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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.]


Our ancestors viewed the earth as rich and bountiful, which it is. Many people in the past also saw nature as inexhaustibly sustainable, Which we now know is the case only if we care for it.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, 5 June 1986.
An Ethical Approach to Environmental Protection

THE MINERAL resources of Tibet are high in quality and rich in quantity and variety. This fact had been known to Tibetans for several centuries, yet they did not exploit the resources for economic gain or for any development mainly due to their profound adherence to the principle of harmony between man and nature.

However, after the invasion of Tibet by China in 1949, things began to change dramatically. In fact, one of the prime reasons that lured China to invade Tibet was to gain access to its rich mineral wealth. The Chinese Government started exploiting the pristine and rich natural resources of Tibet from as early as 1956 (Namgyal 1995). Since then Beijing has sent hundreds of geological prospecting teams to the plateau with great expectations of finding more mineral deposits. In the areas of Amdo, Kham and U-Tsang thousands of geological maps have been plotted.

Today there are more than 126 identified minerals in Tibet with significant reserves of the world's deposits of uranium, chromite, boron, lithium, borax, and iron (DIIR 1992). Further, reserves of corundum, vanadium, titanium, magnesite, sulphur, mica, cesium, rubidium, arsenic, graphite, lepidolite and potash are some of the largest in both Tibet and China. Besides there are globally significant reserves of copper, gold, silver, zinc, oil and gas and other minerals on the plateau. Yulong Copper Mine at Chamdo and Norbusa chromite mine in Lhoka are some of their kind in Tibet (Namgyal 1995).

By the 1960s, the Chinese government realised that mining in Tibet is advantageous to the economy and the industries requiring mineral resources. Besides, China's past dependence on international markets for ferrous and non-ferrous ores and metals had cost it dearly in foreign exchange. As a result China started investing huge sums of money in Tibet from a variety of sources including the central and provincial treasuries and foreign investors.

Consequently, several mining projects in Tibet were launched in China's Eighth (1991-1995) and Ninth Five Year Plan (1996-2000). Many of the major schemes in the so-called "43 Development Projects" and "62 Development Projects" are directly related to the development and speeding up of the mining industry in Tibet. All these mining developmental areas are concentrated on potential mineral deposits that are sure of generating remarkable returns to the economy.

The material requirements of modern industrial economies are enormous, as are the environmental impacts of such consumption. The acceleration of mineral extraction has created unprecedented environmental and social problems in Tibet, yet China continues to emphasise that the development and expansion of Tibet's mineral industry is to facilitate economic growth. The Chinese government's ongoing process of building mining as the pillar industry of Tibet's economy (Tibet Daily 1996) and the recent revamping of mining laws and other provisions for attracting foreign investments (Lally 1997) drain Tibet's mineral wealth. The Chinese authorities have constantly tried to hide the capital outflow of mineral extraction from Tibet into Chinese treasuries (ICJ 1997). From 1952 to 1990 mining in Tibet generated a profit of more than US$ 2 billion (15.4 billion yuan) for China (Research and Analysis Centre 1991).

However, the destructive exploitation of mineral resources and unchecked mining practices resulted in widespread degradation of the environment. In several cases it has permanently altered the landscape - leaving massive debris, slag-heaps, abandoned mines, slope destabilisation and permanent land degradation.


The present geomorphological features of the Tibetan Plateau were formed as a result of intense upheaval during the last 40-50 million years and therefore constitute the youngest macromorphological unit in the world (Molnar 1998). According to the theory of plate tectonics, the uplifting of the plateau resulted from a collision between two continental plates, the Eurasian and the Indian Plates. The Indian Plate moved northward, sliding under the Eurasian Plate and prompting its edge to rise and form a belt of ultra-basic rocks and mixed rocks in the valley of the Yarlung Tsangpo River. This river is located along the suture line between the two continental plates and is their clear-cut boundary (Ren et al 1985).

Tibet's elevated regions, formed due to the continental drift, are today's mountains and plateau while the subsiding regions are today's basins and plains. As the plateau has been uplifted recently tectonic movements and magmatic activities are frequent and consequently there are abundant geothermal resources.

During the past few decades scientists have discovered much evidence that shows the Tibetan Plateau has undergone radical changes in topography, vegetation and climate. The recent discoveries of giraffe fossils at 4,500 metres above sea level in Driru County and three-toed fossils at 4,100 metres in Kyirong County, U-Tsang, infer that the land of Tibet was once much lower than it is today and that the climate was once hot and humid (Ren et al 1985). According to a Radio Peking report of 20 January 1997 fossils of dinosaurs were unearthed in the mountains in Tibet, some dating back 160 million years.

The intense uplifting of the mountain systems along the margins of the plateau has effectively blocked humid currents from entering and has turned the interior of the plateau into an arid region. Therefore, intense and extensive uplifting since the Neocene Period has been the leading factor in creating the physiographical features of the Tibetan Plateau (Ren et al 1985). Most importantly, the geological processes of uplift and subduction by which Tibet was formed have endowed it with considerable mineral reserves.


Since medieval times minerals have played diverse roles in the lives of Tibetans. Minerals are used as vital ingredients in Tibetan phamaceutical preparations. Many religious objects and household and farm implements were made from minerals. Precious metals like gold, silver and copper were used largely in monasteries and nunneries and for ornamentation. Some of the metals mined in Tibet - particularly gold - were traded with India, Nepal, China and other neighbouring countries and so Tibet gained worldwide fame as a major repository of important minerals. Its name in Chinese, Xizang, means "Western Treasure House".

Tibetans never initiated modern large-scale mining schemes since there were sufficient raw minerals on the surface of the earth to meet demands. Another reason that contributed to the preservation of the plateau's mineral resources was the unique Tibetan approach to ecology. The centuries-old symbiosis between nature and religion led Tibetans to live in harmony with their land; this can be attributed largely to their profound faith in the principle of interdependence among living and non-living entities.

Tibetans believed that mining the natural resources would diminish the strength of the land, invite the displeasure of the deities who are the guardian of minerals and therefore bring harm to society (Atisha 1991). Another factor that has helped to preserve the country's rich mineral resources was the Tibetans' deliberate disinterest in mining for fear of the government imposing heavy taxes (Shakabpa 1984). In certain cases where mining was considered imperative, rituals were performed to appease the deities who were believed to be the "owners of the land". Rituals like sangsol (incense offering) and the occasional performance of purification rites of objects and the environment helped the Tibetans continue to preserve and conserve their environment.

The first Tibetan metallurgist to use large quantities of minerals was probably Thang Thong Gyalpo (1361-1485). He was a mahasiddha (great accomplished one), a spiritual master, a talented iron bridge builder and a great theatrical performer. During his several spiritual journeys through Tibet and other countries he realised that building bridges, stupas and images was an integral part of his commitment to the bodhisattva ideal (a person who generates an aspiration to attain enlightenment for the sake of sentient beings). It is also believed that during his engineering work he coerced local demons, nagas (mythical water spirits with half human and half serpent physiques) and spirits to abandon their destructive activities; they eventually vowed to refrain from obstructing boats and help in building bridges (Gyatso 1991).

Thang Thong Gyalpo's first iron bridge was known as Yuna Chaksam (Yuna being the village name and Chaksam referring to the iron bridge), which is situated in the upper Kyichu valley north of Lhasa. The historic iron chains still exist and span about 30 metres, but modern steel cables stabilise the bridge today (Kahlen 1993). In all, he was said to have built 58 bridges (Gyatso 1991) and his discoveries of iron ore, developing smelting techniques and constructing iron chain suspension bridges, were attributed to the tradition of Buddhist teachings. Thus his engineering feat contributed to his elevation to the status of a realised master. To avert plagues, Thang Thong Gyalpo once built a stupa from lime and performed elaborate rituals to appease the local spirits, and repeated these rituals when his bridge-building required large quantities of iron.

Since that time, no record or evidence of mining has been heard of in Tibet - with two exceptions. In 1900, gold extraction was carried out near Mapham Tso (Lake Manasarover) in Western Tibet. However, following an outbreak of smallpox the Tibetan government stopped the mining because the epidemic was attributed to the wrath of the presiding deity of the region. In the 1920s, Khenrap Kunsang Mondrag prospected parts of Dakpo and Lhoka in Central Tibet and found large reserves of petroleum. He had been one of four students sent by the Thirteenth Dalai Lama to Britain to study where he majored in mining engineering (Shakabpa 1984). On finding the reserves, however, the government did not grant permission for extraction on the ground that it would affect the ecosystem of the region (Tibetan Bulletin 1992c).


Large scale modern mining began in Tibet only after China took full control of the country following the Fourteenth Dalai Lama's escape in 1959. Since then many areas have been surveyed and prospected by several Chinese government scientists. Their discoveries of huge reserves of various minerals, some of which are among the largest deposits in the world, catapulted the Chinese to dub Tibet the "Treasure Bowl Awaiting Development".

Some of the geological expeditions carried out since then in Tibet were the Tibetan Plateau Expedition in 1957, the Sino-French Expedition in 1983, the Sino-German Expedition in 1984 and the Sino-British Geo-traverse Expedition in 1985 (Tsundue 1994). In the 'TAR' and Eastern Tibet, 1:1 million and 1:200,000 geological maps have been worked out respectively (Namgyal 1995). The interest in mining in Tibet looks as though it will continue for long in the future as geological explorations tend to bring further successful results. In the Ninth Five Year Plan (1996-2000), China planned to invest nearly US$1.25 billion (10 billion yuan) in prospecting and developing mineral resources in Tibet's central and western regions (Norwill 1997).

As with any colonised country of the world, the objective of developing the mineral and mining industry in Tibet was to exploit its rich mineral wealth for economic gains. In the 1960s, when systematic and large-scale mining in Tibet really began, the expansion of the Chinese presence and their development of infrastructure supported it. China launched an aggressive marketing campaign to kick-start the Tibetan economy with money being invested in infrastructure and with future plans to invest in forestry, trade and mining industries (Xinhua 1996a). In 1992, China accorded 'TAR' "Special Economic Zone" status and encouraged foreign investment by offering favourable tax terms. China has also undertaken construction of the costly US$ 6.2 billion Tibet-China rail link from Gormo (Ch: Golmud) to Lhasa, which will aid transportation of natural resources from the plateau to China and will encourage Chinese settlers into Tibet.

Since the inception of large-scale mining industries in Tibet, huge quantities of minerals were transported to China to help build its economy. These minerals were consumed largely by mineral-based industries and the surpluses were exported to other countries. In recent years, the expansion of Chinese markets in the international arena has further accelerated the growth of the mining industry in Tibet, with unprecedented investments from multinational companies and assistance from international aid agencies. As the industrialisation of China is heavily dependent on a huge consumption of resources and energy (NORAD 1997), Tibet's mineral reserves have become all the more important. The extraction and processing of these reserves is thought to be one of the principal reasons for opening up of the economy and road network, and for the undertaking of major development projects such as the controversial Yamdrok Tso hydropower project (DIIR 1992).

With the ongoing expansion and development of Tibet's mineral industry, China plans to raise the 'TAR's' economic growth rate to 10 per cent per annum. This is driven by the acute shortage of mineral resources in China to satisfy its increasing demands. China today is the world's second largest consumer of mineral products and its demand for raw minerals has been growing fast, particularly for major non-ferrous minerals that are virtually exhausted. Seven out of 15 key minerals for China's industrial use were due to run out last decade (DIIR 1992). Moreover, by the year 2020, China's demand for various kinds of minerals will be more than double the present level. Many experts believe that the growing demand for mineral resources in China will make it necessary to develop and further expand mineral extraction in Tibet (Xinhua 1997b).

However, despite the significant increase in mineral output in the past four decades of mining in Tibet, the mining sector is still at a prospective stage. Hurried development and the improper implementation of mineral extraction methods in Tibet has seen most of the mining enterprises plagued by numerous problems that include low efficiencies in recovery, production, and utilisation. Likewise, the use of outdated mining technologies and lack of efficiency in the process of extraction has not only hampered the development of mining industry, but also has led to an unprecedented wastage of resources. Despite the above problems, Chinese authorities are keen to make mining one of the pillar industries in 'TAR' with the ambitious target to treble the Gross National Product from that of 1995 (Tibet Daily 1996). Most of the resources are concentrated in Tsaidam Basin, Nagchu, Golok, Chamdo, Chang Thang, Kandze and Lhoka. However, the other regions of Tibet should not be neglected while speaking of minerals because the overall distribution of valuable reserves is throughout the plateau's three traditional provinces.

Today mineral extraction forms the largest economic activity in the industrial sector in Tibet. The growth of the mining sector is estimated at an annual rate of 30 per cent in the Ninth Five Year Plan (Tibetan Review 1998a). According to Dhondup Namgyal, the then Director of the TAR Mining Bureau in Lhasa in 1995, experts believe the mineral resources in Central Tibet area are worth US$ 81.3 billion in market value. Given the difficulty in obtaining information about mining operations in Tibet, however, the figures quoted officially are likely to represent only a small proportion of the true extent of extraction. The further large-scale development of mineral industries in Tibet is rising. The Regional Secretary, Chen Kuiyuan, in Tibet Regional Economic Work Forum, held in Lhasa on 17 December 1999, confirmed that the "tapping of potential mineral resources to develop superior industries in Tibet is one of the main strategic policy decisions on the great development of Tibet" (Tibet TV, 1999).



Chromite reserves in Tibet are the largest in today's political China and the reserves in 'TAR' alone make up 40 per cent of what China claims as its national reserve. Chromite is the main material used to produce special steel and stainless steel. The now-exhausted Shar Lung mine in Nagchu region produced more than 60,000 tons of chromite ore between 1978 and 1979. From 1980 to 1985 the mine produced 300,000 tons of the ore, which had a value of around US$ 11 million (Research and Analysis Centre 1991).

Norbusa Chromite Mine in Lhoka is the largest of its kind in Tibet. The mine's potential value is predicted at about US$ 375-500 million (Tibetan Review 1998a) and contains more than 57 per cent of chromite oxide, rated as one of the top chromite deposits in the world (DIIR 1996b). In the 1980s, Norbusa mine produced a revenue of more than US$ 1.5 million (China's Tibet 1996). In 1992, the mine represented 50 per cent of the total industrial output of all industrial enterprises in 'TAR', and the total extraction of chromite between 1979 and 1989 was worth US$ 34 million. The construction of the mine was a key state project in the Eighth Five Year Plan (1991-95), with a total investment of US$ 10.7 million (DIIR 1996b). The production of 190,000 tons of chromite in those five years has paid more than US$ 3.25 million in tax to the 'TAR' (Waiser 1998).

With more profit in producing ferrochrome than metallurgical chromite, and with the increasing output of chromite in Tibet, the authorities produced their first batch of ferrochrome alloy in 1990. This demand is mainly driven by the stainless steel industry and this inexorable trend looks set to continue. By the end of last century the annual production of ferrochrome alloy is expected to reach 5,000 tons (Xinhua 1998a).


The 'TAR' has potential copper reserves of 13 million tons with proven reserves of 8.85 million tons. The region contains 14.4 per cent of "China's" copper reserves, which make up the third largest reserves and the largest porphyry copper belt in "China". Yulong Copper Mine in Jomda County, Chamdo, 'TAR', is among the largest mines of its kind in the world with an area of 1,870 sq km. The mine has a reserve of 7.14 million tons (Xinhua 1997a) and "with further investment and exploration around the region, this copper belt has tremendous significance in reducing China's foreign exchange expenditure and increasing Tibet's national income", states the internal document "The Specialist Plan for the TAR" (TIN 1997e).

Despite China's remarkable growth of copper production from 386,600 tons in 1980 to more than 1.1 million tons in 1997, the country was unable to meet its demand of 1.3 million tons in 1997. Therefore, China has opened up seven projects with big investments to curtail its copper imports. Two of the projects are located in Tibet, namely the Yulong Copper Mine in Chamdo and the Sashithang Copper Mine in Tsolho, Amdo. Both these mines are included in the Ninth Five Year Plan (1996-2000) with an investment of US$ 1.62 million and US$ 27.5 million respectively. The Sashithang mine has proven copper reserves of 230,000 tons. The operation of these mines in Tibet will help China ease its copper shortage in the market (TIN 1997d).

Other copper mines in Tibet, such as the one in Mongyon Hui County, Tsochang, Amdo also have rich reserves and good quality copper. Extraction at Mongyon Copper Mine started in 1958, exporting of copper started in 1983, and nowadays it is the chief source of income for people living in that area. Copper reserves in Machen County in Golok are considered to be 545,000 tons and in Norbusa Copper Mine at Chusum, Lhoka, the Chinese authorities have an investment of US$ 6.81 million (Research and Analysis Centre 1991).


Tibet has abundant gold reserves, particularly in Amdo as indicated by the following discoveries. On 22 July 1983, three farmers found 3.5 kg of natural gold rock in Yaradu, Wulan County (Research and Analysis Centre 1991) and in another incident a lump of natural gold weighing 6.57 kg was found in Amdo in 1996 (Tibetan Review 1997a). Hungjintai Gold Mine in Matoe, Golok, located at an altitude of 4,670 metres is the highest gold mine in the world. The production of gold in Amdo region in 1991 was over 200 kg (DIIR 1992) and in 1995 it reached 827.5 kg (TIN 1999a). Kandze, Kham, now incorporated into Sichuan Province, is a land strewn with gold reserves. Though much of the mining is kept secret, in 1986 China earned US$ 1.5 million from the sale of gold mined in Kandze (Research and Analysis Centre 1991). Tawo County, Kandze, alone had gold deposits of 22 tons, according to Radio Lhasa on 23 September, 1985. In Pongtsa-rawa, Dechen County in Kham, gold is collected from the river.

In the 'TAR', the Nagchu area has reserves of 10.1 tonnes of alluvial gold. Bengna Zhuangbu Gold Mine in Shentsa County, Nagchu, which started production in 1997, is the largest gold mine in the region. The mine is one of the highly publicised "62 Development Projects" in the 'TAR'. It is estimated that the mine will produce an annual average of 450,000 cubic metres of ore, and 386.6 kg of gold, with an annual net profit of US$ 1.56 million (Zhongguo Xinwen She 1997).

Laoran Mountain, Maodou, Markham in Kham, produces more than 100 kg of gold annually and due to gold content at a shallow depth the mine is expected to form large-scale gold deposits in the near future.

In the 'TAR', an aggregate 14.225 tons of deposits was discovered in six gold mining zones in 1993. In 1994, the production of gold in the region was 13.527 kg, which was an increase of more than 360 per cent from 1993. In 1995, there were 148 gold mines zones in the 'TAR' (Tibet People's Broadcasting Station 1995) with substantial gold reserves at 100 sites (Namgyal 1995).

Oil and Gas

According to many geologists Tibet is perhaps "the last and the largest oil belt on the continents". The region has favourable geology for oil formations: The stratum are of the Mesozoic and Cenozoic periods and similar to the oilfields in the Persian Gulf and the Karakorum in Central Asia (Xinhua 1997c). Tsaidam Basin in Amdo an area of 220,000 sq.kms, almost the size of Britain and Chang Thang are the two major oil deposit zones in Tibet.

Tsaidam Basin has oil reserves of 42 billion tons and natural gas reserves of 1,500 billion cubic metres in 22 deposits (Tibet Daily 1998b). With China currently consuming 22 billion cubic metres of gas a year, Tsaidam's estimated reserves of 1,500 billion cubic metres would supply the Mainland's current need for up to seven years. Gas has been identified as the most practical and transferrable non-polluting energy to serve China's southern and eastern coastal boom cities in future and Tibet's Tsaidam gas fields are earmarked as the primary supplier. A pipeline is due to take Tsaidam gas to Lanzhou in 2002 the first phase in a mammoth network to finally in corporate Xinjiang, Kazakh and Siberian gas fields. Since Chinese exploration started in 1954, more than 23.5 million tons of oil has been extracted from Tsaidam. Once the exploitation is fully implemented, the basin's potential economic returns are valued at US$ 1.9 billion (China Daily 1997b). One of the basin's operating oil fields has been verified as having 31 layers 69.9 metres thick, and another well had a proven 13 layers 43.4 metres thick (China Daily 1998a). Since the late 1980s the basin had been producing over one million tons of crude oil annually. In 1997 the production of oil and gas was 1.5 million tons annually and is scheduled to double by 2001, with projections showing 10 million tons a year by 2005 (China Daily 1997a). At the end of 1999 Qinghai Oilfield was expected to top 1.9 million tons, which is 130,000 tons more than the same period of 1998 (Tibetan Review 2000).

After years of oil exploration in Chang Thang, the first deep oil deposit with 200 million tons has been found in Lhunpula Basin. The basin is also stated to have a proven deposit of 1.5 million tons of oil (Xinhua 1997c). In 1999 another discovery in the same region found higher oil reserves of three million tons. According to several Chinese scientists, the total reserve in the basin is predicted to contain up to 10 million tons of oil. China National Star Petroleum Corporation plans to build at least one field with an annual capacity of 50,000 metric tons in the basin (South China Morning Post 1999b).

The basin is situated at an altitude of 4,700 metres above sea level and it is located 300 km northwest of Nagchu in Northern Tibet. An excellent quality oil field of 6 sq km was found in the region, with four prospective first grade oil gas zones, and one second prospective grade of oil zone. Excellent conditions for the formation of oil were determined in the region with three potential gas zones and 22 structured zones. The achievement of the prospecting team in the region was considered as a major breakthrough in oil discoveries. Many Chinese scientists predict that the region will become the major oil reserve base in the 21st century (Xinhua 1997c).


Tibet has the world's largest deposits of uranium. By 1990 more than 200 uranium deposits were discovered in Tibet, according to a China Daily report on 28 May 1990. The actual size of the uranium resources on the plateau is closely guarded by the Chinese government, but the location of the resources are indicated by the presence of the former Ninth Academy, which was involved in nuclear weapons development, around the eastern mountainous shores of Lake Kokonor (DIIR 1992). The largest uranium mine is in Thewo, Kanlho (Gannan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu Province (Chutter 1998). Known mines of uranium include Tsaidam Basin and Thewo in Amdo and Yamdrok Tso and Damshung, near Lhasa (Dekhang 1998).

Apart from mining uranium in Tibet, the Chinese also extract strontium which is used for nuclear missile cladding (Chutter 1998). A deposit of over 18 million tons of radioacitve strontium was discovered at Tsaidam in 1994 according to Xinhua. Official said the deposit was near the surface and easy to extract (Reuters 27 January 1994). The concentration of plutonium in the deep salt lakes of Tsaidam Basin is another major discovery in Tibet; however its extraction is unknown. The salt lakes also contain well known, large and accessible quantities of lithium which has many industrial applications such as its use as a raw material for nuclear fusion weapons (Slesser 1998). The lithium deposits in Tsonub, Amdo and the 'TAR' represent nearly all of "China's" known lithium resources (Beijing Review 1998a) and the total lithium deposits in Tibet are considered the largest in the world (Waiser 1998).


A quarter of the world's cesium deposits (27.6 per cent ) are discovered in Tibet (TIN 1991) and, according to an announcement made by the Chinese Academy of Geological Science, the deposit discovered in 'TAR' is estimated to have a value of as high as US$ 6.48 billion. This rare metal is mainly used in military and hi-tech applications, e.g. atomic clocks and high-energy solid fuel. (Keji Ribao 1999).


"Of all the economic activities in the world's mountains, nothing rivals the destructive power of mining"

World Watch Paper 1995.

For the existence and development of human society it is necessary to conserve the environment and to simultaneously meet man's demand for materials through the continuing exploration of mineral resources. However, to a varying degree, mining activities have changed the original state of the environment and created potential dangers for both ecological and social systems. Therefore, the continued development of human society depends on the attitude of the mineral industry towards achieving ecologically sustainable development of this sector.

The scale of mineral extraction in Tibet is rapidly expanding with China's industrialisation and modernisation programmes. Mining activities quite obviously impose considerable impacts on the natural environment, but these practices in Tibet have jeopardised not only its natural endowments but also its people. Moreover, as the mineral and energy potential in Tibet is vast and underdeveloped, China will continue to invest heavily in mineral exploration to meet its increasing domestic demand and to reduce its foreign debt. Given these pursuits, further degeneration of the environment is inevitable, which makes the issue of mineral extraction in Tibet of serious concern.

Since the Chinese invasion of Tibet, the use of mineral resources has been unprecedented. The activities have evidently profited the Chinese immensely, as has been revealed by the enormous quantities of production and the increasingly huge investments in the mining sector. This acceleration continues. But the process of extraction has paid little attention to the impact of mining. As a result, despite the generation of huge revenues in fuelling China's economic growth, mining activities have failed to produce real benefits for Tibetans as the majority still live in impoverished conditions.

Natural Resources

Environmental impacts of mining are largely unreported by the Chinese authorities in Tibet. The extensive mining activities have led to the destabilisation of fragile mountain slopes, degradation of pastures, increased rates of sediment in river catchments, deforestation and other perils. The constant treatment of Tibetan natural resources as if inexhaustible, and the extraction of minerals, has also resulted in water contamination and air pollution. In many areas the pressure on local mineral resources has been mounting each year, further impoverishing the region.

The increasing practise of unchecked mining activities has not just damaged but permanently altered the shape of the plateau's landscape. Despite protests by local people, vast areas of pastures have been turned into mining zones. The once-99 per cent pastoral land of Tsalung, Diru, Kham, is today completely transformed into a mining zone (TIN 1997b). Nomads and farmers from Nagchu, Central and Eastern Tibet, raised objections when gold mining in their regions was taking a heavy and destructive toll on their pastoral land but to no avail.

In the gold-rich Serta County, Kandze, Kham, gold mining has devastated the subsistence of the nomads who have lived in the region for centuries. According to a former inhabitant of the region, Jigme Sonam, the Chinese authorities have ordered the evacuation of the Serta area for mining without any monetary or social compensation to the nomads. The land was confiscated under the pretext that it belongs to the "motherland" (TCHRD 1997b).

Vast tracts of rich grazing land were destroyed and more than 17,000 nomads were forced to start a new livelihood when a huge uranium deposit was discovered in Riwoche, Kham in 1990 (Ackerly 1990). In the mineral-rich Amdo Province, extraction and industrialisation have disrupted some 76 per cent of the valley's 16,000 sq.km area resulting in soil erosion and water loss (Xinhua 1996b).

The impact of mining on water resources in Tibet has long been an issue, not only for Tibetans but also for neighbouring countries since the headwaters of Asia's major rivers originate from Tibet. Therefore increased pollution and siltation of rivers affects downstream countries. An example of water contamination comes from a 1997 refugee report which states that during the processing of gold near Mt. Mekong Shaklung in Kungri, Machen County, Amdo, mercury residue used for the extraction of gold from ore was discharged directly into a nearby river (Bidhartsang 1998). Similar pollution was witnessed at Lang Gio Uranium Mine in Gansu Province, where liquid mercury, a product used in the processing of uranium, was dumped into the Machu (Yellow River). Half the lakes on the relatively less-developed Yunnan-Guizhou plateau - including Jangtsa Tso (ch: Dianchi), one of Tibet's largest fresh water lakes - were seriously polluted by August 1999 from 100 tons of waste liquids being released daily from 1,042 industrial enterprises including petrochemical, metallurgical, power and building materials sectors. These industries consume 15,000 tons of coal per annum (Xinhua 18 August 1999).

Lhasa residents' concern about the ever-increasing dust pollution being caused by cement factories describes the growing air impurity of the region (Xinhua 1998c) and highlights the reckless attitude of the authorities. Further, Tibet's industrial water treatment is the worst in China, and the percentage of industrial solid wastes in water resources in Amdo are the highest of any province in China (The World Resources 1998). Human Health and Animals

Hundreds of thousands of litres of untreated, polluted water caused by mining in Tibet pour into major rivers like the Yangtze each day. At the same time, dozens of ferro-silicon, iron, steel, aluminium and silicon carbide plants are releasing their daily dosage of thick poisonous smoke (ICT 1993). All this is hazardous to human health and life. Uranium mining has been linked to illness among the local people, thought to be caused by exposure to radon gas or from drinking water contaminated by mine tailings (ATC 1998). Deaths, injuries and human and animal birth deformities in nearby mining processing are some of the direct effects of the state of mining in Tibet (ICT 1993).

In a village in Ngaba, Amdo, at least 35 people died after drinking water polluted by waste from a nearby uranium mine. One village near a uranium mine in the township of Chongtsa had mysterious illnesses. The victims died within a few hours of developing a fever, followed by a distinctive form of diarrhoea. The trees adjoining the mine also began to dry up (TIN 1992).

Gonpo Dhondup, who escaped from Tibet in 1987, stated at the 1992 World Uranium Hearing in Salzburg, Germany on 14 September, 1992 that in Amdo Province areas surrounding uranium mines have experienced decreasing crop yields and the increasing deaths of domestic animals and fish. He also cited mysterious illnesses among humans including skin and eye diseases, and births of deformed babies. At Thewo, site of the largest uranium mine in Tibet, more than 50 Tibetans and their domestic animal died between 1987-91 from mysterious illnesses. Corpses of both humans and animals turned blue after death. At this uranium mine waste is allegedly collected and stored in a stone structure 40 metres high before being released into the Dukchu Karpo river which is used for drinking water supplies (Dekhang 1998). The use of cyanide and mercury in the extraction and processing of some of the minerals in Tibet, especially gold and the generation of toxic wastes and dust particularly in open cast mining, (DIIR 1992), have been identified as the causes of loss of vision, hair, skin ulceration, respiratory problems and destruction of nervous systems and bone structures (Free Tibet Campaign 1997).

Population Transfer

Another major problem arising from mining in Tibet is the settlement of an increasing number of Chinese into Tibetan regions in the form of labour, technicians and others. This mass migration has created extra pressures on the plateau's dwindling natural resources, intensified ethnic tensions, and is leading to the marginalisation of Tibetans in their own country. During gold rush periods in Amdo and in northern 'TAR', tens of thousands of Chinese migrated into the area and additional thousands of Chinese were recruited by the government (Xizang Ribao 1994). Plans for building several towns to accommodate half a million migrant workers in Tibet in April 1996, are in the process with each proposed town set to house about 100,000 workers (Chan 1996).

Economic incentives in the form of three to four times the rate of standard pay, tax breaks and lower interest loans, plus subsidies from Beijing totalling US$ 125 million a year, are provided to attract and encourage more Chinese settlers and workers into Tibet (Chu 1999). Subsidised truck fuel and machinery costs, and improved infrastructure, are some of the benefits made to increase the Chinese presence in Tibet. In addition to the legal mining of Tibet's mineral resources, the potential adverse environmental effects are compounded by widespread illegal mining. Fights among the illegal miners for the best spots of gold in the region are common, often leading to several deaths.

According to Gonpo, who was a participant at the Tibet People's Consultative Conference in Lhasa in May 1995, "there are over 12,000 miners unlawfully extracting gold in Gansu, Amdo and districts of Nagchu in the TAR" (DIIR 1996b). It is presumed that the number of illegal mining operations, especially for gold, are more common in the Tibetan regions outside 'TAR'. Both farmers and nomads in these areas have raised serious objections to the heavy extraction of minerals and the consequent destruction of pastures.

Forced Labour

With increasing prospects and advantages in Tibet today more and more Chinese are migrating there resulting in social unrest and ethnic conflicts. Chinese nationals run most of the work in the mineral sector. Local participation and employment in mining enterprises has remained minimal and any direct benefit to Tibetans from such industrial development is insignificant. The use of forced labour, particularly prisoners, in State-run mining and in building infrastructure in Tibet continues to prevail despite heavy international pressure. For instance, a tungsten mine near Xinduquiao uses about 800 prisoners through the so-called "reform through labour programme" of China (TIN 1995). Tibetan individuals and families often have to work in adjacent mines as demanded by authorities. Failing to turn up for work results in fines and doubling the amount of work next time, and often these labourers are not paid. The deaths of many thousands of peasants from 12-15 hour stints of forced labour in the deserts and mountainous regions of Eastern Turkestan (Xinjiang) are kept secret (Golos Vostochnogo Turkestana 1997).

The use of forced labour is banned under the International Labour Organisation's Conventions number 29 and number 105. Convention 29 describes forced labour as "work extracted from persons under the menace of penalty and for which the individuals have not offered voluntarily". Convention 105 is concerned with the banning of forced labour as a "means of political coercion or as punishment for political views, as a method of mobilising and using labour for purposes of economic development or as a means of racial, social, national or religious discrimination". Clearly, the use of Tibetan and Chinese prison labour violates these conventions.

Social Unrest and Conflicts

Despite the potentially severe impacts of mining on people and the environment in the form of contamination of drinking water or disruption of livelihood, these affected peoples often have very little meaningful input into decision-making processes about whether a mine will be constructed or not. Environmental protests by local people have been ignored and crushed; many individuals have been subjected to severe punishments, often leading to longterm imprisonment and torture.

In 1991, Phuntsok Chosang and Gyatso pasted posters for the third time to protest the building of roads into their hometown Meldro Gongkar, 'TAR', for the transportation of minerals from Thalung Mine in Gyama to China. Subsequently locals in the mining area also raised objections to the operation of the mine because it uses toxic materials and dynamite in blasting the area. According to Phuntsok the mine has caused severe ecological imbalance in the form of soil erosion, frequent rainfall and hailstorms and many wild animals, birds and farm animals have died from the toxic gases released. But the authorities ignored their pleas and both Phuntsok Chosang and Gyatso were imprisoned, tortured and put in solitary confinement for 13 days and nights (TCHRD 1997a).

The disregard for sacred places and for the sentiments of residents caused by mining operations in many places in Tibet is another growing concern. Opposition by local Tibetans and monks to the extraction of minerals at nearby sacred places of worship had led to harsh torture and imprisonment. In a mining protest near Nubsur Monastery in Serta, Kandze in Kham on 10 June 1996, monastery headman Kabukye Rinpoche was arrested, tortured and imprisoned for six years for expressing his opposition to the Chinese government's gold mining operation near his monastery (TIN 1998b).


The development of mineral industries is inevitable for the overall development of Tibet's economy. For years the utilisation of Tibet's mineral resources has been hampered by bureaucratic restrictions, legal uncertainties, illegal mining activities, lack of capital and poor infrastructure. It is, therefore, important to mitigate mining activities through effective government action and policies that propel sound development. The challenge is not to stop development, but to meet development needs of the Tibetan people in a sustainable way.

Effective Legislation

The mineral resources law has an important role to play in promoting rational use as well as in conserving the mineral resources. It was only in August 1986 that China formulated its first mineral resources law, which came into effect in October the same year. But the exploration and extraction of mineral resources in Tibet had already started in 1956. In those three decades both the government and private miners took a huge toll of the fragile environment and the Tibetan people.

Nonetheless, in order to curtail the serious problem of illegal mining and to bring order to many mining localities, China amended its first mining laws on 29 August 1996. This revised law came into effect on 1 January 1997 and is known as the Mineral Resources Law of the "Chinese government" and consists of seven chapters and 53 articles. Though most of the old laws were retained, much of the revamped law has been designed to facilitate modernisation of the mining sector, and to attract increased foreign investment by introducing market mechanisms.

Given the nature of Tibet's topography, mining should not be practised in fragile areas, on mountain slopes, ecologically significant habitats, forests and croplands. Large-scale mining in mountainous regions should be banned and instead small-scale mining for basic minerals implemented, which can be allowed under appropriate safeguards and restrictions. The cost of site restoration and damage should be borne by the mining agency under law. Mining of uranium and other radioactive minerals should be halted, especially near rivers and lakes. As stated in Article 10 of the Mining Law, "the State should give due consideration to the interests of those areas and make arrangements favourable to the areas' economic development and to the production and livelihood of the local minority nationalities". So far the mining industries in Tibet have benefited Tibetans marginally. The statistics of a United Nations Development Program report on Tibet shows a clear fall of life expectancy, a drop of post-school employment, and a decrease in literacy rate to 31 per cent (ICJ 1997).

Legislation should adhere to strict environmental safeguards and rules and deal with each of the main resources separately, i.e. water and air would each have a separate legislation. The establishment of policies and the implementation of laws should be followed strictly to foster economic growth in a sustainable way.

Proper Implementation of Rules

The situation of mineral resources in Tibet is still quite chaotic and the mining laws and regulations are still in evolution. This can be attributed mainly to the ineffective regulation and unsound legal system. For instance, mining is practised in places specified as a "no mining area" under Article 20 of the Mining Law. Chinese government collect fees by issuing mining rights on public and private lands, but the Tibetans receive no benifits as compensation for encroaching on their ancestral land. Exploration and mining rights issued by the Ministry of Geology and Mineral Resources are not made for public viewing, as stated in the law. The revamped mining laws do not provide any solution for the effective and efficient running of mining activities. Rather, the focus still remains on encouraging further exploration and extraction of mineral resources.

Following the changes, the government should ensure effective environmental protection, proper legislation, and the monitoring and enforcement of mining laws. Two relevant examples where effective legislation is urgently required are with respect to hazardous wastes and to stop illegal mining. Legislative standards should be developed to indicate environmental bottom lines for such basic issues as water and air quality and acceptable noise levels. Mining agencies should be held subject to these sound environmental commitments, not just on paper but in reality. In addition, environmental fees for the excessive release of pollutants should be applied to small-scale mining activities also. The authorities should not propose the confiscation of land in the name of the "motherland". Jurisdictional disputes are another obstruction preventing speedy, effective approvals. Clear divisions on authorities should be established at the district and village level to prevent government red tape. Illegal activities and corruption of all kinds should be handled with heavy punishments. If it is a problem to deal within the established structure, a new agency directly appointed from the higher level could be given the charge de force to handle the situation. Other improvements needed include transparency of information dissemination between the government and the public. More research and comparative studies on similar small-scale mining operations should also be conducted.

Technical Upgrading

Due to the use of outdated technologies and equipment in mining activities most of the mines in Tibet suffer from a lack of structure optimisation. The backwardness of technology has resulted in low efficiency in recovery, production and utilisation of the mineral resources. Minimal safety standards, wastage of resources and poor economic returns in most mines are some of the constant problems. Underdevelopment of transportation infrastructure is another issue that remains inadequate in most of the mining areas.

The introduction of appropriate technology is required to minimise environmental damage and improve economic returns. Proper development of technical standards in small and large size production units and providing skills training in the mining sector are just a few changes that can be made to generate better returns.

Participation of People

Environmental Impact Assessments of mining areas should be conducted and the results made available for public viewing before starting any mining projects. It is recommended to allow and encourage the public, especially local communities, to participate in the environmental aspect of mining activities. For example, a Public Hearing or a round table conference can be held prior to the issue of a mineral title by the relevant mining management agency.

Mining agencies and authorities should have proper co-ordination with local people and they should inform the public about the developments and proceedings of the mine. Efforts should be made to encourage the increased participation of Tibetans at all levels. In this way a positive bond can be established which can help with the smooth running of mines with public support. Strict supervision and checks on mining methods should be made known to the public, to ensure safety and prevent environmental damage. Direct benefits to Tibetans should be provided whenever mining is done in their territory. This can be in the form of provision of jobs, social securities and social welfare schemes. All workers in mines should be treated equally regarding job placements. Tibetans hold only about 10 per cent of the mining jobs in Kham and less than 20 per cent in Amdo and U-Tsang, with the rest of the jobs going to Chinese settlers (DIIR 1992). Tibetans should be given preference over other nationals.

Check Human Pressures

The influx of a large number of Chinese workers into Tibet, especially miners, creates serious social and ecological problems. Therefore, mining developments in Tibet as with all development projects should discourage Chinese population transfer. Necessary steps should be taken to halt "migrational skilled workers" over the border. Tibetans should be provided technical knowledge and training to develop appropriate skills rather than directly appointing Chinese workers and overseers.

Large proportions of the Chinese settlers in Tibet are illegal miners. The government should take necessary steps to stop illegal mining and the random exploitation of mineral resources. These miners should be punished according to mining laws and must be deported to their native towns.

Foreign Investment

With its vast untapped mineral potential, Tibet may be the last truly great frontier in today's mining world. The mineral exploitation in Tibet has generated considerable returns to China. This activity has been expanded and promoted as one of the key pillar industries to increase economic growth. Several important changes to the mining laws have been made to attract foreign investment and consequently various investment channels are now open.

In the past a few foreign companies have been involved in mining in Tibet despite varying difficulties. Some have shown great respect and care for the Tibetan people and some have engaged in jeopardising Tibet's environment by focussing solely on economic gains. The industrialisation of Amdo, for instance, has attracted a total foreign investment of US$ 400 million, which includes US$ 70 million in foreign loans from aid agencies (Lafitte 1998a).

How much of these so-called developmental projects have benefited the Tibetans is understandable as the real income and standard of living of Tibetans still remains low. On the other hand, both the investors in Tibet and the Chinese government have profitably pocketed from these businesses. The current pattern of development has marginalised Tibetans and excluded them from effective participation, which is an intrinsic aspect of any sound development. The livelihood of most of the Tibetans who live in small rural communities has been neglected, receiving little of the investments (ICJ 1997).

The Tibetan Government-in-Exile has already issued guidelines for foreign aid and investment in Tibet. These are explained in depth in Chapter Nine of this report.The guidelines are offered to foster, not hinder, development. In fact, they encourage thoughtful, patient and sensitive developments devised specifically to enable Tibetans to participate fully in the development of their own land. Agencies and investors in mining enterprises in Tibet must be prepared to not only adhere to these guidelines, but in addition ensure they conform to relevant international conventions and treaties and also to the regulations and laws of China.

Decisions by investors in Tibet directly will in future affect the plateau's ecology and the livelihood of Tibetans. It therefore becomes important to consider the local issues thoroughly by building safeguards projects to ensure social development to the Tibetan populace. Proper social, cultural and environmental impact assessments should be done before launching any major mining operations in Tibet. Low priority should be given to massive infrastructure projects such as real estate, intensive mining and resource exploitation, the construction of heavy industries and large dams.

While such projects may be of minimal benefit, or often of no benefit whatsoever, to Tibetans, they more immediately benefit the Chinese who without any mandate speak for, exploit and control the Tibetan people. Therefore, mining companies need a far-sighted strategy with clear statements on ethical principles and a commitment to sustainable development a concept which has a social as well as an environmental dimension.


Tibet's unique geological evolution led to the formation of abundant minerals and natural resources. For centuries these resources were not exploited since traditional beliefs prescribed that extraction of minerals would diminish the land's fertility, upset the presiding deities and harm society. Moreover, there were then no major commercial industries and factories so the mineral resources of Tibet were basically kept intact in a flourishing, natural and peaceful environment.

However, after the Chinese invasion of Tibet the scenario completely changed. In the name of "liberation" and "developing Tibet" China exploited the natural resources with little benefit trickling into Tibet and down to Tibetans and the lion's share of the income going to China to the tune of billions of dollars on the international markets.

China's haphazard mining practices continue to affect the fragile ecology of the Tibetan plateau. These include the destabilisation of fragile mountain slopes, the pollution of major river systems, degradation of agriculture and pastoral lands, deforestation, air pollution, not to mention that diminishing mineral resources lead to the impoverishment of the Tibetan region. Besides ecological concerns, the unregulated mining sector in Tibet is leading to the dilution of Tibetan culture and traditions by encouraging a further influx of Chinese settlers and also causes social conflicts.

Therefore, the Chinese government and associated mining enterprises working in Tibet must urgently address the limitation of current mining practices in Tibet and should achieve ecologically and socially sustainable development. The infiltration of Chinese settlers in the guise of miners should be halted as this new invasion has already jeopardised the quality of life of the Tibetans in their own land. Effective enforcement of regulations and technical up-gradation, as outlined, are some steps that need to be taken. In addition, greater emphasis needs to be placed on the short and long term consequences of mining on the environment, public health, safety and most importantly consider the wishes of Tibetans themselves.


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

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