The Relationship Between
Environmental Management and
Human Rights in Tibet
A report prepared for Mrs. Fatma Zohra Ksentini,
Special Rapporteur, for the study of Human Rights and
the Environment pursuant to resolutions 1990/7 and
1990/27 of the Sub-Commission on Prevention of
Discrimination and Protection of Minorities
July 14, 1992
International Committee of Lawyers for Tibet
The Relationship Between Environmental Management and Human Rights in Tibet
© 1992 International Committee of Lawyers for Tibet
This report was prepared by
Margit Roos-Collins, Esq.
International Committee of Lawyers for Tibet
Special assistance for this report was provided by
John Ackerly, Esq.
International Campaign for Tibet
University of Texas School of Law
Suzanne LaPierre, Esq.
Institute for Asian Democracy
Michelle Schwartz, Esq.
Natural Heritage Institute
The International Committee of Lawyers for Tibet (ICLT) was founded in 1989 and incorporated as a non-profit organization in 1991. The ICLT provides pro bono legal expertise and resources for Tibetans and non-governmental organizations in order to address human rights and environmental issues in Tibet. The ICLT is a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).
International Committee of Lawyers for Tibet
347 Dolores Street, Suite 206
San Francisco, CA 94110 USA
Tel: (01) (415) 252-5967
Fax: (01) (415) 626-0865
The Relationship Between Environmental Management and
Human Rights in Tibet*
I. The Purpose of this Paper
The United Nations Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities of the Commission on Human Rights ["the Sub-Commission"] is currently studying the nature of the interrelationship between human rights and environmental degradation, to determine whether and in what form human rights law should include an explicit environmental dimension. To assist in this work, the Sub-Commission has solicited papers from interested parties focusing on the nature of this relationship in particular countries or areas. This paper analyzes some of the choices made by the Chinese government in its management of Tibets environment and development and the impacts of those choices on the human rights of Tibetans and other peoples.
As discussed in the Preliminary Report to the Sub-Commission submitted by Mrs. Fatma Zohra Ksentini on 2 August 1991 ["Preliminary Report"] the international community has acknowledged a number of substantive human rights that can be impacted by environmental abuse. It has also acknowledged procedural rights, the restriction of which can worsen environmental degradation by diminishing relevant communication between decision-makers, affected parties, and technical experts. These rights are accorded varying degrees of recognition and enforceability under international law. Some of the rights most closely related to environmental issues and discussed in the Preliminary Report include:
* the right to life
* the right to health
* the right to development
* the right of peoples to self-determination
* the right to freedom
* the right to equality
* the right to adequate conditions of life
* the right to suitable working conditions
* the right to decent living conditions
* the right [of everyone] to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care
* the right to information
* the right of peaceful assembly
* the right of association
* the right to freedom of expression
* the right to take part in the conduct of the public affairs of ones country, directly or through freely chosen representatives
In addition, both the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights confer upon all peoples the right to "freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development" and to "for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources without prejudice to any obligations arising out of international economic co-operation, based upon the principle of mutual benefit, and international law. In no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence." The most fundamental United Nations document, the U.N. Charter, establishes as the purpose of the United Nations "to develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principles of equal rights and self-determination of peoples..."
The Sub-Commission has determined that the Tibetans are a "people" distinct from the Chinese. In its resolution 1991/10 entitled "Situation in Tibet," the Sub-Commission referred to the "distinct cultural, religious and national identity of the Tibetan people" and called upon the Chinese government to respect fully the Tibetans "fundamental human rights and freedoms." The Chinese government also acknowledges this distinction, by designating Tibetans as a "minority nationality" subject to different laws than the Han (i.e., the Chinese). For example, in its 1991 submission to the Commission on Human Rights, the Chinese government listed "various autonomous rights involving politics, economy, culture and all other aspects of social development" guaranteed to the Tibet Autonomous Region, including "the right to independently protect, exploit, and use local natural resources according to law." Thus, in applying human rights law to environmental matters in Tibet, Tibetans are entitled to the protections from the actions of the Chinese government accorded to any "people."
After the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1949-50, the Chinese government subdivided the original Tibetan territory, incorporating large portions of it into neighboring Chinese provinces. The Tibetan people consider the Chinese government to be an illegitimate occupying force. They therefore regard as illegitimate the fragmentation of their country into new administrative units. This paper will consider environmental impacts in all of Tibet, by which is meant not only the Tibet Autonomous Region [the former Tibetan province of U-Tsang] but also the Tibetan provinces of Kham and Amdo. Amdo is subsumed into the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, and Sichuan and Kham is partially subsumed into the provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan.
The environmental impacts of the Chinese governments management of Tibet can be divided into two broad categories: those resulting from its removal of Tibets natural resources for use elsewhere in China and those resulting from the enormous resource demands created by the Chinese settlers who have participated in the governments policy of population transfer to Tibet. Each is considered in turn, below.
III. Chinas Use of Tibets Natural Resources
The Chinese word for Tibet, Xizang, translates as "Western Treasure House" or "Western Storehouse." Unfortunately, the Chinese government has been exploiting Tibets natural resources with a pace and carelessness that is indeed more typical of the pillage of an enemys stores than of the husbanding of ones own resources. The picture is even more complex in that the Chinese government is heavily subsidizing its development schemes for Tibet. A better analogy may be the classic colonial relationship, with Tibet being milked for its raw materials, while the Chinese government points to a heavy flow of consumer goods and other subsidies into Tibet, which benefit primarily the colonists (Chinese settlers)." For example, Xinhua News reports that "about 90% of Tibets minerals, timber, animal by-products and medicinal herbs are transported through Golmu[d] to other parts of the country." In other words, at least 90% of raw materials produced in the Tibet Autonomous Region (U-Tsang) are shipped out to other parts of China. The most wide-ranging impacts are occurring from the rapid pace of deforestation, discussed below.
The former Tibetan areas in western Sichuan province and the Tibet Autonomous Region comprise Chinas second and third largest stores of forest biomass, respectively." China suffers from timber and paper shortages and has attempted to redress these needs by logging Tibets forests at an ever-increasing pace. For example, revenues from timber production and processing in the Sichuan portion of Tibet rose 22.6% between 1990 and 1991.
The great majority of the timber is sent out of Tibet. Western observers who have been able to travel through areas of southeastern Tibet formerly famous for their magnificent forests of spruce, fir, oak, maple, pine, and rhododendron report a ceaseless stream of filled lumber trucks leaving the area, passing miles of now barren land as they head for lowland China. In addition, some portion of the timber is sold in trade with Nepal. Quantities of the timber are floated down the rivers; there are reports of rivers so jammed with logs that the water is barely visible. The Chinese government asserts ownership over the forested land and so does not pay the Tibetans for the value of the timber extracted. Indeed, with so much raw lumber exported from the region, "[f]orestry officials admit that the profits of the industry do not go to municipal or county levels and little goes to the prefectural level." Many lumber jobs go to Chinese settlers and some felling is done without compensation by prison labor.
The lumbering is proceeding at a rate far faster than the ecosystem can support. Unfortunately, this appears to apply to China as a whole; in 1989, an article in the China Daily reported that measures taken to repair the damage caused by deforestation had resulted in limited success, while domestic demand for wood increased by 44% between 1982 and 1988. Reforestation efforts have been inconsequential compared to the total area in need of such programs, and have been concentrated in the vicinity of homes, fields, roads, or streams. In 1985, the Vice Minister of the Chinese Ministry of Forestry wrote of the need to greatly enhance reforestation efforts in Tibet, but there is little evidence that practices are changing as a result. Reforestation is so seldom practiced that one observer noted clearcut slopes left to erode even though they were adjacent to a tree nursery. He Bochuan, writing in China in the late 1980s, commented that "[f]alse reporting, ineptitude, and bad management are the main causes for the huge discrepancy between the impressive claims and the meager results of Chinas reforestation campaign."
No effort is made to log selectively. All trees and even shrubs are cut down in an area and those not considered valuable as timber are left on the ground. They are generally gathered later for firewood by local residents or even left to rot. The clearcut areas are typically hilly and the resulting soil erosion has been enormous. One-third of the river valleys logged in the prime, southeastern Tibetan forests are now classified by Chinese forestry officials as semi-desert due to the severity of soil loss. Revegetation of that land will be extraordinarily difficult in a human, as opposed to geological, time frame. This signals a permanent loss of the value of the land, even for grazing.
Well before desertification sets in, the environment becomes less hospitable when forest cover is reduced. As Chinas Vice Minister of Forestry wrote, even a reduction of the forest cover from 30% in the early 1950s to 18.8% in the mid-1980s, as happened in portions of Tibet, was sufficient to increase "environmental degradation due to higher wind speeds, more severe drought, less snow, and a shorter frost-free season. By 1989, the same area (now western Sichuan province) was reportedly reduced to 9% forest cover. Given a report that forest cover in the Tibet Autonomous Region had been reduced from 20% in 1950 to 10% in 1980, one wonders whether it, too, was reduced by half again in the 1980s.
The Chinese government is taking not only Tibets current timber wealth; it is also taking away Tibets future ability to develop a sound forest products management program because it is destroying the capacity of the land to support forests. This is a direct violation of the right of the Tibetan people to self-determined, sustainable development. The right of peoples, guaranteed by international human rights doctrine, to "freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development" and to "for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources ... can have no meaning if they permit an occupying power, or even a central government, to sacrifice the future fertility of a peoples land to serve its own ends, in a context in which the people are permitted no political voice or power over the destructive activity. Tibetans are not permitted to dissent openly from or distribute information opposing the Chinese governments forestry practices.
Note that the lumbering impacts not only Tibets economic development, but also its social and cultural development. The wholesale destruction of forests is antithetical to Tibetan culture. The Tibetans are devout Buddhists who aspire to a society in which all life forms are respected and protected. According to this view, the natural environment, including all flora and fauna, should be disturbed as little as possible. Reports that the government is logging in the immediate vicinity of monasteries and on other hillsides with special historical and cultural significance require further investigation. Socially, loss of a forested region disrupts a wide web of life. It becomes impossible to continue building with wood, forcing discontinuity with the architectural traditions in parts of Kham. Downstream fisheries are diminished due to silting and localized climates can change so much that they no longer support as many farmers or nomads as before, when the forest moderated the climate.
The impacts of the clearcutting and lack of reforestation are experienced not solely in Tibet. Downstream areas of China as well as Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanniar (Burma), Bangladesh and north-eastern India are all affected by the health of the Tibetan watersheds. The impacts are international because the forested, eastern portion of Tibet serves as the source for at least five major Asian rivers: the Brahmaputra in India and Bangladesh; the Salween in Myanmar; the Mekong of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam; and the Huangho (Yellow) and Yangtse rivers of China. The eroding soil fills formerly clear streams with silt, choking aquatic life and increasing incidences of flooding downstream. As an example of what can result, one study by U.S. Congressmen noted that:
[t]wo floods in 1981 caused by siltation of the Yangtze River in fact wreaked havoc in the surrounding countryside. One hundred thirty-five counties, 53 cities, and 580 towns were flooded. Approximately 11.8 million people and 2600 industries were directly affected. Over 833,000 hectares of farm land was submerged and 1.6 million homes destroyed.
The situation in China has worsened since then: Chinese official sources have noted that in 1991, both the Huangho and Yangtse river basins suffered the worst floods of the century, impacting the grain harvest and reducing by 25% the growth in GNP that had been projected for that year.
Flooding destroys homes and crops and even causes severe loss of human life, as has been occurring in China and Bangladesh. Therefore, pursuit of timbering practices that are known to produce downstream flooding violates rights to life and health, rights to a secure living and working situation, and the right to development of affected downstream peoples. In this instance, the acts of the Chinese government are impacting the human rights not only of their own peoples but also of the people in neighboring countries. While the impacts are one step removed from the logging actions, the cause and effect relationship is sufficiently well-established that current logging practices should be regarded as a violation of these rights since governments have an obligation under human rights law to alter their actions if necessary to prevent foreseeable harm.
Additionally, some scientists are concerned that deforestation in Tibet may over time have a negative effect on Indias agricultural production. The timely arrival of the Indian monsoon is critical to each years crops and is controlled by the pace at which air warms each spring and summer over the Tibetan plateau. Since forested areas absorb more of the suns energy than either grasslands or exposed rock, the air temperature warms less above the deforested regions. Increasing the proportion of the Tibetan plateau that is unforested may cause a late or diminished monsoon with serious results. If scientists reach a consensus that Tibetan deforestation indeed affects Indian monsoons, then India should be able to assert violations of its peoples human rights by the Chinese government on these grounds as well as those based on logging-induced flooding.
The Chinese have determined that Tibet contains very rich mineral resources. According to one survey published by the Chinese, Tibet has the worlds largest deposits of uranium and borax, half the worlds supply of lithium, the second largest copper deposits in Asia, and the largest supplies of iron and chromite in China. It also has more than 40% of Chinas present supply of bauxite, gold, and silver, and extensive reserves of oil, coal, tin and zinc.
In traditional Tibetan culture, mining is regarded as an improper intrusion into the earth. Prior to 1959, religious and social injunctions had limited mining to a very few locations. The Chinese government is proceeding to develop and exploit Tibets mineral resources, with no demonstrable concern for the resulting cultural discomfort felt by Tibetans, and in violation of their right to self-determined development. As with timber, the minerals extracted generally do not remain in or enrich Tibet; rather, the minerals are shipped out to other parts of China. The Chinese mining operations in Tibet are now extensive; mining and mineral extraction account for the largest share of economic activity in the industrial sectors of U-Tsang and Amdo (Tibet Autonomous Region and Qinghai, to the Chinese).
The governments unwillingness to heed Tibetan religious views with regard to mining has had one of its most culturally offensive impacts in the village of Riwoche, in Kham. The hill behind the Trachen-Ma Temple in Riwoche is considered particularly sacred by Tibetan Buddhists. When the Chinese determined that the hill was rich in uranium, miners were brought in. Tibets leaders protested unsuccessfully to Beijing. The mining was considered a sufficiently serious matter that, in early 1988, Tibetans rioted, were taken away for interrogation by the Chinese, and did not return.
It remains to be seen whether Tibetans will choose to mine some of their mineral resources in a free Tibet. (Observers have estimated that Tibetans hold only about 10% of the mining jobs in Kham and less than 20% in Amdo and U-Tsang, with the rest of the jobs going to Chinese settlers.) However, it is clear that certain sites, such as Riwoche, would be deemed off-limits for religious or cultural reasons. In the meantime, Chinese-controlled mining is violating the Tibetan peoples right to self-determined development and to the practice of their cultural beliefs, so far as those are tied to the preservation of sacred places.
Furthermore, while information on mining practices in Tibet is limited, 80% of mines in China have been deemed to be environmentally unsound and it seems fair to assume that management of tailings and contaminated runoff is likely to be at least as poor in Tibet. Poorly managed mines can pollute watersheds for decades after they are closed and uranium mine tailings can poison nearby residents with radioactivity. This threatens the lives of Tibetans in violation of human rights law. Both problems are extremely expensive and difficult to remedy, as has been demonstrated in the United States, for example, as it attempts to rectify the continuing harm from mines abandoned long ago. Some of the mining-related violations of Tibetans rights to health and to basic sustenance from their land and waters may not be apparent for years and the bills for cleanup will come due in the future, raising questions of intergenerational rights. Further, given Tibets role as the source for so many of Asias major rivers, significant mine pollution may well affect downstream nations peoples in the future.
The pressure on the Chinese government to deplete Tibets mineral resources is real; Xinhua News has acknowledged that China is expected to run through its own supplies of 7 minerals essential to its economy by the year 2000. The question for the world community is how to persuade large powers that they cannot solve their resource problems by colonizing and exploiting their neighbors.
IV. Impacts of Population Transfer to Tibet
Since its occupation of Tibet, the Chinese government has sought to alleviate population pressures elsewhere, to provide Chinese workers for its factories and projects in Tibet, and to Sinocize Tibet by establishing a range of incentives to attract Chinese to settle in Tibet. Salaries for Chinese workers are higher in Tibet than in China (in U-Tsang, or the TAR, they are often double the rates elsewhere). Bureaucratic restrictions on daily life are streamlined for the settlers and, unlike Tibetans, they are eligible for a three-month paid vacation every one-and-a-half years. The policy has been extremely successful in terms of altering the population makeup in Tibet. At this point Chinese are estimated to outnumber Tibetans in Tibet by 7.6 million compared to 6.1 million. The imbalance is most acute in Amdo, where Chinese outnumber Tibetans by 2.6 million to 1 million. In Kham, the numbers must be estimates since Kham has been subsumed into larger Chinese provinces and census data for Kham specifically are therefore lacking. However, educated estimates place the Chinese at roughly 3.6 million compared to 3 million Tibetans. In U-Tsang as a whole (the TAR), Tibetans still outnumber Chinese by 2.1 to 1.4 million, but in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, Chinese civilians and militia are estimated to outnumber Tibetans almost two to one.
The influx of Chinese has caused a doubling of the population in Tibet. Prior to 1959, the best estimate and most widely used figure for the total population in the three provinces of Tibet was approximately six million Tibetans. Some Chinese lived in Tibet as well, but their numbers were roughly 1/14th what they are today: Chinese government statistics show the numbers of Chinese in 1953 in the prefectures and counties comprising Kham and Amdo to have totaled 426,000, and fewer would have lived in U-Tsang, which, due to its very high elevation, has long been considered unhealthy by many Chinese.
The fact that the Tibetans are now outnumbered in their own land as a result of deliberate government policies raises the gravest questions of cultural survival. The cultural devastation inherent in the population transfer policy is discussed in a number of publications. This paper focuses on the environmental impacts of the policy.
To understand the environmental impacts of doubling Tibets population, it is important to keep in mind two points. First, the terrain is particularly fragile, due to its very high altitude, and its human carrying capacity is low. Second, Chinese settlers bring with them a lifestyle demanding a much higher level of consumer goods, electrical energy, and different foodstuffs than are consumed by Tibetans. The traditional Tibetan way of life was in harmony with the limitations of such a high-altitude, fragile ecosystem. This way of life was, and remains, very simple on a material level, so much so that the Chinese are quite open about its being completely unacceptable to Chinese settlers accustomed to the material advantages of industrialized China. The impacts on the Tibetan landscape from absorbing these settlers have been severe, culturally and environmentally, and are discussed below.
A. Impacts on Grasslands and Agricultural Lands
Grass and rangeland is Tibets most extensive land resource, comprising roughly 70% of its area. By contrast, only 2% of the land is suited to farming, and yet the Tibetans adapted to the constraints of their land and, except for a disastrous period in the 1960s and 70s when the Chinese government was intervening most heavily in agricultural practices, famine has been unknown in Tibet in historical times. An intricate knowledge, evolved over centuries, of the capacities and needs of their fragile land enabled Tibetans to feed themselves reliably despite vagaries in weather. Now, the fertility of their land and its long-term carrying capacity are diminishing due to the pressures and governmental policies connected with the population transfer of Chinese settlers into Tibet.
For example, until 1959, 0.2% of U-Tsangs land was used for farming. The proportion is small in part because the plateau is so dry that farming is limited to the river valleys, where irrigation is possible. By 1991, agriculture had been expanded into former pasture areas and onto marginal slopes not previously considered suitable, such that 0.3% of the land was being farmed. This represents a 50% increase during the time of the Chinese occupation, necessitated by the increase in Chinese settlers in the area. Such expansion of farmland in a delicate environment has led to two basic problems: first, the marginal, often sloping lands now used for farming are prone to erosion. Second, the pastures expropriated for farming are often the former winter pastures of herders. Their loss means that the herd must be kept longer on the higher summer pastures, leading to overgrazing, which leads in turn to further soil erosion (due to reduced cover and weakened root structures), which leads to a permanent loss in the quality of the grass and thus the carrying capacity of the range.
The second impact of the influx of Chinese settlers is that despite the expansion into marginal or inappropriate land, the total cultivated land available per person has dropped sharply. As a result, the government has required farming practices intended to increase yields per hectare but which are reducing soil fertility over time. For example, in the Prefecture Ganze Zhou, between 1951 and 1981, cropland was expanded by 4,562 hectares, but because the population increased by 255,293 people, cropland per capita decreased from 0.17 to 0.11 hectares. Due to the continuing pressure of population increase, agricultural land per capita has been decreasing all over China as well as Tibet. The decline in arable land per capita in China is surely a large incentive behind population transfer into Tibet, but the fragile Tibetan lands cannot sustain the increased farming pressure being placed on them. This pressure has taken the form of requiring the farmers to grow new varieties of wheat instead of grain strains adapted by long usage to the high, dry climate, and requiring them to buy and use large amounts of fertilizer and pesticides, even though farmers complain that the chemicals are poisoning the land and crops. The heavy and inappropriate use of chemicals in China has been directly associated with a severe loss of soil fertility by Chinese scholars.
The problems for Tibetan nomads and other herders are similar to those faced by farmers: their flocks are being crowded onto marginal or inadequate lands due to changing land uses from the increasing Chinese presence, and the Chinese government is attempting to compensate for the reduced pasturage per animal by requiring inappropriate range-management activities. Herders are forced out of their former lower, winter pasturage not only by expanded agriculture, discussed above, but also by expropriation of lands for mining and military uses. The government has issued directives to the nomads that control the numbers and types of animals to be raised and fencing and access to pastureland.
The effort to employ scientific range management is certainly unobjectionable. However, the practices required to date have been ineffective and sometimes even harmful, reflecting their centralized origin, inadequate testing, and the low regard of Chinese policy makers for the knowledge of the nomads. Visiting scholars have emphasized the need for research into the likely impact of range management changes in the uniquely high-altitude setting before requiring such changes and the need to consult nomads in designing any such changes, in order to have the benefit of their unique knowledge of the Tibetan grassland ecology.
The Chinese press continues to announce record yields in both Tibetan agriculture and animal husbandry. However, Tibetans and, recently, some Chinese scientists have described severe environmental degradation resulting both from the governments inflexible policies and from the pressure to exceed the carrying capacity of the land. The most candid of the Chinese articles, published in the China Daily, described desertification in the once fertile 5,300-square-mile Gonghe Basin of Qinghai resulting from excessive cultivation and overgrazing. It noted scientists claims that up to 92% of the basin has been harmed or threatened by "overgrazing, irrational land reclamation and wanton denudation of surface vegetation." In addition, the 66-mile-long Longyang Gorge reservoir, Chinas largest, has increased wind speeds in the area up to 40% and reduced precipitation by 19%, further speeding the desertification process in the area. Grass production in the Tala region of the basin fell by 60% between 1963 and 1981 and the wool from sheep that graze in the region has become poor in quality. Most significantly, the article quoted the Qinghai Environmental Protection Bureau director, Zhou Yongling, to the effect that harm to the basins fragile ecology will be extremely difficult to remedy. It also noted that participants in a seminar on Qinghais environment had sharply disagreed with the Beijing governments position that population pressures in eastern China can be alleviated by sending settlers west. Sadly for Tibetans, however, a subsequent report quoted the Agricultural Minister, Liu Zhongyi, as acknowledging that environmental damage in the basin has been severe but insisting that population transfer must continue. He "asserted that bettering the lives of Chinas peasants outweighs concerns over environmental degradation in remote Qinghai province."
From a human rights perspective, two critical issues are raised in connection with Chinese government interference in Tibetan agriculture and range management. First is the most basic issue of the right to subsistence, whether it is couched as a right to sustainable development, a right to adequate living conditions, or a right to freely dispose of natural resources. The long-term carrying capacity of the grasslands and the fertility of farmlands in Tibet is being reduced to serve the short-term needs, not of Tibetans, but of the Chinese settlers and export market. The land is being rendered incapable of sustaining as many people as it did prior to Chinese occupation. By permanently reducing the lands fertility, the government is violating not only Tibetans present rights, but their future rights to self-determined and sustainable development.
The second human rights issue is the cultural loss connected with the deliberate dismantling of traditional farming and herding techniques. The government has now been intervening in land management for over 30 years. Average Tibetan life expectancy is considered to be between 40 and 61 years, depending on the study used. The ecological wisdom developed over time, which allowed Tibetans to subsist simply but without famine in their challenging terrain, could die out if too many decades pass without the resumption of local control.
B. Wildlife Depopulation
Reports by Western visitors to Tibet prior to the Chinese occupation comment on the extraordinary abundance of wildlife that could be seen throughout the country. Tibetans observed cultural and religious restrictions on killing. Nomads far from the religious centers were more likely to engage in hunting, but the inaccuracy of their antique weapons and the protection of forest habitat kept species healthy.
Both the abundance of wildlife and the culture of non-killing have been altered by the Chinese. A number of species have been pushed to near extinction by loss of habitat. The increased human activity resulting from the population transfer into Tibet and Chinese activities there all decrease available wild land. Mining, construction, expanded agricultural areas, and grazing that is pushed more intensively up the hillsides, all leave less room for wild animals. The deforestation discussed in Section III A. above, has been particularly harmful. It has exposed bears, wolves, mountain cats, musk deer and other species to hunting pressure from which they can no longer hide, made the more efficient by modem Chinese weaponry.
George Schaller, writing about the Tibetan antelope, or chiru, noted that "hunting pressure has increased with the advent of roads, vehicles, high-powered rifles, and a good market for meat and other animal products." The market exists despite the fact that the antelope is a class 1 protected species under Chinese law. These same hunting-risk factors affect many other species. Blue sheep are killed in large numbers for export of their meat to Europe. Musk deer are suffering heavy mortality in eastern Tibet due to the market for their musk pods. Within the last decade, bounties were still being paid for snow leopard pelts, even though they are on the IUCNs Red List, and there is a market for both their pelts and their bones, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. Chinese medicine shops also provide a market for the velvet antlers of red deer and white-lipped deer, as well as for the livers of Himalayan brown bear.
Organized hunting tours for endangered Tibetan species for Western sportsmen willing to pay up to $35,000 per animal have achieved some notoriety. There is one report that the Chinese government halted this commerce in endangered species in March 1989, but it seems to be rebutted by the fact that in late 1991, an official in the Tibetan Administration received a letter soliciting his involvement in just such an expedition to Amdo. While the acreage of protected reserves has increased dramatically in the last several years, the government does not seem prepared to devote the resources necessary to protect the animals in those reserves from human pressures. The limits to governmental concern are illustrated by the rather common reports in Chinese newspapers of incidents of poaching by Chinese officials. Meanwhile, every road that the government builds into previously isolated areas puts new populations of wild animals under hunting pressure due to the increased human access.
The combination of habitat loss and hunting has proved devastating to a number of species. Thirty Tibetan animal and bird species are listed as threatened on the IUCN Red List for 1990. Of these, at least four of the eighteen mammals are found only in Tibet, which is not surprising in that Tibetan flora and fauna are noted for an unusually high rate of endemism. Other species on that list, formerly found in a larger area, have been pushed into ever smaller ranges so that today a significant percentage of their total habitat lies inside Tibet. For example, 50% of the remaining habitat of the less than 1,000 remaining giant pandas is located in eastern Tibet. The pandas are subjected to serious poaching and even to pollution from a chemicals factory located at the periphery of one of their reserves. Other species, such as the Tibetan antelope, not present on the Red List because they still occur in moderate numbers in the remote northwest of Tibet, have already become extinct in eastern Tibet. Visitors today find a barren landscape where pre-occupation travelers saw what they described as an "unspoiled big-game paradise."
During the worst era of cultural abuse, the Chinese government ordered Tibetan monks and children in agricultural areas to kill a quota of birds, insects, and small animals daily on the theory that that would reduce crop losses. This was a profound affront to Tibetan religious beliefs as well as an affront to the ecosystem -- insects devoured crops once birds were no longer available to eat the insects. Currently, the government is requiring that the pika, a small grass-eater, be deliberately poisoned in large areas of the plateau because the government believes that doing so will help protect the grassland from overgrazing so it can support more domesticated animals. The environmental impacts of the poison are unknown; and two pika species are found only in Tibet and are on the IUCNs Red List for 1990. Such an activity is considered necessary only because the pikes natural predators have been killed off. It is difficult to know to what degree such government-required extermination programs have weakened individual Tibetans traditional reluctance to engage in non-essential killing. In any event, a number of Tibetans are now participants in the enhanced pace of wildlife killing for profit in the meat, medicinal, and pelt trades. The loss of a superb, diverse, and unique fauna is being accompanied by the loss of a unique culture that coexisted in harmony with that wildlife.
C. Inappropriate Hydroelectric Development at Yamdrok Tso
The third largest lake in Tibet, called Yamdrok Tso (Yamzhog Yumco to the Chinese), covers 624 square kilometers at an elevation of 4440.5 meters above sea level. Its water is a clear emerald green and it is regarded by Tibetans as one of their most sacred lakes. A place of pilgrimage, it is considered a special "life-power lake" or bla-mtso. In recognition of the spiritual and healing qualities of a bla-mtso, Tibetans circumambulate the lake as they would circumambulate a religious monument, and even the lakes fish are regarded as particularly sacred, with healing or medicinal value.
In a prime example of the disregard the Chinese government has shown for Tibetan culture, it chose Yamdrok Tso to be the site of a major hydropower facility. In the governments current five-year plan, construction of the facility is listed as one of the highest priority projects for energy production. The governments plan is to drill a 9.5-kilometer tunnel through adjacent Kampa La mountain [Chinese: Gamba La] so that lake water will drop 846 meters through the tunnel and turbines before entering the Tsangpo river [Chinese: Yarlung Zangbo], below. Construction has begun and China anticipates that the project will begin generating electricity by 1995 and be completed by 2000.
The hydroelectric plan for Yamdrok Tso was approved by China in 1985. Tibetans strenuously opposed the project. In 1985, members of the Tibetan Autonomous Region delegation to the National Peoples Congress in Beijing formally petitioned the government to cancel the project. This indicated opposition at an unusually high level consisting primarily of Communist party members. Until his death in 1989, the Panchen Lama, the highest placed of any Tibetan in the Chinese hierarchy, was a leader in the effort to stop the project. According to reports received by the International Campaign for Tibet:
The project was regarded as a test of Tibetan autonomy since Tibetans are supposed to have the right to regional autonomy under the Chinese Constitution. This right includes the right to manage and plan the local economy, and to protect, exploit and utilize local natural resources. The Tibetan delegation to the National Peoples Congress is reported to have been seeking to exercise these rights of autonomy to have a degree of control over their own land, natural resources and cultural sites and traditions.
The rights that the Tibetans were asserting under the Chinese Constitution are similar to those human rights of self-determination and sustainable development that the Sub-Commission is currently examining for environmental ramifications. And indeed, much of the Tibetan opposition has been focused on the environmental impacts of the hydroelectric project, in addition to the cultural and religious impacts. The environmental concerns relate to the projections that the lake level will drop approximately 7.6 centimeters per year once the project is operational. The concern was reportedly based upon an estimate by Chinese engineers that the lake contains enough water to power the turbines for 50 years. If the lake level falls, then the following environmental problems seem unavoidable:
1) The sacred lake will be marred by an increasing scar of exposed lake bottom around the perimeter, with the potential that the lake will ultimately be drained almost entirely. Given the high concentrations of minerals, including heavy magnesium carbonate and a number of harmful trace elements, found in the lakes water by analysts for the Chinese, the dust exposed by a shrinking lake level could be expected to pose chronic health hazards to area residents.
2) Significant shrinking of the lakes surface area would be expected to produce drier local weather patterns, reducing the amount of rain received by the areas barley crops.
3) The local Tibetans who depend on the lakes fish would lose their food supply.
The Chinese have suggested that a falling lake level could be managed by either draining a nearby lake, Puma Yumtso, to replenish Yamdrok Tso, which would simply shift the problem elsewhere, or by pumping water up from the Tsangpo during off-peak electrical consumption hours. Since the river water is dark brown with silt, adding it to the clear emerald lake would create a severe visual and possibly biological impact on the lake.
A final reason that Tibetans oppose the project is that the electricity generated would benefit primarily the residents of Lhasa, the majority of whom are Chinese, and the settlers in the neighboring agricultural valleys. By conventional Western standards, Tibet is indeed undersupplied with electrical power. However, Tibetans, while they welcome certain aspects of modernization, do not require much electricity to support their ways of life. As discussed above, Tibetans have made it abundantly clear, through their delegation to the National Peoples Congress, that they would not choose to develop Yamdrok Tso in order to expand their power base. The Chinese government is imposing this project on Tibet to meet the power needs and expectations of the Chinese settlers and to power factories of Chinese design and choosing. Indeed, Tibetan opposition is sufficiently intense that the Chinese have placed a contingent of 1500 members of the Peoples Armed Police at the site to guard construction.
The Chinese government, in its December 18, 1992 submittal to the Sub-Commission, wrote that as an autonomous region, Tibet has "the right to independently protect, exploit and use local natural resources according to the law." This hydropower project, under construction in knowing violation of the wishes of the Tibetan delegation, demonstrates that the Chinese government does not accord Tibet autonomy in protecting its resources.
Reports from Western observers who visited Tibet earlier in this century, before the Chinese occupation, emphasized the spiritual quality of the Tibetans relationship to their land and their profound sense of the interdependence of life forms. Their Buddhism had one of its clearest expressions in the care with which they husbanded their natural resources. The Tibet that existed before Chinese occupation was a pre-industrial, agrarian society. No one knows how Tibetans would have managed their transition into the modem world. What is clear is that the development and resource exploitation of the last forty years have reflected the Chinese governments values, in repeated violation of Tibetan practices and norms.
The unsustainable pace of deforestation, so far beyond the regenerative capacity of the land, is designed to meet the short-term resource needs of Chinas millions, leaving the Tibetans bereft of their timber and forest ecosystems, now and for foreseeable generations to come. The farming and grazing lands are being driven to support more settlers and more food exports than those fragile, high-altitude lands can sustain. Wildlife and native plants are being decimated because the markets for them remain uncontrolled and because preservation of their habitats conflicts with the governments ambitions in areas capable of human settlement. When they are allowed to do so, even Chinas own resource experts are writing of the irrationality of such intense, short-term abuse of the land and of the desertification and permanently reduced fertility that are becoming widespread in the wake of the abuse. The situation constitutes a direct denial of the Tibetan peoples right to determine the course of their development and the use of their resources. What is more, these rights will be impaired for generations because of the long-term effects of the current policies.
Finally, requiring Tibetans to change their practices and manage their land in a nonsustainable way violates their cultural and religious integrity. A peoples right to cultural integrity must include the right to act upon a cultural preference for biodiversity and healthy ecosystems in that peoples land. Over time, violation of a peoples spirit can have a coarsening effect; if the Chinese government continues to impose its values and practices, it is not inconceivable that Tibetans could lose their spiritual connection to their land. This would represent a cultural human rights loss as sad for Tibets future as the loss of the lands biodiversity and ability to sustain its people.