Naming the key environmental issues in Tibet: a reflective blog on categories we use.
What would you say are the key environmental issues in Tibet?
Many say rivers: Chinese dams threatening huge populations downstream. Many would say railways that cut the earth, cause erosion and interfere with the annual migrations of wildlife. Many would say climate change, as the Tibetan Plateau gets drier, permafrost melts, and desertification creeps across Amdo. Many say nuclear dumping, although China’s nuclear activities in Tibet ceased some time ago. People used to say the cutting of the great forests of Kham, until that also stopped in 1998. Let’s call this list A.
Not many people, by comparison, would say the mass removal of nomads from their pastures is an environmental issue, even if China calls the displaced ex-nomads “ecological migrants.” Nor would many people list land degradation, or China’s concentration of investment in urban centres, transport networks and extraction zones, as a key environmental issue. Even fewer people would see any linkage between the Tibetans who burn themselves in protest, and environmental concerns. Few people would mention that the human population of the Tibetan Plateau is double its historic limit, way beyond its sustainable carrying capacity. Let’s call these list B.
Gyalwa Rinpoche, the Dalai Lama, has long urged us all to emphasise more strongly and effectively the environmental problems of Tibet. Many Tibetans have tried to do this, in NGOs and in the Environment & Development Desk of the Central Tibetan Administration. But somehow the world cannot quite imagine the problem. So maybe this is a good time to reconsider how we tell the Tibet environment story to the world, how a new generation might tell the Tibetan story more effectively.
What we have done until now is stick to list A. This can achieve a lot, but it has its limits. List A works well in India, since Indian audiences, fearful and mistrusting of China, readily see Chinese dams and missiles in Tibet as a threat. The biggest drawback of list A is that it is confined to specific, observable impacts of Chinese policies that can be measured scientifically, and which contravene recognised laws and treaties. We can argue that China is breaching its own Constitution, or environmental laws, or treaties on trafficking endangered species, or biodiversity.
But China’s impacts go much deeper than this, after six decades of Chinese rule. China has reoriented Tibet to face east, not south towards India. China has transformed land use all over Tibet, from productive mobile pastoralism to urban enclaves of resource extraction and mass tourism. China has repurposed Tibet, from a local, barter economy to a cash economy reliant on external subsidies, in which urban immigrants prosper, while rural Tibetans remain poor, and with little access to good education or health care. Tibet has switched from extensive land use, lightly grazing all grassy areas in rotation, to intensive land use, with people, money and technology concentrated in small areas where minerals, energy and urban life can be concentrated. This is a fundamental transformation, which defies the basic nature of Tibet. It is unsustainable, and is the direct cause of the land degradation that is ruining Tibet.
These are confronting challenges, requiring fresh approaches. The previous three blogs were an attempt to sum up the environmental challenges facing Tibet, for an audience of young Tibetan Australians learning the complexities of a phayul homeland they have had little chance of seeing.
Rather than sticking to the usual list of Chinese insults to the integrity of Tibetan nature, that series of three blogs was an experiment, in two ways. First, each of the seven issues was described both as problem and as solution, rather than the more usual approach of cataloguing China’s mistakes, as if someone else is somehow standing by, ready to take up these issues and remedy them.
The second experimental aspect was in the naming of the seven issues, a deliberate blending of lists A and B, a combination of the usual scientific categories with a more Tibetan way of seeing. The uncommonly inclusive list:
- Exclusion of drogpa nomads from their pastures
- Damming Tibetan rivers
- Global climate change
- Poverty, inequality, land insecurity, food insecurity
- Sacred sites and pilgrimage circuits
- Wildlife conservation and biodiversity
This is a somewhat fresh way of looking at environment, not in a narrowly scientific way. All of these problems have human causes, and result in human impacts, as well as impacts on the environment. Modernity separates humans from the environment, as fundamentally different categories, but that is not how Tibetans think. Land degradation and poverty are results of policy mistakes that only worsen the environment further.
Science or spaciousness?
List B opens up much broader issues. List B also gives us opportunity to do more than endlessly list every mistake made by China, and then stop, as if someone else was going to take up the long list of complaints and do something effective to protect Tibet. The world doesn’t work like that; there is no global environmental governance. List B is an opportunity to say the problem is Tibet as a whole, not just specific impacts caused by dams or nukes or logging; it is also opportunity to propose constructive solutions which will eventually win over China’s leaders. List B is more than specific complaints, it is a way of showing the world how to look at Tibet through Tibetan eyes, how to take seriously the issues that cause Tibetans to grieve the most, even to burn themselves. List B is a starting point to talk of Tibet and the Tibetans as a whole, as a natural entity, a unique plateau with unique characteristics, special strengths and limitations that Tibetans have long understood and respected, which China has failed to understand or even consider.
List B is a starting point that allows us to talk of Tibet as a body, the body of the Sri Sinmo, the earth spirit and mother of all Tibetans, who lives in the earth and, if annoyed, causes earthquakes, landslides and other disasters. Tibetans learned 9000 years ago how to live on this land of earthquakes, a young land geologically, by living lightly, by mobile land use, always moving on before grazing pressure exhausted the grass. A mobile civilisation, with elaborate mobile courts of high lamas, is something to celebrate. It is a way of reframing the whole environmental debate, defining the terms of debate, rather than restricting ourselves to recognised international legal concepts of emissions, sequestration, protected areas, dam safety, etc. List B is an opening to showing the world how Tibetans see Tibet, the land of snows, as a unity, to be respected and cared for, not over-used by concentrating too many people or too much investment, in one place.
Tibetan civilisation was light on the land; China is heavy. A light touch is suitable for a land so cold that organic life takes centuries to establish itself, and does not recover when cut for railways, highways, mines, towns etc. China is creating a manufactured landscape, remaking Tibet in its own industrial image, and it won’t work. It may take a long time before this is realised. By then, it will be too late, the damage will be irreversible, the nomads will have been long removed, the land depopulated, the Tibetans remade into factory workers, migrant minorities in Chinese cities. Only then will it become obvious that the modern project of making the land of Tibet submit to human will was mistaken, unworkable, even disastrous. That’s what happened in Siberia.
But why bring Sri Sinmo into this? Tibetans of a new generation have barely heard of her, and may be somewhat embarrassed to invoke such a “primitive” ancestral spirit. Yet her limbs remain pinned down by the greatest of Tibetan temples, and rituals to renew their power to subdue (but never destroy) her are led by high lamas. Why rake up a half forgotten past, in this scientific age? The reason is that Tibet is a body, a geo-body, a coherent whole, a plateau thrust into the sky, a land surrounded by mountains, and Tibetans have always understood this. China cannot bring itself to accept, even for scientific purposes, that the plateau is one. Officially, it is the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau or QTP. Officially, Tibet is fragmented, and not a whole.
Who will speak for the wholeness of Tibet, if not Tibetans? Inside Tibet, the anger of the earth spirits at mining, railway construction, tunnelling and dam building, is obvious to all. No one is embarrassed to speak of this. Some even willingly die to protect and defend the gods of the high peaks, the spirits of the pure earth, the goddesses of the lakes. This is not Shangri-la romanticism; it is the voice of the land.
Lists A and B have their place in this wider picture, instances of the modernist assault on the integrity and viability of the entire Tibetan Plateau. China’s dams, railways, nuclear weapons laboratories, clearfelled forests and nomad displacement are all examples of a wrong-headed agenda to industrialise a land not suited to the ideology of productivism. But do we need to invoke those spirits? If we want Tibet to find its voice, to ground the debate in the ways Tibetans understand their land, yes, it helps if the preBuddhist and Buddhist connections between humans, animals and land are our starting point. In future, let’s debate environment in Tibet, on Tibetan terms.