The struggle to report on Tibet's environment

Reporting from the frontline of environmental activism, Andrew Wasley takes a closer look at the environmental situation in Tibet.

Thirteen months ago we watched in horror as the Chinese authorities launched a brutal crackdown on Tibetan dissidents protesting against the occupation of their country. At least 120 were killed when soldiers opened fire on protests in the capital Lhasa and elsewhere. Thousands were injured or arrested. The Olympic Games may have briefly focused our attention on the plight of Tibet – despite the best efforts of the Chinese – but the media’s gaze, predictably, has long since shifted. Tibet is no longer on our screens.

For those left behind, the legacy remains. As many as 6,000 Tibetans were rounded up during the uprising; the fate of almost 1,000 remains unknown. Among the detainees were activists, film-makers and outspoken religious leaders. Tibet is one of the most dangerous places in the world for any sort of dissent. Since Chinese tanks rolled into Tibet in 1950, freedom of speech, information, religion and assembly have been curtailed, and Tibetan customs, culture and language marginalised – largely due to Beijing encouraging millions of ethnic Chinese to settle in the area.

Less well known is that Tibet’s environment has also suffered. Decades of China-sanctioned logging have led to deforestation on a massive scale; less than half of Tibetan forests remain. In some areas more than 80 per cent of the original forest has been decimated, resulting in soil erosion and flooding, in turn causing landslides and damaging farmland.

Ill-planned industrial development such as hydroelectric projects and dams have further degraded land and water supplies. In one controversial case, construction of a power station at Yamdrok-Tso lake, south of Lhasa, was blamed for drying up fresh water supplies, forcing local people to drink from the lake and resulting in a host of negative health impacts.

Intensive agricultural practices have also taken their toll: overgrazing has contributed to desertification; insecticide and pesticide use has been linked to land degradation and loss of important plant species.

Tibet is home to rare species such as the lynx, snow leopard, black bear, gazelle, wild yak, Tibetan antelope and giant panda, but trophy hunting encouraged by the Chinese has seriously depleted populations.

The biggest environmental threat, though, is large-scale mining operations for salt, chromium, coal, oil, uranium, gold, zinc and copper, among others. Mining is linked to a host of serious environmental and social ills yet China is embarking on an unprecedented programme of mineral extraction in Tibet.

In some cases entire communities face being uprooted to make way for mines and other industrial developments. Tibetan nomads – traditional custodians of Tibetan wilderness – are among those who’ve found themselves in the way. Since 2000, 900,000 have been forcibly relocated. Unsurprisingly they are now some of the regime’s most vocal opponents.

Runggye Adak, a 55 year-old father of 11, was condemned to eight years in prison in 2007 after publicly calling for the return of the Dalai Lama. His nephew, Adak Lopoe was also detained, along with two other men, and jailed for 10 years for ‘colluding with foreign separatist forces to split the country and distributing political pamphlets’. Lopoe, a senior monk at Lithang monastery, is a well known critic of logging, deforestation and wildlife hunting, and a champion for education.

Monks arrested after last year’s uprising testified that scores of nomads were among those crammed into notorious Chinese detention centres, rounded up for protesting against the increasing encroachment on their lands and environment. Months later, many are still believed to be detained.

Film-makers reporting the reality of life inside Tibet have faced a similar fate. Tibetan nomad Dhondup Wangchen and colleague Jigme Gyatso were arrested in March 2008 for producing a documentary enabling Tibetans to express views on the Olympics and Chinese rule. Gyatso, recently released ‘on probation’, has testified he was beaten continuously while in detention, hung by his feet and tied to an interrogation chair for lengthy periods.

Wangchen continues to be detained, his whereabouts unknown. Sources indicate he too has been tortured, like so many others. London-based pressure group Free Tibet recently published a shocking dossier alleging the widespread use of torture against dissident Tibetan prisoners. Many have been seriously injured; others have died.

Despite the UN drawing similar conclusions the world seems happy to ignore such abuses.

The UK Government hosted the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao in February and has been strangely muted over the plight of Tibet. A recent policy document on China skirted more difficult issues raised by the use of torture, and stopped far short of calling for an end to the arrest and detention without trial of political prisoners. Britain, it appears, is happy for a simple ‘reduction’ in such detentions.

Sanctions such as those imposed on Burma may not be an option given China’s growing influence and economic standing, but the international community has a duty to put the Tibetan issue at the heart of its dealings with the Asian superpower. As Free Tibet points out, China is now the ‘workshop of the world’, and desperately needs healthy relations and strong economies to thrive. This provides the outside world with unique leverage that should – and must – be capitalised on.

We as citizens urgently need to lobby ministers, the media and relevant businesses to take up Tibet’s cause and support the charities and campaigns pressing for change. The ongoing silence and ‘turn the other way’ attitude is allowing rampant human rights abuses to continue largely unchallenged, and risks the further decimation of Tibet’s natural resources and unique environment.

Andrew Wasley is a journalist with investigative agency Ecostorm and a producer for the Ecologist Film Unit.

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