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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.]


The human right to development also implies the full realisation of the right of people to self-determination, which includes, subject to the relevant provisions of both International Covenants on Human Rights, the exercise of their inalienable right to full sovereignty over all their natural wealth and resources.

UN Declaration on the Right to Development, 1986.

THE PURPOSE of identifying the human rights components of environmental degradation on the Tibetan Plateau is to illustrate the strengths created by bridging these two disciplines. Both conceptually, and as applied, their merging can be a more potent tool than either discipline working in isolation. This chapter firstly describes the development of environmental human rights in international law, and then explains the environmental dimension of particular human rights and how these concepts apply in the context of Tibet. This chapter then outlines and analyses several instances of environmental harm on the Tibetan Plateau and their human rights implication. Topics include China's food policy in Tibet, destruction of rangelands, mining, deforestation and despoliation of sacred places. Each situation is described and analysed through the lens of environmental human rights.


The United Nations Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment (1972) stands as a landmark decision in the development of the link between natural environments and human rights in international law. Principle 1 outlines the earliest explicit recognition on an international level of a human right to "adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being" (Report of the UN Conference on the Human Environment 1979). In 1989, the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities (hereafter referred to as the Sub-Commission) was first called upon to study the relationship between the environment and human rights. There was already a substantial body of international and regional law that recognised the environmental dimension of human rights. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights endorsed the appointment of a Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment to guide the Sub-Commission's investigation of the area (Popovic 1996). The Sub-Commission's four reports to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights over as many years progressively established the legal basis and human need for environmental human rights (Aguilar and Popovic 1994).

During the Sub-Commission's consideration of the concept, debate over the existence and definition of environmental human rights flourished and became the subject of at least five major international conferences. Commentators have explored the precedent in international and regional laws for environmental human rights. Some have questioned whether such environmental rights should be expressed only through the environmental dimension of established human rights, or whether there should be adoption of a separate human rights instrument (Shelton 1991). Others have called for measures to create and codify environmental rights in new legal instruments. Still others have been critical of the new prominence given to environmental rights in the human rights discourse (Gormley 1990).

This level of attention and healthy debate over a legal precedent for the expansion of human rights to encompass an environmental component is not new in human rights law. Almost 20 years of drafting debates preceded the UN Convention on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. The Convention took another 10 years from the time it was opened for signature until it took effect. Even with regard to what is now considered a cornerstone of human rights law the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 many commentators at the time doubted the feasibility of reaching any meaningful consensus and urged that far more modest goals be set. The same observation can just as easily be made now, over 40 years later, regarding the development of environmental human rights law.

The Sub-Commission's work since 1989 has advanced the discussion on the links between the natural environment and human rights. Under the able leadership of the Sub-Commission's Special Rapporteur, Fatma Zohra Ksentini, this five-year effort produced tangible results. Firstly, its report established that there is ample precedent for environmental human rights in international, regional and national law. Secondly, the report thoroughly explored environmental dimensions of established human rights; thirdly, situations that visibly demonstrate the inadequacy of existing environmental laws and human rights instruments to meet the needs of victims of environmental harm were identified and explored. And fourthly, a Draft Declaration of Principles on Human Rights and the Environment was drafted by an international group of leading experts on human rights and international environmental law on the recommendation and invitation of the Sub-Commission.

Regardless of whether the Draft Declaration ultimately becomes binding international law, or whether it only serves as a model from which to incorporate environmental rights into existing human rights laws, it currently serves an important purpose. The Draft Declaration presents environmental human rights in a comprehensive yet succinct statement.

There are five thematic sections to the Draft Declaration in addition to its Preamble: (1) the universality of human rights; (2) substantive rights; (3) procedural rights; (4) environmental duties; and (5) special considerations in the Declaration's implementation. The following discussion analyses violations of human rights and environmental rights in Tibet through the lens of the Draft Declaration.


"All human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated" (Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action 1993). The indivisibility, interdependence and global applicability of all human rights are one of the defining characteristics of environmental human rights. The Preamble to the Draft Declaration places environmental human rights in context by recognising their sources in international law and in the universality and interdependence of all human rights. The Draft Declaration's Preamble also describes the indivisibility of environmental human rights by stating that:

Human rights violations lead to environmental degradation and that environmental degradation leads to human rights violations.

Part I of the Draft Declaration affirms the universality of all human rights and their interdependence with peace, security, and an ecologically sound environment (Principles 1 and 2). It also establishes the applicability of the universal norm of non-discrimination to environmental human rights (Principle 3), and highlights their unique emphasis on protecting inter-generational equity (Principle 4).


The Rights to Life and Health

The interdependence of human rights and environmental rights is nowhere more fundamental than the right to life's dependence on environmental conditions. The right to life is protected in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in Article 6(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Principle 5 of the Draft Declaration declares "the right of all persons to be free from pollution and all kinds of environmental degradation which may threaten life, health, livelihood, well-being or sustainable development." Principle 6 expresses "the grounding of human survival in healthy ecosystems and the maintenance of biological diversity." The realities of human exploitation of the environment make the link between life and environmental protection obvious; more than two million deaths globally can be directly attributed to pollution.

Similarly, the right to health cannot be fully realised in degraded or hazardous environments. For example, the worldwide thinning of the ozone layer may cause an additional 300,000 cases of skin cancer and 1.7 million cases of cataracts annually. Articles 25(1) and 23(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and articles 12(b) and 7(b) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, firmly enshrine the right to health as well as safe and healthy working conditions as fundamental human rights (International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights 1976). In the Draft Declaration, the environmental dimensions of the established human rights to health, food, safe and healthy working conditions, and adequate housing are declared in Principles 7-11.

The obvious link between health and the environment has been recognised by human rights bodies such as the Committee of Experts that reviews compliance with the European Social Charter (European Social Charter, Oct. 18, 1961). This Committee has recognised that the Social Charter's right to health requires special attention to air and water pollution, dangerous radioactive materials, noise pollution and food contamination.

The Right To Be Free From Hunger

Food security is also a human rights issue. It is recognised in article 25(1) of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and declared in article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger. Food security is threatened by many different kinds of environmental abuses, which can affect affluent nations and developing nations alike. Contamination of food by pesticides or air- and water-borne toxins, declining harvests due to desertification and salinisation, and loss of food-crop biodiversity are just a few ways in which environmental degradation endangers the fulfillment of this basic human right.

China's agricultural policies in Tibet have resulted in numerous violations of the fundamental human right to be free from hunger.

Undermining Food Security

One of China's first acts upon gaining military control over Tibet was to begin to institutionalise its agricultural policy. Its aims were two-fold: to "modernise" the "backward" Tibetan subsistence farmers on the one hand, and to feed Chinese settlers moving into Tibet on the other. China imposed far-reaching collectivisation programmes under which farmers and nomads were stripped of their lands and their herds. Tibetans were subsequently reorganised into communes and brigades (Longworth and Williamson 1993).

In Tibet barley is the traditional crop because it is well suited to the short growing season and the harsh, high-altitude conditions of the Tibetan Plateau. The Tibetan food staple of roasted barley flour or tsampa is eaten plain or mixed in butter tea. However, the Chinese-imposed "communes" required farmers to grow hybrid wheat varieties, often referred to as winter wheat, which were ill-suited to the harsh conditions of the plateau and therefore dependent on intensive application of artificial fertilisers and pesticides (TWA 1996).

The results were disastrous. Tibet experienced two intense periods of widespread famine; the first recorded in over 2000 years of Tibetan history. From 1961 to 1964, and again from 1966 to 1976 during the Cultural Revolution, more than 340,000 Tibetans starved to death (DIIR 1996). The forced collectivisation of agriculture was ultimately abandoned as a Chinese policy after the historic visit of Hu Yaobang, then Communist Party General Secretary, to Tibet in 1980 (Peatfeld 1995). Hu Yaobang made strong recommendations for reform. Among these were exempting Tibetan farmers from compulsory sales to the government as well as ending the taxation of Tibetan herders (Schwartz 1995). Although many of Hu Yaobang's sweeping recommendations were never fully implemented, Tibetans did regain more control over their own lands (ibid). Hu Yaobang was ultimately demoted from his powerful position as General Secretary for his criticism of Chinese policies in Tibet (TYC 1995).

By the mid-1980s, there was a huge Chinese settler population in Tibet as a result of Beijing's aggressive population transfer programme. "A well-researched and credible estimate puts the Chinese population in Lhasa, including the Hui (Muslims), at 110,000 and in the 'TAR' at 250,000-300,000, including military and police and the "floating" population" (ICJ 1997). The number of Chinese settlers in the eastern areas of the Tibetan Plateau, in Kham and Amdo, numbered in the millions. One of the greatest obstacles to China's full control of Tibet was emerging: how to feed the Chinese who were encouraged to settle there (Ackerly 1993).

The cost of feeding Chinese settlers in Tibet is staggering. According to the UN World Food Programme, almost the entire budget of the historic Amdo region (Ch: Qinghai) is spent on importing grain. At the same time, over 70 per cent of that province's budget is composed of subsidies from the central government (Forbes & McGranahan 1992). Although the cost for long-haul truck transport into Lhasa valley has been calculated at 0.7 yuan (US$ 0.0875) per kg of grain, one kg still costs only 0.45 yuan (US$0.0563) in Lhasa markets. Continued government subsidies for grain help to explain a market price that is half of the transportation costs alone (Liu 1992). By the 1980s, Chinese central government subsidies to the 'Tibet Autonomous Region' had risen to 97 per cent of the total industrial and agricultural output of the region (DIIR 1992).

Annual subsidies to Chinese urban settlers in Tibet through the 1980s was approximately US$128 per person (ibid). Meanwhile, the price of locally-grown barley, the staple Tibetan food, was left to market forces, making it almost twice as expensive to purchase as the wheat and rice trucked in to feed Chinese migrants from thousands of kilometres away.

Within six years of the liberal reforms initiated by Hu Yaobang in 1980, production of wheat in Tibet's main agricultural belt was restored to pre-1960 levels through so-called government intervention (Schwartz 1991). Tibetan farmers were then, and still are, compelled to sell the bulk of their production to the government, after which they often have little left for home consumption, barter or market sales.

The Chinese government pays a fixed price for the wheat produced by Tibetan farmers, which is well below actual value. Furthermore, these profits are used to offset huge government losses on imported grains such as rice and additional wheat for Chinese consumers. Tibetan rural householders interviewed by one researcher all reported that compulsory sales to the government are a burden rather than a source of income, and that it would be impossible to evade the required production quotas of wheat. This coercive and compulsory government sales practice forces Tibetan farmers to be commodity producers against their will, and prevents them from realising an income from market sales.

China's second tactic to increase wheat production in Tibet has been to lobby international aid organisations to invest. This avenue has been highly successful. In the name of improving conditions for rural Tibetan farmers, several large-scale aid projects have been launched to increase wheat production and "modernise" both Tibetan agriculture and its traditional rural economy. Benefits of this "modernisation" will be realised primarily by Chinese settlers in Tibet. International aid agencies have financed China's agricultural policies that directly undermine Tibetan subsistence and food security.

One of the most significant international aid projects began in 1989 in the Lhasa valley's prime agricultural belt in collaboration with the UN World Food Programme (WFP). Not only does the project involve millions of dollars of aid money itself, but it is intended to serve as a model for equally large-scale aid projects in three other agricultural valleys in Tibet (Forbes & McGranahan 1992). In addition to this aid project in Lhasa valley, the WFP has funded two other agriculture development schemes in Amdo. The WFP is spending US$ 5.5 million on one of its projects in Amdo, the Agriculture Development Through Irrigation Project (no. 3557), in funding approximately 40 per cent of the scheme.

Such agricultural development projects, launched with the legitimacy of international approval, are aimed at increasing commodity grain production and moving Tibetan farmers from subsistence-based production to market production. This exposes Tibetan farmers to price fluctuations and increases their dependence on imported machinery, materials and irrigation supplies (Peatfeld 1995). It also further undermines the traditional Tibetan economy of self-sufficiency. The UN officials involved in the project have never seriously questioned the underlying logic of growing wheat within the project area as a means to reduce the huge grain imports into the region.

The Right to a Secure Food Supply

Under the added pressure of a new and largely urban Chinese settler population, which is in many regions greater than the Tibetan population, China's agricultural policy violates Tibetans' substantive human rights. The most obvious violation is that of the right to adequate food. Principle 8 of the Draft Declaration declares that all persons have the right to safe and healthy food adequate to their well being. China's policy of "modernising" agriculture in Tibet comes at the expense of eliminating traditional subsistence farming and a self-sufficient rural economy.

An agricultural policy intended to provide only for the needs of Chinese settlers at the expense of rural Tibetans literally leaves Tibetans hungry. Principle 5 of the Draft Declaration, regarding the right to a healthy livelihood, is also violated by China's agricultural policy. Principle 5 provides that "all persons have the right to freedom from pollution, environmental degradation, and activities that threaten livelihood, well-being, or sustainable development within, across or outside national boundaries." The burden of state procurement imposed on Tibetan farmers, and the coercive policies required to make Tibetan farmers grow wheat crops which are dependent on large inputs of expensive and soil-depleting chemical fertiliser ill-suited to agricultural conditions of the high plateau, effectively violates Principle 5.

Intrinsic Cultural Rights

Many cultural rights have roots in environmental protection. This link is especially vivid for local peoples and subsistence pastoralists as well as farmers whose specific relationship with their land defines the essentials of their cultural life. As one Indian leader stated to the UN Working Group for Indigenous Affairs:

[O]ur principal and fundamental struggle is for the land, our territory and natural resources . . . Our defence of the land and natural resources is for the cultural and human survival of our children.

Article 27 provides ethnic, religious, or linguistic minorities with the right to enjoy their own culture. In addition, the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community is protected in article 27(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in article 15(1)(a) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (recognising the right to take part in cultural life).

The pastoral nomads of Tibet are actively being denied the right to their cultural practices through Chinese government policies. Most important is the increasing commercialisation of Tibet's rangelands which, as noted previously in the Agriculture Chapter, presents the antithesis of the nomadic lifestyle. A principle of environmental rights in the Draft Declaration is that "all people have the right to the sustainable use of nature and natural resources for cultural and spiritual purposes". In its 1998 report, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) commenting on the destruction of Tibetan rangelands, notes:

The degradation of the [Tibetan] grasslands is the most pervasive environmental impact of the era of Chinese control of Tibet, and the impact which most threatens the sustainability of Tibetan civilisation.

Tibetan nomadic peoples have an undeniable right to live in a manner which nurtures their traditional practices. Central to these practices is the state of the environment in which they live and depend upon for their basic needs. The right to travel, the right to move their herds in an unrestricted fashion, and the right to treat their animals and rangelands in their own traditional manner are all undeniable rights.

Environmental rights and human rights are so closely linked in the Tibetan nomadic lifestyle that they cannot be separated.

Prior to China's military build-up in Tibet, no commercial mining took place on the Tibetan Plateau for uranium or otherwise despite Tibet's many extensive and valuable mineral deposits. One reason for this was the Tibetans' firm belief that mining disturbs and weakens the strength of the earth and that this would also disturb the local spirits associated with that place. Ultimately this was believed to bring harmful effects to the people living there as described in the mining chapter.

An incident involving uranium mining near the town of Riwoche, in the Chamdo region of the Tibet, was reported in 1989 that further illustrates the connection between the denial of cultural rights and environmental degradation. There was a hill behind the Trachen-Ma Temple in Riwoche that had always been regarded as a sacred site by Tibetans. When miners were brought in to begin excavation for a uranium mine, villagers protested to the Chinese authorities but to no avail (Ackerly 1990). The report states that a tense incident ensued in which three surveyors' jeeps were set on fire and subsequently Chinese soldiers occupied the town and rounded up villagers for interrogation. The authoritarian Chinese governance effectively denies Tibetans their culture and spiritual practices based on their relationship with the land as guaranteed in Principle 13 of the Draft Declaration.

The Right to Preserve Sacred Sites

Principle 13 also includes the right to preservation of unique sites consistent with the fundamental rights of persons or groups living in the area. This is closely linked to the notion of cultural and spiritual practices mentioned above. Sacred sites such as forests, lakes, mountains and rivers are to many peoples a source of religious inspiration, places of pilgrimage, and the focus of many rituals. In Tibet sacred natural places abound. Mount Kailash, one of the better known sites, is sacred to Hindus and Buddhists alike. Others such as Lake Kokonor and Yamdrok Tso have special significance to Tibetans and once despoiled by invasive human intervention are easily defiled.

A sacred lake, river or grove cannot be partially sacred whereby certain aspects may be exploited for utilitarian requirements. In a sacred grove, all the plants are sacred; likewise a sacred mountain cannot contain a mining district and retain its sacredness. All over Tibet places which have religious significance to local peoples are being desecrated by Chinese "development" projects, effectively denying local people's right to their own religious practices.

Environmental rights and human rights clearly converge where sacred natural sites are concerned. This claim, which is echoed by indigenous peoples worldwide, is substantiated in Tibet where both Buddhist and traditional Bon religious practices incorporate natural phenomena as part of their spiritual traditions. The continued and blatant lack of respect towards Tibetan religious practices by the Chinese administration is well known. The Chinese occupation of Tibet has resulted in numerous well-documented human rights abuses and, as the above examples show, numerous less well-known violations of environmental rights. Destruction of sacred landforms through mining processes are the most obvious. Deforestation and pollution of rivers and lakes is subtler but equally damaging to the sacred aspect that directly impinges upon people's well being and sense of place.

The destruction of sacred places is a direct violation of human rights. The fact that in Tibet many of these sacred sites are natural entities further strengthens the link between environmental and human rights.

The Right to Self-Determination

Denial of the human right to self-determination is closely linked to environmental degradation. Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights declares unequivocally that "all peoples have the right of self- determination." Article 1 explains that "by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development". The Covenant's right to self-determination includes environmental sovereignty, stated as a peoples' right to "freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources and in no case may a people be deprived of their own means of subsistence".

Denial of the right to self-determination is interwoven with the exploitation of a nation's natural resources. The Sub-Commission's Special Rapporteur found that the political and economic subjugation that exists in occupied territories and formerly colonised countries creates social conditions under which extreme environmental degradation is unchecked. During the course of the Sub-Commission's study, environmental degradation and resulting human rights abuses relating to the denial of self-determination included intensive exploitation of raw materials and products that upset ecological balances, wastage of non-renewable energy sources, establishment of polluting and high-risk industries, and pauperisation of rural areas (Sub-Commission Final Report). The Preamble to the Draft Declaration recognises the right to self-determination and its relation to sustainable development: "The environmental dimension of the right to self-determination lies at the heart of the economic exploitation that inures to the benefit of the dominating force".


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognises that procedural aspects of human rights are as important to full realisation of human rights as substantive protections such as the right to life and health. Denial of the fundamental rights of freedom of association, of opinion and expression, and of the right to take part in government, are denials of basic human rights without which protection of substantive human rights are called into question.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights codifies these procedural rights in Article 8 (effective remedy); Article 19 (freedom of opinion and expression); Article 20 (freedom of association); Article 21 (right to take part in government); and Article 26 (right to education). Articles 2(3), 19, 21, 22, and 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights set forth these same procedural guarantees as fundamental human rights. Similarly, Part III of the Draft Declaration sets out the procedural aspects of human rights necessary for the full realisation of environmental rights.

These rights are enabling rights. They make it possible for people to contribute actively to the protection of their environment. Likewise, in many situations the absence of respect for these rights ensures that environmental degradation is not only more likely to occur, but it is likely to be on an irreversible scale which may threaten the rights of future generations. The environmental dimension of these procedural human rights constitute the essential building blocks of environmental protection. The following section of this report provides a striking illustration of the degree to which substantive environmental human rights violations follow in the wake of violations of these procedural guarantees.

The Right to Freedom of Expression

Principle 16 of the Draft Declaration guarantees the right to hold and express opinions, just as Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees the right to freedom of opinion and expression. The denial of the fundamental human right to the freedom of expression under China's repressive administration of Tibet is exemplified in the story of Phuntsok Chosang, a Tibetan who protested mining near his village, Meldro Gongkar in Gyamo Shang.

Phuntsok Chosang pasted wall posters in his village in 1990 protesting China's plans to build roads to service a new mine in Gyamo Shang in Central Tibet some 73 km east of Lhasa. Over the following year Phuntsok put up posters twice more that were openly critical of China's mining operations. One poster declared that "Chinese should not exploit our natural resources". Within three months Phuntsok was taken from his home, arrested, placed in solitary confinement, beaten, and had iron rods jammed into his mouth during daily interrogations (TCHRD 1997a).

The implications of such treatment are that not only are Tibetans denied any public opinion on development issues, but also are severely punished if they attempt to make any protest.

The Right to Environmental Information

Principle 15 of the Draft Declaration guarantees the right to environmental information. Because the foreign press are not permitted to operate in Tibet, and due to travel restrictions on Western travellers, compounded by reprisals against Tibetans observed speaking to any Westerner on such subjects, it is exceedingly difficult to obtain accurate information about conditions in Tibet. As a result, some of the most valuable information available comes from Tibetans who fled Tibet and are now living in exile in Tibetan settlements in India and Nepal.

Dolma Kyap, a nomad who arrived in India from Amdo in 1996, described how large groups (sometimes as many as 1,700 people at a time) of Chinese Muslims from a distant Chinese city would come several times each year to cut trees in a forested area known as Kagya (Kyap 1996). Dolma Kyap did not know why the Chinese Muslims were allowed to cut the trees and take them back to China. She then described how the People's Liberation Army, who supposedly "guard" the forest and would shoot and kill any Tibetan who cut down a tree, also felled trees and loaded them onto trucks bound for China. Dolma Kyap noted:

We are all very worried about the forests being finished, but when we see the Chinese people cutting the forest we can do nothing. If we fight, they shoot us. If we were to tell the Government officials about the Chinese Muslims coming to cut the trees, they would do nothing. My father remembers the Chinese Muslim people coming each year since 1958 and my grandfather said that when he was young, every place in Kagya was covered with trees; now there are no trees left in places that used to be thick forest.

China's military domination facilitates the use of Tibet for its development of nuclear weapons. Tibetans do not have the right to information regarding any aspect of China's nuclear programmes. Tibetans from villages near Lake Kokonor, when interviewed by International Campaign for Tibet observers, said that they were extremely unhappy about the military complexes, but that they did not know anything about their use for nuclear weapons (Kyap 1996).

The inability to get information out of Tibet about the health and living conditions of Tibetans in such areas prevents any thorough investigation of China's practices. In July 1991, for example, a small protest was reported that took place in Xining by 30 Tibetans who had travelled from the area near Lake Kokonor. Their slogans read: "Return our snowlands. Give us back our grasslands. We are dying of hunger". The conditions that sparked the protest remain unknown (South China Morning Post 1992).

According to eye-witness reports, about 40 students of Lhasa Teachers' Training School gathered at their school on 4 October 1998 with banners and a one-page petition and were on the verge of taking to the streets of the city when the police arrived and stopped the procession. The police also banned the students from distributing their petition addressed to the Chinese government and the general public. The petition was a mildly worded plea for better environmental protection. Tibetan Government-in-Exile received a copy of the petition from a newly arrived Tibetan refugee on 29 December 1998 (DIIR 1999a).

The Right to Take Part in Decision-Making

Principle 18 of the Draft Declaration provides for the right to "active, free, and meaningful participation in planning and decision-making activities". Tibetans' lack of control over the destruction and use of their forests is perhaps most poignantly best exemplified by the reports confirmed by surviving prisoners that over 1,000 political prisoners from the notorious labour camp of Powo Tramo in the 'TAR' were forced to cut down old-growth trees. Areas that used to be thick forests are described by observers as completely barren and bleak (TCHRD 1998).

Jamyang, imprisoned by the Chinese after objecting to the arrest of his brother, fled Tibet and was interviewed in 1999 Dharamsala. He explained:

In my home region in Kham there are thousands of [Chinese] people who cut down trees. The trees were very good, really tall and big. Now, if a Tibetan cuts a tree, he will be imprisoned.

A Western observer travelling in Kham in 1999, passing through miles of clear-cut forests and logging trucks, saw notices attached to the few trees left standing alongside the road stating that Tibetans were not allowed to cut trees (DIIR 1999). The discrimination and lack of any avenue to participate meaningfully in decision-making means that Tibetan control over natural resources or for that matter forest policy in Tibet is a distant dream.


In Tibet, violation of the human rights to express opinions, exchange information, associate with others, as well as to participate meaningfully in decision-making, has created conditions under which extreme environmental degradation is unchecked. China's repressive administration is able to exploit Tibet's native forests on a massive scale for its own benefit. Industrial clear-cutting has already claimed about half of Tibet's virgin forests to feed China's enormous demand for wood and paper. China has capitalised on several centuries of uninterrupted forest growth, pocketing an estimated US$54 billion from this trade between 1959 and 1985 alone. Denial of the Tibetan peoples' right to self-determination through prolonged military repression has given China free reign over the once-abundant native forests of the Tibetan Plateau.

China's use of Tibet for nuclear weapons development, nuclear waste disposal, and uranium mining has violated Tibetans' human rights to life, health, traditional livelihood and religious practice. The fate of environmental activists such as Phuntsok Chosang, who was imprisoned and tortured for over a year for putting up posters protesting China's plans to mine near his village, demonstrates Tibetans' enforced silence over decisions affecting the environment. China's use of Tibet for its nuclear programme illustrates once again the connection between substantive human rights violations, environmental degradation, and the violation of Tibetans' civil and political rights.

Food security on the Tibetan Plateau is also an environmental human rights issue. Its agricultural policy in Tibet is an important component of China's strategy to absorb Tibet into "modern" China. The goals and implementation of China's agricultural policy violates Tibetans' right to be free from discrimination in decisions that affect the environment. The roots of the discriminatory practices can be traced to the denial of Tibetans' civil and political rights and the denial of their right to self-determination.

The violations of the basic human rights to adequate food and traditional livelihood that result even from international aid projects intended to improve the agricultural productivity of the Tibetan Plateau are testimony to the inter-relatedness of substantive human rights and the procedural rights of access to information, freedom of expression and participation in decision-making. These human rights violations demonstrate the fallacy of China's human rights record in Tibet.

The principles of the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities' Draft Declaration on Human Rights and the Environment present the essential elements of the human rights violations stemming from environmental degradation on the Tibetan Plateau during the 51 years of China's military repression of Tibet. The Draft Declaration provides an invaluable tool for understanding the relationship between denial of basic civil rights and freedoms and the resulting substantive violations of fundamental human rights to life, health, traditional livelihood and adequate food. The global language of human rights standards helps to clearly focus the impact of environmental degradation in Tibet.

The visibility of massive deforestation, extensive destruction of rangelands, nuclear proliferation, the creation of haphazard mining zones, despoliation of sacred natural sites sheds light on the human rights violations across the plateau that would otherwise be difficult to assess and measure. The principles of the Draft Declaration describe, in the global language of human rights, the limits there should be on environmental degradation that are otherwise without standards in Tibet.

Drawing the connection between human rights violations and environmental harm provides another tool for responding to the dynamic nature of human rights and further developing the relevance of human rights law in a rapidly changing world.


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

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