Famine In Tibet


Famine In Tibet Essay, Research Paper


Tibet knew its first famine during 1960-62, as a result of the Chinese invasion of 1950. The food shortage occurred because Chinese colonizers settled massively, increasing the population, and because of the changes imposed on Tibetan traditional agriculture by Mao?s ?Great Leap Forward.?

Death Roll

Accurate estimations and data about Tibetan victims of the Chinese genocide are hard to find, given that China provides biased information. However, associations like ?Friends of Tibet? estimate that out of the 1.2 million deaths, 343,151 were caused by famine. Unfortunately, no further information is available on the gender, age or/and class of the victims.


Tibet was ecologically stable before the communist Chinese invasion in 1950. The vegetation was sparse, but the land supported a diverse wildlife and famine was unknown. Because Tibetans followed the Buddhist principle that forbids them to disturb the earth, they exploited few resources. This fragile ecology was irreversibly destroyed as a result of the Chinese incursion, as they deforested parts of the plateau to build hydroelectric plants, for example.


Tibet is located on the highest plateau (about 472,000-sq mi.) in the world at a height of 12,000 feet, in the Himalayas. India borders the country, south and west, Nepal and Bhutan, south, and China, north and east.


The famine in Tibet was not linked to a particular natural disaster, since it was man-made. However, the climate is dry and cold with an average annual temperature of 34 F. Therefore the soil is frozen eight to ten months a year and resources are limited.


Land Tenure

Before the Chinese invasion, Tibet had a feudal land tenure system, which structure resembled the one in Europe during the Middle Age, but was not as inhumane. The land belonged to the state (30%), to monasteries (40%), and to nobility. It was then divided between big landowners and smaller ones whom had a strip of their own, but were obliged to provide the nobility with service. Thus, the traditional society was composed of a small group of noble families and a large and poor peasantry. Among these peasants were both nomadic herders and those who practiced a form of subsistence farming. Tenants held their lands on the estates of aristocrats and monasteries, and paid rent to the estate-holders, in kind or by sending a member of the family to work as a domestic servant or an agricultural laborer. In addition, a tenth of the harvest went to the government as a tax and the rest of the crops (except what was needed for individual subsistence) was then stored in silos made out of stones. These were used as reserves for the years of food shortage, since the dry and fresh climate allows a quasi eternal conservation. The serfs lived in family unit and worked the feudal lord?s land as such. They paid rent and taxes in the form of labor, as opposed to money. The main crop was barley, which requires only three months to produce given that the climate allows no more than one crop a year. Therefore the peasants were not (as said by the Chinese) overworked or exploited. The herders on the other hand, were not tight to a land since they were nomadic people. Traditionally they did not own their cattle, which belonged to rich families, but upon agreement, they could keep the eventual increase in flock.

Chinese Invasion

On 7 October 1950, 40,000 Chinese troops attacked Eastern Tibet’s provincial capital of Chamdo, from eight directions. The small Tibetan force (troops and militia) were quickly defeated. In 1959, due to Mao?s Great Leap Forward the Chinese government confiscated the land from the Tibetan nobles, to redistribute it to the peasants. The latter, as well as nomads, lost freedom of movement and were ordered into communes, leaving great number of livestock to die. The Chinese authority, in their urge to develop Tibet economically, required the peasants to switch the crops to wheat, which never grew at a height of 12,000 feet. They had been told that the barley crops would be theirs, but when the harvest came, two-third was requisitioned for and by the Chinese. As a result, tens of thousands of Tibetans starved to death between 1959 and 1961. In addition, the Chinese military and civilian personnel were fed on the state buffer stocks and forced the Tibetan population to sell them their personal holding of grains for nominal prices.


Although the famine in Tibet seems to be linked to other factors than the genocide, the two cannot be separated. The food shortage was caused both by the drastic changes in land tenure and by the desire of the Chinese to exterminate the Tibetan people. In fact, no Chinese suffered from the famine they created. One sixth of the Tibetan population has been killed, shot, hung, strangled, drowned, boiled, raped, buried alive, starved, mutilated, or burned alive. Over 1.2 million Tibetans have been, up until today, victims of the ?final solution? started by the communist China. Close to 600 thousands monks died in working camps, in prison or on the road to exile.


In this case, the failure of all four entitlement is linked to the Chinese invasion and its genocide of the Tibetan people.


Most of the fertile lands in the valleys were given to the Chinese settlers, driving the Tibetans to more and more barren lands. Evidence also shows that the primary beneficiaries of China’s new open economic policy were the Chinese settlers in Tibet.


Tibetan economy had a long tradition of trade with India. They exported rough material like wool and imported manufactured goods such as sugar, noodles, and shovels. China soon discouraged this market by imposing high taxes on these goods and eventually closed the markets where the trading took place.


Before Mao?s reforms, the traditional Tibetan was not paid and provided services in exchange for his food. The relationship between landlords and peasants was humane. Workers could provide services when convenient, since they usually lived on the lands. But as a result of the Chinese policies, workers were dispatched where needed, regardless of the distance they had to walk. They began to be paid and food was supplied in rations. Needless to say that wages were a way for the Chinese government to repress Tibetan people, since any disobedience was deducted from their pay.


Famine and starvation were unheard of in independent Tibet, since people could borrow grain from the buffer stock, held by the district administrations, monasteries, aristocrats, and rich farmers. These reserves were stored in case of food shortage and served as emergency ?welfare.? However, as said above, the Chinese authority largely used them to feed themselves and eventually totally confiscated it.


Although the traditional Tibetan feudal system seemed archaic to the Chinese who wanted to modernize the country and ?make it benefit from communism,? it was in harmony with their environment. Resources were limited, but famine was unheard of. The Chinese invasion of 1950, their massive settlement, and their lack of knowledge about the environment ruined the fragile ecosystem of the country. Furthermore in their urge to capitalize Tibetan resources they created serious environmental problems and polluted eastern Tibet. The reforms in land tenure were indeed to benefit the colonizers who ended up with the best properties. Tibetan peasants were assigned to communal lands, which were merely labor camps. In addition, the sudden switch from subsistence agriculture to cash cropping gave no results and the restrictions imposed on nomadic herders resulted in the loss of livestock. The desire of the Chinese to get rid of the Tibetan people led to unequal food distribution, as well as unequal lands distribution. Therefore, this famine is linked to both the dehumanization of an entire people and to inappropriate reforms in agriculture. Since 1950, few accurate data are available on the Tibetan genocide due to the fact that Chinese communicate biased information. Exact numbers such as the death roll or the year famine happened, are hard to find. Humanitarian organizations and the Tibetan Government in Exile do provide estimations, but the Chinese authority still denies them.


?Les Amis du Tibet.? Available from: http://www.amis-tibet.lu

Shakya, Tsering. The Dragon in the Land of Snows. New York: Columbia University

Press, 1999.

Stein, R.A. Tibetan Civilization. Translated by J.E. Stapleton Driver. Stanford: Stanford

University Press, 1972.

Thomas, Lowell Jr. The Silent War in Tibet. New York: Doubleday & Company Inc., 1959.

?Tibet les Droits de l?Homme.? Available from http://www.mabbh.org

?Today?s Tibet.? Available from: http://www.friendsoftibet.org

Tucci, Giuseppe. TIBET Land of Snows. Translated by J.E. Stapleton Driver. New

York: Stein and Day, 1967.

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