Tibet’s environment under threat as crackdown continues

Thirteen months ago the world watched in horror as the Chinese authorities launched a brutal crackdown on Tibetan dissidents protesting against the occupation of their country. At least 120 were killed when soldiers opened fire on protests in the capital Lhasa and elsewhere. Thousands were injured or arrested. The Olympic Games may have briefly focussed our attention on the plight of Tibet – despite the best efforts of the Chinese – but the media’s gaze, predictably, has long since shifted. Tibet is no longer on our screens.

But for those left behind, the legacy remains. As many as six thousand Tibetans were rounded up during the uprising, the fate of almost a thousand remains unknown. Among those detained were activists, film-makers and outspoken religious leaders. Tibet is one of the most dangerous places in the world for any sort of dissent.

Since Chinese tanks rolled into Tibet in 1950, freedom of speech, information, religion and assembly have all been controversially curtailed, and Tibetan customs, culture and language steadily marginalised – largely due to Beijing encouraging millions of ethnic Chinese to settle in the area.

Less well known, Tibet’s environment has also suffered. Decades of Chinese-sanctioned logging have led to deforestation on a massive scale, with less than half of the country’s forests remaining. In some areas more than 80% of the original forest has been decimated, resulting in soil erosion and flooding, in turn causing landslides and damaging farmland.

Ill-planned industrial development, including hydro-electric projects and dams, have further degraded land and water supplies – in one controversial case, construction of a power station at Ymdrok Tso lake south of Lhasa was blamed for drying up fresh water supplies, forcing local people to drink from the lake and resulting in a host of negative health impacts.

Intensive agricultural practices have also taken their toll – overgrazing has contributed to desertification, and the use of pesticides and insecticides has been linked to land degradation and loss of important plant species.

Tibet is home to rare and enigmatic species such as the lynx, snow leopard, black bear, gazelle, wild yak, Tibetan antelope and giant panda, but trophy hunting previously encouraged by the Chinese has been blamed for seriously depleting wildlife populations.

The biggest threat currently facing Tibet’s environment are large scale mining operations – for chromium, salt, coal, oil, gold, uranium, copper and zinc, amongst others. Mining is linked to a host of serious environmental and social ills yet China is embarking on an unprecedented programme of mineral extraction.

In some cases entire communities face being uprooted to make way for mines and other industrial developments. Tibetan nomads – traditional custodians of Tibetan wilderness – are among those who’ve frequently found themselves in the way. Since 2000, some 900,000 have been forcibly relocated – unsurprisingly they are now some of the regime’s most vocal opponents.

Runggye Adak, a 55 year-old father of eleven from eastern Tibet, was condemned to eight years in prison in November 2007 after publicly calling for the return of the Dalai Lama at a horse racing festival. His nephew, Adak Lopoe – along with two other men – was also detained following the dissenting speech and jailed for ten years for “colluding with foreign separatist forces to split the country and distributing political pamphlets.” Lopoe, a senior monk at Lithang monastery, is a well known critic of logging, deforestation and wildlife hunting, and a champion for education.

Monks arrested following last year’s uprising have testified that scores of nomads were among those crammed into notorious Chinese detention centres, rounded up for protesting against the increasing encroachment of their lands and environment. Months afterwards, many are still believed to be detained.

Film-makers attempting to report the reality of life inside Tibet have faced a similar fate. Dhondup Wangchen – a Tibetan nomad – and colleague Jigme Gyatso were arrested in March 2008 for producing a documentary enabling ordinary Tibetans to express views on the Olympics and Chinese rule. Gyatso, recently released “on probation”, has testified he was beaten continuously whilst in detention, hung by his feet for hours at a time, and tied to an interrogation chair for lengthy periods.

Wangchen continues to be detained, his whereabouts remain unknown. Sources have indicated he too has been tortured – like so many others. The London-based Free Tibet pressure group recently published a shocking dossier alleging the widespread use of torture against dissident Tibetan prisoners. Many of those tortured have been seriously injured, others have died.

Despite similar conclusions being drawn by the UN, the world seems happy to ignore such abuses.
The British Government – who hosted the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao in February – has been strangely muted over the plight of Tibet. A recent Government policy document on China skirted more difficult issues raised by the use of torture, and stopped far short of calling for an end to the arrest and detention without trial of political prisoners. Britain, it appears, is happy for a simple ‘reduction’ in such detentions.

Sanctions – such as those imposed on Burma – may not be an option given China’s growing influence and economic standing, but the international community has a duty to put the Tibetan issue at the very heart of its dealings with the Asian superpower. As Free Tibet point out, China is now the “workshop of the world” and desperately needs healthy relations and strong economies in order to thrive. That need provides the outside world with unique leverage that should – and must – be capitalised on.

We urgently need to lobby those in positions of influence – including ministers, the media and relevant businesses – to take up the Tibetan’s cause and support the charities and campaigns pressing for change. The ongoing silence and “turn the other way” attitude is allowing rampant human rights abuses to continue largely unchallenged, and risks the further decimation of Tibet’s natural resources and unique environment.

Visit www.freetibet.org to find out how you can support the people and environment of Tibet.

A version of this report first appeared in The Ecologist magazine www.theecologist.org