Shielding the Mountains
Study areas: Tibet, Geography, Global Studies, Environmental Studies
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.
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.
Last Updated: January 18, 2012