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Mining and the new colonization of Tibet

January 5, 2011

Vancouver-based mining companies implicit in government repression of
villagers

by STEPHANIE LAW, DOMINION STORIES

http://vancouver.mediacoop.ca/story/mining-and-new-colonization-tibet/5523

In the next five to 10 years, there might be a change in what comes to
mind when thinking about Tibet.

The 2008 Olympics in Beijing saw an international outcry against the
Chinese government’s oppressive policies and practices in Tibet. Mass
riots within Tibet and rallies across the globe informed the general
public of human rights violations in the disputed area, Tibetans’ loss
of culture and identity, and their desire for independence from China.

But the 2010 WikiLeaks have exposed something different.

A leaked U.S. Embassy cable showed that the Dalai Lama is urging the
international community to focus on environmental issues in Tibet
instead of political ones, for at least the next half-decade. He
specifically referred to increasingly polluted water from mining
projects in Tibet as a major problem that “cannot wait.”

Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan poet/blogger and recipient of the
International Women’s Media Foundation’s Courage in Journalism award
this year, said the number of mines in Tibet has increased dramatically
since 2006.

“For the past few years, Tibetan villagers have been protesting against
the mines and writing letters to the Chinese government asking for their
concerns to be addressed,” Woeser said. “But the government never cared.”

In 2006, only one-percent of discovered mines in Tibet were prospected
due to limited infrastructure and investment. But mining operations
boomed after the opening of theQinghai-Tibet railway, which connects all
72 counties in Tibet to the rest of China. There are now over 90 mining
sites, with at least one in each county.

The impact of mining operations

The Chinese government announced plans in March to develop Tibet by
exploiting over 3,000 mineral reserves, potentially worth more than USD
125 billion.

Dorje, director of the region’s Bureau of Geology and Mineral
Exploration and Development, told state-run China Daily that
exploitation of the mineral resources would boost Tibet’s development.

"We must make sure the exploitation serves the interests of the Tibetan
people, and minimize its impact on the environment,” Dorje said.

The plan aims to boost the mining industry’s contribution to Tibet’s GDP
from three to 30 percent by 2020. At the same time, the state government
will continue to pour investment into the region to further develop it
and provide over 1,400 new jobs for locals via mining operations.

But Woeser said compared to the few thousand Tibetan miners, migrant Han
workers have flocked to Tibet on the railroad and have taken up over
10,000 mining jobs.

“This has caused a lot of resentment among locals, widespread
discrimination against Tibetans, and a loss of cultural identity among
locals,” she said.

Pempa Dondrup, a villager in Nanggarze County of Shannan Prefecture,
told China Daily that the government must respect local customs and
religious beliefs. “For example, they must not excavate into our holy
mountains.”

But likely to the Dondrup’s dismay, there are at least six mining
operations in the great Tibetan emperor Songtsan Gampo’s hometown,
Gyama. It now has the highest daily output among all mining pits in the
Qinghai-Tibet plateau.

In Han Chinese culture, the hometown of any emperor is sacred and
carries the ‘dragon’s pulse’ (lóng mài). It brings fortune and happiness
to the nation, and warrants ritual sacrifices.

“According to this, Gyama should be protected from environmental
destruction by the mining taking place today,” Woeser said. “But it’s
not. And protests so far have been silenced by Chinese troops.”

Woeser added that local Tibetans have lost much more than they have
gained from the wealth the government claims mining would bring. They
have also received little to no financial compensation.

“There has been damage to both the environment and the lifestyles of
Tibetan villagers, farmers and nomads,” Woeser said. “Now there are
diseases that are new and untreatable for the villagers. The livestock,
like lamb and cows, are also getting diseases and dying at alarming rates.”

Almost 20 years of mining in the Gyama valley has led to elevated
concentrations of various minerals - including copper, lead, iron and
aluminium – in the surface water and streambed, according to a study
published in the September issue of Science of the Total Environment.

The Gyama stream water drains into the Lhasa River, which flows into the
great Yarlong Tsangpo. Over a third of the world population lives
downstream of the rivers flowing from the Plateau.

“Uptake of heavy metal into local agricultural products from
contaminated irrigation water may therefore pose a health risk to the
local population,” the authors of the study wrote.

Over 3,500 local inhabitants live in this valley just east of Lhasa
city. There are also nomads who frequent the semi-agricultural area,
which is used for growing crops and animal husbandry. But nearly 182,000
residents live in Lhasa city just downstream from the valley. The main
drinking water source for the city is from wells located in the banks of
the Lhasa River.

The authors of the study warned that large-scale mining activities in
the valley “pose a great future risk for the regional and downstream
environment.”

Tibetans have limited opposition power

Contaminated water, loss of lands and the heavy influx of Han migrants
into Tibet caused by the mining industry boom have led to numerous
conflicts and riots in the region in past 20 years.

Huatailong, China’s largest mining project in Gyama, used the villagers’
water during a drought in June 2010. This led to riots in the village to
which a great number of military police, including special police
forces, were allegedly sent from Lhasa, according to witness reports.
The police arrested many villagers and three of them, including the
village head, are still in jail.

Woeser said military forces and police always quickly crush any local
dissent against mines.

“The problem is most mines are state-owned and backed by the
government,” Woeser said. “So when the conflict erupted, it got
politicized. The government decided the villagers weren’t protesting
against the mine but were rioting for Tibetan independence.”

More recently, about 100 protesters carried Chinese flags outside
government offices in a protest between Aug. 15 and 17 against the
expansion of a gold mine in the Kham region of Tibet, administratively
in China’s Sichuan province. They were upset about the heavy equipment
being brought in and damaging their farmlands, according to U.S.-funded
Radio Free Asia.

“The farmers were scared, so they carried Chinese flags to show that
they weren’t protesting for political reasons or independence,” Woeser
said. “They just wanted to point out that the mines were impacting their
life.”

But despite taking extra precaution, the government still sent troops to
quell their protest. According to various reports, at least three
protesters were fatally shot, over 30 injured and more than 35 were
arrested. Two police officers were also injured.

Almost two weeks after the incident, conflicting news reports appeared
in China Daily, Xinhua News Agency and Reuters. They reported only one
death from the incident and cited a different reason for the protests.

“The protest was sparked after police detained a businessman from the
Sichuan city of Mianyang "for illegally exploiting gold mines with some
villagers in Jiaxu village and damaging the grassland in the county,”
according to Reuters.

Exerting pressure outside of Tibet

It is evident that local Tibetans are left powerless against large-scale
mining operations. If they protest, they face disproportionate force
from the military and police as well as imprisonment. Many face jail
terms of seven to eight years, partly due to the politicization of their
dissent.

Woeser said the conflict in August was one of very few protests covered
in state and international media, albeit inconsistently.

“I think this really needs outside help and requires outsiders to
understand the mining situation in Tibet,” she said. “Only through the
outside, like international environmental agencies and human right
organizations, and through international investigations might there be a
positive impact on Tibetans’ lives that are affected by mining.”

In the recent years, there has been a growing presence of foreign-owned
mining companies in Tibet.

“These operations have also faced local protests, but not to the same
extent as Chinese-owned mines,” Woeser said. “This is in part due to
minor improvement in environmental impact, but largely due to higher
financial compensation offered by foreign firms to silence dissent.”

In addition to protests in Tibet, some companies have faced opposition
from activists in their own countries. Pressure from the Australia Tibet
Council and the Central Tibetan Administration, also known as the
Tibetan government-in-exile, allegedly caused Australia-based Sino Gold
to pull out of an exploratory gold mine in eastern Tibet in 2003.

Sino Gold was later acquired by Canadian-based Eldorado Gold in December
2009. Eldorado Gold is now the largest foreign gold producer in China
and owns a mine in Tanjianshan, which is located in northern Tibet.

There are six Canadian-based mining companies currently or soon to be
operating in Tibet: China Gold International Resources Corp Ltd,
Inter-Citic Minerals Inc, Silk Road Resources Ltd., Eldorado Gold Corp,
Maxy Gold Corp, Silvercorp Metals Inc., and Sterling Group Ventures Inc.

Vancouver-based China Gold International announced on Dec. 1 it
completed the acquisition of Skyland Mining Ltd., formerly owned by
Rapid Result Investments Ltd. and China National Gold Group Honk Kong
Ltd., a subsidiary of China National Gold Group Corp. It is now the sole
owner of the Jiama Mine, one of the largest copper poly-metallic mines
in China, according to its website.

The acquisition of the Jiama mine in Gyama completed in spite of
protests staged in Toronto,Vancouver and Hong Kong.

Frank Lagiglia, investor relations spokesperson for China Gold
International, said he does not share the concerns of the protesters. He
said the company’s technical report shows the mine has full support of
the local people, and that it is on track to becoming the most
environmentally friendly mine in the world.

“They talk about contamination of water; we use a recycling water
program so there is no contamination,” Lagiglia said. “I don’t know the
issues that they’re talking about, when we were there, we went with
Tibetan officials and we were talking to the Tibetan people there, and
really everyone is glad to be working.”

But Raymond Yee, a Vancouver activist and member of the Canada Tibet
Committee, said their worries go beyond environmental damages endured by
local villagers.

“Our main concern is that the Chinese don’t seem at all concerned with
the needs and the wants of the Tibetans,” Yee said. “And the Canadian
firms will refuse, even though we know they know better, to get their
heads wrapped around the whole concept of free, prior, informed consent
of the local Tibet people about what’s happening.”

Although China Gold International is based in Vancouver, the
Chinese-owned China National Gold Group owns a 39 percent stake,
according to a Bloomberg news report.

“We’re against this kind of activity that exploits people that are
occupied,” Yee said. “It’s occupied land in an environment where there’s
a real climate of fear because most people are pretty privy to how the
Chinese government cracks down on dissent.”

Tibet enjoyed de facto independence between 1912 and 1951, before China
annexed the region. Annexation became official when the Chinese
government and delegates from the Tibetan administration signed the
17-point agreement.

But the agreement has been widely disputed and the annexation is widely
viewed as an occupation. A report published by The International
Commission of Jurists in 1959 supported claims that the agreement was
signed under military pressure and significant duress.

Large mining companies such as Rio Tinto have reportedly ruled out
mining in Tibet because it is too politically sensitive.

“We’d be more open to it if they, for example, had consultations with
the Tibetan government-in-exile to talk about mining and to see what it
would have to say,” Yee said. “We’re just against mining under these
kinds of conditions.”

Looking to the future

The future of Canadian-based mining companies operating in Tibet might
have been different if Bill C-300, known as the Corporate Accountability
Act or Responsible Mining Bill, had passed the House of Commons vote on
October 27. But the bill was defeated 140 to 134.

If passed, the Bill would have enforced financial and political
sanctions against mining companies operating in foreign countries
without free, prior and informed consultation from local indigenous
peoples.

Catherine Coumans, a research coordinator at MiningWatch Canada, said
that under the bill there could have been a strong case made against
mining companies, like China Gold International, even if they claim to
have support from local Tibetans.

“The free part is the part that we would be really addressing,” Coumans
said. “How free were the people they talked to? Given the political
realities in Tibet, it would be very difficult [to have free
consultation].”

Since the bill was defeated, there is no legal or formal mechanism for
complaints against foreign practices by mining companies. However,
Coumans said the Canadian Network for Corporate Accountability, of which
MiningWatch is a member, is currently discussing other options.

One alternative is private member’s Bill C-354, which was tabled by NDP
MP Peter Julian and passed first reading on March 3. The bill had
remained dormant after its first reading, but resurfaced on Oct. 21 when
Julian submitted a petition in support of the bill to the house.

The Bill seeks to amend the Federal Courts Act to permit non-Canadians
to initiate lawsuits against Canadian companies based on violations – in
foreign countries - of international law or treaties to which Canada has
ratified.

“The bill would ensure corporate accountability for Canadian firms
operating abroad,” Julian told the house on April 1, 2009.

But regardless of what happens in the future, Coumans argues that the
mining industry as a whole generally accepts International Finance
Corporation’s performance standards as de facto international standards.
These standards include having free, prior and informed consultation
with local peoples.

“Based on these standards, one can definitely make the argument that a
company cannot call itself a responsible mining company and mine in
Tibet,” Coumans said, “because it cannot possibly poll the community in
a free way.”

Given the recent acquisition of the copper mine in Gyama by China Gold
International, as well as the leaked U.S. embassy cable regarding the
Dalai Lama’s concerns with widespread environmental destruction caused
by mining project, there is hope of increased international and Canadian
pressure against mining in Chinese-occupied Tibetan land.

But if the discussion around Tibet sees no change in the next five to 10
years, then the imagery one usually conjures when thinking of Tibet will
change. What is often known as Shangri-La and rooftop of the world will
be extensively mined away, and a culture with thousands of years of
history will fade away along with the land.

“Tibet is the earth’s highest ecosystem and is extremely vulnerable: its
rivers flow and are connected to many other areas and countries,” Woeser
said. “But the mining companies are operating for their own profits and
are blatantly neglecting any environmental concerns. Over time, the
local area won’t be the only region affected; but a vast area of the
world will be too.”
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
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