Editorial and Op Ed Articles
The recent fur burnings in Tibet generated much excitement and gave some hope to the beleaguered tiger campaign, but it was a short lived moment. Chinese authorities have given the burnings an unwanted political angle; It first began with people being detained by the authorities over fur burnings and orders to desist from public burning of furs.
On April 28, 2006 Radio Free Asia reported that the Chinese authorities in Qinghai province had instructed the Tibetan language broadcasters to wear fur. Qinghai, a region with more than 2 million Tibetans, was where the recent fur burnings have been most prominent. The ominous silence of Chinese wildlife organizations on the fur burnings in Tibet is glaring, particularly WWF China, whose recent report blames Tibetan high-fashion style for threatening the survival of tigers, and asserted that public education is needed to change Tibetans’ like for animal skins. London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) posted an unusual alert on its website on February 23, 2006 asking people to write to the Chinese Ambassador London to show support to the Tibetans burning fur.
The tiger campaign: missing the bigger picture The use of tiger skins was the main reason that international campaigns focused on the Tibetan community; yet, interestingly in the pictures of fur burnings from Tibet one could see mostly otter and leopard skins. However, the gloomy trend in the populations of Indian tiger, with some experts predicting extinction in the wild, is said to be caused by rampant poaching driven by demand for tigers in China and east Asian societies, where tiger parts are consumed for their supposed medicinal and aphrodisiac properties. The consumer market for tiger medicine is said to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually and goes mainly to Asians around the world.
A report, Following The Tiger Trail, by TIN (TibetInfoNet) posted January 31 this year on its website points to a larger sinister angle on the whole illegal trade in Tibet and beyond. The report also berates a dramatic EIA report based on anecdotal evidence and the subsequent media reception as too simplistic and inaccurate particularly with regard to their depiction of Tibetan culture and so-called new found economic boom in Tibetan region as fuelling the tiger trade. The report goes on to say how two or three syndicates in Tibet, enjoying high political connections, control the whole wildlife trade passing through Tibet, and the connection of these syndicates to a larger international crime network with links to south Asian mafias. The report says, “TibetInfoNet is in possession of a list of ten traders involved in illegal wildlife trafficking, all of whom are associated with at least one of the two syndicates mentioned above.…These traders are wealthy businessmen and have clear links to south Asian mafias.”
The EIA report also says, “The governments of India, Nepal and China are perfectly aware of the problem but apart from isolated seizures, no real coordinated and cooperative enforcement action has taken place. Our repeated calls for action have been met with promises on paper, but the tiger can’t cope with any more rhetoric.”
Did the international campaign to save tigers make a huge tactical mistake when they decided to focus on the Tibetan community and openly sought to use the influence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama? The campaign to save the tiger certainly cannot afford to get involved in political quagmires, particularly with China, whose support is critical to the tiger campaign. In addition to the problem of illegal cross-border trade in tiger parts between India and China, the black hole that is our understanding of the extent of the market for tiger medicines is one area for which China’s political support is crucial for an effective public education campaign.
At present, effective and targeted enforcement action is urgently needed to combat the criminal networks operating between India, Nepal, Tibet and China that are responsible for the trafficking of tiger and leopard skins. India and China have a wealth of information on the criminal networks involved, and it is essential that these countries share information and work together.
The fur burning in Tibet certainly gave a glimmer of hope to the tiger campaign, but the fate of remaining tigers in India will ultimately depend on the political wills of India and China to treat the trade in tiger parts as a serious international crime and to take concrete actions to stop this trade.
[*Namgyal is the Guest Editor of Trin-Gyi-Pho-Nya]
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Qinghai Bird flu caused by fish farms?
Almost a year after the outbreak of bird flu among the wild birds near Qinghai Lake (Tso Ngonpo) that killed tens of thousands of wild birds and Qinghai came to be associated with a deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu, new cases of flu among wild birds have been reported since late April near Qinghai Lake and in Yushu county, a remote nomadic region several hundred kilometers to the south of Qinghai Lake. The outbreak in wild birds continues to fuel fears that migratory birds as carriers of the deadly avian flu could lead to global pandemic. China’s secrecy and the stonewalling of requests for information on the flu outbreak continue to fuel speculation about the role of migratory birds in the spread of flu.
Over the past year, the spread of the flu has not been correlated with the migratory routes and seasons of wild birds. Indeed, some global studies have found that migratory birds are not the cause of the current wave of bird flu outbreaks stalking large parts of the world. Rather, outbreaks have been concentrated in the factory farms of China, South East Asia and elsewhere in the world. In India, the epicenter of outbreak of bird flu took place in 18 poultry farms in and around Navapur in Maharashtra. Since the Qinghai Lake outbreak last year, outbreaks in other parts of world have occurred along major transport routes. However increasing evidence suggests that commercial poultry and its products, not migratory bird populations, are the likely vectors of avian flu.
Fish farms and wild bird flu on Qinghai Lake At present, a new theory is gaining ground that the outbreak in wild birds near Qinghai Lake may be linked to fish farms around the lake. As early as 1998, scientists cautioned that human health hazards like an influenza pandemic could arise from the practice of bringing together fish farms with farm livestock. Some researchers say that bird flu may be spread by using chicken dung as feed in fish farms, a practice now routine in Asia.
According to Le Hoang Sang, deputy director of the Ho Chi Minh City's Pasteur Institute, “Chicken excrement is one of the main carriers of the H5N1 virus, which can survive in a cool and wet environment for a month and slightly less if in water.” In January, a 9-year-old boy died from bird flu in the Mekong Delta province of Tra Vinh after he caught it while swimming in water in which the bodies of infected poultry had been thrown. BirdLife International, a global body for bird protection groups in more than 100 countries, is calling for an investigation into the possibility that the fish in these ponds, which are fed with chicken dung, may be the means by which the new strain of avian influenza, H5N1, is being spread. It says that outbreaks of H5N1 have occurred this year at locations in China, Romania and Croatia where there are fish farms.
The above theory, if proven right, puts a serious question mark over this practice, which has been promoted actively by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). FAO have been active in the development of commercial aquaculture, particularly in Qinghai Lake, and is said to have helped establish an integrated livestock-fish farm near the lake in the early 1990s. Qinghai Lake is the largest inland lake on the Tibetan Plateau and its Bird Island attracts thousands of seasonal bird populations including cormorants, gulls and other species that feed upon the fingerlings and naked carp, a species endemic to the Lake and commercially fished.
Commercial fishing was first carried out in 1958, and since the late 1980s the agricultural potential of the Qinghai Lake area was being recognized and development encouraged, resulting in a rapidly growing livestock industry. Due to abundance and good quality of water near Qinghai Lake, attempts at introduction of exotic fish species are being made. Fish farming was encouraged, both in the lake and in surrounding reservoirs, supported by local fish feed manufacturing facilities. Only an independent investigation into the cause of flu among wild birds will tell whether the increased development of fisheries in and around the Qinghai Lake has caused massive deaths in the wild birds of Qinghai Lake.
[*Namgyal is the Guest Editor of Trin-Gyi-Pho-Nya]
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Stop Tibet's gold rush in the international market
By Tashi Tsering*
Tibet is virgin territory for western mining companies. So far mostly small private mining activities have been able to operate on the Tibetan Plateau. This has been mainly due to lack of capital, technology, transportation infrastructure and political confidence to open Tibet to western companies. However, circumstances have now changed. China has become a booming economic power, western companies are issued business contracts to bring in their capital and technical expertise, and there is the ideal transportation medium - the recently completed Golmud-Lhasa railway. These changing circumstances are creating a rush among Chinese and western companies to exploit Tibet’s minerals, threatening to cause large-scale environmental destruction reminiscent of the indiscriminate logging of Tibet’s forests from the 1960s-1990s.
Unfortunately, there is no stopping the Chinese government or its companies from executing their resource extraction plans inside Tibet. Local community leaders must fast educate themselves about this impending challenge and protect their legitimate rights granted by the Chinese Constitution before it is too late. They must partner with concerned authorities and members of civil society and the media to raise public awareness of the environmental and social costs of mining and to ensure compliance of Chinas domestic laws, such as the 2003 Environment Impact Assessment Law, in the implementation of these projects.
Whether western companies must be encouraged or discouraged from this gold rush is a hot topic these days as western companies are beginning to operate mines inside Tibet. The Guidelines for International Development Projects and Sustainable Investment in Tibet articulated by the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala, suggests that Tibetans do not want western mining companies. In this debate, Tibetans must be clear that mining is not development. It is resource extraction. In addition to the loss of precious minerals, the environmental costs of mining are huge no matter how carefully and scientifically the mining operations are undertaken. It doesn’t matter if the glass is broken with a hammer or hands in gloves, a glass broken is a glass broken. If western investment is unopposed, mining in Tibet will only become larger in the scope of its extraction and environmental degradation, through the actions of both Chinese and western companies.
Modern gold mining that western companies are introducing in Tibet, for example, is a machine-, chemical- and water-intensive endeavor in which hundreds of tons of rock are moved and processed for every ounce of gold extracted. An estimated 200 tons of rock yield 1 ounce of gold, 80% of which are used for nonessential applications such as jewelry. Since cyanide is the chemical of choice for gold mining industry -- one tablespoon of a 2% cyanide solution is enough to kill a human being -- the downstream environmental risks cannot be overemphasized especially because mines of interest to western companies are all situated near rivers. Additionally, the nature of mining activity is such that it will provide absolutely nothing to the local Tibetan communities other than maybe some unskilled job opportunities, often in risky and toxic environments. And as larger areas of Tibet are mined, more communities will be forcefully relocated.
If western companies are to be discouraged from making profit by plundering and fueling Tibet’s problems, the time to act is now. Currently, there are only a few companies involved. They are mostly Canadian companies and they are all in the beginning phases of operation. If unopposed, these projects will become fully operational and expand in size, attracting many more companies into the gold rush. The Vancouver based Continental Minerals, for example, is currently on a roll to raise more money to fully exploit its 12 square kilometer Shenthongmon gold mine near Shigatse in central Tibet, and acquire interest in another 109 square kilometers of land nearby. Although the fate of the Shenthongmon mountains are doomed, since Chinese companies will take over operation even if Continental leaves Tibet, a campaign against Continental and other western companies operating in Tibet is still worthwhile to stop them from expanding their operations and to discourage other companies from entering a politically disputed territory that is Tibet.
[*Tashi Tsering is the editor of Trin-Gyi-Pho-Nya]
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