Environnement and development in Tibet
Thursday 16 July 2009
“The world grows smaller and smaller, more and more
interdependent .... today more than ever before life must
be characterized by a sense of Universal Responsibility,
not only nation to nation and human to human, but
also human to other forms of life.”
His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama
ENVIRONMENT AND DEVELOPMENT IN TIBET
Tibet, commonly known as the ‘roof of the world’, is situated at
the very heart of Asia. It is one of the most environmentally sensitive
areas of the continent, lying to the north of India, Nepal, Bhutan and
Burma, the west and south of China. Covering a total area of around
2.5 million square kilometres—more than two-thirds the size of India,
Tibet stretches 2,500 kilometres from west to east and 1,500 kilometres
from north to south. It has an average height of 3,650 metres above sea
level and many of the peaks reach beyond 8000 metres, such as Mount
Everest (Mt. Chomolungma)— the world’s tallest.
Prior to the Chinese occupation, Tibet was ecologically stable.
Environmental conservation through human intervention was never
felt before partly due to the sparse human population and partly due
to the Tibetan way of life, which has been strongly influenced by
spiritual beliefs in the interdependence of both living and non-living
elements of the earth. Tibetans strive to live in harmony with nature.
These beliefs are strengthened further by the Tibetan Buddhists traditional
adherence to the principle of self-contentment: the environment
should be used to fulfill one’s need and not one’s greed.
Over 5,000 species of higher plants grow in Tibet, many of
these are rare and endemic. These plants include about 2,000 varieties
of medicinal herbs used in the traditional medical systems of Tibet,
China and India. Rhododendron, saffron, bottle-brush tree, high
mountain rhubarb, Himalayan alpine serratula, falconer tree and
hellebonne are among the many plants found in Tibet.
There are 400 species of rhododendron on the Tibetan Plateau,
which make up about 50 percent of the world’s total species. The
Tibetan Plateau also consists of over 12,000 species from 1,500 genera
of vascular plants.
In Tibet, there are over 532 different species of birds in 57 families,
which is about 70 percent of the total families found in China.
Some of the birds include: storks, wild swans, Blyth’s kingfisher, geese, ducks, shorebirds, raptors, brown-chested jungle flycatchers, redstarts,
finches, grey-sided thrushes, parrotbills, wagtails, chickadees, largebilled
bush warblers, bearded vultures, woodpeckers and nuthatches.
The most famous being the black-necked crane called “trung trung
kaynak” in Tibetan. About 62 percent of the world total population
of black-necked crane are found on the Tibetan Plateau.
The mountains and forests of Tibet are home to a diverse range
of animal life. Early travellers in Tibet marvelled at the abundance of
wildlife on the Tibetan Plateau. Some of the animals include Tibetan
antelope, gazelle, argali sheep, wild ass, wild yak, takin, serow, asiatic
black bear, giant panda, red panda, wolves, snow leopards, snow monkey
Tibet had rich and untouched mineral resources prior to the
Chinese occupation. It is traditionally believed that the mineral resources
are the wealth of the spirits of the mountains, water and forests,
and any disturbance to their wealth would bring disease and bad
omens to the land and its people. About 126 different mineral deposits
are found in Tibet which accounts for a significant share of the
world’s reserves of gold, chromites, copper, borax, iron, oil and natural
Tibet is the source of many of Asia’s principal rivers, including
the Drichu (Yangtze), Zachu (Mekong), Machu (Huang He) or the
Yellow River, Gyalmo Ngulchu (Salween), Bumchu (Arun), Yarlung
Tsangpo (Brahmaputra), Sengye Khabab (Indus), Langchen Khabab
(Sutlej), Macha Khabab (Karnali), and the Irrawaddy. These rivers
flow into eleven countries: China, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan,
Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. These
rivers and their tributaries are the life-blood of millions of people in
More than 1,500 natural lakes are found in Tibet. Among the
more prominent lakes are Mapham Yumtso (Mansarovar), Namtso,
Yamdrok Yumtso and the largest, Tso Ngonpo (Kokonor Lake).
Prior to 1950, Tibet’s forests covered 25.2 million hectares.
Most forests in Tibet grow on steep, isolated slopes in the river valleys
of Tibet’s low-lying southeastern region. The principal types are tropical
montane and subtropical montane coniferous forest, with evergreen
spruce, fir, pine larch, cypress, birch and oak among the main species.
With the invasion of Tibet, the nature-friendly way of life of the
Tibetan people was trampled upon by a materialist Chinese ideology.
China claims that Tibet is experiencing growth and prosperity, but
the reality is that, under the Chinese rule, Tibetans are impoverished,
marginalised, and excluded; the sensitive and globally important ecology
of Tibet is deteriorating; and many plant and animal species face
extinction. This booklet provides an overview of crucial issues with
regard to the environment and development in Tibet. To address
these issues adequately will require many changes in the Chinese policies
and programmes being implemented in Tibet.
China’s Western Development Programme
President Jiang Zemin announced China’s campaign to develop
the western half of China in 1999. A year later, it was officially
announced that exploitation of minerals and other natural resources
was not only critical for the continued development of China’s
economy, but also for ensuring the continued stability of local societies
while contributing to China’s ethnic and national unity. Central to
the first phase of Western Development Programme (2000-2005) is
investment in ‘hard infrastructure’ such as the Gormo-Lhasa railway,
potash fetiliser plant ($ 338 million), natural gas pipeline stretching
950 km to Lhanzhou ($ 300 million), hydroelectricity power stations
in the South west.1 To lure foreign investments in these and other
projects, Beijing draw up preferential policies for them such as exemption
of tax for importing related equipments and exemption of
value-added tax. It is noted that whether in the contruction of infrastructures
and high-tech enterprises in Tibet, non-Tibetans are provided
incentives to take part in it.2 Local people were forced to give away their land for these developmental projects. The residents of rural Songduo county protested against the seizure of their land in the name of the “Great Western Development” programme.
Limited priority is given to ‘soft infrastructure’ such as health, education, and local human capacity-building that would enable greater local employment and participation in the modernization process.
The Western Development Programme gives little priority to
investment in local agriculture and livestock, although the majority
of the western population, especially the non-Chinese ethnic populations
experiencing the most acute poverty, are in these two sectors.
An example cited by the US-based Tibet Poverty Alleviation
Fund is the upgrading of the Yangpachen-Lhasa segment of the Gormo
to Lhasa highway. It is a showcase of technologies reliant on importing
capital, technology, and labour into Tibet, without transferring
any skills, jobs, or capital to Tibetans. This 80 km section of the road
passes through a river gorge and was completely rebuilt with extensive
stone abutments and lining work. It was carried out by large
numbers of migrant Chinese masons and other highway workers at
an estimated cost of about 400 million yuan ($48 million). During
June and July 2001, large numbers of Chinese road construction
workers were also engaged in the upgrading of main roads in Lhasa
itself. The construction work was consistent with a pattern seen in
most Tibetan urban areas over the last decade with central or other
provincial government financing. These modern road and urban building
construction designs, techniques and materials were unfamiliar to
local Tibetan workers, hence involved the employment of migrant
Chinese workers familiar with the techniques. The Tibetans could
have been trained and employed, but they were instead excluded.
The initial selection of priority infrastructure investment projects
under the Western Development Programme does not appear to correspond
with the priority needs of the poorest populations in the traditional
agricultural and livestock sectors. One of main findings of
the research on the China Western Development Programme by in9
dividual reseacher was that the impact of WDP widens disparities
and deepen social exclusion of minorities.
To the extent that the Western Development Programme is oriented
towards the infrastructure needs of the modern sector, and is a
source of additional employment for Chinese migrants, it will further
exacerbate income disparities between Chinese immigrants and local
Tibetans. The only Tibetans prospering as a result of China’s leapstyle
intensive investment in Tibet is the small group of Tibetan working
in government departments and state enterprises. Their number,
based on Chinese statistics, is no more than 100,000 in the “Tibet
Autonomous Region” (TAR). Increased investment and trade in natural
resources is central to the second phase (2005-2015) of the
programme. An example is the Yulong copper mine in Tibet. China
must follow the road of sustainable development in accordance with
the principle of bringing coordinated development of population, resources,
environment and economic development.
Railway and Colonisation
In the first decade of its occupation of Tibet, China built rail
lines connecting the northern Tibetan area of Amdo (Chinese:
Qinghai) with its industrialised coastal areas. This, Tibetans maintain,
is primarily responsible for the colonisation of Tibet, as it accelerated
the influx of Chinese settlers and resource exploitation in Amdo.
Amdo’s population increased from around 1.5 million in 1949 to
more than 5 million today. Gormo, the terminus of one rail line, was
once a vast pastoral land inhabited by a few hundred Tibetan nomads.
Today it is the second largest town in Amdo with a population
of 200,000 of which only 3,600 are Tibetans.
In 1994, Beijing’s leaders discussed a project linking Lhasa City,
the Capital of Tibet, with the rest of China by rail. During China’s
Ninth Five-Year Plan (1996-2000), route survey and feasibility studies
on the railway to Lhasa were conducted. As a result, the Tenth
Five-Year Plan allocated a budget for construction of a railway line between Gormo to Lhasa. On 29 June 2001, China launched its second
railway project in Tibet connecting Lhasa, in the heart of Tibet,
with Gormo and from there the industrial Chinese cities of the coast.
Aside from strategic concerns, one of the most serious social
impacts of the railway, which runs eight trains a day in each direction,
is the influx of Chinese immigrants. Just as Gormo was transformed
by the arrival of rail, Lhasa and the inter-lying areas, face tremendous
population pressures. The authorities of “Tibet Autonomous Region”
already predicted expansion of Lhasa City from the current 53 sq km
to 272 sq km within the next 10 years. The policy of resettling Chinese
into Tibet is a tragedy not only to the Tibetan people but also to
Tibet’s fragile ecology. First, Tibet’s sensitive ecology can in no way
support the huge influx of population, especially if this population
lives the typical consumptive lifestyle characteristic of Chinese cities
of the east. Second, the practical realities of Chinese development
also means that the Tibetan people not only become a minority in
their own land, but a marginalised, excluded, repressed, and unrepresented
Chinese settlers arrive on one-way tickets, priced at as little as $
49 to come all the way from Beijing. They are fortune seekers, often
desperately poor and displaced from the countryside by China’s voracious
demand for land for urbanisation. It is estimated that the train
to Lhasa brings five or six thousand people a day to Lhasa during the
peak season, but when one observes the trains leaving Lhasa for China
only two or three thousand people are aboard. Those who stay behind
are fortune hunters, seeking any niche they can find, often by elbowing
aside Tibetans from even small street stall trading. Migrant workers
from China are eager to secure railway-related jobs all along the
rail route. Statistics indicate that towns in Nagchu prefecture, an area
where maximum portion of the railwayline exists, has increased to
more than 25 from only two in 2001.
In regard to the impacts of the railway on the ecology of the
Tibetan Plateau, Beijing earmarked a $ 190 million for environmen11
tal protection along the railway. Despite their pledges to safeguard the
plateau, there have been reports of environmental problems. For example,
discarded supplies and junked equipment were conspicuous along the railway
line. Rubber tyres, scrap metal, chunks of cement, leftover tubes, plastic bags and bottles were among the garbages left beside the tracks.
Whether China actually knows how to minimise and repair the
damage currently underway as the railway crosses the sensitive Tibetan
wetlands is doubtful. China’s white paper entitled Ecological
Improvement and Environmental Protection in Tibet 2003 states that
there are ‘13 key technical problems now undergoing scientific research,
of which half concern environmental protection’. However,
the precautionary principle, that is at the core of all international
biological conservation programmes, states that before destructive interventions begun, solutions should first be established.
The rail route, as the Chinese white paper concedes, cuts through
three officially-protected nature reserves of Hoh Xil, Chumarleb and
Soga—all habitats of endangered antelopes and gazelle. Underpasses—
China’s technical solution to the bisection of their migration routes in
the hope that the herds—despite a schedule of eight trains each day in
each direction—will pass beneath the busy tracks. But the nomads in
Nagchu, Damshung, and Yangpachen reported mass deaths of animals
under the elevated bridges. The gap between the pillars supporting
the bridges are too small for animals to pass through. Sheep, yaks,
Chiru (Tibetan antelope) and kyang (wild ass) graze in huge herds in
these areas. When the animals rush between the pillars, stampedes
occur, killing scores of animals, especially the weaker and younger
Yaks wandering across the railway track ones. The wild yaks have been seen wandering across the railway line risking railroad accidents and injury to themselves. However, the Chinese authorities are making the claims otherwise to the international community but their propaganda exposed when Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency, recently apologised for publishing the fake photo of Mr. Liu Weiqing featuring dozens of pregnant antelope galloping peacefully across the Tibetan landscape, as the train ran beside them. Further extension of the railway line to Shigatse is expected to be completed in 2010. A committee was set up for the extension work.
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