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Tibet: Environment and Development Issues

[Environment and Development Desk; Department of Information and International Relations; Central Tibetan Administration; Dharamsala, INDIA. April 26, 2000.]


At the global level, trees and forests are closely linked with weather patterns and also the maintenance of a crucial balance in nature. Hence, the task of environmental protection is a universal responsibility of us all.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama,1995.

IN SUMMER 1998, the worst flooding of the (Drichu) Yangtze River to ravage China since 1954 killed between 3,656 and 10,000 people and left 240 millions affected by its waters. As well as devastating 64 million hectares of farmland and destroying 4.8 million hectares of crops, 5.6 million homes were destroyed and Xinhua (1998h) reported that over 0.5 percentage points were shaved off from the economic growth resulting in a direct financial loss of US$37.5 billion. Epidemics followed due to the spread of sewer and latrine contents. According to China Daily the flood was expected to shift one million citizens' incomes to below the poverty line of US$75 a year (Pomfret 1998b; Tibetan Review 1998b).

The Chinese government was slow to confess that a major cause of the Yangtze flood was extensive deforestation at the river's source, which lies deep inside the Tibetan provinces of Amdo and Kham. While the flow rates of the Yangtze at that time were below historic highs, water levels exceeded previous records due to increased silting. Chinese statistics state that the Yangtze then peaked at approximately 55,000 cubic metres per second, a rate it had exceeded 23 times since 1949. It has been estimated that the Yangtze now discharges 500 million tons of silt a year into the East China Sea, a volume equivalent to the total discharge of the Nile, Amazon and Mississippi Rivers combined (Pomfret 1998b; He 1991).

Only after the national disaster level of these flood in late August 1998, did Beijing acknowledge the deforested areas on and around the Tibetan Plateau as the fountainhead of tributaries of the Yangtze River. Finally taking remedial action, the government closed timber markets and placed an unconditional logging ban on an area of 4.6 million hectares covering 54 counties in Kham (Western Sichuan) according to a Xinhua (1998d). As of 9 December 1998, unofficial reports stated that the 'TAR' government also ordered the temporary shutdown of operations of all lumber processing mills in southeastern 'TAR', announcing that reforestation projects should begin immediately by employing former loggers as tree planters (Winkler 1999). These steps may be seen to signify a shift towards a more preventive and effective approach to environmental management.

Traditional Conservation

Situated at the centre of the Asian continent, the Tibetan Plateau not only contains the world's highest mountains and a vast arid plateau, but also fertile river valleys and ancient forests. The major forested areas on the Tibetan Plateau are in the south (Dram, Kyirong, Pema Koe, Kongpo, Nyingtri, Tawu, Metog and Monyul), the east (Chamdo, Drayab, Zogong, Kandze, Potramo, Dartsedo, Nyarong and Ngaba), and the southeast (Dechen, Balung, Gyalthang, Mili, Lithang, Zayul, Markham and Dzogang). These forested regions are primarily located on steep isolated slopes and prior to 1950 covered over 25.2 million hectares representing about nine per cent of the region (DIIR 1992).

The plateau possesses one of the oldest forest reserves in Central Asia and a wealth of over 100,000 species of higher plants, 532 species of birds, and many rare wild animals such as giant panda, golden monkey, takin, and white-lipped deer (DIIR 1998a). These forests provide a variety of fruits, nuts and vegetables, including apple, pear, orange, banana and walnut. Given the remote and restricted conditions of the plateau, several of its botanical species have yet to be adequately studied and classified.

Alongside the diverse ecology of the Tibetan Plateau resides an ancient and endangered civilisation and at the very heart of this unique culture is the Buddhist ethos: "To hold all of nature in trust for all sentient beings". The practical integration of this ethical belief allowed a symbiotic relationship to develop between the Tibetan people and their environment. Tibetans have adapted to their natural surroundings realising that their fragile environment provides a unique life-support system. By co-evolving with extremely harsh environmental conditions, the Tibetans developed a self-sufficient, intricate and responsive land use system. And so a tradition evolved and formed a rich source of knowledge necessary for human habitation within the fragile ecosystems of the Tibetan Plateau.

Tibet's small population lived primarily on sheep- and yak-herding and barley cultivation, leaving fields fallow for long periods which maintained fertility and helped prevent leaching and erosion. Wildlife was protected in accordance with Buddhist principles, while timber was harvested on a controlled and selective basis (Winkler 1996). Alak Tsayi, a senior lama from Tsayi in Amdo, explains how the Tibetans took care of their forests before 1950:

The forests in each region would be the property of the people of that region. If there were forests near a monastery, they would be under the monastery's control. If one was near a village, the villagers would have authority over that forest [We were] told that if [we] cut a lot of trees, the value, the fertility of the land would decrease You could not simply go and cut trees. If you wanted to construct a house or something, you had to write an application explaining why you needed the wood. The authorities would then see if you really were constructing a house, and then the permission to cut the trees would be granted. If you were not really building you would have to pay a fine (Apte and Edwards 1998).

The traditional methods of fuel utilisation represent indigenous knowledge that worked with environmental realities to maintain a healthy ecosystem. Dung was predominately used as fuel for cooking and heating. Alternatively, when wood was used as fuel it comprised only dead branches and fallen trees which minimised the impact on the delicate regeneration patterns of the forests. Many forest products, not just trees, were utilised for domestic purposes. Bamboo shoots remain a favourite ingredient in the cuisine of Eastern Tibet while grapes and other berries have been used to produce alcoholic drinks. Many plant species in Tibet such as walnut, camellia and tallow produce oils. Some species such as the Pinus Griffithii produce oil for food and also provide materials for paint, while pines and other plant species are a good source of gum and latex (Dekhang 1996).

There are over 2,000 plants used in Tibetan and allopathic medicines which can be collected in the Tibetan Plateau. Tibet's ancient medical system is highly respected throughout Central Asia and has a remarkable record of success in healing (Burang 1974). In direct contrast to the standpoint of allopathy, Tibetan medicine mirrors the principles that operate in nature, preferring a slow and gentle treatment that places great emphasis on natural remedies, treating humans and each medicine as an integral part of the environment (Badmayew et al 1982).

Each geological and climatic region on the Tibetan Plateau is home to an ecosystem endowed with distinct natural resources, each embodying its own unique form of wealth. In forested areas, for example, many surplus products were traditionally harvested and bartered locally or with neighbouring regions. Despite Tibet's active role as a trading partner, it is critical to note that the Tibetan Plateau was a self-sufficient region. Tibetan traders were mainly dealing in surplus goods, creating a commercial activity that became a fundamental cultural pillar; Tibetans were able to enjoy goods from neighbouring regions without ever developing a dependency on this exchange for their basic needs.

Deforestation in China's History

Compared with the Tibetans, China's inhabitants have suffered a long history of ecological crisis and ancient documents show that the deterioration of Chinese forests has been taking place over thousands of years. The pace of deforestation accelerated ever since the 14th century, setting the precedent for a destruction that continues today. Starting from China's Ming period (1368-1644), all the forests in the central region of the Huang River valley, as well as the Xiang River valley were seriously denuded (Edmonds 1994). Despite the lessons of history, timber remains a key commodity for economic exploitation in China and deforestation continues as a common phenomenon. The forestry sector plays a critical role in the Chinese economy, providing 40 per cent of rural household energy, almost all of the lumber and wood products for the large construction sector, and material for domestic pulp and paper industry.

The forest cover in China amounts to only 0.11 hectares per capita which is significantly below the world average of 0.77 hectares per capita. China is also the third largest consumer of timber in the world and faces an amplified imbalance between demand and supply for wood products. The present annual consumption level of approximately 300 million cubic metres of round wood exceeds the combined annual forest growth increment and total imports by about 50 million cubic metres per year. As a result, an estimated 500,000 hectares of forest area is lost each year; this is equivalent to 0.5 per cent of total forest area (Ministry of Forests 1997).

Tibet's Shrinking Forests

China now sees the Tibetan Plateau as its largest forest zone as industrial timber extraction penetrates deeper into Tibet's borders. Some 70 state logging enterprises have cut a total amount of 120 million cubic metres of wood from the forests of eastern Kham (Sichuan), generating over 2 billion yuan (US$ 241 million) in taxes and profits between 1949 to 1998 (TIN 1998d). It is said that forest exploitation in western Sichuan is 2.3 times more than forest productivity (ICIMOD 1986). According to Tenzin Palbar, who escaped from Tibet into India in 1987, in the Ngaba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture from 1955-1991 the Chinese government extracted 50.17 million cubic metre of Tibetan timber, which is worth US$ 3.1 billion in Tibet itself when calculated at the average price of 50 yuan per cubic metre. In this region there were 340 million cubic metres of forest in 1950 which reduced to 180 million cubic metres in 1992, of which only 34 million cubic metres could be used. Therefore, Ngaba lost 47 per cent of its forest cover between 1950 to 1992 alone (TIN 1999a). Income from the forestry industry is the main source of cash income in many of the poorest counties in Sichuan. Concern among the officials about the loss of this income amount to 70-95 per cent of revenues for many poor counties (Beijing Review 1998b). As reported by refugees arriving in Dharamsala in 1999 from the Tibetan Plateau, a predominant cause of environmental degradation on the plateau is the mass influx of Chinese settlers and the mass exodus of Tibetan timber.

In the region of Kham absorbed into Sichuan, forest cover decreased from 30 per cent in the 1950s to 14 per cent in the 1980s. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the momentum has continued (Li 1993). In Ngaba (Ch:Aba) and the Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture forest cover shrank from 29.5 per cent in the 1950s to 14 per cent in the 1980s (Yang 1986). This has left eight out of 11 forest factories in Ngaba district with exhausted resources. Similarly, in the Kandze district, five of seven forest reserves have been depleted (Zhao 1992). Reports from the World Watch Institute estimate the heavily-forested area from the Tibetan Plateau to the Yangtze River basin has lost 85 per cent of its original forest cover (Brown and Halweil 1998).

The extraction of non-timber resources within Tibetan forests is also a growing concern on the plateau. Approximately 3,000 of the species growing in Tibet's forests have considerable economic value in both the domestic and world markets.

According to the 1991 Social and Economic Annual Report of 'TAR' from 1975 to 1990 the Chinese government exported rare medicinal plants from Tibet amounting to 1.3 million kg of yartsa gunbu (Cordyceps sinensis) and 5.5 million kg of honglen (Picrorrhiza). Meanwhile, Chinese radio broadcasts from Lhasa reported that 1,100 tons of thangchu (gum) and another 30 tons of a thicker variety were collected between 1966-76.

Forest herbs have immense value in China and Chinese timber factories in Tibet claim to have culled up to eight million cubic metres of herbs, with a value of US$17.2 million (Dekhang 1996). This confirms that exploitation of Tibetan forests is not restricted to timber alone.

Treasure and Treasury

Recognition of the "natural" world's interdependent values is fundamental to creating a healthy relationship with one's environment. When forests are understood only in a utilitarian context many other values are disregarded and consequently sacrificed and harmed.

It is undeniable that timber resources extracted from forests are indispensable to human life. Additionally, a forest contains abundant plants and animals, complex stratified structures, many biological products and immense capabilities to exchange substance and energy, which play important roles in maintaining the life-support system of this planet.

Forests are not only a treasure but also a treasury of plant and animal resources. In brief, the concept of "forest" means not merely timber, but also a simultaneous consideration of intrinsic, ecological, social and economic values.

Fuelwood and Land Cultivation

It has been suggested that the traditional use of forests for fuelwood by the inhabitants of the Tibetan Plateau is a major contributing factor to deforestation of the area. However, upon closer examination it becomes clear that despite the large demand for fuelwood, traditionally Tibet's population was small and most fuel was derived from shrubs, branches and predominantly agricultural residues such as dung (DIIR 1992). This fact was also reconfirmed in December 1998 by a majority of the newly-arrived Tibetan refugees interviewed in Dharamsala. Furthermore, in Lhasa fuelwood is now sold at a price per cubic metre that exceeds the average annual per capita income (Richardson 1990). Hence, the traditional use of forests for fuelwood on the Tibetan Plateau accounts for a negligible part of the pressure on forest cover.

However, with the mounting flow of Chinese settlers into Tibet, the total population has increased from six million to approximately 13.5 million, the population density more than doubled to 5.4 persons per sq. km. With China's population expanding by 14 million a year, Beijing provides incentives for Chinese workers to migrate to Tibet.

For the Chinese who settle in rural Tibet over 80 per cent of their energy is supplied by fuelwood (Li 1993). Consequently fuelwood pressure on forests is now a growing concern in Tibet. In a 1998 refugee interview, a farmer from Kham reported, "Before, our fuelwood was right outside the door, but now to get the wood we have to go off in the morning with two to three donkeys to carry it, and don't return until evening."

As illustrated by Winkler's research, Tibetan traditions were not completely without effect and have slowly altered the environment over several millennia. One example is the reduction of forest cover through grazing. "Full utilisation of the south-facing slopes for winter grazing enables herders to keep their store of winter fodder which is a time- and energy-consuming necessity in any environment with harsh winters to an absolute minimum" (Winkler 1998). However, unlike the consequences of commercial timber extraction and uncontrolled resource liquidation, the impact of the past was not a short-sighted destruction of resources, but rather a logical consequence of developing various regions of Tibet as grazing land. But in today's Tibet, as in many places around the earth, processes of land alteration that evolved over thousands of years can now happen within decades or even years.

Faulty Forest Enforcement

While deforestation on the Tibetan Plateau is a complex issue and its causes are difficult to isolate, Tibetan, Chinese and foreign researchers maintain that the dwindling forest cover is primarily caused by poor forest management. Forest management in this context is an inclusive term that refers to human-created changes in environmental conditions ranging from random timber poaching and various inefficiencies to high-yield industrial logging. A host of administrative dilemmas face China in its forest practices. This predicament is embedded in faulty enforcement rather than in a crisis of insufficient forest laws. For example, Article 25 of the (Forestry Law(s) of the People's Republic of China 1985) further states that: "The state, acting on the principle that consumption of the timber forest should be lower than its growth, imposes strict control on the annual forest cut" (Richardson 1990). Recent government planning is targeting reforestation with the intention of increasing the forested area to a level of self-sufficiency.

Unfortunately, there are inherent deficiencies in the Chinese system that create gaps between policy and practice and nullify optimistic goals, which in turn perpetuates high deforestation rates.

Ineffective Reforestation

Reforestation is a priority built into the Chinese constitution and large afforestation programmes have been conducted since 1950 (He 1991). However, the government's reforestation efforts are losing ground to the attack on forest cover. It is estimated that the ratio of trees felled to trees planted is 10:1 (ibid) and the total reforested areas in the southwestern mountain region is as low as 12.7 per cent of the actual deforested area. There is a huge discrepancy between the impressive attempts and the meagre results of China's reforestation campaign with the overall survival rate for new plantation at only 30 per cent (Li 1993).

Losses result from inadequate management procedures in fire control, disease control, pest infestation, poaching, urbanisation, reclamation for agriculture and water resource development projects (Li J. et al 1988). Environmental changes such as extreme temperature fluctuations reaching up to 51 C, caused by clear-felling large areas, further hinder successful regeneration (Yang 1986).

The Quota Factor

According to Vaclav Smil (1984), even though it may contradict Chinese policy, planned commercial extraction has been the leading cause of the 50 per cent reduction in Tibetan forest cover. The inconsistency between policy and practice can be further demonstrated by examining the state's quota-based system. State-owned forestry enterprises, which control the majority of timber resources, are obligated to fulfill annual quotas. The state purchases timber from its forestry enterprises at only one third of the market price. These prices do not even meet production costs, let alone include afforestation fees or scarcity values.

At a Tibet People's Political Consultative Conference's general meeting held in May 1995, Mr Gonpo explained that the Chinese government pays US$22 per cubic metre for timber and then sells it in Beijing for US$963 or for US$1,204 in Japan (Dekhang 1996). Hence the state-owned enterprises are forced to produce and sell a surplus on the free market in order to subsidise the quotas imposed on them. These quotas alone are double or triple the annual growth increment. With these quota systems in place the forest sector is slowly destroying itself. This is one of the major challenges facing the infrastructure of the forestry industry.

Loss Via Inefficiency

According to then vice-minister of the P.R.C.'s Ministry of Forests, another debilitating aspect of Chinese forest management is the loss due to negligence (Dong 1985). Estimated losses from fire and rotting wood in China are extremely severe, especially in the inaccessible forest reserves of Tibet. It has been estimated by Chinese experts that efficiency in forest management throughout China is on average 60 per cent (Li 1993). With Tibet's inherent transportation problems, operations are even more inefficient and due to poor coordination between cutting and hauling agencies US$2 billion of lumber is left to rot each year (Dekhang 1996). Fires and Disease

Inadequate prevention and control of fires, pests and diseases have resulted in further forest degradation. During 30 years of high-yield logging in 'TAR' there have been 240 forest fires destroying more than 10,000 acres of forest (Dekhang 1996) and over 100,000 forest fires have blazed through regions of Kham lying in Yunnan Province. This amounts to a five per cent or 1.3 million cubic metres loss of forest cover which almost equals the commercial extraction of the national forest enterprises.

In 1996 there were nine forest fire disasters burning 179.56 hectares of forest land in 'TAR' (Tibet Daily 1997).


Lin Xinshu who spent time in detention for his involvement in China's 1989 pro-democracy movement was again detained for writing a letter on 20 August 1998 to President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji. In it he accused corrupt officials of using inferior materials on dikes and of worsening soil erosion by ordering intensive logging in order to pocket money, stating that, "A one-party dictatorship has no means of controlling its own corruption" (Jiang and Zhu 1998).

Concern over poaching was expressed by citizens of Lhasa at the Tibet's People's Political Consultative Conference held in Lhasa in 1995. Illegal felling occurs partly due to the issuing of counterfeit timber licences, and the problem is further exacerbated where environmental administration is coordinated by the same local officials who are also responsible for goods production (Bohm et al 1998). As a result of a governmental hierarchy with no independent environmental monitoring authority, inspectors and officials often have an incentive to overlook violations.

An article entitled "Some People Dare Disobey Orders from the Party Central Committee" appeared in the Communist Party's internal distribution of the journal Banyuetan. According to the article a local official explains, "It doesn't matter what the central or provincial leaders say. What counts is what the regional committee secretary and the township party secretary say" (US Embassy 1998c). In China the volume of illegal felling equals legal felling, and it has been estimated that in areas of the plateau such as Central Tibet (U-Tsang) illegal felling significantly exceeds planned production (Richardson 1988). Furthermore, of the few cases of poaching that go to court only 10 per cent actually result in some kind of indictment (He 1991).

According to a US Embassy Report (1998a), many local governments in China depend on forestry for as much as 90 per cent of their revenue, so the fabrication of annual growth rates to increase the extraction rate is a tempting way to increase revenue which in turn further increases pressure on Tibet's forest cover.

Deteriorating Economics

Over-harvesting of forests on the Tibetan Plateau is reinforced and intensified by the deteriorating economic conditions of the Chinese forest industry. In the early 1980s output of the Ngaba district's forest industry accounted for 70 per cent of the region's total industrial output, and in Kandze output equalled 55.5 per cent. Yet, in 1987 only five out of 15 forest companies were continuing to make a profit and by the 1990s output in the Ngaba district had declined by 58.6 per cent.

As the number of forestry jobs decreases and the number of retired forest workers increases, the ratio of individuals receiving pensions has now surpassed the active labour force. Shelter and protection forests are slowly liquidated to support the escalating number of retired forest workers (Zhao 1992).

As resources decline, Tibetan communities are pushed further into social and economic instability. Whilst the majority of timber workers are Chinese, the percentage of Tibetan loggers is slowly growing. Although forest rights were delegated in 1981 between the state-owned timber companies, county timber factories and village collectives, the borders are not clear. These ill-defined boundaries lead to further over-cutting and ethnic disputes (ibid).

In the area of Dokhar county in Gyalthang, Yunnan, 112 million cubic metres of timber was felled between 1958 and 1986 which would have a current market value for China of US$ 908 million. A great percentage of this extracted timber does not benefit the Tibetan population of the area but is transported east to benefit and help fuel the Chinese economy (DIIR 1998b).

The once-stable Tibetan economy is now facing a predicament. The introduction of a modern industrial economy into Tibet's traditionally subsistence culture has radically transformed the relationship of Tibetans with their environment:

In the past it was generally believed that a carpenter, no matter how successful he is in his business, cannot become rich. This is based on the belief that to trample upon or cut even a small plant is an unwholesome deed, not to mention big trees that are cut down for his business (Choephel 1983).

Tibet's traditional system of trading, done mostly through bartering encouraged small volumes of trade while maintaining a high degree of self-reliance. This level of self-sufficiency is a fundamental aspect of the Tibetan traditional land use system that supported a non-exploitative relationship with the environment.

Slowly, through Chinese-imposed development, Tibetans are becoming dependent on imported goods and services and losing their tradition of self-reliance. As "free market" economics and globalisation encroach on the Tibetan way of life, a growing number of young Tibetans seek wage-earning employment. To earn a now-necessary wage, or to meet new financial demands imposed by the Chinese government, Tibetans often supplement their income by privately harvesting trees or working as loggers. It can be assumed that the reliance on intense resource liquidation, such as deforestation, to produce exchangeable goods to ensure survival would not have emerged under the traditional system.

The various tax structures imposed by the Chinese regime further undermine Tibetan traditions by encouraging the exploitation of resources. Article 9 of the Chinese Constitution provides that "The state protects the right of citizens to own lawfully-earned income, savings, houses and other means of livelihood." In contradiction to its constitution the Chinese government is denying the rights of the Tibetan people to own their own income by imposing alarmingly high taxation rates. A variety of taxes have been imposed on land, animals, wool and fur, hides, meats, grains, butter, milk, cheese, hay, fertiliser, medicinal plants, old age, education and a human tax (TCHRD 1997c). In December 1998, Tibetan refugees who escaped to Dharamsala from Dawachan village in Central Tibet reported that a tax had even been imposed on individuals whose property contains more than one tree. These irrational and unreasonably high taxes often pressure Tibetans into harvesting timber and selling it back to Chinese officials to raise the tax payments.


The Tibetan Plateau has become a diversified gene pool containing varieties of wild and domesticated animals that have co-evolved with the special conditions of the Tibetan Plateau. Diminishing forest cover, especially through clear-cut logging, is resulting in a major loss of biodiversity and consequently an increased rate of species extinction (DIIR 1992). In 1995 Tibet contained a total of 81 endangered animal species (Li 1995). In many areas of Tibet there are a significant number of invertebrates as yet unclassified (Fleming 1998). It is this rich biological diversity that has enabled human inhabitants to sustain themselves in such harsh, fragile environments. Consequently, as deforestation on the Tibetan Plateau continues, the biodiversity of the plateau slowly erodes, washing away with it the plateau's capabilities to sustain human and other lives.

Erosion and Landslides

The Tibetan Plateau contains the sources and upper reaches of 10 major Asian rivers; the Indus, Sutlej, Karnali, Arun, Manas, Brahmaputra, Salween, Mekong, Yellow River and Yangtze. These rivers flow into ten different countries in Asia. Consequently, about half of the world's population live and sustain themselves along rivers which originate from the Tibetan Plateau (DIIR 1992). Soil erosion on the Tibetan Plateau is listed in China's Agenda 21 as among the most serious of its environmental problems (UNDP 1997). Geologically speaking the Tibetan Plateau is young (40-50 million years old) and possesses thin topsoil and fragile vegetation cover. The high altitude and steep mountain valleys accelerate potential destruction that results from deforestation. Trees often function as an anchor, helping the soil to store rainwater and holding and supporting the earth that may otherwise be washed into rivers. With the mass extraction of trees follows a corresponding loss of soil. With no roots to hold the soil together, and no needles or leaves to fertilise the ground cover, deforestation produces inevitable, and in the medium term, irreversible soil erosion. This loss of soil then results in landslides and huge silt deposits in nearby rivers.

A spokesperson from Yunnan Province told AFP (1998) that landslides alone had killed 477 and injured more than 7,000 people in the mountainous provinces in and around the Tibetan Plateau. Similarly, in late August 1998, 239 people were presumed dead when landslides ravaged the Himalayan mountain districts near India's border (WTN 1998), while in Tibet several districts in the northeast were paralysed due to landslides triggered by unseasonal weather. S.P. Banerjee, a soil expert and visiting fellow at the Tata Energy Research Institute in New Delhi, stated that an overriding factor behind these landslides was deforestation (ibid).

Flooding Asia

In building an infrastructure to transport timber, erosion becomes intensified by a growing number of roads carving up the sides of the steep, unstable mountains. In the past 50 years, as a result of deforestation, soil erosion in China has increased from 360,000 sq. km to more than 800,000 sq. km (Jiang and Zhu 1998). As a result, riverbeds have dramatically risen, increasing the frequency of severe floods downstream in several Asian countries.

Tibet: On the Tibetan Plateau itself officials admit that floods have been severely intensified by deforestation and have hit 40 of 70 regions, destroying 2,000 houses, killing livestock and ruining crops (AP 1998). In late August 1998, at least 53 people were killed in 'TAR' (BBC 1998) from heavy flooding.

India: It was reported that in 1996 the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) River, flowing from Tibet to India, erupted more extensively than at any other time this century (Dekhang 1996). However, officials have since claimed that the 1998 floods in India rank among the worst inundations of the century (Tewari 1998). By September 1998, these floods, intensified by the extensive deforestation on the Tibetan Plateau, had claimed 1,218 lives in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, 299 in Bihar and 130 in West Bengal. In Assam, due to the floods, road traffic was paralysed affecting over 300,000 people (ibid). Laos and Bangladesh: BBC reported on 26 September 1995 that the Mekong River overflowed in Laos affecting the lives of 0.5 million people and the disaster was compounded by a subsequent epidemic. Some scientists have blamed the floods that devastate annually in Bangladesh, affecting thousands of people, on the loss of forest cover in Tibet (Dekhang 1996).

China: Over the last few decades China has been plagued with escalating flood damage. The role of deforestation in increasing the frequency and intensity of flood damage is slowly being articulated and documented by scientists. In Kham (West Sichuan) deforestation has been linked with the frequency of flood disasters rising from once in 15 years to once in five years (Zhao 1992). In the summer of 1991 floods killed over 2,000 people in China and in 1983, an overflow of the Yellow River affected 12 million people (He 1991).

The Water Crisis

While reports of China's record of floods in 1998 captured the news headlines, experts warn that China's lack of water is actually a more serious environmental, social and economic threat (Brown and Halweil 1998). Tibet nourishes the fertile plains of Asia through flows from the upper reaches of the ten main Asian rivers. This creates a link between the environmental health of the Tibetan Plateau and the stability and survival of a mammoth percentage of the most important and productive agricultural areas in the world.

While many factors contribute to the gradual reduction of water resources in a geological region, the focus here is on a factor which is subject to human control primarily timber extraction. If the Eastern Tibetan Plateau was as well forested as in the past, water molecules originating in distant water bodies falling on these forests as precipitation would eventually evapotranspire back into the atmosphere and return repeatedly as precipitation.

Further, deforestation increases overland flow in the form of increased runoff and decreases regional humidity thereby affecting local rainfall patterns. Deforestation intensifies desertification processes and exacerbates water crises in China (Wang 1993). A Chinese government inquiry commission has blamed continual deforestation as the major cause for drastic reduction in the water flow of the Gyarong Gyalmo Ngulchu (Ch:Min Jiang) and Upper Yangtze rivers in Kham between January and May. Research by Richard Louis Edmonds (1994) demonstrated that China has experienced a 614.1 billion cubic metres decline in precipitation as a result of excessive deforestation contributing to 56 per cent of the cause of arid and semi-arid land in China, reconfirming the connection between the Chinese water crisis and deforestation.

China now has 400 cities suffering from water shortages, and 108 cities are considered to have a serious water crisis (Pomfret 1998a). Rivers and lakes are running dry. In the last nine years the quantity of water discharged from the Yellow River has fallen by 23 per cent, and on several occasions the river has dried up completely. In 1972, for the first time in the history of China, the Yellow River dried up before reaching the sea. In 1997 dry stretches have lasted for periods up to 126 days (People's Daily 1998) totalling 226 days (Brown and Halweil 1998). Some areas of China are so desperate for water that farmers have taken to tearing off manhole covers and pumping raw sewage onto their fields (Pomfret 1998a).

In China water has always been an extremely precious resource and increased pressure on water resources due to deforestation is magnifying irrigation problems, causing crop losses totalling hundreds of millions of dollars each year (Wang 1993). Scientists have been quoted in China Daily predicting that, "There is a possibility the Yellow River will become nothing more than a seasonal river" (Rennie 1998).

Global Weather Patterns

The Tibetan Plateau has a fundamental impact on both regional and global climatic patterns. As the various causes of the widespread destruction of Tibet's forests are slowly unveiled, the effects continue to trigger environmental, social and economic crises. Ecosystems do not exist in isolation and consequently these effects are not confined to the Tibetan Plateau. In fact, these ecosystem disturbances have the potential to destabilise environmental, social and economic patterns around the globe.

The adoption of the Kyoto Protocol calling for a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in December 1997 demonstrates a consensus emerging among scientists and policy makers that climate change is one of the most serious environmental challenges facing the world today. Another factor affecting both Asian and global climatic patterns is vegetation cover on the Tibetan Plateau (Derbyshire and Gasse 1996). The Indian Monsoon

The Tibetan Plateau towers at the centre of the Eurasian landmass and consequently deflects jet streams of the upper atmosphere influencing the atmospheric circulation of the entire northern hemisphere. The plateau is a critical player in global climate stability and has an especially important influence on the Indian monsoon. In the summer the air above the plateau becomes hotter than the air above India. This enables the plateau to act as a heating mechanism. Consequently an anticyclone is formed over the Southern Himalayas, drawing in the Indian monsoon, until the plateau cools in the winter when the winds are reversed.

Through the help of computer modelling it has been estimated that there are approximately 15 to 29 major indicators which help predict the formation of monsoons. The pattern of jet stream winds in the upper atmosphere and the snow cover on the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau are amongst these indicators. The amount of snow cover on the plateau is partially determined by the amount of vegetation, forest and grass cover (Reiter 1993). More specifically, the amount and type of the vegetation influences the rate at which the snow cover recedes during the spring.

Green forest cover absorbs 95 per cent of solar heat; clear-cut areas and grasslands absorb only 80 per cent while barren land and bare rock absorb even less. Forested areas also break up snow cover and consequently help retain an even greater amount of heat (ibid). Hence, as the plateau's ability to absorb solar heat is crippled by incessant deforestation, the snow cover retreats at a decelerating pace.

As the tree cover decreases, the heating mechanism of the plateau diminishes, and through a series of interconnections the pressure systems are altered which either delay or reduce the Indian monsoon. This lingering snow cover disrupting the Indian monsoon (Zheng and Wu 1995) has the potential to foster disasters for Indian agriculture (Reiter 1993), thus establishing a link between the stability of the Asian monsoon and loss of vegetation cover on the Tibetan Plateau.

The monsoon rains contribute 70 per cent of India's total annual rainfall. Referred to as the lifeblood of Indian farming, its stability determines whether millions of Indians meet their basic food needs or not. In the latter half of 1998 the destabilised monsoon with unexpected rains and droughts caused extensive damage to many crops such as onion, potato, peas, cauliflower and cabbage. Even though threat to food security has been magnified by over-cautious policies and high inflation rates, according to agriculture specialist S.D. Saravanan, erratic monsoon behaviour is mostly responsible for escalating food prices (Anandan et al 1998). Som Pal, Indian Minister of State for Agriculture, has also blamed unseasonal heat and rains for rising onion prices (Rekhi and Singh 1998). This caused extreme hardships for people in India.


Among the earth's ecosystems, mountain regions have been identified as having a unique global importance. This is evident in Agenda 21, which is one of the major action plan that emerged from the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (Stone 1992). The report emphasises that the present rate of deforestation is not only of regional or national importance but is a global issue demanding urgent attention. The scientific data is piling up to indict human activity as the source of the current phase of global warming. One example is the relationship between the deforestation on the Tibetan Plateau and global weather patterns. As explained above the snow melt on the plateau, delayed by shrinking forest cover, modifies the plateau's systematic heating. As the heating capabilities of the plateau are delayed, jet stream patterns that affect the entire northern hemisphere are altered.

The Tibetan Plateau is a significant contributor to global weather patterns, deflecting and compressing wind currents over thousands of kilometres (Reiter 1981). For example, a correlation has been established between high and extended snow cover on the Tibetan Plateau and high winter sea temperatures over the North Atlantic, bringing on sunny summer weather in Europe and typhoons in the Pacific. This relationship is partially explained by abnormal fluctuations in jet stream patterns above the Tibetan Plateau (Reiter 1993). These weather alterations also intensify floods and rain in Eastern China. The Yangtze basin may well be one of the areas receiving additional rainfall (Brown and Halweil 1998).

These Pacific typhoons further result in the interruption of trade winds off the West Coast of North and South America, which is responsible for El Nino. The El Nino stirs up ocean water causing disruptions of the marine food chain and affecting the entire economy of Peru and Ecuador. Storms causing damage on the California coastline and droughts in New Zealand, Indonesia, Australia, India and southern Africa are also part of this phenomenon. Recent studies have indicated that alterations to the Tibetan Plateau's vegetation cover play a role in generating regional climate disruptions which have the potential to dovetail into global climate change (Longrigg and Rowe 1991).

While there is no way of conclusively connecting global warming with specific weather events, the likelihood that they are linked has grown with each passing year. Even though to declare a cause-and-effect relationship between deforestation and certain climatic abnormalities around the globe is a simplification of a very complex fabric of many interwoven relationships, all evidence points to the fact that the Tibetan Plateau plays a major role in many of these relationships.


Global consciousness is slowly awakening to the dire and inevitable consequences that arise from habitat destruction. Chinese attempts to scientifically manage forest cover on the Tibetan Plateau to ensure regeneration have so far failed miserably. The resulting environmental consequences have triggered and reinforced international pressure on the Chinese government. International environmental organisations such as The World Watch Institute have exposed various global threats caused by China's environmental crisis (Brown and Halweil 1998). This has raised global awareness and consequently increased international pressure on China to undertake reforms.

China is home to one fifth of humanity and within a decade its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) will probably match that of the United States. If China wants to be accepted as one of the world's great powers it must recognise that such power also brings with it responsibility. China will have to adapt to international rules and responsibilities that surround environmental management and social justice issues.

This opinion is supported by many Chinese scientists and academics. In fact, Chinese academics have long been aware of the potentially catastrophic environmental, social and economic impacts of industrial high-yield logging (Dong 1985) and have produced several papers quantifying deforestation during the 1983-87 policy reform. Calculations have estimated China's losses from excessive deforestation amount to US$66.2 billion a year, which is 12.1 per cent of China's total national income (Mao 1998). It has become obvious that China cannot environmentally, socially or economically afford to continue mismanaging its forests. Even though an increasing amount of energy is slowly being reallocated towards needed solutions, as the consequences ripple through China and the world solutions still lack a necessary sense of urgency.

Even ordinary Chinese citizens have started voicing their discontent over the destructive effects resulting from the dramatic difference between policy and practice. On 26 August 1998, in one of the most populist petitions since 1989, 309 democratic and human rights Chinese activists from 19 provinces signed "An Open Letter to the Chinese People: Protect the Yangtze, Our Mother River". The letter clearly states:

In the mountainous areas along the upper and middle reaches of the Yangtze River, all the farmland should be reverted to forest. We must abandon the plundering development plan which "drains the pond to get the fish." So-called high growth economics that waste resources and pollute the environment come at too high a price.

These Chinese have appealed to the government for an end to the destructive forestry practices which have contributed to the devastating extent of 1998's flooding. They have accused their country of being "Guided by blind arrogance in thinking that man can conquer nature." The group reconfirms that the floods were caused in part by decades of bad environmental management in the Yangtze River Basin. The letter also contains several suggestions on changing the policies of rampant deforestation and land reclamation, demanding greater government accountability and better laws to protect the environment (Jiang and Zhu 1998).

In reaction to accumulating international and domestic pressure reforms, such as the codification of environmental crimes, were introduced in China's recently-amended criminal code for the first time. Sections 344 and 345 state that individuals who illegally cut trees or groups of trees shall be punished by imprisonment for up to three years or, in extreme cases, over seven years (US Embassy 1997). In August 1998, at a lawmakers' meeting in Beijing, officials called for stricter environmental protection policies (TIN 1998b). However, to alleviate pressure on forest cover, promised solutions must run deeper than policy creation. Policy formulations must be backed by effective enforcement and compliance.

As the consequences of failed attempts to ensure forest regeneration are increasingly understood and felt by China and its people, the inconsistencies between forest policy and practice are only partially addressed. Following many years of rapid growth at the expense of the environment, China is being forced to acknowledge the costs of ecological devastation.

The State Council orders placing an unconditional logging ban on 54 counties in Kham (Western Sichuan) on 1 September 1998, demonstrates that China's leaders have observed a clear connection among deforestation, the 1998 floods and the escalating political, social and economic crisis. On 9 December 1998 unofficial reports suggested that the 'TAR' government ordered all operations of lumber processing mills in southeast 'TAR' to shut down. The ban applies to all of Chamdo and Nyingtri prefectures, an area that contains over 85 per cent of standing timber volume in 'TAR' (Winkler 1999). This announcement included an emphasis on reforestation projects to begin immediately by employing former loggers as tree planters. However the 9 December ban has not been confirmed and the degree of permanence of both bans has yet to be determined.

The danger remains that the bans are temporary and the forests in the newly-restricted areas will continue to be logged. Tibetans coming into exile from Tibet in the year 2000 corroborate that logging still continues in Kham, Thewo and Ngaba regions in Amdo and 'TAR'. Even though this shift in policy has the possibility of longterm benefits for the Tibetan areas, the potential benefits will only be realised if there is implementation behind the policy.

When the motivation behind many Chinese environmental policies is revealed, the conflict between policy and practice becomes understood and environmental degradation persists. An integral part of China's foreign policy interest is "to be a good international citizen" and includes participation in 126 international conventions and membership in all Inter-governmental Organisations (IGOs) in the United Nations system (Yufan 1992). However, much of the increasing environmental diplomacy practised within Chinese policy represents, as in many countries, an attempt to be seen as an active and constructive participant and a responsible member of the world community.

Environmental protection has thus become an available means of coping with the multiple problems it faces in its foreign policy agenda. Unlike human rights, arms sales and trade issues, environmental protection is less sensitive and affordable for Beijing leaders (ibid).

Ambitious Chinese environmental policy created in the last decade can be partially comprehended as a response, aimed at alleviating international criticism, to the political upheaval in Beijing in the spring of 1989. As a result little energy has actually been invested in effective enforcement, proactive policies and preventive environmental management.

Once the public relations purpose of China's new environmental policy is unmasked, a priority to economic growth is exposed. When the economic objectives behind the forest industry are revealed a bleak environmental future is painted. Since China launched its economic reform programme in 1978, its transition from a command to a market-based economy has helped fuel one of the world's highest growth rates (World Bank 1997). While the impact of China's rapid economic growth has made great strides in improving short-term social welfare (ibid), the effect on the environment has become a serious concern for China and the international community.

Despite the escalating number of environmental problems leading to developmental setbacks, the Chinese government remains convinced that social and environmental salvation lies in growth-based economics and an ever-increasing Gross National Product (GNP). The government has demonstrated its priority of economic growth over environmental protection on several occasions. At the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in December 1997, China resisted international pressure to commit to emissions restrictions that would impede its growth. Chinese President Jiang Zemin commented at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum in Vancouver on 23 November 1997 that China wants to maintain its robust growth (Ming 1998).

China hopes to generate enough financial capital through unbridled economic growth to address environmental protection and social justice issues. Unfortunately the accompanying increase in energy use, natural resources depletion and pollution-producing activities that coincides with capital generating capabilities cannot be ignored. If the trend of environmental degradation continues at the present rate, by the time China is financially capable to invest more thoroughly in the environment and the future, the accumulated destruction of its life-support system may be beyond rehabilitation.

Tibet, when included under the Beijing umbrella, becomes incorporated into the Chinese government's quest for economic growth. Chairman of the 'Tibetan Autonomous Regional People's Government', Gyaltsen Norbu, stated that "the main direction of economic work in our region is to accelerate the development of the four pillar industries in 'TAR'"(Norbu 1997). These industries, which include forestry, were said by Gyaltsen Norbu to "play a big stimulating role and to produce such products on a large-scale as soon as possible so that they will become new economic growth outlets in our region". The Ninth Five-Year Plan for the Tibetan Plateau, 1996-2000, institutionalises the Chinese agenda of unrestrained growth: "With the strengthening of the region's ability to develop itself and on the condition that the economic structure is optimised, and economic efficiency raised, we will strive to have the 2000 per capita GNP quadruple the 1980 figure".

Although the plan recognises the need for active protection to overcome the phenomenon of over-logging in individual areas, it maintains a commitment to "increase the harvesting of wood year by year". In the eastern area of Tibet, including the Nyingtri and Chamdo regions, Tibet's largest forest area, the Five-Year Plan advocates, "We will vigorously develop processing industries with the stress on processing timber." However, these two areas fall under the subsequent 9 December 1998 logging ban, reinforcing the rift that exists between China's environmental and economic policies and magnifying the complications that surround China's "promises".

Reform has also led to rapid integration with the world economy. In 1997 China was the tenth largest trading nation in the world and attracted more direct foreign investment than any country except the US (World Bank 1997). Foreign investment is one example of a tool used to fuel China's GNP. In pursuit of economic growth through direct foreign investment the Chinese government has created what it calls "Preferential Policies for Foreign Investment" ('TAR' Economy Coordination Committee). This is a legal guarantee that the regional government will give foreign-financed projects priority through each step of the formation process in planning, project approval, provision of capital, construction start-up, establishment of the business itself and registration.

Through various mechanisms such as tax rebates and incentives, foreign business people interested in a wholly foreign-financed enterprise or a joint venture are encouraged to invest in Tibet. Given that the objective behind the opening of the Tibetan Plateau to foreign investment was to help fuel China's growth rate, it is highly unlikely that the favoured investment will consider environmental and cultural implications.


Tension between indigenous or local knowledge and "scientific" knowledge is nowhere more evident than in mountain regions like the Himalayas (Berkes et al 1998). The mountain communities on the Tibetan Plateau have survived and overcome natural constraints to satisfy their basic needs for centuries, while the emerging number of barren landscapes and devastated ecosystems on the plateau is the ultimate expression of Chinese-imposed industrial consciousness. Modern industrial society has tried, consciously and unconsciously, to break its ancestral traditions so as to control nature and human development through science and technology, thus selectively eliminating deeper values and rich sources of knowledge in the process (Drengson 1993).

One possible solution lies in the implementation of participatory land use practices. There is considerable research to suggest that a reactive approach with an emphasis on controlling access to forest resources may be less effective than a proactive mechanism that provides incentives for communities to manage them (Menzies and Peluso 1991). There is also growing evidence to support the fact that indigenous knowledge or local resource use plays a significant role in determining the longterm sustainability of those resources (Berkes et al 1998). This suggests that the most effective means of enforcing environmental sustainability comes from within the local communities themselves. This encourages the utilisation of detailed local knowledge gained from the community's co-evolution with its natural surroundings as opposed to attempting to enforce a predefined homogeneous policy against the natural diversity of each specific region.

Members of a "community-managed forest" will depend on subsequent benefits of the resource for their future welfare and consequently will have a vested interest in the forest's long term sustainability (Netting 1997). Policies that focus on a participatory approach to forest management can then be understood as an opportunity to utilise and cultivate indigenous, traditional and sustainable land use practices. For this to happen, policy makers must look beyond conventional economic theory to enable local communities to evolve environmentally and culturally appropriate forest management practices.

Another possible opportunity for the Chinese government to mitigate environmental, social and economic decay resulting from industrial logging resides with a refined look at investment. To offset the likelihood that foreign investment will remain consistent with a growth-oriented agenda and focus on high-yield profit maximisation, investment guidelines for the Tibetan Plateau should be created to ensure a preventive approach to sustainable land use practices. Towards this end Tibetan Government-in-Exile has issued guidelines for international development projects and investment in Tibet (see Chapter 9).

Mechanisms must be installed, and policies created, that encourage environmentally and culturally appropriate investment choices. For instance, an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) should be completed, at the expense of the investor, prior to the project approval. The EIA should not only determine the short- and longterm environmental effects of a proposal but the impacts on Tibetan culture and tradition.

Guidelines should be created providing incentives for environmentally and culturally appropriate investment, including fundamental restrictions and incentives supporting the following ideals:

  • the assessment of an investment project should include representation from the affected community and all interest groups
  • a standard level of community participation within the investment project should be defined to ensure that the allocation of the benefits derived from the invesment include the Tibetans
  • an appropriate level of foreign investment should be determined in each region and investment in education, health and environmental regeneration should be given top priority.

Investment in social or community forestry is a good example of a type of development that effectively maintains environmental sustainability. These programmes provide incentives for local people to cultivate conservation practices and prove to be an excellent example of proactive forest management. Social forestry programmes, such as those in India, attempt to integrate indigenous knowledge with forest management in an attempt to improve rural welfare and reverse environmental damage.

Forest preservation is an intricate and longterm process. If it is done well, habitat preservation and economic development will begin to reinforce one another.

There is some evidence to suggest that China is shifting toward a forest use plan that stretches beyond policy statements and may be consistent with sustainable forest practices. For example, the World Bank-funded China-Forestry Development in Poor Areas Project is implementing programmes designed to develop forest resources. These projects are based on sustainable and participatory approaches to help reduce poverty and improve environmental management of forest resources (Ministry of Forests 1997).

Supporting and respecting Tibetan land use practices is an obvious direction to enable China to mitigate environmental, social and economic problems which have resulted from unbridled forest liquidation. With changing circumstances on the Tibetan Plateau, such as a doubling of population pressure, it is important to note that it is neither feasible nor desirable for Tibet to live as though it were in the past. However, this does not in any way negate the need or importance for restoring and maintaining the traditional knowledge and land use practices of the Tibetan people. The application and encouragement of projects that work on a participatory basis, respecting traditional knowledge, represents one possible design model. The decision to use, preserve and respect the immeasurable source of wealth residing within the Tibetan traditions through such projects will reveal to the world the level of sophistication and readiness of the Chinese government to peacefully and sustainably enter the 21st century.

By utilising the Tibetan knowledge and land use practices that have proven to be sustainable over the last 2,000 years on the Tibetan Plateau, China has not only an opportunity but also an obligation to alleviate pressure on forest cover and to rectify the local, regional and global catastrophes both actual and potential that have been slowly manifesting themselves as a result of deforestation on the Tibetan Plateau.


[Source: Used with permission from Environment and Development Desk. Department of Information and International Relations; Central Tibetan Administration; Dharamsala, India.]

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