Zado, Tibetan Plateau

The Dharma Guardians of the Mekong

December 16th, 2016

Based out of the town of Zado, a father and son team of Buddhist Lamas have founded an environmental network dedicated to protecting Tibet’s water.

Lama Trinli Gyatso and his father Lama Drubga are the founders of the Mekong Environmental Volunteer Organization, and are the modern manifestations of a family’s ancient promise to protect Tibet’s environment.

“In Tibetan we don't have words for ‘saving water’ or ‘conserving water’,” Lama Trinli Gyatso said. “Instead we say ‘respect water.’”

A heavy snowfall was visible through the windows of the Lama’s sitting room as we drank tea and listened to him talk about his family’s legacy of environmental activism. Part of a mountainside monastery complex that overlooked the city of Zado, his home was simple but comfortable, and well insulated against the winter wind.

We had come to Zado because we’d heard of the work the Lama (a title given to senior Buddhist monks or teachers of the dharma, the most well known of whom is the Dalai Lama) and his father were doing to protect the Tibetan plateau and to raise awareness of its global environmental importance.

“In general Tibetans don't think about water because we have so much,” Lama Trinli explained. “But I travelled to Mongolia last year and I saw people who didn't have enough water to take a shower. Then I started to realize how important water is. Zado is the source of many rivers, and now I realize this area is the source of millions of lives.”

After learning about the multimedia conservation work being done by another monk, Drukyab, several days earlier, we were beginning to understand how seriously Tibetan Buddhists took protecting the natural environment. With Lama Trinli and his father, however, we found not just individuals but an entire network of volunteers organized around the protection of Tibet’s water.

An Ancestral Duty

“This is the seal of the 5th Dalai Lama,” Lama Drubga, Trinli Gatso’s 67-year-old father, told us as he ran his finger along a digital scan of an ancient document. “He asked my ancestor specifically to look after the source of the Mekong, and my family has been doing this ever since. The 6th and 7th Dalai Lamas also asked us to do this, and so we have continued the work. This was 18 generations ago.”

Considering that the 5th Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, lived from 1617-1682, the family’s commitment to the Mekong was an impressive environmental legacy and in all likelihood one of the longest running pledges of water stewardship in the Mekong’s history. After nearly two years of following the river from the sea to its source, it was certainly the oldest environmental pledge we’d come across, outdating the missions of even the largest international organizations by several hundred years.

To put things in perspective, when Drubga’s family began their commitment to protecting the source of the Mekong, the bubonic plague was ravaging Europe, witches were being burned at the stake, and Europeans did not yet know New Zealand existed.

Despite this ancient backstory, the modern incarnation of Drugba’s environmental network went by the relatively straight-laced name of the Zachu (Mekong) Environmental Volunteer Organization. Together with his son Trinli, the Lamas have used their position as religious leaders, combined with the power of technology and social media, to great effect in shaping societal attitudes towards environmental protection.

“In Buddhism we fundamentally believe in protecting the environment, but the general population of Tibetan people don’t understand what is meant by the term ‘environmental protection’,” Drugba said. “One of the things we have tried hard to do, and have been very successful at, is to educate locals - especially on the importance of clean water.”

One of the main reasons that the network has been successful in changing local attitudes towards environmental issues has been their status as Lamas, allowing them to connect with the region’s Buddhist population in a way that outsiders - such as the Chinese government - could never hope to match.

“The government pays people to clean up, but this doesn’t really work,” Drubga explained. “As soon as the money stops, the people stop working. We approach the problem from a religious and moral point of view, and once they understand the importance of clean water from these perspectives they will continue on their own without pay.”

For Those Downriver

“My work is not only to protect water for Tibetans,” Drubga said when asked about his motivations. “If that was it I would have stopped years ago. I do this because there are millions of people in other places who need this water.”

Indeed of all the people we’d met over the course of our journey, Drubga and Trinli were among a very small number who thought of the Mekong holistically rather than in terms of localized value. Instead of limiting their thinking to how they could improve the river for their own community, they were looking at the big picture and how their actions could positively affect the lives of far away strangers. And this attitude was not confined to the monks but also filtered down to and was reflected by the volunteers who made up the ranks of their organization.

“Being a human on this planet is not only to live for yourself for but for all people,” said Tenzin Ngudup, a 64-year-old volunteer who went by the nickname Tengu. A nomadic yak herder Originally from the tiny village of Gegye (one of the few inhabited places near the Mekong’s source), Tengu had become involved with the Mekong Environmental Volunteer Organization because he saw them as one of the few groups committed to keeping the source clean.

“We are the ones living at the source. If we don’t protect it, who will save the source?” Tengu’s rhetorical question belied a frightening truth: the answer was almost certainly no one.

In his mission to keep the source of Asia’s biggest rivers clean, Tengu faced serious risks: “Sometimes it's quite dangerous. When we have to pull big pieces of garbage out of the river you have to be a good swimmer, and sometimes you have to travel through heavy snow. There is also a risk of being attacked by animals, like wolves or snow leopards as well.”

Tengu delivered these words simply and without bravado. He was just stating facts, not trying to brag. But despite this, we couldn’t help but be seriously impressed by the fact that he knew almost nothing about what happened to the Mekong once it left his small piece of Tibet, but was still willing to risk his life to keep it clean.

“I don't really know much about the other countries who use this river, but I know that it is important for millions,” Tengu said. “If I have to sacrifice my life to keep it clean for the people and animals who live on it, am happy to do that. I don't think I could give my life for myself, but I am happy to do it for others.”

To hear such selflessness and big-picture thinking expressed, essentially for the first time, so close to the end of our journey had a powerful effect on us. While we had met hundreds, if not thousands, of incredibly kind and decent people along our travels, nearly everyone had thought of the river as something to be used for the benefit of their immediate family and neighbours.

This wasn’t to say that they were selfish people; instead this was symptomatic of the current thinking about the Mekong as a river to be used for the benefit of each separate nation without properly considering the risks posed to the greater whole by their actions. From dams to overfishing to sand dredging, people were so focused on extracting whatever they could of value that they had lost sight of what was happening to the river as a whole.

Yet in Tibet, thousands of kilometres from where we’d started, we were encountering stark exceptions to such narrow thinking. “We must always think about others,” Tengu said. “If you can see that there is a problem with the river and you don't do anything, that is a great pity.”

For Lama Drubga, such an attitude is critical if the Mekong and the Tibetan plateau is to be saved. “Throughout my life almost nothing has changed in this area,” Drubga said, “but in the last 10 years the changes have been huge. We are hurting nature, and nature is going to hurt us back if we are not careful. Environmental work is not just for yourself or your family. It is for the good of millions of sentient beings.”

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