Media Database Search
advanced search | only AEMS collection >

Shielding the Mountains
Produced and written by Emily Yeh. Directed by Kunga Lama. 2009. 20 minutes.
In English and Tibetan with English Subtitles.

Study areas: Tibet, Geography, Global Studies, Environmental Studies

Shielding the Mountains

The documentary film Shielding the Mountains presents a visually captivating and insightful look into one the most remote and environmentally endangered landscapes on Earth. Tibet's ecosystems are biologically unique and diverse. Rivers rise on the plateau that become the lifeline for nearly two billion downstream users. However, as traditional Tibetans meet the modern world, checkerboard patterns are carved into forested mountain slopes, pollution runs freely in once pristine waters, erosion lays grasslands bare, and wildlife is stripped from the land. While annexation, globalization, rapid economic and population growth, and climate change lead the list of blame, Tibetans themselves are fighting to stem environmental destruction by embracing their heritage. Shielding the Mountains is an evocative and compelling short film that uncovers how Tibetans view nature and why they are motivated to protect the environment.

The plight of the Tibetan antelope is portrayed in the film as a poster child for environmental degradation. Tibetans, Chinese environmentalists, and transnational conservation organizations organized around the antelope in the 1990's and brought attention to the faltering Tibetan environment. Viewers will be struck by how the Shahtoosh shawl, a must-have fashion accessory selling for as much as $15,000, nearly led to the extinction of the Tibetan antelope. Ninety percent of the antelope population has been killed. In 1994, Jesang Sonam Dargye, an environmental activist, was killed by an antelope poacher. His murder served to further galvanize environmental coalitions and inspire commitment to environmental protection in Tibet.

Central to the development of the film are a series of interviews with prominent Tibetan environmental activist Rinchen Samdrup, founder of the Voluntary Environmental Protection Association. Samdrup organized local inhabitants to pick up litter, plant trees, and report poaching. Villagers follow Samdrup because he teaches that protecting the environment will preserve the traditions and heritage of Tibetans, while simultaneously building a prosperous community. Tibetans are fiercely traditional people and are deeply concerned over the loss of cultural identity. By encouraging them to tend the environment, Samdrup is able to further inspire a vested interest in both cultural and environmental sustainability.

Unlike those who become environmentalists in the West, Tibetans are innately environmentalists. In Tibetan culture, natural and cultural realms are interconnected and inseparable. When the environment is impaired, Tibetans believe that they "injure the land." Samdrup recalls his grandfather and village elders saying that since the Chinese arrived, there has been massive logging, mining, quarrying, and over-extraction of the headwater. The land has been injured. This concept suggests that Tibetans believe that they are a part of nature rather than separate from it. An injury is as to one's own body. There are several firsthand accounts of villagers harming nature and consequently feeling physical pain. Samdrup states "it (environmental protection) is pervasive and inseparable like blood flowing through the body." The film makes use of the Tibetan concepts "shielding the mountains" and "the container and the contents," to help the viewer understand the complex relationship between Tibetans and the environment. In order to shield or protect the mountains (the homeland), Tibetans must bring harmony between all life forms and the surroundings. The "container" is the environment and the "content" is all living beings. Balancing the container and the contents invokes reverence and respect to the spirits that dwell in all of nature. All living beings are equal; therefore, the entire container needs protection. Unlike the Western notion of environmentalism, which "fences in" specific locations for protection from humans, Tibetans believe that all places need protection and that people and nature can, and do, coexist. Given these beliefs, an interesting point of discussion beyond the scope of the film might focus on why the Tibetan environment continues to be severely degraded, in spite of these beliefs.

The film is appropriate for high school students, provided that the teacher leads a discussion on the physiography and culture of Tibet. A handout defining harder terms and concepts, such as ecosystem, endemic, biodiversity, and Cultural Revolution, would also be helpful to students. The film is most suitable for entry-level college courses in geography, global studies, and environmental studies.

The topic of Chinese annexation of Tibet and the subsequent environmental consequences was largely avoided throughout the film. However, the conclusion is a shocking reminder of Tibet's political circumstance. Being an environmental activist in Tibet, especially one collaborating with international environmental organizations, can be risky work. Rinchen Samdrup was sentenced to five years in prison for harming national security.

Tracy H. Allen is an Associate Professor of Geography and the Environmental Sciences Program and Chair of the Geography Department at the State University of New York College at Oneonta. As an Environmental Geographer he has conducted extensive research in Tibet on deforestation, overgrazing, and water resources. He is the author of the article Tibet: Landscape of Tradition and Change and the forth coming article Deforestation, Channel Stability, and Water Quality in Headwater Streams of the Tsangpo Drainage Basin, Eastern Tibet.

Shielding the Mountains is available for purchase at CreateSpace for $20.00.

Educational resource materials and film clip of Shielding the Mountains may be found at





Last Updated: January 18, 2012

Search Our SiteSite MapEmail Us


[ Overview | Events | AEMS Database | Publications | Local Media Library | MPG | Other Resources ]