Thursday, April 26, 2007

Exploiting Tibet

The Central Tibetan Administration is deeply concerned at the accelerating Chinese immigration to Tibet, and intensified mineral exploitation.

"We cannot but be alarmed at the rate of Chinese migrant workers coming to Tibet and China's mining of various minerals on the Tibetan Plateau" said Kalon Tempa Tsering of the Department of Information and International Relations of the Central Tibetan Administration.

"The pace of China's settlement of Tibet's urban centres with Chinese migrant workers and its exploitation of Tibet's mineral resources are undermining the ability of the Tibetan people to hold on to their distinct cultural heritage," Kalon Tempa Tsering said.

Kalon Tempa Tsering said, "It is precisely for this reason that we are firmly committed to the Middle-Way Approach of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, which will allow Tibetans to have an effective say in their affairs and the allocations of their resources without undermining Chinese sovereignty."

Kalon Tempa Tsering is reacting to news reports that say China is involved in mining of a host of minerals in Tibet and the unloading of thousands of Chinese migrant workers to Lhasa on a daily basis.

There are two kinds of one-way traffic on the rail line, both harmful to Tibet. Coming in on one-way tickets, costing as little as $49 to come all the way from Beijing, are fortune seekers, often desperately poor, those displaced from the countryside by China’s voracious demand for urban construction land.

Our sources on the ground estimate that the train to Lhasa, operational since July 2006, brings five or six thousand people a day to Lhasa, but when one observes the trains leaving Lhasa for China only two or three thousand people are aboard. They are the genuine tourists. The stayers are fortune hunters, seeking any niche they can find, often by elbowing aside Tibetans from even small street stall trading.

In 1950, the population of Lhasa, despite its spiritual importance to Tibetans, was only 20,000. Today, due to massive immigration attracted by China’s government led urban construction boom, the population has swollen to nearly 300,000, occupying almost all the valley. Now there are reports that China’s target for Lhasa is a population of 700,000. Based on our observations of the train occupancy in and out of Lhasa, that target will be reached very quickly.

Kalon Tempa Tsering said, "The Tibetan Plateau cannot sustain such a population explosion. Already the Tibetans in Lhasa are a small quarter of the city, excluded from the construction boom all around them. We oppose all development project that does not benefit but marginalises Tibetan population socially and culturally."

Poor Tibetans live in shantytowns on the outskirts, seeking employment, only to be muscled aside by non-Tibetan immigrants who contribute nothing to the Tibetan economy, because they remit their savings to their home province.

The other equally alarming aspect of the one-way traffic is the export of minerals from Tibet to feed Chinese factories, said Kalon Tempa Tsering.

When the railway was first extended into Tibet in the 1980s, as far as the desert staging post of Gormo, the purpose was to extract Tibetan oil, which has gone, at rate of two million tons a year for the past 20 years. In addition China mines the salt lakes of the same area in the Tsaidam Basin on a large scale. Gas was discovered in huge amounts in the 1990s, also in the Tsaidam Basin, and a pipeline was built to supply China’s hungry energy demand for fuels for manufacturing and electric power generation. Tibetan gas is now piped right across China.

China is investing huge effort of geological exploration, mapping mineral deposits all over Tibet. Recently the China geological survey announced the discovery of more than 600 new mineral deposits after concluding a seven-year geological study on Tibetan plateau, which has nothing less than $128 billion dollars worth of various minerals potential for extraction.

The biggest concern lies with two minerals: copper and chromite, particularly the major reserves currently under development and are easily accessible. For example: Shetongmon, close to Shigatse, the second city of Tibet, and the chromite deposits at Norbusa, close to the town of Tsethang and the chromite at Dongchao (Ch:Dongqiao), close to the rail line at the village called Draknak (Amdo County) in Nagchu Prefecture. In all three cases, the railway makes possible large-scale extraction, as each deposit is close to the railway, or to its proposed short extensions.

Yulong Copper mine, which is known to have world class potential, located in Chunyido village in Chamdo prefecture has remained undeveloped due to remoteness but infrastructure necessary for mining is now reportedly close to completion. Chromite mine in Dongchao, was also closed because of remoteness but now it is no longer remote due to railway, and it could re-open on a much bigger scale. Both copper and chromite are vital to China's development and industrialisation, but as a raw material are in very short supply. China has relied heavily on imports for these minerals for the past few decades.

Of the many mineral deposits found so far, few have been developed into full-scale commercial operations, largely because of the high transport costs of trucking ores out of Tibet on unreliable highways. It is further exacerbated by harsh climatic condition that forces the mine to remain closed during the winter.

The arrival of the railway to Lhasa dramatically changes the economics of mineral exploitation, especially since it is not only the cost of a ticket to Lhasa that is subsidised; a freight subsidy also enables miners to send minerals out of Tibet for as little as US 1.5 cents per ton per kilometre.

Most of the Tibet's copper, including Yulong deposit is of prophyry type. Mines like these have to be large scale, extracting hundreds of tons of rocks per day in order to produce a profitable amount of processed or refined copper each year. The resulting need in all types of mine to dispose of large quantities of waste could severly impact the environment. Soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, grassland degradation and pollution of watercourses are some of the potential impacts of the mining. Mining waste contaminates the water bodies often leading to substantial reductions in water quality affecting the people living downstream and destroying aquatic ecosystem. Tibet is the principal source of rivers flowing in Asia upon which 47% of world's total population depends for their livelihood.

Besides as has often been the case, local Tibetans displaced by the mine receive almost nothing for their compensation, and the skilled jobs invariably go to non-Tibetan immigrants. Chinese discrimination against Tibetans and increasing settlement of Chinese workers in Tibet with railway already in operation would not only transform Lhasa and other towns in Tibet but also will create new distinctly Chinese towns and villages just as it happened in Gormo which serves as a model of concern. This is the beginning of Chinese colonialism. Gormo, once desert area inhabited by few scattered nomads has now grown to a large town with 200,000 populations according to 2000 census out of which less than two per cent are Tibetan. It was initially established as prison farm and resource extraction site but since the arrival of railway, immigration and development has created a distinctly Chinese settlement.

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