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Spring 2012


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International Adventures
Samson Swanick, Sustainable Communities

Time in Tibet: A Journey Toward Sustainable Development

Young monks in training

Toward the end of the fall semester in 2011, the MA in Sustainable Communities program was asked by the College of Health and Human Services to join a multi-year interdisciplinary effort to work with Tibetan refugees in India, which came to be called the NAU-Mainpat Interdisciplinary Global Learning Project. This initiative was to bring NAU students and faculty from multiple colleges to a small Tibetan refugee settlement for the purposes of learning in an international atmosphere.

Tibet came under control of the Chinese following their 1959 invasion. As a result, the Dali Lama fled to India and established a government in exile, and Indian Prime Minister Nehru demonstrated his support by making land available for refugee settlements. More than fifty years later, 37 Tibetan refugee settlements remain in India.

The Mainpat Tibetan Refugee Camp was established in 1962 and is currently one of the lowest-income, least-supported settlements with the most fragile infrastructure. Mainpat has limited medical, dental, veterinary, and educational services. Despite this, the Mainpat Tibetans have established a highly functional society with an emphasis on environmental sustainability.

Sensitive Development

Prayer flags

Due to the delicate relationship between the Tibetan government-in-exile and India’s government, it took time to get all our official papers in order. The time limits for obtaining the appropriate visas and Special Areas Permits prevented some interested NAU colleges from joining the venture. However, my own program, MA in Sustainable Communities, along with the College of Health and Human Services, the departments of Construction Management and Dental Hygiene, a medical non-governmental organization (NGO), and a veterinary team were able to file our permits on time and comprised the lineup for this memorable adventure in India.

I had just a few days to decide if I was going to commit to this project, of which I knew little. It was one of those “now or never” opportunities, though, so I decided to jump in headfirst. During the initial meetings, the purpose of the venture was somewhat vague, and my hasty decision caused some internal conflict. I had just finished taking a graduate anthropology class on the history of development. The field of international development is steeped in an ugly past of ethnocentrism, exploitation, and conquest. Even today, it can have devastating impacts often outweighing the projected benefits.

Thankfully, the collaborative nature of this project offered the space necessary to discuss the possible repercussions of our actions and to be mindful of overstepping our cultural boundaries. As part of the pre-departure program, a seminar series was organized to inform our team (and anyone else who wanted to attend) about the various topics associated with this venture, from Tibetan folk culture to sustainable community development. Soon the fall semester was over, and we were off to spend part of our winter break in a small, remote refugee camp on the other side of the world.


Central monastery interior

One of the reasons for selecting the small settlement of Mainpat was its remoteness. Altruistically, it was perfect; logistically, it was…less than perfect. After a few days traveling by air, we arrived in central India and were met by a bus. It was to be the most intense bus ride of my life. The road conditions, driving styles, freezing temperatures, sleep deprivation, and the straight 16 hours to get there was an adventure in itself. But it was all a small discomfort compared to the incredible warmth and kindness constantly offered by the Tibetans.

We arrived at sunrise at the central monastery and were greeted by dozens of smiling faces. We immediately unrolled our sleeping bags in a storage room and set up camp. While we were there, the food cooked for us by the monastery’s cook, Dewa, was absolutely incredible (I would have gained a lot of weight if I hadn’t gotten food poisoning while traveling to New Delhi after our work in Mainpat). But working sunrise till after sunset, we were all extra thankful for the bounty and hospitality offered to us by the humble monks.
The settlement consisted of seven camps, a central monastery, and a population of roughly 1,500 people. The NAU-Mainpat Interdisciplinary Global Learning Project is intended to be an ongoing project bringing students to this site every year. So as a part of the Sustainable Communities initiative, Jason Lowry and I were conducting a community needs assessment. By interviewing community members to discover the kinds of assistance they needed and wanted, we offered a culturally sensitive, grass-roots approach to development. If our purpose was to help sustain a culture that is in danger of dying out, then we needed to ascertain how and to what capacity we could help.

The action plan boiled down to collecting qualitative data from as many members of the community as possible. Because it was winter, a large portion of the local population was out in other areas of India selling sweaters. What this meant to me was that most of the people I would be interviewing would be those who maintained their residence in Mainpat all year long: primarily the elderly, youth, camp leaders, and farmers. Because of the settlement’s remoteness, communication prior to arrival was nearly nonexistent, so this kind of information was learned slowly as our time there proceeded.

Usty and Pema

Having lived and worked in developing countries prior to this venture, I learned it is best to not have too many expectations. I knew I was going to be interviewing people, but nothing could have prepared me for how touching, magical, and tragic meeting the Tibetans would be. For my very first interview I was taken by my translator to a small, hand-built hut. Inside, I met Usty and Pema, a husband and wife in their nineties. She was deaf and could barely see. He was blind and could barely hear. My interview questions were direct, but the answers showed me an unfathomable life. Asking how long he had lived in that home evoked the tale of how he had fled Tibet to follow the Dali Lama, barely escaping Chinese soldiers.

Usty and Pema

The contents of the house were sparse: a bed, a few sacks of barley, and a photo of their beloved leader, the Dali Lama. As elders with no family to speak of, they were lucky to have a small piece of land they could rent to a local Indian farmer as their source of income. When asked about their resources and biggest concerns, they said they were content aside from a leaky roof. Surprisingly, having a leaky roof was unanimously the greatest concern of Tibetans interviewed.

How NAU Can Help

After compiling all the data and finishing its analysis, our team of two SUS graduate students, the SUS director, and a medical anthropologist developed a list of potential projects that would be most beneficial to supporting and aiding the identified needs of the Mainpat community. This list was given to the NAU-Mainpat Interdisciplinary Global Learning Project in the hope that it will inform and guide its future efforts for years to come. The top five potential projects are:

  1. Develop projects that reduce leaky roofs in the homes of refugees. Local residents identified leaky roofs as their number one structural need. Any projects that can address this need would greatly improve the living conditions in Mainpat.
  2. Help expand the existing electrical solar system at the monastery. Last year, NAU engineers started a project addressing this need. Projects that help expand the efforts to other sections of the monastery would be good, possibly using this as an example for replicating energy infrastructure in other camps.
  3. Work on deforestation and/or fueling issues. Currently, Mainpat residents have to walk over two hours to get sufficient wood to cook due to destruction of local tree populations. Also work to expand biogas availability and infrastructure in camps as well as provide training on how to use/repair for the local populations.
  4. Conduct an intensive study on the organic gardens to help the Mainpat plateau gain certification and access to the national organic markets. Currently one of the camps is growing only organic food. The camp leader requested help on certification.
  5. Design and implement a composting co-op to increase productivity of organic gardens so they can compete in the local market with non-organic produce and grains; work to build knowledge base to expand kitchen gardens in local homes; provide local farming tools (e.g. wheel borrows, hoes, etc.) and tools to fix the local grain mills and oil presses.

It is our hope that a university-wide contest could be organized next fall to design sustainable solutions for these projects that will then be executed during the following winter break (to whatever capacity is possible). The work will be difficult, but to those few students who will have the chance to join next year’s venture, I am sure it will be a life-changing experience, as it was for me.

Author Samson Swanick and the young
monks in a spirited farewell. (Photos, including central cover photo, courtesy of Swanick and Jason Lowry, MA student in sustainable communities.)
Swanick and young monks in training

Touching Lives

Coming from the U.S. where our extreme materialism is matched only by our fast-paced and stressful lifestyles, the opportunity to connect with a people and a culture so foreign from my own was a breath of fresh air. I had traveled for days to discover what life was like for these Tibetans, and I found a depth of humility, strength, and warmth that I had never experienced.

I am lucky to have had this opportunity to help lay the foundations of the relationship between NAU and this refugee settlemen. But I feel more fortunate to have been able to share, however momentarily, in the lives of those Tibetans who have so profoundly touched my heart.

—Samson Swanick,
MA student in sustainable communities


See more photos from Mainpat.

See video on the Mainpat experience.