Apr 04, 2013

Tibet: Lethal Landslide Revives Sensitive Mining Issue

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Following mudslide in the Gyama Valley last Friday 29 March 2013, a mining camp was wiped out burying 83 people. The incident reflects the increased levels of risks due to extensive mining operations in a fragile and volatile environment.

Below is an article published by The New York Times:

One after another, the bodies have kept coming. By Wednesday [3 April 2013], rescuers had pulled 66 dead miners from the snow-covered rubble. They expect to find more.

The miners had traveled to a valley on the roof of the world to work in what a state news agency described last year as “a mining miracle.” Now, the project in central Tibet has brought about one of the nation’s worst recent mining disasters. On Friday [29 March 2013], an avalanche of rock and mud tumbled down the walls of the Gyama Valley and wiped out a mining camp, burying 83 people.

The deaths have thrown a spotlight on the Gyama mine, one of the largest and most contentious in Tibet. Hailed by the central government in Beijing as a flagship project, the copper, gold and molybdenum mining operation is hated by many Tibetans, who are furious at the environmental degradation it and other mines have caused on the Tibetan plateau.

“This was not a natural but a man-made disaster,” said Woeser, a Tibetan social critic who has written about the Gyama mine. “For locals, it says loud and clear how crazy the mining has become there.”

Official news reports have not explained the immediate cause of the avalanche. The Tibet regional propaganda office said in a statement on Wednesday [3 April 2013] that weather conditions were behind the landslide. The debris covered nearly two miles and totaled two million cubic meters, the news reports said.

Mining on the Tibetan plateau is crucial to the Communist Party’s plans for maintaining economic growth across China. Metals and minerals — including copper and gold, and the lithium used in batteries of electronic devices — are abundant across the region, and mining there has greatly expanded in recent years. The surge in mining, aided in part by the opening in 2006 of the train across Qinghai Province to Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, has drawn investment even from Western companies.

As a result, protests have flared across the plateau. One rally against a project in Markham County by about 1,000 Tibetans in August [2013] ended with the fatal shooting of a man by security forces, according to a Human Rights Watch researcher and Radio Free Asia.

For Chinese leaders, discussion of mining in Tibet is politically delicate. When word first emerged of the disaster at Gyama, 40 miles northeast of Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, propaganda officials ordered Chinese news organizations not to send journalists and to publish reports only from Xinhua, the state news agency, or government sources, according to China Digital Times, a group in Berkeley, Calif., that tracks the Chinese news media. Foreign journalists have long been barred from traveling independently to central Tibet.

Nicholas Bequelin, an Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said mining is “one of the trigger points in Sino-Tibetan relations these days” because it violates “the place that mountains and sacred mountains have in the Tibetan worldview.”

The Gyama Valley is a revered site. It was the birthplace in the seventh century of Songtsen Gampo, the first king of the Tibetan empire. Prominent monks have come from Gyama, and pilgrims have traditionally flocked to the area to see its holy mountains, caves, shrines and rock paintings. Now, much of that is cut off because of the mining.

“Tibetans are hurt; it’s a huge blow to their souls,” Woeser said. “Their spiritual hopes have been taken away.”

Ethnic discrimination plays a role in the outrage. The mines in Tibet generally belong to large state-owned enterprises based in eastern China, and they mostly bring in ethnic Han managers and workers, shutting Tibetans out. Of the 83 miners buried by the Gyama avalanche last week, only two were Tibetan, according to news reports.

But it is environmental destruction that most worries Tibetans. Scientists have documented significant problems brought by the ravages of the Gyama mine, which belongs to China Gold International Resources Corporation, a company based in Vancouver, British Columbia, that is a unit of the state-owned China National Gold Group.

A paper published in 2010 by Science of the Total Environment, a journal, discussed the impact of mining activities on the surface water in the valley, including on streams that feed the Lhasa River. The researchers found elevated concentrations of six metals in the surface water and streambeds in the middle and upper reaches of the valley. These “pose a considerably high risk to the local environment,” according to a summary; meanwhile, pools of heavy metals were “a great potential threat to downstream water users.”

Establishing the mine at Gyama resulted in the relocation of nomads who had roamed the valley and grazed their animals there. The forced settlement of nomads is a policy that Communist Party officials have been pushing for years in many parts of Tibet, despite the widespread resentment it causes.

Woeser wrote in 2010 that 100 nomad families had had to relocate because of the Gyama mine. Some locals have been herded into a government-built village.

“They’re unhappy,” Mr. Bequelin said. “It’s been presented to them as a legal obligation.”

The Tibet propaganda office said Wednesday [3 April 2013] in response to earlier faxed questions from this newspaper that Tibet's "ecological environment is fragile," and so the regional government pays "great attention to environmental protection work during the exploitation of mineral resources." That includes conducting environmental impact reviews, doing safety assessments and enforcing environmental laws, it said. The Beijing headquarters of China National Gold Group had no comment for this article.

For decades, the Gyama Valley had been the site of small mines that on occasion set off protests by locals concerned about the environment. About 2006, officials banned private mining and moved in state-owned companies to establish large-scale operations. China Gold International Resources got the rights to mine in Gyama; a subsidiary, Tibet Huatailong Mining Development, began construction in 2008 and operations in 2010.

Last August [2013], Xinhua ran a story under the headline “A Mining Miracle” that said “the scene has been transformed, replaced with a panorama of lush green trees and grasslands, new roads and infrastructure, and cleaner mining facilities, giving the local people a better life.”

The report said that over three years, Huatailong had discovered five million tons of copper, 530,000 tons of molybdenum and 135 tons of gold. Xinhua reported last Saturday that the total initial investment in the mine was nearly $560 million.

Local people have been protesting the new mine for at least four years. “There have been a number of incidents where people have taken a quite radical stance,” Mr. Bequelin said.

In 2009, the mining company used villagers’ water because of a drought, which led to protests by the locals and the detentions of many villagers by the police, according to Woeser. The next year [2010], there were rallies by Tibetans and supporters of Tibet outside the company headquarters in Vancouver.

One Tibetan environmental scholar in Canada, Tashi Tsering, has been tracking the changes to the landscape of Gyama by using Google Earth. Images posted on his blog, Tibetan Plateau, show huge open-pit mines, a processing plant at the confluence of two major rivers, and mountainsides marred by webs of dirt roads. “China now wants to voraciously exploit the mineral resources of Tibet and other areas such as Xinjiang to meet its skyrocketing domestic demands,” he wrote. “China needs to create an independent resource base, and Tibet is key in achieving that goal.”