Editorial and Op Ed Articles
By Tashi Tsering*
In the last few weeks, people in Tibetan villages and communities across the Tibetan Plateau and diaspora have been making bonfires of their clothing decorated with endangered species' skins and other animal products. The reported quantities of burnt skins -- inflated accounts estimated in the millions of dollars -- must raise the eyebrows of people who are not familiar with contemporary Tibetan dress culture, especially clothing worn during festivals in the Amdo and Kham regions (now incorporated into the provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan and Gansu). Even Tibetans in exile are surprised at the apparent extent of their people's involvement in the consumption of (and trade in) endangered animal products.
This sudden mass rejection of the use of animals’ skins on their traditional garments came in response to the Dalai Lama's repeated calls at a religious gathering -- January 2006 Amravati Kalachakra Teachings -- attended by a roughly estimated 100,000 Tibetans including 10,000 from Tibet. Various Tibetan groups engaged in environmental education campaigns in Amravati, especially targeting pilgrims from Tibet. However, it is wrong to assume that Tibetans in Tibet were not aware of the plight of these endangered animals before the Kalachakra. Many religious and environmental leaders in Kham and Amdo areas and even a rock band from Lhasa have been involved in educating their followers about endangered species issues for at least the last two years. However, the current wave of mass burning of animal skins was unexpected, and now the Chinese government, which use to support grassroots environmental initiatives around these issues earlier, has restricted Tibetan environmental efforts. The bonfire campaigns certainly have symbolic significance, their strategic sensibility and implications are becoming increasingly questionable.
Both the Tibetan involvement in the international trade in endangered species products and the campaigns to curb this situation, unfortunately, have been increasingly politicized by interest groups and the media. Much of the impetus in this campaign in exile was actually sparked by certain scathing remarks by the Indian parliamentarian and animal rights activist, Maneka Gandhi, on an Indian TV news channel in November 2005. Maneka Gandhi essentially alleged that all Tibetans are poachers and that India should throw them out of the country. Similarly, international media attention was aroused by the Wildlife Protection Society of India and the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency at a press conference in September 2005, by providing shallow research findings with striking images of Tibetans exotically sporting large quantities of animal skins on their traditional dresses. Such hyped up stereotyping could have disastrous consequences for the politically vulnerable Tibetans who are sandwiched between the whims of India and China, especially now that common Tibetans have come out of the closet with their illegal animal products.
Quite predictably, in this blame game, Tibetans and supporters have accused the Chinese government of being the main culprit. They point to the fact that the Chinese government allows and encourages these practices for political and commercial reasons, as evidenced by the popular Chinese media's depiction of the Tibetan people as an economically rich yet exotic people fond of showing off wild animals' skins. What purpose this blame game serves is quite unclear, but it is obvious that the limited Tibetan involvement is only a part of a much larger international syndicate that supplies animal body parts, such as bones and organs for their presumed healing qualities in traditional Chinese medicine. Meanwhile, Chinese authorities have been prompt in their response: banning communal bonfires of animal skins, withdrawing support for local environmental efforts, especially around endangered species issues and arresting activists involved in the campaign on charges of being politically influenced by the "Dalai clique."
Both China and India are signatories to international covenants such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna and the Biodiversity Convention. In addition to international legal obligation to take action, the two countries now have an opportunity to develop bilateral ties by collaborating with the Tibetans to save many animals from extinction, especially the Bengal tiger and Tibetan antelope. China must first release the arrested activists and the two governments must openly welcome and support the Tibetan people's efforts to abandon the use of endangered species products. The two governments should provide support in the form of environmental education resources and help channel the current energy in Tibetan communities towards taking action against the poachers and smugglers who are the key culprits.
The various individuals and groups that are responsible for this uncoordinated campaign have far more work to do now. Please do not call these bonfires an "accomplished campaign" just yet. The real fire of this campaign must burn in people's minds in the form of knowledge and appreciation for nature's biological diversity. This fire should be sustained through public education programs in schools, monasteries and homes. Merely sending smoke signals of Tibetan national solidarity to the Dalai Lama--without substantive environmental education or a political goal--will only make the situation more precarious.
[*Tashi Tsering is the editor of Trin-Gyi-Pho-Nya]
Back to Editorial and Op Ed Page
Nortel wins China pipeline contract
By Carole Samdup*
PetroChina, the state owned operators of China's controversial West-East Gas Pipeline have chosen Nortel Networks to supply communications, both wired and wireless, along its 4,200-kilometre route. The pipeline is the longest in China, spanning nine provinces, and will transport natural gas from the rich Lunnan gas fields of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region all the way to the economic hub of Shanghai and other regions of the Yangtze River Delta.
In September 2001, BP announced that it would pull out of the West-East pipeline project following an international campaign spearheaded by non-governmental organizations concerned about potential negative impacts on human rights and environmental protection.
China's leaders have since staked their credibility on successful completion of the pipeline. It has become a central component of the much-touted "Go West" initiative, introduced by President Jiang Zemin in 1999 as a way to lift China's western provinces out of poverty by pumping billions of dollars into the region, mostly for large infrastructure projects. Observers, however, claim that China’s “Go West:” strategy is more about political control than about development.
"This pipeline is being built more for political reasons than for economic reasons," said Dinakar Sethuraman, an analyst with World Gas Intelligence in Singapore. "Its prospects for profit are cloudy."
Nortel has a long involvement in China and has played a key role in its technological advancement. Nortel maintains a significant research and development centre in Guangdong and a joint research project with Tsinghua University in Beijing. In recent years, Nortel has been winning critical infrastructure network supply contracts such as the US $10 million project to build a citywide fibre-optic broadband network in Shanghai and more recently with China's railway networks including the highly controversial Golmud-Lhasa railway. Nortel now appears poised to provide key communications capacity to Chinese utilities such as water management facilities and energy providers - oil and gas as well as electricity.
Human rights advocates have long claimed that Nortel’s communications technology facilitates the expansion of China’s vast architecture of surveillance, which includes speech and face recognition, closed-circuit television, smart cards, credit records, and Internet surveillance technologies – all used by authorities to control the flow of information and to curb the activities of democracy and human rights activists (see “China’s Golden Shield: Corporations and the Development of Surveillance Technology in the People’s Republic of China” at www.dd-rd.ca).
On January 27, 2006, a shareholders resolution was presented to Nortel by Vancouver-based Ethical Funds Company, stating that the corporation, its officers and its directors may be criminally liable if found to be complicit in human rights violations in China. The resolution requests that Nortel prepare a report for its shareholders by November 2006, describing how its policies and management procedures promote and protect human rights in China and in Tibet and that it cooperate with independent human rights assessments (see: http://www.ethicalfunds.com/do_the_right_thing/sri/shareholder_action/shareholder_resolutions.asp.).
[*Carole Samdup is a program officer at Montreal-based Rights & Democracy.]
Back to Editorial and Op Ed Page
Copyright 1998-2005, Tibet Environmental Watch (TEW)