Let Yushu Tibetans rebuild organically

By Victor Paul Borg
0 CommentsPrint E-mail China Daily, May 5, 2010
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But they do need help now to remove the rubble and hasten the reconstruction of entire villages before the onset of next winter. But the assistance should be simply devised to give them greater organizational capacity and the machinery to achieve reconstruction quicker and more orderly.

The issue becomes trickier when it comes to the construction material itself. The village farmhouses are largely built of mud-bricks and wood. Will the villagers now rebuild their houses with the same vernacular materials, or will the reconstruction sites be flooded with concrete, steel and aluminum? What is the best building material - mud-bricks and wood, slate and wood or concrete and steel - when considered from the different perspectives of climate, aesthetics, protection of forests, preservation of heritage and resistance to future earthquakes? I do not have the answer. I am merely posing this question to illustrate my point. Government agencies need to consider all these factors and then come up with the optimal material.

But what happens if the villagers want their houses to be built with concrete and aluminum? We need example to illustrate the complexity of these issues. Tagong village, not very far from Yushu, had become unsightly because of the concrete buildings that had come up over the years.

Now Tagong is a major tourist spot on the Sichuan-Tibet highway. Mindful that tourists find villages with rustic buildings more attractive, the government undertook partial reconstruction of the village a few years ago. Buildings were rebuilt in rustic style with slate and wood, restoring the village's former glory. And everyone was happy.

But the finishing touches included installing street lights and planting trees on both the sides of the main village road. This is precisely where things went awry. The trees shriveled and died because no one watered them, and the town was plunged into pitch darkness in the evenings because no one bothered to switch on the lights (or fixed them after they had developed a fault).

This is common occurrence when well-meaning development agencies, governmental or nongovernmental, take development to remote, agrarian and superstitious communities. Examples abound and the quirkiest one I know of is of an aboriginal community in Australia which was given a tractor by the government. But after the government officials left, the young men drove the tractor into the river to create a platform from which to dive into the river. Obviously, the aboriginals saw no other use for the tractor, just like the Tibetans in Tagong saw no use for the trees and street lights.

For these reasons, it is essential to involve the local people under the guidance of planning experts. Best outcomes are probably achieved if the community takes the lead in the reconstruction. The local people may make some mistakes, but solutions implemented by experts without the community's assimilation or support are prone to floundering. The wisest thing to do may be to bear in mind that a lot of help can spoil things, and instead let the local communities take ownership of the reconstruction.

The author is a freelancer based in Malta.

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