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The Dalai Lama and the Rivers of Tibet

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Dharamsala, India -- My wife, Randy Rosenberg, is an independent art curator and consultant to museums, companies, and institutions. For the past 18 months, she has been curating a major exhibition titled The Missing Peace: The Dalai Lama Portrait Project.

The exhibition -- which will open next June in Los Angeles, then travel to Chicago, New York, and Miami, and on to Europe and Asia through about 2009 -- brings together artists from around the world who are creating artworks in many media that depict the Dalai Lama, his values, and his world. The project is sponsored by the Dalai Lama Foundation and the Committee for 100 for Tibet.

It is that exhibition that has brought us to Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibet Government in Exile. And, on this day, to a private audience with His Holiness to talk about the exhibition -- and, as it turned out, the environment.

When we arrived, the Dalai Lama greeted us at the door, shook our hands, and invited us to sit and talk. Randy quickly launched into a briefing about the exhibition, describing the various themes in which the artworks have been arranged -- "Humanity in Transition" "The Unity of All Things," "Spirituality as a Global Commodity," and others.

His Holiness listened with interest and immediately homed in one particular theme -- Tibet: Its the People and Its Land. "It is important to give a clear presentation about the land," he said. "Not just the beauty or some animals, but the emphasis on the major rivers and their source of life."

The problem, he explained, is that many of the rivers that flow through large areas of Asia -- Cambodia, China, India, Laos, Pakistan, and Vietnam -- including the Yellow river, Brahmaputra, Mekong, Salween, and Yangtse, all originate in Tibet. And it is at these rivers' origin that large-scale deforestation and mining are taking place. The pollution of these rivers is having a drastic effect not just on Tibet's ecology, but on the downstream countries.

He continued:

Within my lifetime, the glaciers in Tibet have reduced quite rapidly. According to some scientists, at the rate of reduced snowfall and becoming warmer, then after a few decades, all the major rivers will become very different. That means the whole northern India will suffer because of drought.

The unnecessary exploitation of nature in Tibet has to stop for that reason. It is of immense importance to educate that the ecology in Tibet needs special care. Without adequate caution, just exploiting the major resources, is wrong. The communists always do that for two reasons. First, they are really ignorant. And second, they don't care.

Another key issue, said the Dalai Lama, is Tibet's growing population, the result of the Chinese government's relocation of millions of its citizens to Tibet, where Chinese now outnumber Tibetans. In addition to putting Tibetans at an economic disadvantage, the continuing migration of Chinese progressively erodes the capacity of the region to provide clean air and water and other critical resource needs.

He explained:

Two centuries of limited population is okay. But much increased population in those lands is of great damage to the ecology. So, one of our real fears is the rapidly increasingly Chinese population. They are causing great damage not just to Tibet's ecology, but also to its culture.

It was a brief conversation with this holy man -- about 20 minutes in all -- but it was an unexpectedly ecologically focused one. Saving Tibet turns out to be about much more than saving Buddhism and the Tibetan culture. It is literally about saving Tibet: the land, its rivers, and all of their life-giving properties.