The Silence Around Tibet's Ecological Crisis

How mistrust and fear between Beijing and Tibetans are making a bad environmental problem worse.

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The Potala Palace in Lhasa, in the Tibet Autonomous Region. (Reuters)

"Tibet is still a very sensitive topic, even if your story is about the environment and not politics," said an editor, who prefers to remain unnamed, of the environmental section ofSouthern Weekly, a paper the New York Times has called the most influential liberal newspaper in China.

In early April, several satellite images were sent to Southern Weekly; the pictures suggested that the fatal landslide in a Tibetan mining site on March 29 -- labeled a "natural disaster" -- might be related to inappropriate and illegal operations. However, Southern Weekly did not pursue the matter further, believing that the evidence was "still not strong enough" for them to address such a sensitive topic, although several Chinese and international experts believed otherwise.

"There is no question that the landslide was caused by reckless placement of mine waste by the gold mining operations," said Jack Spadaro, after carefully viewing the two satellite images taken in 2010 and 2012 that were sent by Robbie Barnett, the Director of Modern Tibet Studies in Columbia University. Spadaro is a mining safety and health and environment specialist who has had a 38-year career as an expert witness in litigation related to the environmental, health and safety aspects of mining.

"Based on the available information and those satellite images, it is obvious that the accident is related to mining activities, rather than a pure 'natural disaster' as claimed by so-called experts," said Yang, a geologist specializing in the west China region.

China faces serious environmental challenges nationwide, and Tibet is no exception. As announced in the country's 12th five year plan, Tibet was slated to become a mining center and a hydropower engine. While the environmental impacts of mining are well-known, those of hydropower are less so.

"By 2020, the focus of hydropower development would be gradually shifted to Tibet's rivers," said Zhiyong Yan, the General Manager of the China Hydroelectricity Engineering Consulting Group in a 2011 interview for "Most of Tibet's hydropower is to be sent out for the whole country's energy needs," he added, noting that 20 percent of hydropower produced in China could eventually come from Tibet.

Hydropower is being developed in part to meet China's goal of ensuring that non-fossil fuel accounts for 15 percent of the energy supply by 2020. However, this not only poses geological risks, especially in southwest China, but also involves environmental degradation around project sites, population migration issues, and other less obvious environmental challenges.

"Hydropower is sometimes accompanied by and becomes a cheap energy supply for heavily polluting industries such as the mining industry," said Jun Ma, the director of the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs in Beijing, in his 2009 article, "Hydropower's Over-expansion Will Not Help Reduce Carbon Emissions." Indeed, the environment has been greatly impacted in both the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and the greater Tibetan region.

"We joked that the mountains in Tibet are becoming the bald heads of lamas, and cows are getting skinnier and skinnier," said Nyima*, a Tibetan who used to work in the TAR for an international NGO but now lives in New York. He recalled logs floating in the Ganzi River; massive logging operations in Tibet eventually brought about the flooding of the Yangtze River in 1998.

Tenzin visited his hometown in east TAR about one year ago and was shocked by the numerous hydropower projects on the river and the desertification near the projects. "I am not an expert on hydropower, but I do not need to become an expert to know it is wrong when you see hydropower stations just several or ten kilometers away from each other," he remarked.

When the Miga Tso hydropower project was delayed because Phuntsok Wangyal, the founder of the Tibet Communist Party, wrote to then-Premier Zhu Rongji, the head of local government blamed him for obstructing the development of his hometown. Indeed, the environmental problem in Tibet is often framed as a choice between environmental protection and economic development.

"The problem is not development, but over-development!" said Tenzin. He believes the over-building of hydropower stations is a result of unregulated competition between different state hydropower groups fighting over profits.

"People from the China Hydropower Group Fourth Bureau and the China Railway Group Seventh Bureau once fought against each other physically while competing for hydro projects; one official from the former one was injured and the project was delayed," said Ms. Zhao, who has an acquaintance in the China Railway Group Seventh Bureau and says she learned this from an inside source.

The implementation of projects, even after vicious fights, has been problematic as well, due to a lack of regulation.

"My hometown's new highway became unusable after just one year. Along the modern highway, because of digging construction materials, the two parties were destroyed without preserving," said Kalsang, a Tibetan living in the Tibetan part of western Qinghai Province.

Without real regulation and public monitoring, even licensing has become unreliable.

"The experts did their environmental assessment of mining projects in Lhasa without visiting the actual sites," said an anonymous source in TAR, who has a relationship with some officials from mining companies.

Shakya, who lives in Lhasa, believes that although economic development is necessary, there are better alternatives to current practices in Tibet. For example, eco-tourism and eco-products like Lhasa beer could generate development, given that Tibet's unique competitive advantage is its pristine environment.

"The mindset is also a significant problem," Shakya stated, "When New York was developing in the 1930s, the area of Central Park was preserved; but as my hometown of Lhasa has been developed, many small lakes and small parks have been destroyed for real estate development."

"Believing nature is sacred, Tibetans lived in peace with nature, until the shock came from the outside," said Dolker, a young Tibetan from Yunnan. Many Tibetans believe that changes to Tibetan society have been effected by Han Chinese, who arrived in the TAR in large numbers as part of plans by China's central government to develop the area.

According to Wu, an environmental journalist inside China who wished to remain anonymous, the environmental problems faced by Tibet are similar to problems in other parts of China, and more universal than political. "The Han Chinese did not destroy Tibet's environment for political reasons," remarked Wu. "They are already diligently destroying their own environment."

As stated in a book entitled Tianzhu (Tibetan Gem), which documents the experiences of a Chinese person in the TAR, "Tibet's traditional culture is more threatened by global commercialization than it is by the Han Chinese."

While foreign media and NGOs are virtually banned from entering Tibet, domestic media and NGOs are also aware that they should stay out, or at least keep quiet even on environmental challenges in Tibet.

"Different parties, including both the Chinese government and overseas 'human rights' activists, always politicize problems in Tibet, making real environmental challenges untouchable," said Gao, an environmental NGO worker in western China. He was extremely reluctant to disclose his information, worrying that any news stories coming out would pose further challenges to his NGO's efforts to enhance environmental protection.

"In Tibet, environmental problems are politicized and treated as stability problems," said Droje, a Tibetan scholar in TAR, although he agrees that it is necessary to consider environmental challenges in a broader context.

On, an official website about Tibet, an article was posted entitled, "Hard to Understand: The Theory of Environmental Destruction in Tibet". In the article, people who claim that Tibet now faces great environmental challenges are labeled political enemies under the leadership of the Dalai Lama.

"When people hold protests overseas and call for a 'Free Tibet,' it may inadvertently help government officials politicize everything and demonize the Dalai Lama," said Howard French, the former Shanghai Bureau Chief of the New York Times. He believes that Tibetans best advance their cause by advocating for things that are good for all Chinese people, since they share many of the same needs: clean air, clean water, and basic rights.

However, gaps in understanding and trust between Tibetans and Han Chinese have been huge issues. According to an anonymous source, Li Chuncheng, the former vice party secretary of Sichuan province, used to visit the Gulden Temple where self-immolations frequently occurred. When he arrived, he asked for people to share their true thoughts and affirmed that he was there to solve problems. However, monks insisted on telling him that everything was fine. After Li disappointedly returned without any new information, others would self-immolate.

"We international journalists want to hear more rational opinions from normal people, but almost exclusively hear politically extreme opinions," said Mei Yang, a journalist withRadio France International.

The communications gap exists not only between Tibetans and government officials, but between Tibetans and most normal Han Chinese. For Han Chinese, the absence of knowledge about modern Tibetan history and lack of tolerance towards different belief systems make it harder for them to understand the Tibetans.

"When I was listening to my Han classmates talking in a mean way about the Dalai Lama, I was very sad and frustrated," said Dolker. Losing hope in bridging cultural gaps, some Tibetans have given up on truly connecting with Han Chinese.

Wu, the environmental journalist who wished to remain unnamed, recalled challenges he faced in convincing Tibetans to share their true thoughts when he was there to help them when doing journalism works in China. "Many Han Chinese in Tibet think that they understand Tibetans," he remarked, "But the truth is that Tibetans have learned what to say to Han Chinese."

* Tibetans interviewed for this article may be quoted under pseudonyms to protect their identities.

This post also appears at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.