The Tibetan Government-in-Exile has issued a report on the state of Tibetan environment Tibet 2003: State of the Environment, A Roadmap for Collaborative Development detailing what it feels are the environmental priorities for the Tibetan people.

The report, released by the Environment and Development Desk of the Tibetan Department of Information and International Relations in Dharamsala on July 14, 2003, says rural Tibetan population – the nomads and farmers – should be made the centre of economic and environmental planning.

“The Tibetan preference will always be for small-scale local projects that directly meet basic human needs, empowering local communities and enabling them to own and maintain environmental improvement projects. Large-scale projects, especially heavy infrastructure and industry, are not suitable development investments for the Tibetan Plateau,” the report said.

The report talks interestingly about a “convergence” of views between Beijing and Dharamsala concerning Tibetan environment. “I believe that the environment and the critical need for environmental protection are two areas where the views of Beijing and the Central Tibetan Administration genuinely converge and could serve as a solid basis for greater collaborative work in other vital areas,” Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche, Chairman of the Tibetan Cabinet in Dharamsala says in a foreword.

The report is a response to the White Paper on Tibetan environment issued by the Chinese Government in March 2003.

Given below are excerpts from the summary and the final part of the report.

The Central Tibetan Administration interprets China’s white paper on the environment as a sign that the Chinese government is rightly concerned about current ecological and development dilemmas in Tibet. Any initiatives towards improving the quality of the environment and the lives of Tibet’s populace are most welcome and much-needed. We profoundly understand that China now faces an uphill task and problematic challenge to repair and protect Tibet’s environment whilst introducing sustainable development.

In this respect, both the PRC and the Central Tibetan Administration share the same goals. However, we do have strong reservations over the wisdom and implementation of China’s present development policies on the plateau. Major projects relating to dam building and hydropower generation, land reclamation, settling nomads and fencing of grasslands, afforestation, conversion of farmland to grassland and forest, all sound impressive on paper. But experts question whether these policies are well thought through, appropriate and can be beneficial to both China and Tibet longterm. We question:

  • Why is there a huge gap between China’s environmental policy and its implementation?
  • What are the likely social and environmental impacts of large-scale infrastructure projects that are being implemented as part of the PRC’s current Tenth Five-Year Plan and the Western Development Program?

No proper social and environmental impact assessments and studies have been published in the case of mammoth projects like the US$ 3.2 billion railway from Gormo to Lhasa, the west-to-east power transfer, west-east gas transfer and south-north water diversion. These infrastructure projects purely to serve China’s own development needs raise serious concerns over the PRC’s genuine commitment and willingness to improve and protect the environment and implement sustainable development in Tibet.

Tibet 2003: State of the Environment is compiled as an objective analysis of China’s latest policies on the environment and development of the Tibetan Plateau. In this report, any reference to Tibet includes all of the 150 counties designated as Tibetan by Beijing and falling within the so-called “Tibet Autonomous Region”, Amdo (Ch. Qinghai) and the Tibetan areas now incorporated by China into Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan provinces.

China should view this report as offering alternative perspectives addressing environment and development issues across the plateau. The report also draws attention to the latest evidence – from diverse sources – of unsustainable exploitation of Tibet’s environmental heritage, especially its water resources, sacred lands, agricultural soil and mineral resources, while population densities escalate beyond the carrying capacity of the fragile plateau. Beijing’s policy of population transfer to the plateau is made viable only through unsustainable external inputs, including billions of yuan in direct subsidies each year, and the subsidised transportation of consumer goods manufactured in the Mainland.

This colonialist policy has created two distinct economies in Tibet today. One is centred on the urban and resource extraction enclaves that are heavily subsidised, capital intensive, and dominated by a non-Tibetan populace. The other is based upon the predominantly ethnic Tibetan rural economy which is starved of capital and State support, still subsistence-based in the 21st century, and deprived of the social services concentrated in urban areas.

Looking To The Future

The biggest flaw of China’s policies over Tibet is the assumption that natural and social differences are an impediment to progress, rather than being a sign that different paths and end-points to development exist. Differences in material standards between China’s eastern and western regions set the standards for development in terms of levels of economic output and consumption. The moral imperative for Tibetans is not perceived as finding their own way in their own time, but catching up fast with the Mainland’s prosperous eastern and coastal provinces.

China’s development model and logic – a “lowland model” – based on Chinese experiences and conditions, assumes the presence of common processes and features throughout the PRC. Implicitly, this model ignores the possibility that differences in Tibet’s social and natural conditions can be of developmental value.

The above logic is driving development and environment policies currently imposed from afar on Tibet – be it the settling of nomads, fencing of grassland, reforestation, extermination of pests, infrastructure development, urbanisation and the approach towards sustainable development. This contention is the thrust of our report. The call is for China to understand, and hopefully appreciate, the diversity and non-uniformity of Tibet’s unique case and to build on the strengths of local conditions and show a new willingness to listen and learn from both domestic and global experiences.

Lessons From An Ancient Chinese Proverb

It would be wise to remember an ancient Chinese proverb that advises: “To know the road ahead, ask those coming back.” By drawing on the lessons of its own experiences – as well as parallel international experiences – China can learn and avoid debacles associated with large scale economic development, especially in fragile environments.

Today’s China is overly focussed on catching up to western levels of consumption, with environmental concerns seen as secondary. China’s white paper reveals the human-centred assumptions the nation makes towards nature. It has failed to recognise the wisdom in Tibet’s traditional knowledge of sustainability. Buddhist philosophy considers not only self, and not only this life, but also the welfare of all beings – including generations yet to be born.

China’s own view of progress is evident from the first paragraphs of its white paper: “It was after the peaceful liberation of Tibet that ecological improvement and environmental protection started there” [which] enabled the Tibetan people to achieve a qualitative leap from the centuries-old passive adaptation to natural conditions to remaking nature on their own initiative.”

One of the most detailed academic studies on contemporary China is Professor Judith Shapiro’s Mao’s War on Nature. Mao Zedong is long gone, but his destructive approach in seeing nature as a free public good persists among central planners. In a dictum reminiscent of Mao, China’s white paper announces: “To ease the contradictions between human beings and farm animals and between grass supply and farm animals’ ‘no-grazing’ areas have been designated. Efforts are being intensified to prevent or control hazards caused by mice, insects and poisonous weeds.”

It seems the State has learned little from its decades in charge of Tibetan grasslands. The nomads and the ozone hole are being blamed for pasture degradation, and rare wildlife remains under pressure. When Tibetans were free to graze their own grasslands, there were no so-called “contradictions” between human beings and their livestock.

Despite the current crisis on Tibet’s grasslands, China’s white paper concludes that “most parts are basically in a primordial state.” Yet China’s attitude to the primordial is that it is “a passive adaptation to natural conditions”, an enslavement to nature: “Grassland overload was not significant in the old days in Tibet, because of stagnant population growth, frequent natural calamities, and massive human and livestock deaths in times of snowstorms.”

China’s current white paper on Tibet’s environment is seldom specific, and it is particularly vague about the first three to four decades under China’s control post-1950. There is mention of scientific surveys, and “a proposal for scientific development and utilisation, which started the process of scientific understanding, utilisation andprotection”. But China has been unable to differentiate between utilisation and protection, between “a scientific basis for making better use of natural resources in the economic development of Tibet, and for making continuous improvement of the human living environment”.

The paper mentions surveys and regulations, which have not been implemented, as the only positive achievements until the 1990s. But it is silent on the devastation of those long decades, resulting in the decimation of Tibet’s wildlife to the verge of extinction – the Tibetan antelope being a prime example. China’s decision to build and test its first atomic and hydrogen devices in the northeastern Tibetan Prefecture of Haibei (Tib: Tsojang) and the dumping of radioactive wastes in the region is similarly glossed over. Nor is any mention made of Chinese nuclear missile bases at Delingha (Tib: Terlenkha), Datong (near Serkhog), and Da Qaidam (Tib: Tsaidam) in northeastern Amdo.

Our Appeal

China is inviting the world’s environmental NGOs and development agencies, big and small, to invest their projects in Tibet. Already many international organisations have taken up this invitation. We Tibetans also encourage active outside engagement, seeing the expertise as an opportunity to improve China’s standards and help China catch up with the world’s best practices. China can learn to include rather than exclude civil society from the forests and the grasslands, and to include Tibetans as active stakeholders with the right to participation. We only welcome international involvement to empower Tibetan communities and to articulate their aspirations skilfully and introduce into China the experience gained elsewhere in the world.

Under China’s constitution Tibetans are entitled to nominal autonomy. Many international agencies have learned to be sensitive to traditional knowledge, small-scale, locally-controlled projects, and to respect the community-based organisations Tibetans have always been guided by. The standard methods of participatory rapid appraisal of local needs may not work in the case of Tibet. There is a special need to find innovative and skilful ways to involve people and to understand their aspirations, without compromising the integrity of international organisations committed to standards of genuine participation and freedom of expression.

While we welcome partnerships with Chinese authorities that introduce constructive projects in Tibet, we are concerned – for the sake of both the land and its populace – that projects are undertaken thoughtfully and skilfully. The Tibetan preference will always be for small-scale local projects that directly meet basic human needs, empowering local communities and enabling them to own and maintain environmental improvement projects. Large-scale projects, especially heavy infrastructure and industry, are not suitable development investments for the Tibetan Plateau.

It is obvious that the rural Tibetan population – the nomads and farmers – should be made the centre of economic and environmental planning. China’s leading political economist, Hu Angang, advises, “the choice of road to modernisation should always be built upon the basic principle of ‘the wealth of the people at root, investment in the people’, to make the people who constitute the population’s absolute majority – the peasant farmers and herdsmen – the principal, direct and general beneficiaries.”

Tibetan economists and social scientists have for some years advocated investment in strengthening the sustainable yields, varieties, and added value of the agricultural products of the traditional economy. This approach not only creates wealth but also reduces the need for subsidies. Agriculture and animal husbandry are low on consumption compared to industry, and have the advantage of being labour-intensive, and with large elasticity for substituting funds. It is obvious that agriculture, animal husbandry and indigenously characteristic industries, must be the main development priorities for Tibet since they have the greatest potential with comparatively low investment to benefit the majority farmers and nomads and uplift their living standards.

Putting farmers and herdsmen first is not new thinking in global development circles. But in China – with the nation’s strong traditions of centrist control of the countryside – this is a new approach. The rhetoric of participation is common. In asking for active Tibetan participation to be structurally inbuilt in development projects a standard is established that ensures the employment of competent Tibetans in all phases of any project cycle. If Tibetans are part of a project team they will be able to not only discern the actual needs and true feelings of local populations in Tibetan regions, but also help resolve any obstacles in dealing with the Chinese bureaucracy. This contributes to promoting governance, rule of law, transparency and accountability. Tibetan staff or consultants will not add greater complexity to projects but will help find solutions, and workable ways of satisfying the requirements of all parties.

Tibetans prefer projects that are local, specifically targeted, emphasise flexible decentralised service delivery, give preference to human services rather than large scale infrastructure projects, and are small rather than unwieldy.

The top development and environment priorities in Tibet today are:

  • decentralised and culturally sensitive projects
  • better coordination between different ministries involved in environmental protection to improve the regulatory powers to control the negative environmental impacts of development activities – particularly resource extraction and infrastructure development
  • investment to improve logistic support and enforcement mechanisms in the management of nature reserves
  • training and genuine participation of Tibetans in sustainable management of natural resources
  • support for pastoral mobility and rangeland quality. This includes flexibility of land tenure including guaranteed access to seasonal pastures, employment of local Tibetan communities in grassland regeneration, decentralised veterinary care, introduction of hybrid breeds suited to Tibetan conditions, encouragement of producer marketing and small-scale value adding under local control. This also means provision of portable solar power rather than connecting pastoral families to a fixed grid, which forces them to settle, to the great detriment of rangeland quality, causing erosion, loss of production and poverty
  • support for Tibetan farming communities to minimise dependence on chemical fertiliser and pesticides, while maintaining productivity, with guaranteed access to suitable land. Local cooperatives under community control should be encouraged, to add value by processing rural products and improve incomes
  • promotion of off-farm employment opportunities that do not break up families or require de-population of the countryside.