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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Tibet's silent spring

March 1, 2009

Indian Express[Saturday, February 28, 2009 18:08]
by Nimmi Kurian

Losar, the ongoing Tibetan New Year, is likely to herald a silent
spring. There will be none of the festivities that greet the arrival of
spring that marks the most important holiday in the Tibetan calendar.
This year has seen Tibetans depart from tradition and mark the day by
mourning those dead in the protests last March. By observing Black
Losar, they will also be mourning Tibet?s rapidly degrading environment
which has brought increased socio-economic vulnerability in its wake.
There is growing social angst that, if left unchecked, there could soon
be no spring left to celebrate.

For their part, many in Beijing may well wonder what the fuss is all
about. After all, Tibet has been very much the poster child of China?s
Western Development Strategy. The policy was unveiled in the mid-?90s to
make amends for regional disparities seen as ?an eagle spreading only
one wing for flight?. The strategy has been a fairly uncomplicated
mix-and-stir model of development with an enormous infusion of funds to
fast-track the region?s growth. Huge subsidies and investments have
poured in, transforming Tibet?s skyline with gleaming engineering
marvels. The Tibetan economy has posted double-digit growth rates for
several years in a row. In short, an in-your-face prosperity that
Beijing thought was guaranteed to end all debate.

Ironically, it has only started a raging debate on prosperity and its
discontents. Its all-consuming obsession with growth has meant that
China?s contributions to global warming are today as massive as those to
the global economy. Chinese scientists have long warned that Tibet is
warming up faster than any other part of the world. Rising temperatures
on the plateau will melt glaciers, dry up rivers and set off droughts,
floods and desertification. Tibet has also seen a relentless surge in
footfall with four million tourists in 2007, outnumbering the local
population of 2.8 million and overwhelming its fragile environment.
These ecological footprints are fast enveloping areas of North China;
those have borne the brunt of powerful sandstorms, with one such storm
depositing Beijing with 330,000 tonnes of sand in 2006. The same year
also saw one of the worst droughts in over 50 years, leaving 10 million
people without access to drinking water.

It remains to be seen if policy can be sensitised to securing the
acceptance of local communities for resource development activities.
This will essentially mean acknowledging that conservation and
sustainable livelihoods of local people are inseparable. Some of these
questions will also bring with them an eerie sense of déjà vu,
particularly given that India?s Northeast is also negotiating many of
these challenges. Many large projects are being planned in areas that
are traditionally revered as sacred landscapes and groves. These
concerns were brought out starkly, for instance, when China built a 108
km-long highway to the Mt Everest base camp last year to cut an easy
trail for tourists and mountaineers. For the Tibetans, such acts defile
the sanctity of sacred landscapes that need to be always preserved since
?man should not walk in the house of a god?. Thus development projects
that are seen as coming at the cost of traditions have little cultural
resonance with communities.

If handled well, these debates can help define sustainable resource use
patterns and the limits of acceptable use. It is true that, while there
is deep resistance to accepting any curbs on growth, there is an
emerging consensus on the severe extent of environmental degradation.
China has set itself a number of ambitious environmental targets for the
11th Five-Year Plan (2006-2010). President Hu Jintao also called for a
policy reprioritisation when he recently noted, "Development and
conservation are equally important ? and conservation should be put
first.? Environmental NGOs such as Friends of Nature and Green Watershed
are expanding a small but growing organisational space to engage the
state on the issue of environmental protection. No less significant was
the recent decision taken to scale down proposed dams on the Nu River
from 13 to 4 in the face of a highly organised campaign led by local
farmers and environmental campaigners. New literature coming out of
China, such as Cao Jinqing?s China along the Yellow River and The Blue
Book brought out by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, also makes
compelling reading, especially for the increasingly frank treatment of
complex social pressures.

Losar and its larger subtext of environmental degradation hold the
mirror up to China?s future. If China is prepared to look in that
mirror, Losar could be a metaphor for beginning a bold new conversation
on change and sustainability while there is still time. If not, Rachel
Carson?s chilling warning of "a spring without voices" will be a
self-fulfilling prophecy. The Tibetan New Year may indeed be less a time
to celebrate than a time to reflect and unlearn.

The writer is at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi. The views
expressed in this column are personal. The views expressed in this piece
are that of the author and the publication of the piece on this website
does not necessarily reflect their endorsement by the website.
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