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ICJ: Mining and Other Environmental Impacts

Extraction of minerals occurs both officially and unofficially. Unofficial mining, in a country which until recently commanded both resources and labour, has spread unchecked. China now has a population of at least 100 million displaced peasants seeking some way of surviving, unwelcome in the great cities where they greatly outnumber the available jobs. Much of this floating population is willing to follow rumours of fabulous lodes found in remote areas. The resulting rush is entirely without official standards, supervision or regulation, other than the extortion of bribes by officials to not interfere.

Large numbers of vagrant Chinese immigrants descend on particular locations, sometimes conscripting local Tibetans as labourers, to work deposits with no thought to environmental consequences. Cyanide is commonly used in processing gold, and the most accessible deposits are alluvial, with residues returned immediately to the stream.

Official mining in Tibet is still at an early stage. “The [Tibet] autonomous region is determined to make mining the mainstay of its economy.” The total value of known reserves of economic minerals in TAR is put at 650 billion yuan. The Chinese have published 19 volumes of collected papers describing Tibet's mineral wealth. The TAR Mining Bureau employs 2400 people, almost half of them Tibetans.Current Chinese practice is that major mines are state-owned, requiring the state to be both the profit earner and environmental regulator. There may be a conflict of interests, as the state pursues maximizing its revenues, thus neglecting the legitimate concerns of workers and local communities near the mine.

Mining is highly localised, often happening in remote areas, and requires that a mining town be built, such as Bayi, (First of August Town), currently under construction in Kham, at the Yulong copper mine. Under the Chinese plan, each county throughout Tibet is to have an urban centre, to accelerate the urbanization of all Tibet, and Bayi is to be one such urban centre, "so that it will become a major city of the region."

The decades of mining, resource extraction and industrialization of Qinghai have a marked environmental impact. “Excessive and rapid economic development in the [Huangshui] valley in recent years have caused soil erosion, water pollution and a water shortage. Hundreds of thousands of litres of polluted water have been poured into the river each day, untreated. Dozens of ferrosilicon, iron, steel, aluminium and silicon carbide plants are releasing thick smoke every day. Some 76% of the valley’s 16,000 sq. km. area has suffered soil erosion and water loss.

Urbanization concentrates human activity, to the exclusion of other life, and concentrates the generation of wastes. Lhasa already fully occupies its valley, reducing farmable land. Urban growth far beyond any historic level requires import of grains and other necessities from great distances, consuming fossil fuels burned at low efficiencies. Tibet’s loss of self-sufficiency has great environmental impact. The maintenance of a modern Chinese lifestyle in Tibet requires importation of almost everything, along supply lines stretching to coastal China.

Urban wastes are increasingly problematic as Lhasa’s population now approaches 200,000, with no adequate treatment of wastes before discharge into the Kyichu River,Ê a tributary of the Tsangpo, which is known in India and Bangladesh as the Brahmaputra. Large scale infrastructure investment has not gone into water treatment. Higher priority has always been given to installing technologies of population monitoring and surveillance.

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