Tibetans have a genius for timing, for seizing the moment when it arrives. Such moments are rare, even more so these days in a world distracted by each rich nation’s internal problems, deficits, austerity programs and precarious economies.

Yet there is a highly professional band of Tibetans and proTibetan organisations who never give up, and keep lobbying the politicians of the western world, and also top officials of foreign ministries and official aid agencies, in the hope of achieving something for Tibet.

In recent months, thanks to the  good connections maintained by Offices of Tibet, International campaign for Tibet, Tibet Society and Australia Tibet Council, I have had opportunity to meet politicians and senior foreign policy officials, in the British Parliament, the European Parliament and Commission, and the Australian Parliament.

In each case I have tried to pitch fresh ways of looking at Tibet, of understanding what is going on, in a fast changing area no longer remote or separate from the global economy. Each time I have provided the politicians and officials with briefings, including recommendations on practical steps they can take, that would improve Tibetan livelihoods, strengthen the traditional Tibetan economy, and give silenced and choiceless Tibetans ways to organise themselves, in pasture user groups, for example. These are all modest proposals, but doable, at a time when China increasingly gets what it demands, because no one is willing to speak up.

These are new ideas, which sometimes don’t get much response, such as when you discover that an EU official responsible for negotiating with China on environmental issues, in practice is interested only in selling European environmental equipment into the Chinese market, and neither knows nor cares about Tibet.

But, as the Dalai Lama has often reminded us, never give up, you never know when those seeds might germinate, when the right moment might come. Those loyal, highly professional staffers and lobbyists of the Offices of Tibet, ICT, ATC, Tibet Society and others, just keep showing up, keep asking that the world pay attention to a nonviolent campaign that will never die or magically go away, until the Tibetans have the cultural autonomy they need.

This short series of blogposts gives you a look, over the shoulder, of those pitches to the politicians, those folks who instinctively think like a state. We too need to learn to think like a state, in this age of competitive, exclusive states that care for little beyond national interest. So you could also read these briefings as an exercise in learning how to adopt the discourse of state language, for Tibet.




UK Parliamentary Group on Tibet, Foreign &Commonwealth Office BRIEFING



Tibetans applaud the UK for establishing a consulate in Chongqing, as did the US some years ago by establishing a Chengdu consulate, both well located as listening posts for what is happening further west.

The commercial case for the Chongqing consulate has been compelling, especially if, in an economic sense, one considers Chongqing and Chengdu together as the megalopolis of western China, a new hub of the world’s factory, already exporting hi-tech manufactures overland by rail, effectively reinventing the old silk route, and shortening delivery times dramatically, compared to sea shipping. Hewlett Packard computers now make the journey from Chongqing to Rotterdam in sealed containers on flatbed rail trucks that can be swiftly interchanged as rail gauges change at international borders on the long but smooth journey to the European logistics hub in Rotterdam. This is the way of the future, and UK businesses understand the importance of having a presence in the Chengdu-Chongqing hub, backed by a British consular presence.

Thus far, this is a straightforward story of globalisation and the benefits of trade. But the story starts, not in Chongqing but in the raw materials the Chongqing requires, to make the elaborately transformed manufactures that end up in Rotterdam, and into our lives, as our next smartphone or tablet.

Chongqing/Chengdu’s location far inland has many consequences. There are compelling reasons why central leaders excised Chongqing from Sichuan decades ago and brought under direct control from Beijing, in order to fast track its growth, as the city at the top end of the Three Gorges Dam lake, ideally positioned to prosper by sending its goods downriver and straight out into the global shipping lanes. It didn’t work out that way: Yangtze shipping remains small scale, and instead the direct rail route, only recently built, has supplanted the ocean, for the first time in 500 years, as the link between one end of Eurasia and the other.

Until now, China’s insatiable demand for raw materials, both minerals and energy, has also been heavily reliant on imports brought by ship to coastal manufacturing hubs. The inland shift, while attractive as a strategy for keeping down labour costs, cannot rely on getting Middle East oil or Brazilian iron ore up the Yangtze to Chongqing, still less to Chengdu. Instead local sourcing of both energy and minerals is necessary for the success of the Chongqing/Chengdu success story.

A major source of both minerals and energy for western (and eastern) China will very soon be the Tibetan Plateau. If one compiles a list of all the hydropower dams built or about to be built on the major rivers rushing down from the plateau uplands; and the belt of copper/gold/silver mines with extractable reserves of as much as 80 million tonnes of copper; plus the Tibetan salt lake lithium, potash, magnesium and sodium deposits; and many other mines; a picture emerges of Tibet as a major source of the Chongqing boom. If one then adds the waters of Tibet, urgently needed for parched northern China, we see the Tibetan Plateau fast shaping up as the source of the next wave of China’s prosperity.

This adds a whole new dimension to our framing of the Tibetan question, and it puts in fresh perspective issues we are used to seeing solely in a human rights framework. Take, for instance, the ongoing wave of protest suicides by Tibetans, a total sacrifice of the self to galvanise attention to not only repression of culture but also mining. The protests by Tibetans against mining have been frequent, and invariably criminalised by authorities, and violently repressed. A map of where the mines are, where the protests and self-immolations are, shows great overlap.

But, right now, the mining is still on a modest scale. However, world-scale copper/gold/silver/molybdenum mines will very soon be in full production near Shigatse, the second city of central Tibet, at Gyama just upriver of Lhasa; and in a cluster of mines around Yulong in eastern Tibet, above the headwaters of the Yangtze and Mekong. All are on or close to major rivers, and on steep slopes that make very difficult the secure containment of toxic waste tailings, which will be needed for centuries after the mines are exhausted, lest heavy metals get into Asia’s major rivers, creating a trans boundary crisis.

Also firmly on the official agenda of China’s 13th and 14th Five Year Plans, for 2016-2025, is the construction, through the mountains of eastern Tibet, of a massive canal to divert waters from the Tibetan upper tributaries of the Yangtze, across to the upper Yellow River, all at high altitude, on the Tibetan Plateau. This too will have major impacts.

A further consideration is the extraordinary increase in hydropower, and the transmission of electricity generated on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, not only upriver to the new mines and smelters, and downriver to Chongqing; but also much farther downstream, all the way across China to Shanghai and Guangzhou. In fact the ultra-high voltage power lines (a major user of copper) are already in place, built by Siemens.

This integrated, multi-decade infrastructure construction program has the full backing of the state and is about to come to fruition,  realising at last China’s long held dream that it will makes its fortune from Tibet, the western treasure house, or Xizang.

Tibetans understandably see the constant encroachment into their sacred mountains, pilgrimage routes and productive pastures as theft, and despoliation. All of these infrastructure projects are for the benefit of industries far away in the lowlands. All are capital-intensive and use construction technologies all based on a construction workforce skilled in such work, all literate in Chinese as the language of project implementation. Tibetans seldom get any employment, except as casual unskilled labourers at best. Remote areas hitherto distant from urban centres of Chinese power suddenly swarm with Chinese construction crews and technologies.

The many protests of recent years will persist, and probably intensify as the encroachments escalate. Inevitably, the British consulate in Chongqing, likewise the US consulate in Chengdu will find themselves having to deal with the many consequences of China’s routine resort to coercion and violence to quell those Tibetan protests.

A proactive response to this clearly discernible trend of worsening relations between Tibetans and lowland Chinese, is for Britain to foster an export market in British expertise in participatory resource management, community-based co-management of land and minerals. Britain is rich in such expertise. London-listed mining multinationals have learned to do what it takes to foster good relations with local host communities, and promote their standards worldwide.

Tibet is now part of the global economy, in a way not seen since the Tibet-Kalimpong-Calcutta-Halifax wool export trade was interrupted by war close to a century ago. At that time, the UK had diplomatic posts along the trade route, in Tibet.

The wheel turns. The globalisation of Tibet creates a complete commodity value chain, which starts in the mining of a remote mountain in Tibet, and ends up as a lithium-ion battery in the smartphone in your pocket. Tibetans, and their supporters worldwide, are well aware of this, and the UK can consider the ramifications.

Briefing provided by:

Gabriel Lafitte

+61407840333 (Australia)



Briefing for Mr Nicholas Hanley,

Head of International Relations Unit of the European
Commission’s Directorate General on Environment

29 October 2013


It is increasingly often said that, despite China’s intense desire to be accepted as a global player and major power, its policy settings seldom give effect to such a mature role.

China’s environmental performance continues to fall far short of its rhetoric. China promises greater energy and resource efficiency, yet coal consumption in the current Five Year Plan 2011-205 rises from 3 billion tonnes to 3.8 billion tonnes. China refuses to accept any global climate change treaty, which imposes emissions quotas on it, demanding instead exemption from mandatory carbon emission reduction amounts, on the grounds that historically Europe started emitting extra carbon centuries ago. This effectively negates Europe’s efforts to reduce emissions.

China in the Tibetan environment

When it comes to Tibet, the gap between the official narrative and ground truth is especially discordant. On paper it appears that a huge area of the Tibetan Plateau has been declared as nature reserve or protected area, in which mineral extraction is absolutely banned, and often local populations are also excluded, on the grounds of watershed preservation, grassland growth, carbon sequestration and climate mitigation.

In reality, according to the reports not only of local Tibetan communities but also high profile international visitors, and academic researchers, mining continues to expand in nominally protected areas, even though it is technically illegal. In practice such mining is sometimes quite intensive, and often conducted by the same local levels of government that technically are responsible for compliance with national environmental law. As awareness of China’s laws gradually spreads through Tibetan communities, this leads to great frustration that there is no-one who can be petitioned. Protests are met with coercion and state violence, as if all protests against mineral extraction are a threat to the very existence of China.

China now has a plausible story of how it is contributing to global climate change mitigation by imposing grazing bans, which depopulate the Tibetan countryside, undermine food security in Tibet, negate traditional pastoral economies, and  reduce the displaced nomads to utter dependence on state aid, in the name of the best of globally agreed environmental goals. It would seem, in China’s argument, that it is a scientifically objective necessity that the nomads cease their customary livestock production because the rangelands cared for by the Tibetans for 9000 years are now badly degraded. China argues that the displaced ex-nomads are all voluntary “ecological migrants” who have chosen to sacrifice their herding life for semiurban dependence on the state, because they understand this as a contribution to saving China’s rivers and the planet’s carbon.

This plausible discourse is in much need of independent evaluation, not only by technical experts focussing on narrow elements of implementation but also by social scientists capable of looking at policy results, perverse unintended outcomes, and transboundary impacts of the new, intensive extraction economy on far downstream communities below the Tibetan Plateau.


Potential EU roles

What is badly needed is fresh, evidence-based monitoring of how China’s national policies are actually implemented, across a plateau the size of Western Europe. Implementation varies greatly. Policies which  at first glance appear entirely beneficial, to reforest or reseed degraded lands and pastures, actually  exclude human populations and fail to create pasture user groups to work collaboratively with the pastoralists. China says “Tibet is China’s Number One Water Tower,” but this reframes the purpose of Tibet, no longer as self-sufficient sustainable livestock production, but purely in terms of the needs of lowland China. To call Tibet China’s water tower is not a compliment, it seals the fate of Tibet, especially in the upper watersheds of the Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong, as a zone whose overriding land use excludes ongoing human occupation (except for accelerating illegal mining).

Land tenure rights are another major issue in Tibet, as the policy of grazing bans, now a decade old, increasingly require pastoralists to surrender what were given as long term land tenure security. Europe has been at the forefront of increasing land tenure security for the first dwellers of China, as a policy that gives Chinese villagers in or near forests a sense of ownership and co-management. Yet in Tibet, land tenure is eroding, and land users are losing access to lands they used sustainably for millennia.

It is thus all too easy for China to pick up, as its buzz words, key concepts of global environmental governance, such as payment for environmental services. China may soon introduce PES to Tibet, as an extension of the long established twinning of downstream Chinese provinces with upstream Tibetan counties, in the name of development. That twinning has provided Chinese mining companies with access and connections to Tibetan resources, only encouraging intensive extraction and avoidance of legal compliance. PES payments intended for Tibetan communities to desist from their own indigenous path to development, only holds Tibetans back from finding a place in the global economy.

These are complex issues, requiring utmost care in designing European aid interventions, and scrupulous care in examining closely how the framing concepts of environmental governance can, in practice, disempower and dispossess traditional land users, which perversely encouraging rampant, uncontrolled extraction of Tibet’s resource endowment.

The EU’s current initiatives to create a regulatory regime to exclude conflict minerals from the commodity chain are very relevant to Tibet. The same Chinese SOE mining companies operating in Congo are now rapidly intensifying mining in Tibet, despite frequent Tibetan protests and protest suicides by Tibetans. EU initiatives to require environmental compliance as part of any agreement with China on foreign investment, and the EU conflict minerals directive, can do much to ensure that environmental concerns are mainstreamed, and global standards become applicable to remote areas in Tibet, where standards have been widely flouted.






Presented to the All Party Parliamentary Group for Tibet, 3 March 2014 by Gabriel Lafitte,,


This series of three briefings acknowledges that raising Tibet as a human rights issue is aggressively rejected by China. This new approach is based on Australia’s strengths and the basic human needs of the six million Tibetans of the Tibetan Plateau (2010 census data), in five Chinese provinces, where they are disadvantaged, under-invested, under-capitalised, largely illiterate, peripheral minorities facing systemic discrimination and a downshifting of human services such as health and education to poor counties unable to finance adequate service delivery.

Australia and China are the world’s two biggest grasslands.  There are many complementarities between two drylands specialising in wool and livestock production, much that Australia can contribute in the delivery of landcare, community conservation, and the provision of services to remote communities.

These briefings are based on decades of monitoring situations on the ground in Tibet, and on past Australian successes (and failures) in technical assistance to Tibetan areas. These are constructive proposals, opening up fresh initiatives that improve the lives of Tibetans, without triggering accusations of “interfering in China’s internal affairs.”

These policy proposals also offset the likely impacts on Tibet of an Australia-China Free Trade Agreement that, as expected, increases access to the Chinese market for Australian dairy products and wool, which are the two exportable surplus commodities of the Tibetan Plateau that could find markets in China’s cities.

These recommendations cover the whole Tibetan Plateau, not only the 75 legally autonomous Tibetan counties constituting the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), but the further 75 autonomous Tibetan counties in Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan provinces. This is in accord with China’s latest whole-of-government Work Forum on Tibet, which decided to include all Tibetan areas.

  1. How to strengthen the agricultural economy of Tibet. Australia doing something practical for Tibet: Australian aid, Tibetan sheep, dairy products and pastoral nomads.
  2. Training Tibetans: Educational disadvantage in remote regions, need for higher ed scholarships, study tours of Australia, also vocational education focussed on community landcare, river basin management, livestock production and other commonalities linking the two greatest grasslands of the world -Australia and China.
  3. Tibet’s resource extraction economy, Chinese and Australian mining corporations and their global interactions, mining standards and compliance; with specific suggestions about an Australian conflict minerals regime.

BRIEFING ONE:                       RURAL TIBET


The economy of the Tibetan Plateau is predominantly pastoral, producing a marketable surplus of dairy products, wool and other animal products. Among China’s factories and upmarket urban consumers, both wool and dairy are in demand. China’s woollen mills have ceased taking Tibetan wool, even though Tibetans are capable of producing fine fibre, low-micron wool. The booming urban demand for yoghurt and other dairy products is met from Inner Mongolia and New Zealand, with growing Chinese interest in Tasmanian dairy, and Australian hopes of competing with New Zealand if an FTA is concluded.

Genetic improvement of Tibetan sheep breeds, and assistance in sorting, cleaning and caring for fine wools, and especially in marketing, could get higher returns for Tibetan pastoralists, whose wool at present is used solely for low-price, low-quality felt making. Tasmanian carpet-wool sheep may be best suited. This would somewhat compensate Tibetan producers from their exclusion from the value added supply chain. Teaching Tibetans how to form Pasture User Groups (PUGs) and marketing cooperatives would overcome the failure, 30 years ago, of the county-level wool scouring plants set up by local governments as middlemen between Tibetan wool growers and urban woollen mills. Their failure set Tibetan producers back badly.

Australia, through ACIAR funding, has invested modestly in animal production in Tibet, but in specialist technical assistance that seldom benefit pastoralists who have long been seen, in the eyes of China’s government, as unproductive.

Australia has much to offer in models of comanagement of protected areas, and ongoing pastures threatened by land degradation. Australia has been a leader in providing pastoralists with the science and the finance to invest in rehabilitation of degrading rangelands; rather than excluding land users, nullifying their land tenure and imposing grazing bans, which are current Chinese practice. Community-based management of risk and rehabilitation is well established in Australia, in remote areas.

Australia is also a major barley producer. Barley is the staple of the Tibetan farming economy, with much scope for genetic improvement of yields.

Past experience of Australian and other international assistance suggests that such projects are not just a transfer of knowledge and/or technology; that Chinese partner agencies often discontinue such projects once foreign funding runs out. For such projects to work, they need to engage directly with Tibetan end users, who are organised in formally recognised groups, empowered to make ongoing decisions about implementation. Project design, from the start, requires a higher level of hands-on supervision by donors to ensure the intended recipients actually benefit. When successful, such projects demonstrate to official agencies that active participation by rural Tibetans generates productive and sustainable outcomes.


Literacy levels in Tibetan areas (in Tibetan or Chinese) remain low. Education budgets are the responsibility of local government, which means that poor counties have poor schools, inadequate equipment, absenteeism, poorly qualified and poorly trained teachers, and a high dropout rate. China’s recent centralisation of schooling, in Tibetan areas,  especially in junior middle (lower secondary) schooling requires boarding children in county towns, depriving families of the seasonal contribution of the young to pastoral production, and the transmission of cultural values. Tibetan parents say that if a child graduates from primary school, s/he seldom wants to go back to nomadic pastoralism, but cannot go forward into the modern market economy because the few secondary schools are distant and places are few. This leads to lives of dependence, alienation, unpredictable bursts of casual unskilled work, and a fringe-dweller existence.

Australia’s Closing the Gap programs aim at improving literacy, vocational training and employment opportunities in areas remote even by Tibetan standards, as well as health outcomes. There is much China could learn from Australia’s experience.

In Tibetan areas, the modern industries that are booming, such as urban construction, mining, and tourism, are conducted in Chinese, prefer hiring Chinese workers even at the unskilled level, and often have formal barriers such as written exams that prevent Tibetan participation in the workforce. Even though tourists naturally want to connect with Tibetans, few Tibetans can pass exams in a Chinese syllabus on approved versions of Tibetan history and gain accreditation as guides. This is further reinforced by rigid implementation of hukou household registration rules that limit the mobility of Tibetans to job markets within one province.

Australia has deep strengths in the teaching of the national language as a second language for migrants, in multicultural and bilingual education; in creating employment opportunities in remote indigenous communities, and in mining companies creating training programs to recruit indigenous employees. This is transferrable knowledge.

At a higher education level, the limited number of Tibetans at university would benefit greatly from scholarship-funded opportunities to do tertiary studies in Australia. In the US, the Fulbright scheme provides such opportunities; Norway and some German universities have much experience in working to overcome the under-resourcing and imbalances of education provision in Tibet. AusAID scholarships, despite budgetary constraints, can go a long way, as they have, over recent decades, for Mongolians and their families who come to Australia to study.




China’s manufacturing hubs are moving inland, much closer to the Tibetan Plateau, and increasingly sourcing the raw materials of the supply chain from Tibet. As the world’s top brands relocate to Chongqing and Chengdu, their copper, gold, silver, molybdenum, lithium, water and hydropower increasingly come from a newly intensified exploitation of Tibetan resources. Tibet is being rapidly incorporated into the global economy, but on terms not of Tibetan making.

China’s state-owned mining companies (SOEs), at the forefront of intensive extraction of gold/copper/molybdenum deposits, and state-owned hydropower builders at the forefront of cascades of dams on all major rivers from Tibet, employ few if any Tibetans, pay no royalties to Tibetan areas, introduce huge immigrant workforces to remote areas, disrupt sacred sites and pilgrimage routes, and impose on remote local communities massive tailings dams that must hold, in steep, seismically active terrain, for centuries after mining has exhausted the deposits. Tibetan communities are deeply unhappy, seeing only pain, with no gain. This is a major driver of the protest suicides, or self-immolations that demonstrate the depth of Tibetan grief, with an equally Tibetan insistence on nonviolence towards others.

China’s miners and dam builders do not belong to global codes of conduct and organisations designed to ensure that impacted host communities are engaged, and benefit directly through subcontracting business opportunities, vocational training and corporate investment in community facilities. Mining practices, such as the landslide at the open pit Gyama mine upriver from Lhasa in April 2013, killing over 80 mine workers, show disregard for OH&S standards, and the cheapness of expendable lives, that is common throughout the mining industry in China.

DFAT says 200 Australian mining companies are involved in 700 projects in Africa. For China, too, Africa is the frontline of global sourcing of raw materials. Not only are Chinese mining companies investing heavily in Australia, but also in Africa, where deposits change ownership between Australian and Chinese hands, with increasing frequency. Chinese miners in Australia comply with Australian laws and standards, but not in Africa or in Tibet. It is in Australia’s reputational interest that Chinese extraction and dam building corporations be encouraged to invest in treating their workers and host communities well, by adopting international standards such as those of ICMM, the Ruggie Principles etc.

Already, the new owner of much of the old Caltex refinery at Kurnell, Sydney, is a major shareholder in the copper smelters of the Chinese state owned company that owns, monopolises and exclusively smelts copper concentrate from the Tibetan copper mine at Shetongmon, west of Lhasa. Trafigura now owns both the Kurnell bitumen plant and a major stake in a new copper smelter owned by Jinchuan. More such connections are likely.

With more than 120 recent Tibetan protest suicides, Tibet is becoming a conflict zone, with mining a key issue.

Globally, the concept of “conflict minerals”, to be rigorously excluded from the supply chain, is integrated into EU and US regulatory regimes. Australia too has sanctions to specifically exclude from the supply chain minerals from Congo extracted by violent warlords. The US Dodd-Frank Act provisions, and EU conflict minerals regulations go further, and may well be applicable to Tibet, if present Chinese  SOE practices are not reformed.

Lithium extraction from salt lakes of the Tibetan Plateau is China’s primary domestic source of a commodity essential to making the batteries that power smartphones, tablets and electric cars.

Consumers worldwide will soon be aware that Tibet is in their pocket, that globalisation links them directly to exploitation of Tibet, in their choice of high-end brands manufactured in western Chinese factories.

This is compelling reason for Australian mining companies, with diplomatic support, to do all they can to persuade their Chinese partners to do in Tibet, and in Africa, what they already comply with in Australia.




Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.