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In the next five to 10 years, there might be a change in what comes to mind when thinking about Tibet.
The 2008 Olympics in Beijing saw an international outcry against the Chinese government’s oppressive policies and practices in Tibet. Mass riots within Tibet and rallies across the globe informed the general public of human rights violations in the disputed area, Tibetans’ loss of culture and identity, and their desire for independence from China.
But the 2010 WikiLeaks have exposed something different.
A leaked U.S. Embassy cable showed that the Dalai Lama is urging the international community to focus on environmental issues in Tibet instead of political ones, for at least the next half-decade. He specifically referred to increasingly polluted water from mining projects in Tibet as a major problem that “cannot wait.”
Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan poet/blogger and recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Courage in Journalism award this year, said the number of mines in Tibet has increased dramatically since 2006.
“For the past few years, Tibetan villagers have been protesting against the mines and writing letters to the Chinese government asking for their concerns to be addressed,” Woeser said. “But the government never cared.”
In 2006, only one-percent of discovered mines in Tibet were prospected due to limited infrastructure and investment. But mining operations boomed after the opening of the Qinghai-Tibet railway, which connects all 72 counties in Tibet to the rest of China. There are now over 90 mining sites, with at least one in each county.
The impact of mining operations
The Chinese government announced plans in March to develop Tibet by exploiting over 3,000 mineral reserves, potentially worth more than USD 125 billion.
Dorje, director of the region’s Bureau of Geology and Mineral Exploration and Development, told state-run China Daily that exploitation of the mineral resources would boost Tibet’s development.
"We must make sure the exploitation serves the interests of the Tibetan people, and minimize its impact on the environment,” Dorje said.
The plan aims to boost the mining industry’s contribution to Tibet’s GDP from three to 30 percent by 2020. At the same time, the state government will continue to pour investment into the region to further develop it and provide over 1,400 new jobs for locals via mining operations.
But Woeser said compared to the few thousand Tibetan miners, migrant Han workers have flocked to Tibet on the railroad and have taken up over 10,000 mining jobs.
“This has caused a lot of resentment among locals, widespread discrimination against Tibetans, and a loss of cultural identity among locals,” she said.
Pempa Dondrup, a villager in Nanggarze County of Shannan Prefecture, told China Daily that the government must respect local customs and religious beliefs. “For example, they must not excavate into our holy mountains.”
But likely to the Dondrup’s dismay, there are at least six mining operations in the great Tibetan emperor Songtsan Gampo’s hometown, Gyama. It now has the highest daily output among all mining pits in the Qinghai-Tibet plateau.
In Han Chinese culture, the hometown of any emperor is sacred and carries the ‘dragon’s pulse’ (lóng mài). It brings fortune and happiness to the nation, and warrants ritual sacrifices.
“According to this, Gyama should be protected from environmental destruction by the mining taking place today,” Woeser said. “But it’s not. And protests so far have been silenced by Chinese troops.”
Woeser added that local Tibetans have lost much more than they have gained from the wealth the government claims mining would bring. They have also received little to no financial compensation.
“There has been damage to both the environment and the lifestyles of Tibetan villagers, farmers and nomads,” Woeser said. “Now there are diseases that are new and untreatable for the villagers. The livestock, like lamb and cows, are also getting diseases and dying at alarming rates.”
Almost 20 years of mining in the Gyama valley has led to elevated concentrations of various minerals - including copper, lead, iron and aluminium – in the surface water and streambed, according to a study published in the September issue of Science of the Total Environment.
The Gyama stream water drains into the Lhasa River, which flows into the great Yarlong Tsangpo. Over a third of the world population lives downstream of the rivers flowing from the Plateau.
“Uptake of heavy metal into local agricultural products from contaminated irrigation water may therefore pose a health risk to the local population,” the authors of the study wrote.
Over 3,500 local inhabitants live in this valley just east of Lhasa city. There are also nomads who frequent the semi-agricultural area, which is used for growing crops and animal husbandry. But nearly 182,000 residents live in Lhasa city just downstream from the valley. The main drinking water source for the city is from wells located in the banks of the Lhasa River.
The authors of the study warned that large-scale mining activities in the valley “pose a great future risk for the regional and downstream environment.”
Tibetans have limited opposition power
Contaminated water, loss of lands and the heavy influx of Han migrants into Tibet caused by the mining industry boom have led to numerous conflicts and riots in the region in past 20 years.
Huatailong, China’s largest mining project in Gyama, used the villagers’ water during a drought in June 2010. This led to riots in the village to which a great number of military police, including special police forces, were allegedly sent from Lhasa, according to witness reports. The police arrested many villagers and three of them, including the village head, are still in jail.
Woeser said military forces and police always quickly crush any local dissent against mines.
“The problem is most mines are state-owned and backed by the government,” Woeser said. “So when the conflict erupted, it got politicized. The government decided the villagers weren’t protesting against the mine but were rioting for Tibetan independence.”
More recently, about 100 protesters carried Chinese flags outside government offices in a protest between Aug. 15 and 17 against the expansion of a gold mine in the Kham region of Tibet, administratively in China’s Sichuan province. They were upset about the heavy equipment being brought in and damaging their farmlands, according to U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia.
“The farmers were scared, so they carried Chinese flags to show that they weren’t protesting for political reasons or independence,” Woeser said. “They just wanted to point out that the mines were impacting their life.”
But despite taking extra precaution, the government still sent troops to quell their protest. According to various reports, at least three protesters were fatally shot, over 30 injured and more than 35 were arrested. Two police officers were also injured.
Almost two weeks after the incident, conflicting news reports appeared in China Daily, Xinhua News Agency and Reuters. They reported only one death from the incident and cited a different reason for the protests.
“The protest was sparked after police detained a businessman from the Sichuan city of Mianyang "for illegally exploiting gold mines with some villagers in Jiaxu village and damaging the grassland in the county,” according to Reuters.
Exerting pressure outside of Tibet
It is evident that local Tibetans are left powerless against large-scale mining operations. If they protest, they face disproportionate force from the military and police as well as imprisonment. Many face jail terms of seven to eight years, partly due to the politicization of their dissent.
Woeser said the conflict in August was one of very few protests covered in state and international media, albeit inconsistently.
“I think this really needs outside help and requires outsiders to understand the mining situation in Tibet,” she said. “Only through the outside, like international environmental agencies and human right organizations, and through international investigations might there be a positive impact on Tibetans’ lives that are affected by mining.”
In the recent years, there has been a growing presence of foreign-owned mining companies in Tibet.
“These operations have also faced local protests, but not to the same extent as Chinese-owned mines,” Woeser said. “This is in part due to minor improvement in environmental impact, but largely due to higher financial compensation offered by foreign firms to silence dissent.”
In addition to protests in Tibet, some companies have faced opposition from activists in their own countries. Pressure from the Australia Tibet Council and the Central Tibetan Administration, also known as the Tibetan government-in-exile, allegedly caused Australia-based Sino Gold to pull out of an exploratory gold mine in eastern Tibet in 2003.
Sino Gold was later acquired by Canadian-based Eldorado Gold in December 2009. Eldorado Gold is now the largest foreign gold producer in China and owns a mine in Tanjianshan, which is located in northern Tibet.
There are six Canadian-based mining companies currently or soon to be operating in Tibet: China Gold International Resources Corp Ltd, Inter-Citic Minerals Inc, Silk Road Resources Ltd., Eldorado Gold Corp, Maxy Gold Corp, Silvercorp Metals Inc., and Sterling Group Ventures Inc.
Vancouver-based China Gold International announced on Dec. 1 it completed the acquisition of Skyland Mining Ltd., formerly owned by Rapid Result Investments Ltd. and China National Gold Group Honk Kong Ltd., a subsidiary of China National Gold Group Corp. It is now the sole owner of the Jiama Mine, one of the largest copper poly-metallic mines in China, according to its website.
Frank Lagiglia, investor relations spokesperson for China Gold International, said he does not share the concerns of the protesters. He said the company’s technical report shows the mine has full support of the local people, and that it is on track to becoming the most environmentally friendly mine in the world.
“They talk about contamination of water; we use a recycling water program so there is no contamination,” Lagiglia said. “I don’t know the issues that they’re talking about, when we were there, we went with Tibetan officials and we were talking to the Tibetan people there, and really everyone is glad to be working.”
But Raymond Yee, a Vancouver activist and member of the Canada Tibet Committee, said their worries go beyond environmental damages endured by local villagers.
“Our main concern is that the Chinese don’t seem at all concerned with the needs and the wants of the Tibetans,” Yee said. “And the Canadian firms will refuse, even though we know they know better, to get their heads wrapped around the whole concept of free, prior, informed consent of the local Tibet people about what’s happening.”
Although China Gold International is based in Vancouver, the Chinese-owned China National Gold Group owns a 39 percent stake, according to a Bloomberg news report.
“We’re against this kind of activity that exploits people that are occupied,” Yee said. “It’s occupied land in an environment where there’s a real climate of fear because most people are pretty privy to how the Chinese government cracks down on dissent.”
Tibet enjoyed de facto independence between 1912 and 1951, before China annexed the region. Annexation became official when the Chinese government and delegates from the Tibetan administration signed the 17-point agreement.
But the agreement has been widely disputed and the annexation is widely viewed as an occupation. A report published by The International Commission of Jurists in 1959 supported claims that the agreement was signed under military pressure and significant duress.
Large mining companies such as Rio Tinto have reportedly ruled out mining in Tibet because it is too politically sensitive.
“We’d be more open to it if they, for example, had consultations with the Tibetan government-in-exile to talk about mining and to see what it would have to say,” Yee said. “We’re just against mining under these kinds of conditions.”
Looking to the future
The future of Canadian-based mining companies operating in Tibet might have been different if Bill C-300, known as the Corporate Accountability Act or Responsible Mining Bill, had passed the House of Commons vote on October 27. But the bill was defeated 140 to 134.
If passed, the Bill would have enforced financial and political sanctions against mining companies operating in foreign countries without free, prior and informed consultation from local indigenous peoples.
Catherine Coumans, a research coordinator at MiningWatch Canada, said that under the bill there could have been a strong case made against mining companies, like China Gold International, even if they claim to have support from local Tibetans.
“The free part is the part that we would be really addressing,” Coumans said. “How free were the people they talked to? Given the political realities in Tibet, it would be very difficult [to have free consultation].”
Since the bill was defeated, there is no legal or formal mechanism for complaints against foreign practices by mining companies. However, Coumans said the Canadian Network for Corporate Accountability, of which MiningWatch is a member, is currently discussing other options.
One alternative is private member’s Bill C-354, which was tabled by NDP MP Peter Julian and passed first reading on March 3. The bill had remained dormant after its first reading, but resurfaced on Oct. 21 when Julian submitted a petition in support of the bill to the house.
The Bill seeks to amend the Federal Courts Act to permit non-Canadians to initiate lawsuits against Canadian companies based on violations – in foreign countries - of international law or treaties to which Canada has ratified.
“The bill would ensure corporate accountability for Canadian firms operating abroad,” Julian told the house on April 1, 2009.
But regardless of what happens in the future, Coumans argues that the mining industry as a whole generally accepts International Finance Corporation’s performance standards as de facto international standards. These standards include having free, prior and informed consultation with local peoples.
“Based on these standards, one can definitely make the argument that a company cannot call itself a responsible mining company and mine in Tibet,” Coumans said, “because it cannot possibly poll the community in a free way.”
Given the recent acquisition of the copper mine in Gyama by China Gold International, as well as the leaked U.S. embassy cable regarding the Dalai Lama’s concerns with widespread environmental destruction caused by mining project, there is hope of increased international and Canadian pressure against mining in Chinese-occupied Tibetan land.
But if the discussion around Tibet sees no change in the next five to 10 years, then the imagery one usually conjures when thinking of Tibet will change. What is often known as Shangri-La and rooftop of the world will be extensively mined away, and a culture with thousands of years of history will fade away along with the land.
“Tibet is the earth’s highest ecosystem and is extremely vulnerable: its rivers flow and are connected to many other areas and countries,” Woeser said. “But the mining companies are operating for their own profits and are blatantly neglecting any environmental concerns. Over time, the local area won’t be the only region affected; but a vast area of the world will be too.”