Thuk Je Che Tibet




Environment and Development Desk; Department of Information and International Relations; Central Tibetan Administration; Dharamsala, INDIA. April 26, 2000.



An early botanist-explorer perceived Tibet as "one great zoological garden". By remaining isolated and undisturbed until the mid - 20th century the plateau's vast landmass of 2.5 million is a storehouse of innumerable species which are necessary to the balance of life worldwide: "What takes place in Tibet also affects global biodiversity and the life of people throughout the world", asserts the World Wide Fund for Nature. 

Although Tibet remains one of the few countries on the globe to have limited scientific research carried out on the biological aspects of its diverse species, scientists compare the plateau's known biodiversity to the Amazon Rainforest. Endemic flora and fauna abound many currently endangered and due to the variety and complexity of unique ecological niches across the massive landscape Tibet is still seen as a final sanctuary for some of the world's rare plant and animal species. 

The statistics are staggering. Over 12,000 species of 1,500 genera of vascular plants are identified; fungi alone account for 5,000 species of 700 genera; of the more than 5,000 higher plant species in 280 families over 100 are woody plants of 300 species. There are altogether 400 species of rhododendron on the Tibetan Plateau, which make up about 50% of the world's total species. Of immense value and potential to medical science are the over 2,000 medicinal plants in the wild. 

The animal world is equally rich. There are 210 species of mammals in 29 families; endemic animals are abundant and include the snow leopard, blue sheep, giant panda, red panda, golden monkey, Tibetan argali, takin, musk deer, Tibetan antelope and Tibetan gazelle, wild yak and the Himalayan marmot and Himalayan woolly hare. And although the plateau remains an ornothological paradise with 532 bird species in 57 families, at least 37 are endangered including the rare endemic black-necked crane, tragopan, Tibetan eared pheasant, Tibetan snowcock and Tibetan sand grouse. Today more than 81 animal species in Tibet are endangered. 

The danger of extinction began with China's invasion in 1949. In an ethical reversal of Buddhism's respect for all living creatures, whereby man lives in an interdependent partnership with his environment, the Chinese colonists have viewed all wildlife as an economic resource for human use and gain. This attitude is the underlying cause of today's rapid loss of biodiversity. 

Most rare animal, bird and plant species are found in the more temperate forests of Eastern and Southeast Tibet the very ancient, dense forests where China's clear-fell logging activities have been most intense. To settle and feed Chinese migrants, the species-rich rangelands of Northeast Tibet are being converted to farmland, depriving nomads of their traditional grazing pastures. 

Mammals are largely endangered due to hunting and poaching some for the commercial value of their wool, antlers, skins, fur, bones and inner organs; some gunned down as trophies to take home to China or sell as meat. Fish are dynamited in lakes and rivers. While wildlife conservation laws are in place in the legal system, their implementation is weak and barely enforced since wildlife is a state-controlled commodity and therefore categorised as a renewable and exploitable resource. 

Because the loss of Tibet's unique flora and fauna would be irreversible, the potential impact on the fabric of the plateau's living system and on the evolutionary process is of grave global concern.



Yamdro Tso

The most political commodity of the 20th century was oil. With environmentalists identifying water as the resource that will lead to wars this century, Tibet's pivotal importance in sustaining life on earth will spiral. The Tibetan Plateau is source to the world's 10 greatest river systems which flow downstream to feed the most populous region on earth: China, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Vietnam, Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand all depend upon Tibetan watersheds and rivers for their survival. That adds up to 47% of the world's population. 

The headwaters of China's two great rivers the Yangtze and the Yellow River lie high in Tibet's northeastern and eastern provinces: downstream 1,250 million Chinese depend on their flows to supply four fifths of China's water. In 1998 and 1999 summers these flows brought catastrophe. The worst flooding of the Yangtze in 40 years left between 3,656 and 10,000 dead in August 1998, and a year later 66 million were affected and over 400 dead in a second deluge. In an environmental wake-up call, President Jiang Zemin advised his people to "understand the law of nature... and follow it to facilitate our economic development". 

China's policies of development, industrialisation, resources extraction and population transfer on the plateau have all led to massive intervention in Tibet's rivers and lakes. The most developed region, Amdo (Ch:Qinghai), is home to massive dams providing power to burgeoning cities in Western China and serving the growing Chinese settler communities in Amdo. Dams in Kham (Ch:Sichuan) have resulted in river fragmentation while wholesale deforestation is destroying hydro-ecology. U-Tsang (Central Tibet) whose rivers flow to South and East Asia is now facing increasing hydro-development, major dam projects and water pollution from industrial and agricultural waste. The largest hydropower potential in the world has been identified by Chinese scientists at the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo in U-Tsang a gorge which could supply 70,000 MW of power. (China's Three Gorges Dam will have an 18,200 MW capacity). 

Tibet's hydropower potential is among the highest in the world and China plans further largescale schemes to harness waterways to service the Mainland's growing shortfall of power and to provide for the further industrialisation and urbanisation of Tibet. The dams and reservoirs result in fragmentation and stagnation of rivers which in turn lead to destruction of ecology and fish species and finally extinction of already endangered plant and aquatic species. And by controlling flooding, dams deprive alluvial plains downstream of fertile soil for agriculture. 

China has already suffered the devastating results of its interference in the Yangtze and Yellow River headwater regions. Now, with mining nominated as one of Beijing's "Four Pillar" industries in the 'TAR' ('Tibet Autonomous Region'), South and East Asia's Indus, Salween, Brahmaputra and Mekong rivers will face pollution from toxic mining wastes infiltrating soil and so contaminating downstream flows. Tailings from large-scale mining operations are a primary source of water pollution today in Amdo. Rivers around Lhasa already report mounting pollution problems from untreated sewage, industrial waste and salts and nitrates leaked from fertilisers used in intensive farming projects designed to meet the food needs of Central Tibet's expanding Chinese population. 

China's unbridled economic growth, industrialisation and urbanisation has contributed to widespread water pollution and scarcity. China has some of the most extreme cases of water shortage in the world. Out of 640 major cities, more than 300 face water shortages, with 100 facing severe scarcities. Approximately 700 million people over half of China's population consume contaminated drinking water. The impact of water pollution on human health has been valued at US$3.9 billion annually. The 'TAR' 1996 Environment Report states that 41.9 million tons of liquid waste was discharged in the Kyichu River. 

As well as its bountiful rivers, Tibet boasts lakes covering 25,000 of the plateau many of them held sacred. Yamdrok Tso in U-Tsang has special spiritual significance. Yet its pristine ecology is being destroyed by a pumped-storage plant to supply Lhasa's electricity needs a project whose design is now judged to be faulty and leading to lowering water levels, increased salinity, and habitat loss for the diverse and rich wildlife including birds and fish. Over-fishing, pollution, human intervention and shrinkage due to climate change are all endangering the purity and ecological survival of Tibet's legendary lakes. 

China's mining and deforestation are obvious examples of colonist exploitation via resource extraction. But utilising Tibet's waterways for hydropower and irrigation particularly where the energy is largely transmitted to industrial cities in China or serving Chinese migrants in Tibet is equally as exploitative. Beijing's assumption seems to be that Tibet is an endless resource for China's economic development.



Since over 80% of Tibet's population still relies on primary sector agriculture for its livelihood, farmers and nomads are the major community to suffer under China's exploitative policies. A way of life which once rewarded hard work in a harsh environment with self-sufficiency, freedom and interdependence with nature is now threatened by a welter of economic and development controls. The very survival of nomadism is uncertain since their grasslands are degrading and dwindling through overstocking, conversion to agriculture, fencing and encroachment from Chinese industry and settlement. 

Despite the unencumbered simplicity of their existence, Tibet's nomads were once wealthy in livestock, lifestyle and the rewards of barter and commercial trade from a range of primary products. But today China is intent on curbing nomad freedoms and in 1998 Beijing's vice minister of agriculture boasted that 67% of Amdo's herdsmen were now settled and housed and an end was soon expected to nomadic life. 

Nomads - or drokpa - have moved their mixed herds across the grassy plateau, steppes and lower mountain slopes that characterise Tibet for over 4,000 years. Their rangelands total 70% of the plateau and today around a million nomads and semi-nomads tend up to 70.2 million head of livestock. Cropland by contrast accounts for only two percent of Tibet. Amdo (Ch:Qinghai) in the northeast is 96% grassland, central 'TAR' ('Tibet Autonomous Region') is 56.72% highland pasture and Kham (Ch:Sichuan) the fertile eastern province has superior pasture and grassland. By a complex system of cyclical grazing, nomadic inherited wisdom kept these grasslands healthy and viable for centuries. 

The relatively small arable niches along river valleys in all three provinces of traditional Tibet were sufficient to more than meet the country's foodgrain needs until the Chinese invasion. Organic farming methods, crop rotation, fallow periods and mixed cropping sustained soil fertility in a fragile mountain environment. While the harvest was overwhelmingly highland barley, sizeable crops of rice, maize, mustard, millet, sorghum, buckwheat and rape-seed were also produced, plus a variety of vegetables which thanks to abundant sunshine were often massive. 

China's destruction of the plateau's agro-pastoral economy began with communism's "Democratic Reform" of the 1950s and '60s which brought redistribution of livestock, bans on bartering, taxation and class struggles. Livestock numbers declined and foodgrain shortages emerged for the first time in history. The Cultural Revolution of 1996-'76 introduced communes so that private ownership of land and animals ceased. Due to crippling taxation, production quotas, the export of meat and grain to China and shifting agricultural policies that ignored social and geographic reality, Tibet experienced outright famine and widespread death. 

It was then that the marginal lands were first brought under cultivation to boost production to feed China and high-yield wheat introduced. This accelerated foodcrop and livestock production led to extensive destruction of fragile grasslands an ecological setback that continues to this day. 

The third phase in China's experimental agricultural policies in Tibet the "Household Responsibility System" disbanded communes after 1982, redistributed lands and livestock and allowed farmers to retain any surplus after quotas were met. But in 1989 this "liberal policy" was reversed and agriculture became controlled by a centralised system designed to intensify land use and produce grain surpluses for "the state". This central control continued throughout the 1990s. The result is that incentives for farmers are minimised by grain quota systems, a multitude of taxes, shifting state procurement policies and a move to intensive farming relying on monoculture. This requires heavy outlays on chemical fertilisers which lowers profitability and destroys the natural fertility of soil. Additionally Tibetans see Chinese settlers enjoying subsidised rice and wheat while their own staple grain, highland barley, is left to market forces. 

Unlike the irreversible degradation from forestry, water and mining policies, China's damaging controls on foodcrop production can be rectified by decentralising agricultural policy, revising price reforms, changing land-use patterns and improving farming techniques through training and investment in modern implements. Nomads could benefit from education on maximising rangelands and grasslands, improving living standards and conserving biodiversity. 

But experts and researchers should equally develop policies that respect the experience and ecological wisdom of nomads in dealing with their inhospitable environment. Consultation with Tibetans on all aspects of "development" and "modernisation" is essential to redress the wrongs of half a century of agro-pastoral mismanagement imposed by China.



It was only when the Yangtze River floods of August 1998 caused a national disaster that Beijing finally focussed the blame on deforestation around the river's fountainhead in Tibet's Kham (Ch:Sichuan) and Amdo (Ch:Qinghai) provinces. Now China's scientists are slowly articulating and documenting the role of deforestation in the nation's more frequent and intense flood damage: China's Agenda 21 even lists soil erosion on the Tibetan Plateau as among the country's most serious environmental problems. 

Until 1949 Tibet's forests were one of the oldest reserves in all Central Asia, located in the country's east, southeast and south and largely growing undisturbed on steep, isolated slopes. Regeneration was natural since logging and cutting trees for firewood were banned. 

Having denuded its own forests and being the world's third largest consumer of timber China succeeded between 1950 and 1985 in reducing Tibet's forest cover from 25.2 million hectares to 13.57 million hectares. This 46% reduction had an estimated market value of US$54 billion. Between 1949 and 1998, the forests of eastern Kham have generated over US$241 million in taxes and profits for the Chinese state logging enterprises. Clear-cut felling continues on an unsustainable level in many regions today; in spite of a reforestation programme the ratio of planting to felling is still only one to 10. Deforestation and Chinese migration are today identified as the two major contributors to Tibet's environmental degradation. 

Officially the intensive deforestation in Tibet is being reversed. In the wake of the 1998 floods government timber markets are closed and a blanket ban on logging imposed on 4.6 million hectares of forest land in Kham, southeastern Tibet. By December 1998 unofficial reports suggested a temporary shutdown of lumber processing mills in Southeast 'TAR' ('Tibet Autonomous Region') and the start up of reforestation projects employing former loggers as tree planters. However, recent reports from Tibet in mid-1999 and January 2000 indicate that deforestation is ongoing in the Kham and Amdo regions. 

The purpose behind Beijing's improving environmental policies is seen to be foreign policy dictated: with the role of "good international citizen" a priority, "environmental diplomacy" is an easy image-builder. But prevention and policy enforcement are lacking. State-owned forestry enterprises, which control the majority of the timber resources, are obliged to fill annual quotas. But since these enterprises are forced to fell and sell a surplus to subsidise the low income produced from underselling their quota, the forestry sector is in effect destroying itself. Additionally, illegal felling is believed to exceed planned production in the 'TAR'. 

Poor forest management is the major factor contributing to Tibet's dwindling cover: this includes timber poaching, high-yield industrial logging, lack of fire and disease control and conversion of forest land for agriculture and human settlement projects.

The domestic and transnational effects of China's rapacious forest felling in Tibet are widespread and severe. In addition to the siltation, pollution and flooding of the 10 major rivers that feed China and South Asia sustaining 47% of the world's population Tibet's vegetation controls the plateau's heating mechanism and this in turn affects the stability of Asia's monsoon. India receives 70 percent of its rainfall from the monsoon. Deforestation also heads irrevocably to desertification: in a reversal of flooding, this curtails water flows a phenomenon already experienced during the 1990s by China's Yellow River which dried up several times and suffered an overall 23% fall in water discharge. In its upper reaches the Yellow River is Tibet's Machu which has its watershed in Amdo. 

With 400 Chinese cities already experiencing water shortages, 108 facing water crises, and major crop losses resulting from lack of agricultural irrigation, Beijing is bracing itself for further ecological catastrophes caused by a history of official disregard for nature.



All the elements of discrimination against a distinct people as laid down in international covenants are present in China's population transfer to Tibet. There is clear-cut discrimination in housing, employment, education, health care, the use of native language and national customs and finally, in the lack of political rights. Tibetans are increasingly marginalised and outnumbered on their own soil. This, says the Dalai Lama, is the "most serious threat to the survival of Tibet's culture and national identity". 

By skewing the demographic composition Beijing is relentlessly achieving its policy objectives to incorporate Tibet, irrevocably, into China. Lhasa is already a predominantly Chinese city with government administrators, business migrants, military and security personnel (the latter now estimated at 500,000 to 600,000) outnumbering Tibetans two to one. This trait is replicated in urban centres throughout Tibet and reaches the extreme in Amdo (Ch: Qinghai) where cities can be over 90% Chinese. 

Beijing's population transfer policy is colonist, embracing needs to quash resistance to Chinese rule, exploit natural resources, solve domestic population and unemployment pressures and consolidate its hold over a militarily strategic zone in Central Asia. 

Preferential policies favour Chinese settlers economically, from accomodation and "hardship allowances" boosting government cadre salaries to the ease of procuring licenses for industries and business ventures. Tibetans are disadvantaged and marginalised in the "development" and "modernisation" schemes currently transforming Tibet's economy and landscape. Owing to an education policy heavily weighted to Chinese literacy, few Tibetans can progress to higher education. This ensures discrimination favouring Chinese in subsequent employment opportunities, reinforces income disparities and sidelines Tibetans from any decision-making role in economic and social development. Admitting that 20.7% of Tibetans in 'TAR' ('Tibet Autonomous Region') live below the poverty line although a 1997 report by the International Commission of Jurists claims a figure above 70% the Lhasa administration attributes this to "inherent backwardness and remoteness". 

Through its open door economic policy of the 1990s, to attract foreign investment, and by incorporating Tibet in its economic development programme, Beijing is stepping up infrastructural and resource development on the plateau which in turn justifies an ever-increasing Chinese labour force. The expanding road and rail networks, easing of residency regulations, free market systems, relaxing rules on business licenses and exemptions from taxes have increased the accessability and attractiveness of Tibet for China's migrant or seasonal workers, petty traders and small-scale entrepreneurs. 

With no independent census figures, and with Tibet's original boundaries redrawn to incorporate nearly half the plateau into Chinese provinces, accurate population data does not exist today. Statistics are concocted to suit political requirements and remain unreliable. What is certain, however, is that the official population transfer policy that absorbed Eastern Turkestan (Ch:Xinjiang), Inner Mongolia and Manchuria into China by massive migration is today being applied in Tibet. 

Today Chinese outnumber Inner Mongolians by 10 to one: half a century ago Mao envisioned a similar equation for future Tibet.



Tibet’s stupendous mineral wealth was one of China's primary reasons for the invasion of 1949 and today with thousands of geological maps plotting the discoveries of hundreds of scientific surveys Beijing controls what is arguably the last truly great frontier of the mining world. 

Over 126 minerals have been identified including some of the world's most significant deposits of uranium, chromite, lithium, boron, borax and iron. Oil, gas, gold, silver, copper and zinc reserves are also of global importance and additionally the plateau contains corundum, vanadium, titanium, magnesite, sulphur, mica, cesium, rubidium, arsenic, graphite, lepidolite and potash. 

Since China's industrialisation is heavily dependent on a huge consumption of minerals and energy, and many of its own resources are near exhaustion, Tibet's rich deposits are now of paramount importance. A self-sufficiency in raw materials helps reduce China's foreign debt and any surplus produce is exported. 

The consequences for Tibet's landscape and the quality of life for Tibetans has been deplorable. Unchecked mining practices have led to environmental degradation often permanently altering landscapes. Massive debris, slag heaps, abandoned mines and slope destabalisation blight the above-ground. Below, the soil is polluted with mining tailings and toxic wastes from materials used in extraction. These have led to mysterious illnesses, birth deformities and decreasing crop-yields around mining areas and, as tailings and toxic wastes leak into waterways, the health hazard to downstream Asia is of growing international concern. Massive wastage is also recorded due to improper extraction methods, outdated technologies and low efficiency in recovery, production and utilisation. In addition to environmental despoliation, social problems have arisen as accelerated mineral extraction fuels a huge influx of Chinese migrant labour, attracted by high wages and subsidies. With a growing road and rail infrastructure opening up Tibet, illegal miners are also drawn to the benefits from random mining exploitation. The result is that in addition to Tibet losing its mineral wealth, mass Chinese settlement jeopardises the Tibetans' quality of life, dilutes their culture and traditions, and leads inevitably to social conflict. 

China's revised mining law of January 1997 focuses more on encouraging foreign investment and further exploration and extraction rather than controlling illegal mining, corruption, hazardous wastes and inefficient mining operations. Sporadic environmental protests by Tibetans are at best ignored; at worst the result is torture and lengthy prison sentences. Foreign investment from multinational companies and international aid agencies is now subsidising what has become the major economic activity in Tibet's industrial sector. Mineral extraction is the main contributor to Tibet's 30% annual economic growth over the past five years. Today China is investing US$1.25 billion in prospecting and developing mineral resources in Tibet's central and western regions alone an area estimated by experts to contain US$81.3 billion in mineral reserves. Official figures certainly downplay the true extent of deposits, but the acceleration or extraction and investments indicate the certainty of mammoth returns. 

Although the major resources are concentrated in Tsaidam Basin, Nagchu, Golok, Chamdo, Chang Thang, Kandze and Lhoka, mineral reserves are distributed throughout the plateau. Tsaidam Basin alone has immense and diverse reserves spread across its 220,000 region an area almost the size of Britain. In addition to high-profile oilfields estimated at 42 billion tons and currently producing up to two million tons annually Tsaidam's natural gas reserves of 1,500 billion cubic meters are to become an important new clean energy source for China. At current consumption levels these reserves would meet China's total needs for seven years and the first phase of a massive pipeline network takes Tsaidam gas from Amdo (Ch:Qinghai) to Gansu's capital Lanzhou in 2001. 

Among some of the world's largest mineral deposits Tibet counts the Norbusa Chromite Mine in U-Tsang (Central Tibet) with its estimated overall value of US$375 - 500 million. Current annual extraction revenues of US$1.5 million are expected to spiral to US$3.75 million from this top quality deposit. Yulong Copper Mine, near Chamdo, holds one of the world's largest copper reserves at over 6.5 million tons and current annual production levels of 20,000 tons bringing in a profit of US$2.5 million are projected to rise to 100,000 tons by 2010. 

The Chinese word for Central Tibet is 'Xizang' meaning "Western Treasure House". China has always called Tibet "The Treasure Bowl Awaiting Development" and by promoting mining as a "pillar industry" to fast-track the plateau's economic development, Beijing is finally succeeding in draining Tibet of its once-dormant mineral resources.



It is a karmic irony that Tibet once governed to the last detail on Buddhist principles of non-violence and which functioned as the natural buffer state between the two Asian giants, India and China is today a storehouse for Chinese nuclear weapons and the site for dumping radioactive waste. 

With the arrival in Lhasa in September 1951 of the People's Liberation Army advance party, the militarisation of Tibet by Mao's China had taken its first step. Now the plateau is a frontline, militaristically, in Beijing's ambitions to dominate Asia and achieve superpower primacy. 

By 1971 the first known nuclear weapon was brought to Tibet and installed at Tsaidam Basin in northern Amdo (Ch:Qinghai). Today the defence arsenal is believed to include 17 top secret radar stations, 14 military airfields 11 of which are now being lengthened for new long-range combat aircraft eight missile bases, at least eight intercontinental ballistic missiles, plus 70-medium range and 20 intermediate-range missiles. 

China's own nuclear programme was partially pioneered on the Tibetan Plateau at the Northwest Nuclear Weapons Research and Design Academy (the "Ninth Academy") 100 kms west of Amdo's capital, Siling (Ch:Xining). The Academy worked on nuclear bomb prototypes from the early 1960s, and the first batch of nuclear weapons produced there were stationed at two nuclear missile deployment and launch sites at Tsaidam Basin by the early 1970s. 

Today China's DF-4 intercontinental ballistic missiles with ranges of 4,000 7,000 kms are stored at the Tsaidam sites. Further DF-4 missiles are deployed 217 kms southeast of Tsaidam at Terlingkha (Ch:Delingha) headquarters of a missile regiment with four launch sites. A fourth new nuclear missile station, located in southern Amdo bordering Sichuan, houses four CSS-4 missiles with ranges of 12,874 kms. 

The 1970s also saw work on a missile base near Nagchuka in the 'TAR' ('Tibet Autonomous Region') where underground complexes now house intermediate and medium-range ballistic missiles at a site which was selected as an alternative to Xinjiang's Lop Nor for possible nuclear testing. Another underground complex close to Lhasa stores ground-to-air and surface-to-surface missiles which are paraded through the capital annually on Chinese Army Day. Further stockpiles of these missiles are kept at Kongpo in southeast 'TAR'. With China rapidly expanding and modernising its defence arsenal, and continuing its programme of nuclear stockpiling, Tibet's strategic value for military deployment and proliferation can only escalate this century. 

However, grassroots concern is concentrated more on evidence that nuclear and other hazardous wastes are being dumped on the plateau. China's official Xinhua News Agency admitted in 1995 that radioactive pollutants had been discharged from the Ninth Academy near the shore of Lake Kokonor in a 20 sq.metre dump. A chemical industry institute in the Academy was established in the late 1970s and experimented with highly enriched uranium fuel. Radioactive wastes, liquid slurry and solid and gaseous wastes have been dumped by the Academy which is located in a watershed draining into the Tsang Chu River which becomes China's Yellow River downstream. Although it was decommissioned in 1987, the Academy is still guarded around-the-clock. 

It is known that China still employs shallow burial techniques for nuclear waste a method now obsolete in the West and remote regions of Tibet are earmarked in Beijing's plans to trade in the profitable recycling of hazardous and toxic wastes from developed nations. Already an abnormal rate of childbirth mortality, birth deformities, unprecedented and mysterious illnesses in humans, and high death rates among animals and fish, are recorded from regions around two nuclear production departments in Amdo. Nomads and villagers around the Ninth Academy also experienced high rates of cancer in children similar to findings post-Hiroshima. 

Similar reports of deformities and mysterious illnesses in humans and animals link to uranium mining which is prevalent in the 'TAR' and Amdo. Contaminated waste water from Tibet's largest uranium mine, near Thewo in southern Amdo, is reported to be released into the local river and victims both human and animal turned blue or blue-black after death. With Asia so heavily dependent upon Tibet for its water, pollutants dumped on the plateau can have massive transnational implications for nations downstream. Deforestation exacerbates the possibility of nuclear-related waste from uranium mines in Tibet entering Asia's waterways; already only 32% of China's river water is rated drinkable. Nuclear proliferation on the Tibetan Plateau has become both drink and food for serious thought.



Environmental human rights law is a concept of the late 20th century a link first established in a UN Declaration in 1972 and further investigated and defined by the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities in a series of four reports to the UN Commission on Human Rights, submitted between 1989 and 1993. These landmark reports established the legal basis and human need for environmental rights and recommended certain rights to be enshrined in international law through a Draft Declaration of Principles on Human Rights and the Environment. 

This chapter focuses on defining how and when environmental violations have been perpetrated in Tibet and analyses their implications through the legal lens of the Draft Declaration. Principles of particular pertinence to Tibet include 5: "...the right of all persons to be free from pollution and all kinds of environmental degradation which may threaten life, health, livelihood, well-being or sustainable development" and 6: "...the grounding of human survival in healthy eco-systems and the maintenance of biological diversity." Topics scrutinised include China's food production and compulsory purchase policies, destruction of agricultural rangelands and controls on nomadism, commercial logging and mining and the despoliation of sacred sites in the name of "development". 

The right to be free from hunger is violated by China's institutionalised agricultural policies. The famine decades of collectivisation and communes have led to today's command economy in which the heavy reliance on state procurement and crippling taxation make farming and herding subsistence occupations. By increasing the commercialisation of rangelands and restricting their movements, China is denying nomads their "right to the sustainable use of nature and natural resources for cultural and spiritual purposes". 

The cultural and spiritual component in deprivation of human rights is particularly applicable to Tibet's abundant sacred sites. Across Tibet today pilgrimage and religious places are being desecrated, polluted and despoiled by Chinese "development" projects. Mining, hydropower schemes and deforestation are irreversibly defiling the plateau's spiritual heritage.

In exploiting the nation's natural resources leading to environmental degradation and pollution China is also denying Tibetans their right to self-determination. "The environmental dimension of the right to self-determination lies at the heart of the economic exploitation that inures to the benefit of the dominating force", states the Declaration's Preamble. Additionally the internationally defined legal rights to freedom of expression, environmental information and participation in decision-making are all denied under China's colonial occupation. The situation is a vicious circle: "Human rights violations lead to environmental degradation and that environmental degradation leads to human rights violation" concludes the Preamble. 


Over the last 15 years we have heard a great deal about the importance of "Global Warming" (the increase in global temperatures due to the accelerated emission of greenhouse gases) but little international attention has been given to its effect on Tibet and that is very surprising since what happens in Tibet will have dramatic repercussions, not only for S.E Asia but for the rest of the world as well. 

Tibet is home to the Hindu Kush Himalayan ice sheet –an area covering over one thousand square kilometres and comprising more than 46 thousand glaciers making it the largest ice reservoir in the world after the north and south poles– which is why it is often called "The Third Pole". Global warming is resulting in a shrinking of the glaciers as the ice is melting much faster than the global average and it is expected that sixty percent of Tibet’s glaciers will have disappeared entirely by 2050.

These are shocking statistics. 

The Permafrost –perennially frozen ground– is also melting at a faster rate than anywhere else on earth and this thawing of both glaciers and permafrost together with changing rainfall patterns is leading to a dramatic alteration in the geography of the country. 

Tibet now has 14 percent more lakes than it did in 1970, and more than 80 percent of existing lakes have expanded, flooding surrounding pastures and rural communities. Ironically, because this flooding is uneven and unpredictable many pre-existing lakes have dried up completely and several large wetland areas have become deserts.Melting permafrost results in soil erosion and mudslides and its effects have already been seen; for example, in 2004 rapid landslides and flooding of the Yi’ong river destroyed highways, bridges and hundreds of Tibetan homes. The impact on the lives of the local communities and the economy of the region has therefore been dramatic. 

It is important to understand that it is not just Tibet that is suffering though. The Tibetan glaciers act as the source for 10 of the largest rivers in Asia supplying fresh water to 1.3 billion people –nearly one third of the world’s population– living in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Mynamar, Cambodia, China, India, Laos, Nepal, Pakistan, Thailand and Vietnam.

As the glaciers melt, these rivers flood, resulting in landslides, soil degradation and erosion, loss of fish stocks and an increase in water borne diseases. These short term effects are serious enough but the longer term effects are more so because as the glaciers disappear and rivers dry up, all the downstream countries will suffer from desertification and drought on an unimaginable scale. 

Equally as worrying in the global context, the melting permafrost is of special concern because the permafrost contains almost twice as much carbon as the atmosphere from all the organic matter frozen within it. As it melts greenhouse gases (Carbon Dioxide and Methane) are released on such a scale that global warming effects are greatly amplified causing even faster permafrost melting. This has been called the "permafrost carbon feedback" and it is, unfortunately, irreversible. 

His Holiness, the Dalai Lama has expressed his own concern about the disappearance of Tibet’s glaciers and has called for special attention to be paid to Tibet’s ecology. While several states in the area are developing strategies to mitigate the impact of the melting Tibetan ice, there are, as yet, no multilateral agreements encompassing all the countries affected. However, the recent agreement between USA and China (the biggest carbon polluters in the world) to reduce carbon emissions, if fully implemented, is a ray of hope and a promising start to the conference of world leaders, planned for December 2015, to finalise a global agreement on carbon reduction. Let us hope that, this time, sense will prevail and our Governments will consider the global environmental needs above their own countries’ economic and political ones.



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