Situated at the heart of Asia, Tibet is one of the most environmentally strategic and sensitive regions in the world. Tibetans live in harmony with nature, guided by their Buddhist belief in the interdependence of both living and non-living elements of the earth. However, with the invasion of Tibet, the materialistic Chinese Communist ideology trampled upon this nature-friendly attitude of the Tibetan people.
The past 50 years has seen widespread environmental destruction resulting in deforestation, soil erosion, extinction of wildlife, overgrazing, uncontrolled mining and nuclear waste dumping. Today, the Chinese continue to extract various natural resources — often with foreign backing — without any environmental safeguards and consequently Tibet is facing an environmental crisis, the ramifications of which are felt far beyond its borders.
Tibet boasts some of the finest quality forest reserves in the world. Having taken hundreds of years to grow, many trees stand 90 feet high with a girth of 5 feet or more. China’s “development” and “modernisation” plans for Tibet are seeing these forest indiscriminately destroyed. In 1959, 25.2 million hectares of forest were found in Tibet, but in 1985 the Chinese had reduced forest-cover to 13.57 million hectares. Over 46 percent of Tibet’s forest has been destroyed and in some areas this figure is as high as 80 percent. Between 1959 and 1985, the Chinese removed US$ 54 billion worth of timber from Tibet. Deforestation, and inadequate reforestation programmes, has a profound effect on wildlife and leads to soil erosion and floods in the neighbouring countries, including China itself.
Soil Erosion and Flooding
Massive deforestation, mining and intensified agriculture patterns in Tibet have led to increased soil erosion and the siltation of some of Asia’s most important rivers. Siltation of the Mekong, Yangtse, Indus, Salween and Yellow rivers cause major floods such as those Asia has experienced in recent years. This in turn causes landslides and reduces potential farming land, thus affecting half the world population which lives downstream from Tibet.
Global Climate Effects
Scientists have observed a correlation between natural vegetation on the Tibetan Plateau and the stability of the monsoon, which is indispensible to the bread-baskets of South Asia. Scientists have also shown that the environment of the Tibetan Plateau affects jet-streams which are related to the cause of Pacific typhoons and the El Nino phenomenon, which has had adverse environmental effects world-wide.
Extinction of Wildlife
In 1901, His Holiness the 13th Dalai Lama issued a decree banning the hunting of wild animals in Tibet. Unfortunately, the Chinese have not enforced similar restrictions and instead the “trophy-hunting” of endangered species has been actively encouraged. There are at least 81 endangered species on the Tibetan Plateau of which 39 are mammals, 37 birds, four amphibians and one reptile.
Extraction of borax, chromium, copper, gold, and uranium is being vigorously carried out by the Chinese government as a means of providing raw materials for industrial growth. Seven of China’s 15 key minerals are expected to run out within a decade and consequently the extraction of minerals in Tibet is increasing in rapid and unregulated manner.
The new railway line to Lhasa is expected to provide easier means of exploitation of Tibet’s enormous natural resources. A survey conducted by the China Geological Survey (CGS), an agency responsible for mineral exploration under the Ministry of Land and Resources, reveals that their geologists have discovered 600 new sites of copper, iron, lead and zinc ore deposits along the route of this railway line. The survey further states that if these were exploited, it could meet China’s demands for mineral resources. Zhuang Yuxun, director of the CGS’s Department of Geological Investigation, has indicated that “the new supply [of these resources] can come to the market in two to three years”, as “the locations of the newly-discovered reserves are close to the ‘Qinghai-Tibet’ railway”.
Increased mining activities further reduces vegetation cover and thereby increases the danger for severe landslides, massive soil erosion, loss of wildlife habitat and the pollution of streams and rivers.
Nuclear Waste Dumping
Once a peaceful buffer state between India and China, Tibet has been militarised to the point of holding at least 500,000 Chinese troops and up to one quarter of China’s nuclear missile arsenal. The Chinese brought their first nuclear weapon onto the Tibetan Plateau in 1971. Today, it appears that the Chinese are using Tibet as a dumping ground for their and foreign nuclear waste. In 1984, China Nuclear Industry Co-operation offered western countries nuclear waste disposal facilities at US$ 1,500 per kilogram.
Mysterious deaths of Tibetans and livestock residing close to China’s nuclear sites have been reported, as too have increases in cancer and birth defects. In addition, there has been incidences of waterway contamination where the local Chinese population were officially warned against using the water but the local Tibetans were not. China continues to control the Tibetan Plateau without any regard for its fragile ecology or for the rightful inhabitants of the land.
* The term TIBET here means the whole of Tibet known as Cholka-Sum (U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo). It includes the present-day Chinese administrative areas of the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region, Qinghai Province, two Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures and one Tibetan Autonomous County in Sichuan Province, one Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and one Tibetan Autonomous County in Gansu Province and one Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province.