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Tibet Mineral Deposits Worth Billions

Discovery could have major negative impacts for region, world

Alan Mota (Ohmynews.com)

China's actions toward reassuring its dominance over its territories have been growing lately, and Tibet has been experiencing the most interventions. Among the latest actions in the region are a massive militarization of the area, where an estimated number of 300,000 to 500,000 troops are now stationed, and the construction of a railroad link. According to the Dalai Lama, the railway has become a way for the government to force the handicapped, beggars, and prostitutes into Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, which has increased the danger of AIDS infection. He termed the railroad "the second invasion of Tibet."

But a new development presents both a much bigger opportunity and a much bigger danger to Tibet. The Chinese government has just announced the conclusion of a seven-year, US$44 million geological study on Tibet. The region, one of poorest in China, has nothing less than $128 billion dollars worth of minerals lying under its unexplored soil.

The mineral reserves include approximately 40 million tons of copper, 40 million tons of lead and zinc, and over a billion tons of iron ore. There's also a possibility of finding other kinds of minerals in the area. "We'll speed up the surveying process to more accurately locate these minerals," the geologist Zhang Hongtao, head of the 1,000-scientist team that conducted the works, said to the national newspaper China Daily. And as if that's not enough, there are still 2.6 million square kilometers to be explored.

The project, which was secretly conducted by the Chinese government, seems to be the true reason for building the controversial $4 billion railroad, that was deemed pointless by many before this revelation.

Now an already unhappy Dalai Lama, who condemned the railroad and the tourist invasion as the latest attempt from the Chinese government to suffocate Tibet, will have much more to fear. The leaking of the research reports that anticipated the Chinese government's announcement -- nothing that big could be held hidden for too long -- is said to have prompted a gold rush that has been clogging the streets of Lhasa and filling its hotels to maximum capacity. The minerals brought not only the multinational giants of the sector, after the biggest mines, but also medium and small Chinese businessmen from other parts of the country eager to get a piece of the action.

The main question that arises with this economic revolution in China's poorest region is, would Tibet be better off without it?

The precedents for combining a poor region, political tension, vast natural resources, foreign money and authoritarianism give little reason for optimism. Africa is the ultimate proof of how tragic this recipe can be. And even though China has a gigantic army, political control over the country and no restraint in using it, Tibet would be probably one of the worst places in the world for this discovery to be made. No wonder this has made several humanitarian NGOs and the Dalai Lama shiver. The possibility of this mineral adventure ending in a peaceful manner -- and above all things, being beneficial to the locals -- is not exactly great.

Another major concern is the potential environmental damage the future explorations may cause. The Chinese government is not known for caring much about the environment, and now Tibet, one of the few conserved environments in the country, runs the risk of being completely torn apart by mineral-hungry digging machines and the ever- growing presence of the people that will sustain the mining empire about to rise in the once peaceful region. Considering the closed nature of the Communist Party, it will be harder than ever for environmental organizations to watch the development of the region and ensure its sustainability.

The effects of this new mining haven on the international commodity market is also unpredictable. A reserve that big in the country that has been driving commodity prices up year after year will have a huge impact on China's imports, affecting not only the importers inside the country, but also the countries they import the minerals from, where the mining companies, unaware of Tibet's mineral riches, have been investing like never before. Many of the mineral exporters are also poor countries that usually depend on one or two commodities to keep their fragile economies going. With the probable decrease in prices and demand in China -- the biggest mineral importer for the rest of the world -- what is going to be the political outcome in such fragile countries? Can they handle one more unexpected crisis?

Just like everything in China, the size of the reserves and the impact of the news on the rest of the world is gigantic. And once more the fate of the world remains in the hands of the central government, trying to find out how they are going to handle the situation. All that is left to do is to figure out a way to adapt to whatever China decides.

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