blog #2 of 3

Each of the seven key challenges facing Tibet is a major problem, but solutions are possible. These ideas were discussed by a new generation of Tibetan Australians gathered at a Tibetan retreat centre in the forested hills above Healesville, Victoria, in early 2013. Each issue is presented both as problem, and its solution.

These issues and the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet are not separate. The underlying causes of the protest burnings of the body, sacrificing the self to make clear the urgent need for a fresh approach, are to be found here. Self-immolation is often reported as a question of religious freedom, but the concerns of the Tibetans are many, including the seven issues identified in these three blog posts.




Problem:             The land of snows, surrounded by mountains, is melting, drying and heating fast. Only the Arctic and Antarctic are warming quicker. Much of the plateau soil is in a region of permafrost, which holds frozen water in cold months, which then melts in warmer months. Not only does the seasonal thawing and freezing make is difficult to build railways and highways, as ice expands and contracts, but the early melt in spring, before plant roots can reach down to the icemelt, means plants wither, and wetlands dry up in April, May and June, lacking the water they need before the monsoon rains come. The death of Tibetan wetlands is now major, even desertification of many areas in Amdo. This is well documented in scientific research reports. There are many wetlands in Tibet, home to migratory waterbirds, now disappearing, and releasing to the atmosphere the carbon they had long stored. The new trend of early spring is also hard for farmers, whose crops find no water near the surface.

Global climate change causes many local problems, but China, the world’s biggest emitter of climate warming greenhouse gases, refuses to accept any global treaty that would require it to accept an emissions quota. The only existing treaty, the Kyoto Convention, imposes no requirements on China, nor on the US, which refused to join. China argues for an indefinite extension of the Kyoto treaty, rather than a more inclusive treaty that requires all polluters to reduce emissions. Tibet is paying a heavy price, in melting glaciers, extreme weather, early spring and widespread drying, for a problem Tibetans did not cause.


Solution:              The Dalai Lama has for decades called for an attitude of global responsibility, rather than waiting till everyone else acts responsibly before accepting responsibility for one’s own actions. Like the small island states of the Pacific, like the Arctic and Antarctic, Tibet is on the frontline of global climate change consequences, and this story needs to be told more effectively. Tibet can be part of the solution if its global role in climate is understood. Not only is Tibet intensely cold in winter, it gets so warm in spring and summer, especially the bare rock of the upper mountains, that the heating plateau energises the summer monsoon, pulling the clouds to India from across the ocean. Unusually heavy winter or spring snow on the Tibetan Plateau means a late or even a failed monsoon in India. This is a story that is not yet well known.



FOUR:                   MINING

Problem:                             For decades Tibet swarmed with illegal immigrant goldminers using cyanide, mercury and machinery to dig up rivers and streams seeking surface gold. Tibetans were powerless to stop them, and were declared criminals if they protested. Some Tibetan communities, with strong mutual support, have stopped miners, but successful resistance is uncommon. Now a new kind of mine is fast coming to Tibet: large scale, high tech, capital intensive pit mines and underground mines, extracting copper, gold and silver together. One of the biggest is not far upriver from Lhasa, at the birthplace of king Songtsen Gampo. These new mines will start operating soon, and will operate for decades, making billions of dollars in profits for the state owned mining companies that own them. Most are close to major rivers, especially the Yarlung Tsangpo, and plan to dump enormous quantities of crushed waste rock in huge dams that must never leak water into the rivers below, because there are toxic heavy metals in the waste. Those tailings dams holding the powdered waste must hold for centuries, long after mining has finished. The new mines are so big they require chemical processing on the spot, and smelters to produce pure metal, which in turn requires much electricity, so the new mines are a major reason for the new hydropower dams under construction. Mines also mean an immigrant workforce, since most Tibetans don’t speak or read Chinese. More mining means more immigrants towns, highways, railways, power stations, power pylons and a transport network connecting to Chinese markets.

Solution:                              Around the world it has been common for mining companies to brush aside the concerns of local communities. But in recent years the biggest mining corporations have realised that bad relations with neighbouring communities looks bad to shareholders, drags down corporate reputation and share price, which increases the cost of money mining corporations borrow to finance the next mine. So, for the biggest miners, it is good business to have good relations with the locals, and that sets a new global standard of corporate responsibility for miners everywhere, including China’s state owned giants that own the major Tibetan deposits.

In China, the factories that make what we consume are moving inland, to the west, closer to Tibet, making more use of metals and electricity coming from Tibet. Your next mobile phone, or computer, is increasingly likely to use raw materials from Tibet. The makers of these brand name products are also sensitive to loss of reputation through looking uncool. Once we can follow the commodity chain, and prove, for example, that the lithium in the lithium-ion battery powering your iPad came from Tibet, we can shame the manufacturers into becoming more responsible.

There are several codes of conduct we can ask miners and manufacturers to comply with: ICMM, EITI, GOXI, Equator Principles, Kimberley Process, South Africa’s Mining Charter are among the initiatives embraced by the biggest corporate players, that require codes of conduct, backed by independent monitoring to ensure standards are adhered to in practice and not just on paper.



Problem:             Two generations ago the nomads of Tibet were regarded as having the best of lifestyles. People looked up to them. Now the nomads are regarded as ignorant, dirty and poor, in danger of having their land tenure rights cancelled, forced to move away from their ancestral pastures, in the name of watershed conservation. The nomads are becoming irrelevant, useless, illiterate and untrained for work in the cash economy of today. Regulations restricting land size, herd size, family size and how much nomad families must spend on fencing and housing, have all made nomads poor, dependent on relatives or meagre state support.

Most of the Tibetan Plateau is becoming a poor, neglected hinterland which receives little investment or improvement. Investment is concentrated in small areas favoured for mines, power stations, urban centres, highways and railways. Immigrant incomes in Lhasa are among the highest in China, comparable with Shanghai and Beijing; while most Tibetans are poor, and falling further behind, with little prospect of ever catching up, since poor counties can only afford poor schools. The inequality gap is widening, between country and city, the rich east and the poor west.

The widespread grazing bans mean Tibet is no longer self-sufficient in food, and now relies on importing food, and all manufactured goods, from lowland China. Land use certificates issued to nomads, to encourage them to look after land, have been cancelled. Tibet now faces widespread poverty, inequality, land and food insecurity. Poor people, restricted to small parcels of land, have no choice but to overgraze the land, causing degradation. Officials then blame them for the deterioration of the land. This is a self-fulfilling vicious circle.


Solution:              China, aware of the danger of social unrest due to extreme inequality, now invests in rural housing, but usually Tibetans have to borrow much of the cost of a new house, creating debts that are hard to repay, and a new house that may be far from the family’s land. Restoring real negotiating power to Tibetans is essential to making any progress on all of the environmental problems of Tibet.

The key is to restore mobility. When nomads are free to move, seasonally, they take their animals up to high pasture in summer, and down again before winter, when the grass has had time to recover from the grazing pressure, and grow again. Mobility has for thousands of years been the key to sustainablility, but China has viewed nomadic mobility with suspicion.

Chinese and international scientists are starting to realise that traditional knowledge, and mobility, offer solutions, but much encouragement is needed before cadre officials learn to listen. Nomads need secure, guaranteed access to land. Reform of land tenure policy should follow the example of China’s forest dwellers, who have been given guaranteed land tenure rights in recent years, even as pasture dwellers in Tibet have lost their secure land tenure.




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