When is a conservation policy not conserving anything? When it displaces millions of people and is being used as a smokescreen for rampant mining.
According to new concerns from Tibetan authorities, that’s the disturbing reality of China’s policy making in Tibet. The BBC reports that in Dharmashala, India, officials believe that between 1.5 and 2 million Tibetans have been displaced from their pastoral lands as a result of expanding Chinese mining projects.
The BBC reported: “Tibetans who have come from [the region] as refugees have told us that they have seen for themselves how their pasture land is illegally grabbed and then mined for mineral resources,” said Tenzin Norbu, who heads the environmental desk at the Central Tibetan Administration office in Dharamashala.
“These people who managed to flee Tibet also said that Chinese officials went to each house and made them sign papers that they would not protest if there were mining activities.”
China maintains that it remains committed to conservation efforts, and that all its mining operations are undertaken within clear boundaries, such as ensuring that all waste products are managed correctly, and that human health and wider environmental concerns will always be taken into account. This sometimes means occupying land and negotiating the re-homing of residents who live near or on mining sites. That kind of conservation is not unusual, but as China has a history of forcibly demolishing homes and displacing people, it does raise concerns.
Due to the fraught political situation surrounding China and Tibet, these kinds of claims should always be treated in context. Still, there is evidence to suggest the claims may have weight.
For instance, Chinese academics, such as Wenjun Li of Peking University’s department of environmental management, are on record as having raised concerns that China is not giving proper recognition to the “uniqueness of traditional pastoralism and its institutional arrangements.”
Claims have also been made that Chinese authorities have attempted to quell protests by threatening “serious action” if anti-mining protests go ahead.
Tibetan leaders in Qinghai’s Dzatoe County, which is one area China is mining, claim that local people who have been protesting mining operations on or near their pastoral lands have been warned by authorities that they should not continue protesting and attempting to obstruct mining operations, such as recent attempts at mining sites in Atoe, Dzachen, and Chidza, Dzatoe County, or they could be serious legal consequences. It’s unclear what those consequences might be given that Chinese security forces have already been deployed to places like Atoe, but the situation seems tense.
There has also been a concerted effort to “reeducate” locals on the issue, with mining officials trying to convince the local population of the benefits of mining and the expanded fossil fuel program that will allegedly boost the economic viability of the entire region.
So far, the protesters have remained unconvinced. In fact, they have been further angered by reports of Chinese authorities raiding Tibetan spiritual shrines in Driru and seizing monks, supposedly to guard against political dissidents further inflaming tensions. Since the crackdown began in September, it is believed that more than 1,000 people have been detained.
There have also been significant concerns that even when those in charge of the Chinese mining operation aren’t being overtly aggressive, their mining policies are effectively making farming in the area very difficult.
Tibet is a land that is rich in metal deposits and heavy metals. Mining activity is said to be releasing those heavy metals, which, despite Chinese authorities using dams, in part, to try to stop contamination, may be making its way into local rivers. Heavy metals are known to cause major health problems in humans, but even in smaller quantities can be devastating to local ecosystems by rendering fish and smaller animals and birds infertile. Studies have demonstrated that heavy metal infiltration into the water supply is a problem for Tibet, but does not yet threaten human lives.
In recent days, China has repeated the commitments it made in 2007 to ensure that its mining policies do not damage the environment. According to Tibetan authorities, though, in the past, the equation has been very heavily weighted toward expansion of mining operations rather than preservation of the environment.
As to the problem of human displacement, the world is waiting for independent confirmation on the exact numbers of people being pushed out of their homes as a result of mining projects, and, indeed, whether those people were forced out. What is very clear is that China’s mining operations are by no means welcome in some areas of Tibet, and certainly the issue is serving to deepen an already serious political conflict.