Yaks are long-haired cows that live at high altitude, on the grassy plains of the Tibetan plateau. Traditionally yaks are herded by nomads who travel with their animals from summer to winter pastures, so that the yaks can graze year-round.
Yaks are essential for the life and wellbeing of the herder. They produce wool and hair, from which the nomads make clothing, cloth for their tents, bags and ropes. Butter, milk, cheese, yoghurt and meat both nourish the family and bring cash income through sales. Bone and horns provide the nomads with tent pegs, containers and combs. Calves increase the size of the herd, creating a larger margin of survival for the herder.
To live at a bare subsistence level (the very minimum required to have enough food and clothing) each person needs 8-10 yaks. For a family of five people that amounts to 40-50 yaks. If a family also wants to send children to school, or has health problems, they need more yaks in order to pay for these basic needs.
Alpha Communities has established a ‘yak bank’ program to target subsistence-level herder families with less than 8-10 yaks per person in the family. A family receives 10 yaks, preferably pregnant cows, and undertakes to return the yaks (or their equivalent in money) after a period of 6 years. Meanwhile, all the produce (wool, milk, butter etc.) is for the family to live on and generate some income. Calves born also become the family's property or are contributed to other needy families as part of the project. With good management, and a bit of luck, the family will be able to break the vicious cycle of poverty as well as return their investment to the yak bank. Alpha Communities then turns over the yaks to another family.
Although the yak bank helps to preserve the herding way of life, herding remains a precarious and risky profession. Therefore, in addition Alpha supports the education of one child out of every family that borrows yaks. In this way a short-term solution (immediate relief of poverty) as well as a more long-term solution (an educated family member who can earn money in a profession other than herding) are integrated to ensure the maximum opportunity for survival of the family.