State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 - Case study: Mining Tibet

By Gabriel Lafitte


Tibetans call the Plateau of Tibet 'the land surrounded by mountains'. Among the massive mountain chains, a few peaks are especially sacred, attracting pilgrims from afar. In rugged eastern Tibet, nowhere is as sacred as the hidden land of Kawa Kharpo.

The sacred Kawagebo mountain sits on the border between the Tibetan Autonomous Region and China's Yunnan Province; its eastern side is part of the Three Parallel Rivers area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In February 2011, a small gold-mining operation started near the village of Abin, which is on the western side of Kawagebo, along the path of an 800-year-old pilgrimage route that circles the mountain, attracting tens of thousands of Tibetans annually.

In 2012, Tibetan villagers, acting out of reverence for the holy peak, attempted to stop the operations of a Chinese mining company. The response was threats and violence from company representatives, then harassment and arrests by local police. On two occasions, men armed with wooden sticks with nails reportedly attacked villagers, injuring more than a dozen.

After efforts to negotiate with the local government failed, villagers pushed US$ 300,000 worth of mining equipment into the Nu River. A leader of the group was arrested, but later released when 100 villagers surrounded the local police station where he was being held. A few months later, however, mining resumed and tensions grew. Harassment, death threats and attacks on villagers increased, and some women and children fled to other villages to escape the violence.

On 20 January 2012, a village leader who had tried to confront the mining company was arrested by local police. Some 200 community members surrounded the police station, resulting in violence and injuries on both sides, with at least one villager hospitalized with serious injuries. Hundreds more villagers from the surrounding area joined in. On 23 January, with tensions mounting, a local government leader ordered the mine closed and the equipment trucked out of the village.

This story represents a rare victory in the struggle against the despoiling of the landscape of Tibet. All too often, local Tibetan communities are powerless, knowing that any protest will be quickly labelled as 'splittist' and a challenge to China's rule, invoking a massive security presence to quell dissent. The Kawa Kharpo episode is remarkable, both because the villagers won and because the world got to hear about it, due to a brave conservationist from the Chinese environmental NGO Green Earth Volunteers, who witnessed the protest and reported it. Usually, such protests are not only swiftly curbed but all mention of them is repressed.

Mining is widespread in hundreds of locations across Tibet, despite official bans on small-scale gold mining in 2005 and 2007. The soaring price of gold, and the even faster rise in Chinese domestic demand for gold, has made Tibet a magnet for gold-seekers. The environmental cost of gold mining is extremely high, with cyanide and mercury being used in the processing, despite their toxic effects on those living downstream. The most systematic way of extracting gold in a river is to assemble a dredge, a house-sized machine on tracks, which crawls along, chewing up everything whilst gathering the specks of gold. These methods are highly destructive, yet Tibetans have been unable to form their own community associations, speak up, articulate their concerns and let the world know.

Hydroelectric power

Unfortunately, Abin is but one of many Tibetan villages threatened by economic forces. There is a greater overarching threat to the region, namely hydroelectric dam development. The government is increasingly turning to Tibet to solve China's impending water and energy crisis.

Along the Nu River (known as the Salween once it reaches Burma), the longest free-flowing river in mainland south-east Asia, a 13-dam cascade has been proposed. The scheme includes several dams in or very close to the World Heritage Site mentioned above; these would wipe out portions of the pilgrimage route around Kawagebo and displace numerous communities along the river valley. Although the project was put on hold in 2004 in the wake of widespread protest, it is certainly not dead.

Last year, the World Heritage Committee issued a statement expressing concern over reports of unapproved construction under way at one dam site on the Nu River, and surveying work – including road-building and drilling – at three others. But in February, Chinese officials revealed plans to resume the Nu River dams as part of China's ambitious hydropower plans to meet its renewable energy targets. The project will displace 50,000 people belonging to ethnic minorities, including Lisu, Nu and Tibetan people.

Nearly all the dams scheduled for construction in China by 2020 are in Kham, one of the three provinces of Tibet, which is now administratively fragmented into the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, Qinghai and Tibet Autonomous Region. Kham is not only a historically coherent province of Tibet, all of its counties and prefectures are officially designated as areas of governance by and for the Tibetans as a people. But west-to-east transmission networks will increasingly supply coastal China with electricity from Tibet, triggering serious questions as to whether Tibetans will benefit in any way. The Kham hydroelectric dam cascade is not for rural electrification, to provide light for nomad children to study by night and improve their school grades. It is not for Tibetan farmers to buy electric threshing machines for their barley crops, or for village millers to roast and grind the dried barley seeds to make tsampa, the staple of the Tibetan diet. The ultra high voltage lines will pass them by, en route to factories in Shanghai and Guangzhou.

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