exchange of oxygen for the tissues and lungs. Aerobic activity can use substrates glucose, fatty acids and amino acids as energy, the latter also being essential to maintain protein mass.

“Fatty acids have higher energetic potential than an equal amount of glucose. During a maximal exercise performed at high altitude by local mountain people – people chronically exposed to hypoxia – lactate concentration progressively decreases. This phenomenon is known as “lactate paradox”.

Aerobic activity generates energy for the muscles, for example, when you push yourself, in a gym workout, to the point where you start puffing. Anaerobic activity is comparatively slower. It too generates energy for the muscles, but also produces lactate, which is eventually excreted, thus wasting some of the food energy supplied by the diet. Lactate buildup is why you may experience sore muscles after a gym workout. Because oxygen is so limited in Tibet this results, in most visitors to Tibet, in a lactate buildup, but this does not happen to Tibetans: that is the “lactate paradox.” This is because Tibetans make full and efficient use of all the limited oxygen available, so there is never oxygen to spare that becomes lactate.

“Altitude usually increases oxidative stress with related substance degradation. However, the Tibetan populations have proven to be an exception. Their muscles show low accumulation of lipofuscin, a substance that reflects the damage caused by free radicals to the body cellular structures, and a significant increase in protein with high antioxidant action. This feature is only present in the native Tibetan populations, living at altitudes up to 4 800 m. Tibetans also have a higher concentration of nitric oxide.”

Oxidative stress is the damage caused by half-degraded energy substrate remaining in muscle tissue. Tibetans are uniquely able to neutralise these damaging molecules.

 “While Tibetans adapted by developing these genetic protection factors, this is not the case for other populations, such as those living in the Andes. Their adaptation happens through ventilation mechanisms and through an increase in hemoglobin concentration and oxygen transportation.

“Tibetan women during pregnancy have an increased blood flow to the placenta due to the protective effect of nitric oxide. Andean women’s bodies ensure oxygenation to the fetus through an increase of haemoglobin concentration and ventilation.

“These scientific observations are consistent with the centuries-old history of survival of these populations, which is directly linked to the history of their agricultural and livestock production. Agricultural production in Tibet has always been based on a combination of agriculture, especially wheat and barley, as they are very resistant to cold, and animal husbandry. Their pastoralism activities include yak, sheep and Tibetan goat breeding. The yaks provide abundant milk and meat.”

Yak herding, milking and all the daily activities of a pastoral production landscape require prolonged aerobic activity, even to be able to walk at the pace of a yak. Tibetan civilisation, based on the yak,  provides exactly the specific food requirements needed for living at altitude. The Tibetan mode of production likewise requires particular forms of physical activity, and muscular contraction rates, resulting in a distinctively Tibetan metabolism that has co-evolved with the pastoral land use of Tibet.

“Tibetan monasteries and, in more recent times, small Tibetan schools have ensured protein availability with their small herds. Tea with yak butter is in fact the national drink of Tibet.”

High altitude dwellers in the Andes have physiological responses that adapt them to living at such a height. Tibetans, however, have evolved a metabolic response to the pressures of altitude; requiring hundreds of human generations of evolution, at the most profound level of embodiment. This is a genetic evolution, unique to Tibetans.

“Historically, Andean peoples have always had a diet comprising corn, potatoes, tubers and a special meat, the “cuy” (guinea pig), which is high in protein and low in fat, plus river fish. In the pre-Columbian era, the central Peruvian Andes were the largest cultivation centre of the ancient world for grasses, legumes, many types of fruit and aromatic herbs.

“Both scientific and historical anthropological studies have supported the assumption that for populations living at high altitudes, food quality is more important than food quantity. Unfortunately, migration and “food globalization” often meet the quantitative but not the qualitative criterion.”[3]

The Tibetans are not a people who happen to occupy a place which, for want of a more comfy alternative, is all they have. The Tibetan Plateau is a co-evolved people-place. The Tibetans belong to the land, in the most profound way, at the deepest possible level of human body forms.

To now remove Tibetans from the land, in the name of carbon capture, poverty alleviation, land degradation neutrality, payment for environmental services, or other current intellectual fashions, is to deprive Tibetans of life.

Tibet does not have to be saved from Tibetans by pasture closure; nor do Tibetans have to be saved from Tibet, by relocation in the name of “poverty alleviation.” To resettle Tibetans in concrete cantonments on urban fringes, condemned to inactivity, is to condemn them to wasted lives, in the name of realising “the China dream.” Tibetans have a right, as a people, to access the places with which they have co-evolved. This is a collective right of the entire six million Tibetans.

[1] Dadao Lu and Jie Fan eds., Regional Development Research in China: A Roadmap to 2050, Science Press and Springer, 2010, 173

[2] Breaking Out of the Poverty Trap: Case Studies from the Tibetan Plateau in Yunnan, Qinghai and Gansu

Edited by: Luolin Wang (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China), Ling Zhu (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China), World Scientific, 2013, 2

[3] Paola Virginia Gigliotti and Francesco Coscia, , The relationship between metabolism, altitude and temperature, in Mapping the vulnerability of mountain peoples to food insecurity, UN Food & Agriculture Organisation, Rome, 2015, 54-56


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