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Each of the seven key challenges facing Tibet is a major problem, but solutions are possible.

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.

While the ultimate solution would be to restore actual autonomy, agency, and permission for Tibetans to form their own community associations to speak up for Tibetan tradition, culture and civilisation, there are also technical solutions that could ease the tensions. Each issue is presented both as problem, and its solution.



Problem:                             Official bans on grazing or even living, and keeping herds, on traditional pasture land are enforced throughout eastern Tibet, in Amdo and Kham, across several of China’s provinces. This is done as an environmental measure to control grassland degradation, which the nomads are blamed for. Officially, the nomads excluded from land and livelihood are “ecological migrants”, who have voluntarily sacrificed their herds and land for the greater good of downstream China’s access to water from its upriver glacial sources in Tibet. There is no evidence that nomads carelessly ruin the land they have used sustainably for 9000 years.

Hundreds of thousands of nomads have been removed, to concrete block ghettoes on the edge of towns, with nothing to do, no training in job skills, where they depend on minimal government handouts. Meanwhile, environmentalists worldwide generally support China’s moves to safeguard water sources and convert farmland to conservation land use. China argues that displacing nomads will grow more grass, which captures more carbon, and contributes to a greener world, thus excusing China from doing more to restrict its factory emissions of polluting gases.


Solution:                              The livelihoods of Tibet’s two million nomads need strengthening, not banning. Nomads need new markets for their dairy products and wool. Australia is a major producer of dairy and wool, in fact Australian wool has totally replaced Tibetan wool in the woollen mills of China, that produce fine woollen cloth for men’s suits and women’s fashion. China now relies on New Zealand and Australia for dairy products, since yoghurt is now fashionable in urban China. Tibet could supply much of China’s needs, and Australian aid, on a small scale, has been helping to improve Tibetan milk production:

and wool production

Australia has learned to listen to Aboriginal land users, to discover how to manage the landscape sustainably. China has not learned to listen to Tibetan nomads, or to respect their traditional knowledge. Australia could train China in how to work co-operatively with local landowners. Chinese scientists and NGOs are starting to respect traditional Tibetan knowledge, and bridge the great gap between arrogant Chinese officials and nomads who are treated as ignorant:




TWO:                     DAMMING TIBETAN RIVERS

Problem:             China has big plans for damming the major rivers of the Tibetan Plateau, which water most of Asia, from Pakistan, through India, Bangladesh, South East Asia to northern China. Not only will the dams provide hydropower for China’s cities, towns, mines and smelters in Tibet, electricity will also be exported, on ultra-high voltage power lines from the foot of the Tibetan Plateau to major Chinese cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou. Downstream India is alarmed already, but the Mekong, of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, will also be much affected. So far the dams are for electricity production rather than to capture water for diversion to other places, but northern China is short of water, and China is officially committed to divert the upper tributaries of the Dri Chu (Yangtze River) to the Ma Chu (Yellow River), along canals in Ngawa and Kandze, the areas of so many self-immolations. This canal is scheduled for construction next decade.

The number of dams constructed, under construction or planned, is extraordinary, and downstream countries of these international rivers are greatly worried, so too the fishing villages, and conservationists worried the dams will prevent fish from migrating annually upstream to breed.


Solution:              When the political atmosphere was not so repressive, back in 2004-2007, people worried about a dam planned to drown a beautiful, small Tibetan lake, Megoe Tso, did succeed in lobbying senior Communist party leaders, and the dam was scrapped.  One of the key campaigners was Tashi Tsering, who later summed up the campaign: “Although protests and campaigns against dam projects in China are often met with the iron hand of the government, in recent years there have been some remarkable developments in the extent to which Chinese civil society leaders have been able to work with the State Environmental Protection Agency and the media to publicise the social and environmental costs of dam projects. Scientists, journalists, environmental activists, and other citizens have worked together to provide information on the adverse costs of dam development and to advocate for a reversal of government-approved projects. Premier Wen Jiabao’s direct intervention on 1 April 2004, to suspend construction on a series of 13 dams on the Salween River was the most notable result of these campaigns. One of these dams, the Songta, was planned in Tibetan-inhabited areas. The premier made his decision in response to efforts by civil society leaders and media to educate local peoples, media, and the government about the social and environmental costs of these dams. One of the activists’ most important demands was to subject these projects to a proper Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), as required by the 2003 IEA Law. After the premier’s intervention, all 13 projects had to go through EIA, and the review committee decided that nine of them, including the Songta Dam, should not be built as planned to avoid disastrous environmental and social consequences. Following this success, Chinese environmentalists and reporters turned their attention towards another dam project in Yunnan Province, the Tiger Leaping Gorge. The proposed dam would also displace about 100,000 people. The project was scrapped in 2007 following widespread Chinese opposition. What is remarkable about the campaigns against the Salween and the Tiger Leaping Gorge dams is not only the unprecedented level of participation and support from Chinese civil society leaders but also the fact that the government tolerated the protests.

“During the same time, a smaller and more subtle campaign was being brewed to stop a dam project on a lake on the eastern fringes of the Tibetan Plateau called Megoe Tso. I was a key member of a coalition of Chinese, Tibetan, and international activists who decided to work together in a low-profile manner and use subtle campaign strategies to stop this dam project. The Megoe Tso campaign is significant because it is the first and only one to successfully stop a dam project on the Tibetan Plateau. The success of the Megoe Tso campaign also provides an important lesson for international environmental and human rights activists. The context and ways in which Western activist groups work is not only different from those in politically sensitive regions like Tibet, but they can also be counterproductive to local efforts. The Megoe Tso example shows that in order to be successful in places like Tibet, activist groups must work in unconventional ways, such as being discreet about their involvement.”

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