Tibet in Exile: A Green Evolution

Exiled Tibetans are partnering with the Himalayan Institute to turn their refugee settlements into world-class examples of sustainable agriculture.

February 20, 2009    BY Ishan Tigunait

A dharma wheel flanked by two golden deer towered over the entrance gate of the Lugsung Samdupling Tibetan refugee settlement and flooded me with memories from a trip to Lhasa 10 years earlier. For a moment, as flashbacks of ornate monasteries in the Himalayan foothills and Buddhist monks chanting in the glow of yak-butter lamps raced through my mind, I forgot that I was actually in South India. I was part of a small delegation from the humanitarian arm of the Himalayan Institute, invited by the Central Tibetan Administration to visit refugee settlements in India’s Karnataka state. As I got to know these settlements and the people who have created a home here over the last 50 years, I was struck again and again by the feeling that I was experiencing Tibet outside of Tibet. Through painstaking efforts, the displaced Tibetans have managed to preserve their language, spirituality, and cultural identity. 

But today they’re facing new challenges: their farmland has been degraded by conventional agricultural practices; farmers are struggling to make a living; and Tibetan youth are leaving the settlements in search of other work. The Himalayan Institute, a yoga-centered nonprofit organization with spiritual principles akin to those of the Tibetan people, proposes a new vision of sustainable agriculture that can empower the refugees to become self-sufficient, so they can continue to serve as custodians of the Tibetan way of life for generations to come. 

50 Years of Exile

Dharamsala, a town in North India, is well known as the home-in-exile of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. But it is a little-known fact that 37 refugee settlements across the Indian subcontinent accommodate over 60,000 Tibetans, with another 40,000 refugees living in scattered communities elsewhere in India. 

After the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, India granted asylum to the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetans fleeing with him. Several states, including Karnataka, offered the refugees tracts of land for resettlement. The Dalai Lama established the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), also known as the Tibetan government in exile, later that year, and charged it with the stewardship of the Tibetan refugee diaspora. 

Today, the CTA supports religious and cultural preservation and provides housing, health care, and education to the exiled community. The Department of Home, which is responsible for the rehabilitation and socio-economic welfare of the refugees, is the CTA branch that officially invited the Himalayan Institute to collaborate on rural empowerment projects in these settlements. 

Life in a Refugee Settlement

Lugsung Samdupling is a model settlement near the city of Mysore in South India. Established in 1960, it is one of the oldest and largest Tibetan settlements, accommodating over 15,000 refugees and providing a wide range of social services. It is the first of four settlements that HI humanitarian project leaders Rajesh Rai, Ruchir Garg, and I visited last October while scouting a location for the Institute’s rural empowerment pilot project. As we ventured deeper into the community, I discovered a true microcosm of Tibetan culture. 

At a local handicraft cooperative, we met skilled artisans who are preserving the traditional arts of incense making and carpet weaving. Nearby, the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute houses shelf upon shelf of herbal remedies. Here, Dr. Tamdin Sangmo, a traditional Tibetan healer specializing in the ancient art of pulse diagnosis, held my wrist for a few moments and offered a remarkably accurate analysis. 

Yet my most vivid recollections of Tibet arose when we visited Sera Jey Monastery. Staring at its brilliantly colored murals of Buddhist deities and an altar with a 20-foot gold statue of Padmasambhava (an incarnation of Buddha), I felt as if I had stepped back into Tibet. Sera Jey Monastery was originally founded in Lhasa in the 15th century, and was reestablished in South India after the Chinese destroyed most of the monasteries in Tibet. Together with a few other monasteries and smaller temples, Lugsung Samdupling is home to thousands of monks and nuns in exile.

Even among the laypeople, spirituality is an essential part of daily life. A nursing home in a neighboring settlement provides care to elderly members of the community who have no family. The residents spend a good portion of their day in prayer, chanting in unison for health and longevity, and often praying for the health of other refugees upon request. Here in India, the land where Buddhism first began, the spiritually centered Tibetan way of life is persevering. 

Farming for the Future

Upon settling in South India, the refugees—many of whom were herders or nomads in Tibet—shifted to an agrarian lifestyle. Blessed with fertility and monsoon rains, the land was well suited for cultivation. The settlement farmers adopted the modern agricultural practices prevalent in the 1960s, focusing on the intensive cultivation of a few cereal crops, most notably maize. However, without diversification or crop rotation, this type of monocropping, combined with the overuse of water resources and chemical fertilizers and pesticides, led to a precipitous decline in soil fertility and crop yields. Meanwhile, the farmers became strained by rising costs of production. After four decades, it became evident that conventional farming practices were neither environmentally nor economically sustainable—but the farmers saw no other path to follow. 

In 2002, the Central Tibetan Administration adopted a pivotal policy introducing organic farming methods to the settlements. Drawing inspiration from Gandhi’s concept of rural self-sufficiency and the Dalai Lama’s vision of Tibetan enclaves as sanctuaries of ahimsa, or non-violence, the policy seeks to transform the settlements into paradigms of sustainable agriculture. 

The Dalai Lama has long championed the principle of ahimsa as the ultimate expression of compassion. He teaches that respect for the earth and environmental protection are vital practices of ahimsa, and therefore part of humanity’s universal responsibility. “Our ancestors viewed the earth as rich and bountiful,” he writes in My Tibet. “Many people in the past also saw nature as inexhaustibly sustainable, which we now know is the case only if we care for it. It is essential to reexamine what we’ve inherited, what we are responsible for, and what we will pass on to coming generations.” Encouraging environmental stewardship in the settlements, the Dalai Lama endorsed the CTA’s organic farming policy. 

Shortly thereafter, the CTA collaborated with the Italian nonprofit COSPE (Cooperation for the Development of Emerging Countries) to implement organic farming methods in 12 refugee settlements across India. COSPE trained local agricultural extension workers and farmers in organic and biodynamic composting, production and use of biofertilizers, cover cropping, and crop rotation to enhance the vitality of the land. To promote diversification, the project introduced a wide variety of organically grown grains, beans, oilseeds, spices, fruits, and vegetables. Today, around 1,000 farmers cultivate over 3,000 acres of certified organic land in Tibetan settlements. 

Rural Struggles

Despite the significant success of this spiritually and environmentally conscious project, Tibetan organic farmers still face a number of difficulties. Though natural farming practices have allowed them to become more self-sufficient with regard to their agricultural inputs (fertilizers, pesticides, etc.), the farmers have to rely on subsidies for the high-quality compost they need to maintain adequate crop yields. But the greatest challenge in terms of economic stability is finding reliable markets for their produce. 

In the village of Purang, against a backdrop of verdant fields, Phurbu Tsering proudly shows us his five acres of organic rice, red gram, and banana trees intercropped with red chili peppers. “We are happy. The results are encouraging,” Phurbu says of the new organic farming practices, which have increased and diversified crop yields while providing the farmers with healthier, more nutrient-rich food. “But what we need now is marketing support. This is the only thing which pains us.” Without proper marketing, organic agriculture can’t live up to its income-generating potential. And without sufficient earnings, a farmer may look for other means of livelihood. 

 Demonstrating that farming can be economically fulfilling is crucial to reversing another damaging trend within Tibetan refugee settlements: the exodus of rural youth. The government in exile has gone to great lengths to provide quality education to refugee children. But once they finish school, young Tibetans often can’t find jobs within the settlements, and unconvinced that farming can provide a dignified living, they flee for Indian cities in search of other work. If the settlements don’t create sustainable employment opportunities, the next generation won’t be around to carry on the Tibetan tradition.

Energy Farming: The Next Step

The Himalayan Institute’s Energy Farming project seeks to address these problems by providing new methods for developing sustainable agriculture and green energy in Tibetan settlements. The project aims to create jobs and new markets for farmers’ produce, acting as a catalyst for rural empowerment. 

The core of HI Energy Farming is the sustainable cultivation of biofuel crops that invigorate both the soil and the economic prospects of the community. By promoting species that are environmentally regenerating, Energy Farming upholds the Dalai Lama’s vision of ecologically responsible practices to restore the earth’s bounty. The pilot project will introduce Pongamia pinnata, a tree that yields seed oil that farmers can use as fuel for powering generators and farm machinery. The oil can also be converted into biodiesel, which will give the refugees access to the world’s most important market: energy. 

Native to South India, pongamia has a long taproot that renders it drought-resistant. The species rehabilitates the land through a network of lateral roots, which promote nitrogen fixation, and a broad canopy of leaves, which cast a dense shade and prevent the soil’s surface moisture from evaporating. After the tree’s seeds are crushed for oil, the byproduct can be used as a natural pesticide and organic fertilizer. And unlike most energy crops, since pongamia grows on marginal, nonagricultural land, it does not compete with food crops and poses no threat to food security. Furthermore, Energy Farming techniques for growing pongamia enable intercropping—the trees are widely spaced and other crops can be simultaneously cultivated in between. 

For the past six years, the Institute has helped spearhead the use of this underutilized crop for sustainable biofuel development in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh to alleviate the poverty, drought, and social disintegration that has been plaguing farmers in the region. The Institute also introduced the species at its School of Energy Farming site in Cameroon, West Africa, in 2007. 

This approach to sustainable agriculture impressed Chhimey Rigzen, joint secretary of agriculture for the Department of Home, when he visited HI’s Community Center in Cameroon last June, and observed several sustainable development programs on the ground. It also resonated with Professor Samdhong Rinpoche, the prime minister of the CTA, during his visit to the Himalayan Institute’s headquarters in Pennsylvania the following month. The administration recognized how an environmentally regenerating cash crop like pongamia could provide Tibetan refugees with an opportunity to participate in the global market, while fulfilling their spiritual obligation as stewards of the land. 

The Elephant Factor

By the end of our trip, my colleagues and I chose Rabgyeling settlement as the site for the HI Energy Farming pilot project. Just 45 minutes from Mysore and about one hour from Lugsung Samdupling and two other settlements, Rabgyeling’s location seemed ideal. But, curiously, vast fields of fertile land lay fallow. We soon learned that the culprits behind the land’s neglect were elephants. 

The settlement is adjacent to a large forest reserve inhabited by wild Indian elephants. Notoriously intelligent, they had mastered the art of evading the farmers’ defenses to raid their favorite crops. Exhausting all conventional means, and unable to harm the elephants due to legal restrictions and religious beliefs, many farmers had abandoned their fields.

In an effort to protect the settlement, the Department of Home funded a nine-kilometer-long trench around the perimeter of Rabgyeling, which some jokingly referred to as the “great wall of Tibet.” As we discussed the problem with CTA officials, an innovative idea took root: we could build a “green wall” of pongamia to run along the entire trench. Since pongamia is unpalatable to foraging animals, it would discourage any elephants that might get across the trench—and the several rows of trees around the perimeter of the settlement would constitute nearly 30 acres of soil-regenerating, biofuel-yielding cash crop. The CTA, as well as the settlement community, reacted enthusiastically to this plan. 

Pongamia and Beyond

Our next step in Rabgyeling will be to establish an Energy Farming training center and a 50-acre demonstration plot where everyone, from local settlement farmers to CTA representatives, can see pongamia farming firsthand. Using premium seeds, nurseries will grow pongamia seedlings, which will then be transplanted to the demonstration plot. The Institute will provide support with pruning, irrigation, and organic fertilizer until the trees bear seed in their fourth year. 

After establishing this pilot project, the Institute plans to incorporate its model of sustainable agriculture into numerous Tibetan settlements, along with other programs from the HI Community Center model. For example, CTA officials have shown interest in expanding the Energy Farming program to include the cultivation of medicinal crops, in conjunction with the Institute’s Total Health program (which would produce herbal formulations from these crops and provide them to the community). Following the blueprint established at the flagship HI Community Center in Cameroon, such programs would offer education, health care, vocational training, and microenterprise opportunities to the local population. 

Seeds of Hope

During my week-long tour through the refugee settlements, I gave several presentations, each time encountering a curious, engaged audience eager to learn how they could help make Energy Farming a reality for their community. At the end of one meeting, the president of the Federation of Tibetan Cooperatives in India exclaimed, “Ah, yes, pongamia! When I was a settlement officer, I planted three pongamia trees so others could one day enjoy their shade. Please accept my invitation to sit under our trees.” A short while later, I found myself sitting in the shade of one of the largest, most bountiful pongamia trees I had ever seen. As I gazed up at its branches, laden heavily with seed pods, I felt assured that the HI Energy Farming model had found fertile ground in these Tibetan refugee settlements. 

Under extraordinary circumstances, these refugees have managed to preserve their spiritual and cultural heritage. Their challenge now is to safeguard their economic and environmental future, so that the next generation can carry on this legacy. With the help that Energy Farming can offer, Tibetans will have the potential to create the stable, sustainable, eco-friendly base they need to prosper. 

Common Threads: Yoga and Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism and the yoga tradition of the Himalayas share deep historical, geographical, and spiritual roots. The Buddha himself was born in a Himalayan kingdom in India around the beginning of the 5th century BCE. By the 8th century CE, Indian saints like Padmasambhava had spread the growing tantric movement of northern India into Tibet, shaping Tibetan Buddhism. 

Acknowledging his connection with India, the Dalai Lama said, “As a Buddhist monk my entire training has its roots in the culture of this great country. From a cultural and spiritual point of view we are like one people.” 

The practices of both traditions emphasize inner purification, systematic training of the body, breath, and mind, and meditation practice. Through these means, difficulties and suffering in life can be transformed into great strength. According to both systems, this strength and inner personal transformation must be extended with love and compassion to the greater world. 

“Our meditation should form the basis for action, for seizing the opportunity to do something,” the Dalai Lama writes in The Spirit of Tibet. “The meditator’s motivation, his sense of universal responsibility, should be expressed in deeds.” 

This is spirituality in action—praised by Buddhists and yogis alike.

Ishan Tigunait
Son of Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, Ishan Tigunait received his first spiritual lessons from Swami Rama. He earned a degree in computer engineering and worked for IBM before returning to the Institute to lead the Himalayan Institute's humanitarian projects around the world. Ishan currently serves as the Executive Director of the Himalayan Institute.

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