By Zamlha Tempa Gyaltsen
Environment and Development Desk
Central Tibetan Administration
The Tibetan Plateau, an island in the sky is home to some of the world’s highest peaks and greatest rivers. The sacred Gang Rimpoche or Mt. Kailash in Tibet is visited by thousands of Jain, Hindu, Bon and Buddhist pilgrims each year. It is only one among hundreds of peaks revered as home of worldly deities protecting vitality of the soil and health of living beings. Likewise, Zachu or Mekong River which run through densely populated countries such as China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam is only one of the many great rivers originating from the Plateau.
protests against mining in Zatoe
This great river has its source around Zatoe (Yushul Prefecture, Qinghai Province) in Tibet; the very name means upper stream of Zachu and locals take great pride in it. An elder from Zatoe once declared to me that Zatoe, Matoe (upper stream of Machu/Yellow River) and Dritoe (upper stream of Drichu/Yangtze) are the head source of three great rivers; as such these regions are locally known as three Toe of Tibet. Like the sacred mountains, source region of any river in Tibet are greatly revered and preserved as home of Nagas (nāgas are considered nature spirits and the protectors of springs, wells and rivers). Parents have long forbidden children from playing or walking near the river source vicinity for fear of polluting and disturbing Nagas.
This respectful relationship between Tibetans and their surrounding environment is most prominently visible during summer months, when men ride on their best horses and women put on their finest dresses. While men display their riding skill by hanging from racing horses to pick white scarf from the ground, women hum their melody to a joyful crowd. The whole community assembles near sacred mountains every year to celebrate this wonderful relationship to please and thank the mountains for providing timely rain, healthy calves, lot of grass and peace in the community.
Unfortunately people of Zatoe were not able to celebrate their traditional summer festival this year because their sacred mount Garwa Choejad, Mt. Shuela Ngoephu and Mt. Tongpon Dorje Rabsel have suddenly become property of Chinese mining companies.
On 16th August more than 4500 protesters from Zachen Yultso, Atod Yultso and Chiza Yultso nomadic community of Zatoe gathered near Mt Garwa Choejad to stop miners from marching towards the sacred mountain. Since local Tibetan community were well aware of their vulnerability as a Tibetan in such protest, put up a giant gate (Fig: 1) on the a road that heads to the Sacred hills with three Chinese red flag on top so as not to be branded anti-national or influenced by external elements; a phrase often used by Chinese government on any form of protest by Tibetan to suppress them with severest punishments and arbitrary arrest. They also put up posters of President Xin Jinping’s May 2013 Speech on Environment protection and former President Jiang Zemin’s speech about the huge Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve (SNNR). SNNR (Fig: 2) was established in year 2000 to protect the three river (Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong) source region which include vast nomadic region in Amdo (Qinghai Province).
The irony was the fact that despite Atod and Zachen of Zotoe County being clearly listed as part of SNNR, Provincial government nonetheless issued Mining license and violated the very law Chinese government proclaimed in year 2000 to expel Tibetan Nomads from these areas. Such policies are clear case of discrimination and double standard to suit wherever vested interest of Chinese officials lay. Such double standard has strengthened the long held fear that the very reason behind Chinese government’s policy to remove Tibetan nomads from the vast grassland is to make space for Chinese mining companies.
The provincial government sent military force of 500 to suppress the peaceful environmental protesters by using tear gas and electric batons. Sokpo Choedup stabbed himself in desperation when he saw fellow protesters faint; he later stated that, 'he felt sense of helplessness as there was no one they could go for justice'. Khetsa Soedor (One of the better educated among the protesters) and eight others who were initially arrested and later released are finding life very difficult under constant surveillance and restrictions.
Local Tibetans of Zatoe strongly believe this illegal mining on their sacred mountain right inside the Sangjiangyuan National Nature Reserve is evidence of nexus collaboration between mining companies and corrupt provincial officials. According to Environment and Development Desk of Central Tibetan Administration, a very large number of high ranking central and provincial government officials of PRC have direct economic interest in many of the state owned mining companies; this revelation gives us a better understanding of the functioning and power of Chinese mining companies and their arrogance. But still people of Zatoe believes in the PRC constitution and are seeking Central governments intervention in this mining menace on Tibet’s sacred mountains which hurts both land and the sentiments of the people.
Article 10 of Mineral Resources Law of the People’s Republic of China states; “In mining mineral resources in national autonomous areas, the state should give consideration to the interests of those areas and make arrangements favorable to the areas’ economic development and to the production and well-being of the local minority.” But recent incidents in Zatoe and 20 such mining related protests in Tibet since 2009 show no indication of local interest being either protected or respected. According to a recent article in The Economist (August 10th 2013) on China, if the local officials-mayors and provincial or county party secretaries-do not like a policy, they can quietly ignore it. It also states that in the Chinese system, when the centre proposes a new policy; provinces and counties dispose it.
With growing frustration among Tibetans towards Chinese government policies, it seems that the Chinese government doesn’t understand Tibet, Tibetan culture and Tibetan people or they simply do not want to understand. The Chinese government tends to splash headlines of millions being spent on Tibet’s development programs, but fail to answer the question of who is the actual beneficiary of those multi-million projects. China should follow a local economic model that respects Tibetan way of life and encourages growth of local Tibetan business.
According to an article in National Geographic magazine (August 2012) on Oglala Lakota people of north America, the Black Hill which Oglala consider central of their spiritual world was seized by US government after gold was discovered in the area. But in year 1980, the U.S Supreme court upheld an award of $17.5 million for the value of the land in 1877, along with 103 years’ worth of interest, together totaling $106 million. But the Sioux rejected the payment, insisting that the Black Hills would never be for sale. Likewise, mining on sacred mount Garwa Choejad in Tibet is simply unthinkable and unacceptable for the locals and it will never be up for sale.
There are confirmed reports that mining has started in Zatoe region from where Zachu (Mekong) River originates, which means the very reason behind the establishment of Sangjiangyuan National Nature Reserve has become insignificant. Therefore more and more such mining could start around this resource rich region from where most of the great rivers originate. The implications could be severe because there have been incident of Chinese mining companies in Tibet releasing chemical waste in the rivers. Tibet is home to great river like Drichu/Yantze, Machu/Yellow, Nyakchu/Yalung, Gyalmo Nyulchu/Salween, Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra and Senge Khabab/Indus covering a drainage area of more than 6 million km2(Fig:3) and supports more than 47% of world population. How safe in future, the Tibetan rivers would remain for drinking and irrigation is a question that needs to be answered.