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Prospecting The Treasure House (Himal)

Himal, Nepal.

BY | Carey L Biron

When Beijing heralded the opening of the new Qinghai-Lhasa train line in early July last year, Tibetans, environmentalists and human-rights activists across the globe worried in anticipation of the hoards of Han Chinese - tourists and settlers alike - that would now be able to flood onto the 'roof of the world'. When the project was originally announced in 2001, the Dharamsala government-in-exile dubbed it a "disaster", for reasons of both population influx and environmental damage. With around 4000 passengers now riding the rails every day (in 1980, a fourth that number of tourists visited during the whole year), those worries may indeed prove warranted. But in fact, just as much emphasis should probably have been placed on what the new 1965 km-long train tracks would be able to ship out.

In mid-February, Beijing published a report announcing the 'discovery' of an estimated USD 128 billion worth of minerals in more than 600 sites in Tibet - a result of a seven-year programme by more than a thousand surveyors to geologically map the plateau. Their findings are large enough to astound: a billion tonnes of iron ore, 40 million tonnes each of lead and copper. Such a backyard stockpile would be a huge shot in the arm for the Chinese economy, which has struggled increasingly in recent years to keep up with domestic demand for raw minerals in the face of steeply rising international prices. If the finds are as large as Beijing reports, they would double China's current stores of lead, copper and zinc. Tibet's mineral wealth seems to now justify the alluring traditional Chinese name for central Tibet - Xizang, roughly translating to 'Western Treasure House'.

In the past, the focus has been on Tibet's oil reserves, which in 2005 were estimated at roughly 10 billion tonnes - a tantalising lode for the world's second-largest oil importer. But oil production in Tibet has remained low, in part because Western oil companies - including Shell and BP - have faced harsh public criticism in the West for any involvement. It is not clear how quickly Beijing will move from prospecting to extraction of Tibet's ores; at present, less than one percent of the discovered mining spots has been explored.

The fact is that there simply has not been the infrastructure required to move raw products out of the Tibetan hinterland in any kind of large-scale process. While there are now two major pipeline projects working to bring Tibetan oil to mainland China, construction on these only got underway in 2000 and 2002. Mineral transport, of course, is even more difficult an undertaking. But with the opening of the Qinghai-Lhasa train line, as well as the multitude of planned rail spurs and access roads, a major step has been taken towards realising this goal. Indeed, cargo service along the track was opened to business in March 2006 - a full four months before the unveiling of the passenger service. Rail operators are charging just RMB 0.12 (USD 0.14) per kilometre to transport one tonne of cargo.

Ultimately, the flow of Tibet's mineral wealth may not be heading only northeast to the mainland. A survey will be finalised in May for a 253-km southward extension of the train track to Xigaze, located near the border with India, Bhutan and Nepal. Construction is slated to begin as early as July, just a year after the initial line opened. Utilising trains capable of moving around 120 km per hour, the new track is slated to eventually carry ten million tonnes of cargo per year. Meanwhile, Beijing has been making increasingly louder noises over the past year about additional rail connections directly to Nepal and India.

A colony's wages As rich stocks of minerals are shipped out of Tibet, it looks as though their concomitant wealth will follow. Even as critics warn about the impact of Chinese strip-mining on the area's fragile ecosystem, others worry that Beijing is acting more and more the colonist in Tibet. One recently arrived refugee in Kathmandu noted in December that mining in the Yulung area has indeed led to short-term economic benefits among the local nomad villages. Each individual received initial compensation of RMD 40,000 (USD 5160) in order to quell anger over the mining of a sacred mountain, reportedly with more payments to come. (When large-scale extraction at Yulung began in 2005, it was estimated that the area would produce nearly USD 260 million of copper per year.) But the man also noted that, even with more than ten loaded cargo trucks per day leaving the Yulung facility for the mainland, there has been no further benefit to Tibetans. "No locals are allowed to go into the mining area," he explains. "Nearly all the workers and officials there are Chinese nowadays."


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