The Scorched Earth

China's Assault on Tibet's Environment

TIBET'S ISOLATION IS LEGENDARY: for centuries the country lay inaccessible between the high wall of the Himalayan mountain range to the south and forbidding deserts on the north. Successive Tibetan leaders discouraged contact with the outside world for fear of disturbing the serenity of this Buddhist state.

A hundred years ago, foreigners attempted to circumvent Tibet's official policy, vying to be the first to reach the country's fabled capital of Lhasa, the "forbidden city." A century later, the race is not for fame, but fortune, as the People's Republic of China (PRC) further exploits its occupation of Tibet by opening the remote region to increased development.

The Chinese government treats Tibet as if it were an endless frontier with limitless raw materials - where old-growth forests can be felled, lakes and rivers dammed and minerals and fossil fuels extracted - principally for the benefit of China. China's assault on Tibet is threatening not only the country's delicately balanced ecosystems, but the survival of Tibetans and millions of people throughout Asia.

The impact of Chinese occupation

Mao's Red Army first invaded eastern Tibet in 1949, reasserting an outdated territorial claim based on a thirteenth century arrangement of political convenience between Tibetan rulers and the Mongol conquerors of China. The country had been free of Chinese influence for decades, having expelled the last of China's representatives from Lhasa early in the century. For almost 40 years, Tibet had remained independent, establishing bilateral relations with many of its Himalayan neighbors as well as with foreign governments further afield. In 1959, China's increasing encroachment on Tibetan sovereignty forced the fourteenth Dalai Lama, the political and spiritual leader of 6.2 million Tibetans, to flee the country.

 The PRC has always claimed that the "peaceful liberation" of Tibet was for the benefit of Tibetans and that their lives would improve as a result of Chinese occupation. Tibetans, however, have little to show for their "liberation." Tibet has one of the lowest standards of living in the world, ranking 153 out of the 160 nations evaluated in the United Nations Development Program's human development index. The PRC's systematic violation of Tibetan human and democratic rights has been reported by numerous human rights organizations and Tibet solidarity groups.

 Tibet has maintained a Buddhist culture since the seventh century, integrating the religious and the secular throughout society. Historically, both Buddhist doctrine and the Tibetan government promoted environmental protection through religious teachings, as well as by formal edicts called Tsatsigs. These directives forbade the taking of animal life (wolves and hyenas excepted), the pollution of water sources, the unnecessary disruption of soil or the overcutting of forests. "Overexploitation of natural resources and hunting were prohibited both by government decree as well as by social stigma," writes Tenzin Palber, a Tibetan lama originally from Amdo in eastern Tibet, in May/June 1990's Tibetan Bulletin.

 To China, Tibet with its wealth of resources has long represented a valuable, unexploited western treasure house. The PRC's occupation of Tibet has provided the Chinese government the opportunity to plunder this natural bounty.

 The Tibetan Plateau, which includes all but the easternmost reaches of traditional Tibetan territory, is the world's highest and most extensive landform. With an average altitude of 4,000 meters (13,000 feet), it has a primarily arid climate. Historical Tibet covers 2.47 million square kilometers, encompassing the central provinces of U and Tsang, along with Amdo to the northeast and Kham to the southeast. China has divided this occupied territory among its western provinces of Qinqhai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan, recognizing only 1.2 million square kilometers as "Tibet," known in China as the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).

Many of the world's highest mountains border Tibet, and seven of Asia's major rivers originate on the Plateau - China's Yellow and Yangtze, the Indian subcontinent's Arun, Brahmaputra and Indus, and the Salween and Mekong of Southeast Asia - eventually flowing throughout much of Asia and providing sustenance for an estimated 47 percent of the continent's population downstream.

Spread across the isolated tableland, much of it frozen for months, are deposits of dozens of valuable minerals; oil, coal and natural gas reserves; thousands of plant species (25 percent of which are found only in Tibet); and a variety of native wildlife, much of which exists nowhere else in the world or is limited to the Himalayan region.

The exiled Tibetan government detailed the exploitation of Tibet's natural resources in "Tibet: Environment and Development 1992," a report prepared for the United Nations Earth Summit in June 1992. The report is the first comprehensive, in- depth study of the impact of China's environmental and economic development policies on Tibet.

The report, compiled from Chinese and international sources, as well as from interviews with Tibetans in their country and in exile, is a distressing litany of environmental neglect and abuse. "China's occupation of Tibet," it asserts, "is a classic example of colonialism. The basic intent of Tibet's ędevelopment' is to support the Chinese population in Tibet, provide raw materials and products for China's industries and income for China's profits."

 Rinchen Dharlo, the Dalai Lama's North American representative at the Office of Tibet in New York City, expresses hope that the Tibetan national report will "convince the Chinese authorities to reverse their disastrous environmental policies in Tibet." That seems unlikely, however. Although the Embassy of the PRC declined to answer specific questions from Multinational Monitor about the report, shortly after its release in June, Wu Jianmin, a Beijing Foreign Ministry official, said that the report was "not worth commenting on," calling it "full of distortions of the real situation in Tibet."

 The report says that since 1949, China has cut 40 percent of Tibet's estimated 221,800 square kilometers of southeastern old growth, tropical and subtropical montane forests, consisting of spruce, fir, pine, larch, cypress, birch and oak. The Chinese clear-cut most of these trees from old-growth forests more than 200 years old. Official Chinese documents indicate that between 1959 and 1985, $54 billion worth of timber was shipped east to China or used for the PRC's purposes in Tibet. Although the PRC claims to be conducting extensive and successful reforestation projects, the Tibetan report asserts that, "reforestation and afforestation have been minimal."

Both Tibetans and foreigners have observed the disappearance of wildlife native to Tibet. The first Western visitors to the country frequently commented on the extent and variety of Tibetan wildlife. Some of this wildlife, such as the wild yak, snow leopard, black-necked crane, Tibetan antelope and Tibetan gazelle, is unique to Tibet or the Himalayan region. A wide range of habitats harbor an estimated 10,000 species of plants, a quarter of which are native only to Tibet. Many are of potential economic value, including 1,000 species of medicinal herbs.

 In keeping with Buddhist tradition, little of Tibet's wildlife population was exploited by native hunters. Over the last 40 years, however, Chinese soldiers and settlers, as well as economically deprived Tibetans, have intensively hunted much of Tibet's wildlife to supply China's extensive market with meat and animal products. In addition to supplying routine demands by Chinese settlers in Tibet, hunters target some of the more exotic species for export - blue sheep for the German meat market and Tibetan antelope for their wool. China continues to offer some of Tibet's more spectacular wildlife, such as the argali sheep, to foreign trophy hunters, in spite of international efforts to protect these species. According to data compiled by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, 30 of Tibet's 500 bird and 188 of its animal species are rare or endangered.

 In the last decade, China has set aside 20 protected areas for Tibetan wilderness and wildlife, totaling more than 296,000 square kilometers, or 12 percent of historical Tibetan territory. However, Tibetans and foreign environmentalists are concerned that some of these areas may be mere "paper parks" - protected in name, but lacking any comprehensive planning or adequate regulatory control or enforcement. They are also wary of any protection plans that do not allow for traditional land uses by local people.

 Much of the Tibetan Plateau consists of an extensive high-altitude grassland, known as the Chang Tang. The area has historically been sparsely inhabited, principally by hardy Tibetan nomads who tend herds of yak, goat and sheep. These nomads traditionally managed their range with a sophisticated system of "pasture books" that indicated which areas could be used, when and for how long they must lie fallow.

 Over the four decades since the Chinese invasion, range conditions in some parts of the Chang Tang have deteriorated dramatically. While Chinese officials claim that the decline is the result of the nomads' tendency to overstock pastures, the Tibetan report attributes the degradation to increased demand for meat by the Chinese, as well as to China's resettlement policies in Tibet which have caused expanding desertification and forced nomads out of traditional grazing areas and onto more marginal lands.

 Similar population pressures are also affecting Tibet's scarce agricultural land, according to the report. The settlement of Chinese immigrants in Tibetan towns and in the best of Tibet's few agricultural areas has displaced Tibetan farmers and forced them to cultivate less productive land.

China's mining operations are placing new pressures on Tibet's ecosystem as well. Tibetans traditionally refrained from extensive mining for fear of "diminishing the strength of the land," according to Tenzin Atisha, deputy secretary of the Tibetan government-in- exile's environment desk, but the occupying Chinese have no such compunctions.

 Qinghai province, China's "Wild West," is the country's sixth-largest gold- producing region. Most mining in the province takes place in areas of former Tibetan territory near the origins of the Yellow and Yangtze rivers. The mineral wealth has created a regional gold rush that has brought an estimated 80,000 prospectors into the area. The PRC is attempting to double the province's gold production by 1995.

 The Tibetan report states that only 20 percent of China's mines have satisfactory safety records and says that environmental safeguards at mines in Tibet "are virtually non- existent," potentially leading to ground and surface water contamination by heavy metals, slope destabilization, river siltation and habitat destruction.

 Persistent reports and rumors of nuclear activities and waste dumping in Tibet prompted the Dalai Lama's government to observe in the national report that China's nuclear waste "is suspected to be stored at several places in Amdo province" and near another nuclear facility close to the town of Nyakchuka in central Tibet.

 While there is no direct evidence of China storing nuclear materials in Tibet, the PRC did offer to accept nuclear waste from foreign countries for storage in China and Tibet during the 1980s. The Chinese government insisted the proposal was only preliminary, and has never disclosed a specific disposal location. It is still unclear whether any of the nations approached by China, including Germany, Switzerland and France, have taken up the offer. China has also invited foreign companies to ship toxic waste to Tibet and has conducted chemical weapons exercises on the Plateau.

 The PRC continues to insist that environmental conditions on the Tibetan Plateau are among the best in the world and specifically denies that any nuclear waste dumping is taking place, calling the exiled Tibetan government's assertion "purely fabricated rumor."

International consequences

Continued despoilation of the Plateau environment has potentially far-reaching transboundary impacts. "The degradation of Tibet is not just a Tibetan issue, it has become an Asian issue," says Sanjeev Prakash, an Indian research consultant on the Tibetan national report.

 Ninety percent of Tibet's river runoff flows downstream to much of the rest of Asia. Several of the major rivers that originate in Tibet, including the Brahmaputra, Yellow and Yangtze, are among the most heavily silted in the world. Deforestation and subsequent soil erosion in eastern Tibet exacerbate this natural condition, contributing to downstream flooding. The frequency of floods on all three of these rivers increased in the 1980s, according to the national report, as a result of rising sedimentation levels from sources in eastern Tibet.

 Just as the Plateau serves as an Asian watershed, it is also an "airshed" for much of the continent to the south and east. The northern jetstreams flowing over the high Plateau determine the timing and force of the seasonal South Asian monsoon in India and Southeast Asia. Atmospheric scientists have theorized that deforestation on the Plateau could delay and weaken the summer monsoon, endangering the livelihoods of millions of farmers in Asia who depend on these rains, and could affect weather patterns as far away as the mid-Pacific. The report notes that, "the degradation of the Tibetan Plateau ... may have crucial transnational impacts on weather phenomena, like the Indian monsoon."

Planning for Tibet's future

 The greatest threat to Tibet's environment, and to the Tibetan national identity, may arise not from present projects so much as from future development plans. Tibetans consider the population transfer of Chinese to Tibet to be a dire threat that has made the Tibetan people an "endangered species," according to Atisha. Since 1949, 7.6 million Chinese, including an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 People's Liberation Army troops, have been relocated to Tibet. They outnumber the six million Tibetans and are overstressing the carrying capacity of the Plateau.

 The Tibetan government believes that Chinese social, infrastructural and resource development programs initiated in Tibet in the 1980s have primarily benefited China's economy, since they have been established mostly in urban areas where there are majority Chinese populations. Tempa Tsering, general secretary of the Dalai Lama's Department of Information and International Relations, warns, "From our experience, these projects do not help. What actually happens is that they assist the settlement of even more Chinese, which is worse, not better, for the ecology of Tibet."

 In May 1992, the PRC announced plans to create a "special economic zone" in Central Tibet to attract foreign industry and investment through "preferential policies," including tax breaks and low costs for land use. Chinese officials say that the goal of development is to raise living standards and modernize industry in the TAR. However, John Ackerly, director of the Washington, D.C.-based International Campaign for Tibet, says, "The biggest threat to Tibet could be Chinese-style capitalism, if Tibetans are not in control of decision-making" on economic, environmental and development projects.

 For the time being, the development of Tibet's resources and the protection of its environment remain beyond the control of most Tibetans who are not Communist Party members. This exclusion, however, has not prevented Tibetans inside the country and in exile from developing plans for the future of Tibet.

 In 1987, the Dalai Lama announced a "five-point peace plan" for Tibet. The proposal calls for the abandonment of China's population transfer policy in Tibet; the protection of Tibetans' human and democratic rights; the restoration and protection of Tibet's environment and the prohibition of any nuclear activities; the conversion of the entire country into a zone of Ahimsa, or non-harm; and the initiation of negotiations with China to resolve the status of Tibet.

 The efforts of the Tibetan government-in-exile and international environmental and Tibet solidarity groups to address environment and development problems in Tibet are coming none too soon. While the five-point peace plan and other attempts at rapprochement with China have elicited little response so far, reports of recent meetings between the Dalai Lama's government and the PRC suggest that China's "bamboo curtain" is opening a crack.

 If Chinese efforts to exploit the Tibetan environment continue to accelerate, however, the end result may be the irreversible impoverishment of Tibet's ecological and cultural diversity, causing the curtain to fall for the last time on yet another of the world's irreplaceable ecosystems and peoples.



Draining the Turquoise Lake

CONSTRUCTION OF THE largest hydropower station to date in Tibet, a pumped-storage project at Yamdrok Yumtso, the "Turquoise Lake" north of the Tsangpo river, is continuing despite protests by local Tibetans that the project will destroy the lake's ecological balance. China plans to invest $140 million in the project, begun in 1991. The power station will have an initial generating capacity of 90 megawatts, capable of supplying the nearby capital of Lhasa with 200 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year. The project is expected to go online by 1995, and reach full capacity by 2000. According to the Tibetan national report, over the last two years, anonymous sources within Tibet have reported that the governments of Norway, Germany and Italy have considered supporting the project.

 Tibetans assert that the Chinese government has not performed an adequate environmental assessment of the project, although the PRC claims that the environmental impacts were thoroughly reviewed before construction began. Critics of the project are concerned that the hydro project threatens the lake's ecology and the habitat of local wildlife, as well as the lives of the area's nomads who also use the lake, with increased water turbidity, hydrological changes and a decrease in the lake's water level. Tibetans delivered more than 13,000 international signatures on petitions protesting the Yamdrok Yumtso project to the Chinese delegation at the Rio Earth Summit in June.

The Yamdrok Yumtso project may pose an even greater threat to the more extensive regional environment and to Tibetan residents, since the increased power potential is expected to make industrial development, pollution and the settlement of additional Chinese immigrants more likely in Lhasa. Tibetans are also opposed to the project because it threatens the special religious significance of Yamdrok Yumtso, considered a "life- power lake" by Buddhists. The project, says the Tibetan government-in-exile, "will not provide long-term sustainability or environmental security."n

- J.L.