Shaggy domesticated yaks once roamed the rugged highland pastures of Tibet's Himalayan foothills, providing milk, meat and muscle power to isolated tribes whose lifestyles have barely changed over the centuries. Poor as they were, these semi-nomadic people were in danger of losing what little they had due to social changes instituted by the Chinese government. Ironically, economic reforms set in motion by Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s provided Tibet's farmers with new opportunities to exploit their traditional skills.
Conceived at the nearby Ladja Monastery, a modern cheese factory located in the Sem Long Valley stands at the center of efforts to mobilize and empower the valley's roughly 200 yak-herders. The factory produces about 10,000 kg of yak cheese every year, most of which is exported to the United States and other western countries where it is sold for an average $53 per kg. About one quarter of the proceeds are used to support Ladja Monastery's traditional Tibetan school, thus supporting the area's traditional culture.
“Our milk was only good for making butter,” explained Sang To, one of the participating farmers. “Now it has another value. I've never tried the cheese, but I’m very grateful that they buy our milk.”
While traditional yak cheese is considered too dry, crumbly and pungent for western tastes, the Sem Long Valley cheese factory uses modern processing methods that produce golden yellow wheels of cheese with a flavor some say is similar to Pecorino, an Italian sheep milk cheese.
For the people of the Sem Long Valley, the cheese factory produces much more than yak cheese: it's helped usher in a new era of prosperity while giving renewed value to their cultural – and agricultural – traditions.
“I want to learn how to make the best cheese in the world, it can help my people,” says 16-year-old Suo Na (top image), who works in the cheese factory. “I don't have a lot of education, but I can do cheese well.” The day will soon come when those two attributes are no longer mutually exclusive. (via Colors Magazine and CopperWiki)