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The global cost of China's destruction of the 'roof of the world'

Sylvia Downes

11th May, 2012

China's least talked about crime against Tibet is the damage to the Tibetan plateau: dams, deforestation, mining, poaching and the dumping of nuclear waste. And it is impacting on all of us

Much has been written about Tibet under Chinese rule: the religious persecution, the population transfer, the ongoing suffering of the Tibetan people, but I wish to draw attention to the environmental damage the Chinese have inflicted on the plateau.  This is a matter that concerns us all. In the same way that the damage to the rain forest affects the people of the entire planet so the damage to the Tibetan plateau has consequences for peoples far beyond the Tibetan borders.

During the sixty years of Chinese occupation there has been an ongoing mass damming programme on the many rivers flowing from the Tibetan plateau. The Indus, Mekong, Irrawaddy, Yangtze, Yellow, Salween, Brahmaputra, Karnali and Sutlej all rise in Tibet. The tributaries of these rivers are vital to millions of people on the Asian continent and sustain the life of, it is estimated, 47 per cent of the world population. The rivers flow into ten countries: China, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Recent severe floods in Pakistan, China and Bangladesh has been attributed to the damming of rivers on the plateau.

Parts of southern and eastern Tibet are home to some of the best forest reserves in the world. Some of these contain trees which have taken over 100 years to mature, reaching 90 feet. Nevertheless these forests are now being destroyed in the name of ‘development’. Lorries loaded with felled trees roll towards the ‘Chinese border’ every day. Tibet had 25.2 million hectares of forest in 1959.  By 1985 13.57 million hectares remained. Now, by China’s own estimate 80 per cent of the Tibetan forests have been destroyed.  

The Chinese government is aware of the environmental damage done by the rape of the Tibetan forests and is trying to implement reforestation programmes. But so far - mainly due to the corruption of local officials, who would rather line their own pockets than take any notice of dictates from Beijing - the reforestation initiatives have been largely unsuccessful.  

Chinese environmentalists themselves have pointed out that the destruction of the Tibetan forests has resulted in soil erosion leading to deposits of silt which in turn leads to the rise of the river beds. The consequence of this, together with the damming projects, has been massive flooding and landslides down stream. The Yangtze flood in 1998, which claimed the lives of thousands was blamed by President Jiang Zemin on rampant deforestation on the Tibetan Plateau.  The frequent flooding that devastates Bangladesh has also been directly associated with the deforestation of Tibet. The recent flooding of the Indus valley, especially severe in Pakistan, is a direct consequence of both over-damming of the rivers and the deforestation on the Tibetan plateau.

Before the Chinese invaded Tibet the people lived in harmony with the natural environment. This nature friendly way of life disappeared with the coming of a materialistic ideology. The invasion was followed by wide-spread environmental destruction: massive deforestation, overgrazing, uncontrolled mining, nuclear waste dumping, soil erosion leading to landslides and the destruction of many species of birds and animals.  

Buddhism teaches the interconnectedness of all living things and prohibits the killing of animals. Before the Chinese invasion the animal and bird-life was safe. Not any more. Now the Chinese actively encourage trophy hunting of wild species. Rare animals like the Tibetan snow leopard are hunted for their fur, which is sold on the international market for large sums of money. You can buy a permit to shoot an endangered Tibetan antelope for US$35,000 or an argali wild sheep for $23,000. Deer antlers, musk, bones and other parts of wild animals are used in Chinese medicine and many animals including blue sheep and wild yak are being poached by hunters to supply meat markets in China.

The Tibetan people have suffered more directly from a series of disastrous ‘agricultural reforms’ however. Because these ‘reforms’ have taken no account of the harsh climate they have led to wide-spread famine, unknown before the coming of the Chinese. One such reform forced the substitution of wheat (unsuitable for the climate) in place of the barley, which has been the Tibetan staple since time immemorial.
 
Furthermore the intensive agricultural production has resulted in the loss of many medicinal herbs, plants and destroyed winter food supplies. The various ill-thought-out programmes have led to wind and water erosion and desertification. According to the Chinese authorities, 120,000 square kilometres of land in China and Tibet have become deserts as a result of human activity. Nevertheless the interference in the traditional and environmentally friendly farming methods continues. Chinese authorities are still forcing Tibetan farmers to use chemical fertilisers and insecticides.  Many of these are harmful to the crops as well as to the environment.

The Chinese agricultural policies are not the only ones that make life difficult for the Tibetans still living on the plateau. The once pristine landscape of Tibet is now subject to a series of China’s ‘development’ projects. One of the worst is the hydroelectric station at Yamdrok Lake, situated south west of Lhasa. This project is causing a beautiful lake – sacred to Tibetans – to dry up. The development of the area has been going on since the nineties and it was early in 1993 that the fresh water springs first became dry. As a consequence the local villagers were forced to drink the water from Yamdrok Tso. It was only when the local people began to suffer from diarrhoea, hair loss and skin disease that they realised the waters of their beautiful lake were polluted. These people have forfeited 165 hectares of their land to a project that has caused them harm.  It is estimated that within 20 years the lake will have drained completely.

Dumping of radioactive nuclear waste

Perhaps even more disturbing is the fact that Tibet has proved an ideal venue for the Chinese government’s development of its nuclear capability. Tibet watchers have known for some time that China has been dumping nuclear waste on the plateau. Only recently have the Chinese authorities admitted it though. Last year it was announced on the official news agency that there was a twenty square metre dump for radioactive pollutants in Haibei Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture near the shores of Lake Kokonor, the largest lake in Tibet. 

The first nuclear weapon was brought onto the Tibetan Plateau in 1971 and stationed in the Tsaidam basin, north Amdo. The Tsaidam Basin is an ideal site for nuclear development. It has a high altitude and is isolated.  Nuclear missiles have since been stationed at Nagchuka, 150 miles north of Lhasa and recently it was confirmed that there are three nuclear missile deployment sites in Amdo at Large Taidam, Small Tsaidam and Terlingkha.  These sites house Dong Feng Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles with a range of 7,000 km. One of the newest missile production centres is located at Drotsang 63 km east of Siling. Anti frigate missiles are tested here on Lake Koklor.

The North Nuclear Weapons research and Design Academy is China’s secret nuclear city, adjacent to the town of Halyan in the Haibai Prefecture, Amdo. A doctor who worked at a nearby hospital directly south of the nuclear city reported that 7 children of nomads, whose cattle graze near the academy, developed cancer that caused their white blood count to rise uncontrollably. The symptoms were similar to those caused by radiation after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings in 1945. Many women in this region have given birth to stillborn babies.

An underground missile storage centre is located at Payi town in Kongpo Nyingtri, TAR. Local people reported that during mock military exercises a large number of missiles were taken out of the complex, mounted on 20 trucks and fired at pre-arranged targets. There is a lot of talk about ‘weapons of mass destruction’ these days, but no one ever seems to mention China in this context, or have I been missing something? 

The benefits of Chinese occupation

It is too simplistic to assume that the history of the Chinese occupation of Tibet has been an entire disaster for the Tibetans. At various times the Chinese government has tried to win over the people by improving the material wealth of the country. They have increased the average national income, developed industry and in certain areas improved living conditions. Many Chinese believe that they liberated the Tibetan peasants from exploitation by a medieval feudal state and a religious establishment.

Chen Kuiyuan, who at one time held the position of First Secretary of the Chinese Communist party and was the most powerful man in TAR (the Tibet Autonomous Region), said, 'The central committee of the Chinese Communist party and the State Council have been urging the Chinese people to fully support the rapid development of Tibet and to help the Tibetan people out of poverty and become rich.'

No one disputes the fact that Beijing has poured both money and resources into the Tibetan Autonomous Region. 

In 1997 Beijing’s outlay for TAR was 3,300,009,776 Yuan.  If this is looked at in terms of the population of Tibet, in 1997 Beijing gave every Tibetan, 1,410 Yuan ($200). 

In 1985 Beijing initiated 62 construction projects to coincide with the anniversary of the establishment of the autonomous region and in 1995 another 62 projects. The Chinese government point out the economic development of Tibet has made most Tibetans materially better off that at any other time in their long history. 

Tibetan plateau and global climate change

But the truth is that all this ‘development’ of the Tibetan plateau was got at a price. And it is a price that we all might be compelled to pay.

Some environmental scientists believe that the destruction over the last sixty years of the Tibetan environment (damming of rivers, deforestation, and desertification) could be impinging on the climate of the entire planet. This is because the plateau, lying at the altitude that it does, is closely bound up with the global jet-stream. When the jet-stream changes course, weather patterns also change. A modification in the jet-stream can have dire consequences. A Pacific typhoon could be one, the El Nino phenomenon, another. As well as altering weather patterns these cataclysmic events stir up the ocean bed and cause disruption to marine life food chains. The livelihoods of many on the north and south America western seaboard depend on the sea so the prosperity of thousands of people can be affected jet-stream activity. The droughts followed by severe flooding in Australia are a direct result of El Nino which also affects the monsoon, vital to South Asia. 
 
Once, a land where the environment was pristine, a land where birds and animals prospered, Tibet has been exploited and industrialised by the Chinese to such an extent that the natural environment is ruined, perhaps for ever. Once a peaceful buffer state between India and China, Tibet now is militarised to the point of holding 300,000 – 500,000 Chinese troops and up to a quarter of China’s nuclear missile force.
 
Once a hidden, isolated, mysterious. A secret land with a unique culture and environment on ‘the roof of the world’. Lhasa, its capitol was the ‘forbidden city.’ Now all this is lost and, perhaps, it is not just the Chinese that are to blame.

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