Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Local Tibetan Leaders Heads Earthquake Relief Effort

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
April 21, 2010

Paljor Thondup has personal reasons for organizing a relief effort for victims of the devastating earthquake last week in western China.

The earthquake, which registered a magnitude of 6.9, was in his homeland, high on the Tibetan plateau.

Thondup, president of Project Tibet in Santa Fe, was born in Jyekundo, capital of the Yushu region of Qinghai Province and the city hardest hit by the quake.

He has a cousin among the missing. "Each family there has lost one or two people there," he said in an interview Tuesday in his Canyon Road office, which has walls decorated with photos and a painting of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet.

Thondup is seeking donations to buy medical supplies, tents, blankets and digging tools.

Although the region officially is part of China, the people there primarily are Tibetan, Thondup said.

Thondup owns an office and small factory there that manufactures traditional Tibetan furniture. The buildings were demolished. "Luckily nobody was injured," he said. The earthquake hit about 7 a.m., before his employees got to work.

"Eighty-five percent of the buildings were destroyed," Thondup said.

Chinese officials early this week reported the death toll at more than 1,700 people. By Tuesday, the estimate had risen to 2,000. And, according to Thondup, Tibetans in the region have reported closer to 4,000 dead and more than 10,000 seriously injured.

"When someone dies (in Jyekundo), they are given a 'sky burial,' " Thondup said. He described a funeral ritual in which a body is laid on top of a monastery and vultures come down and consume it. "But so many have died, there's not enough vultures," he said. Instead, the bodies had to be cremated.

One monastery, Thondup said, reported handling 1,200 corpses. "Three others are reporting about the same number," he said.

Relief efforts there have been hampered by recent snows, he said. Also, he said, the Chinese government has been hesitant to allow foreigners in to help with the relief effort.

Thondup came to Santa Fe in 1975 as a student at the College of Santa Fe. "I was the first Tibetan here," he said. Since that time, he said, the community has grown to about 100.

In 1980, he started Project Tibet, a nonprofit organization that imports and sells weavings and rugs from Tibetan refugee handicraft centers and channels the profits back to the refugees.

Thondup said he is working with The Bridge Fund, a New York-based Tibetan charity, on the relief effort.

Those interested in donating can contact Project Tibet at 403 Canyon Road, 982-3002, The e-mail address is