• An avalanche of rock, mud and debris struck one of Tibet’s major mining sites, Gyama copper and gold mine near Lhasa, on March 29, killing 83 miners who were mostly Chinese migrant workers.
  • The disaster has focused attention on the toll of mining and industrialization in Tibet.
  • There have long been concerns about the impact of the Gyama mine, which is in an area of historic and cultural significance, on Tibet’s fragile high-altitude landscape.
  • While the Chinese authorities announced immediately that the landslide was ‘natural,’ experts say that the large Gyama mine is open-cut and that the walls of an open-pit mine are prone to collapse, particularly given the unstable earth on the fragile high plateau of Tibet.

The landslide, which covered an area of three to four square kilometers, occurred at the Gyama (Chinese: Jiama) Copper Polymetallic Mine, a copper and gold mine located in Meldrogunkar (Chinese: Maizhokunggar) county, approximately 42 miles outside of Lhasa. (Xinhua, March 30, 2013). Eighty-three workers, mostly migrants from across China, along with two local people likely to be Tibetan, were trapped and buried under the rubble in their tents at the work camp. The state media reported that thousands of troops were deployed to Gyama immediately from Lhasa and the surrounding areas, but despite the high number of army personnel in the vicinity, none of the workers have been rescued. (Xinhua, April 3, 2013)

An initial report from the state-run Xinhua news agency attributed the landslide to “natural disasters,” but was later edited online to remove the reference. (Xinhua, 83 buried in landslide in Tibetan mining area – March 29, 2013 – retrieved when issued, later edited online) A subsequent CCTV report cited Yang Dongliang, who serves as the director and Party Secretary of China’s State Administration of Work Safety, in reporting that the cause of the landslide remains unknown, though a team of experts is currently investigating and will release their findings to the public. (CCTV, Investigation into cause of Tibet landslide – March 31, 2013) An academic with the Chinese Academy of Engineering referred to as Dorje was later cited in a Xinhua report as having carried out a field investigation into the cause of the disaster, indicating that the landslide was “due to natural causes” because of loose rocks atop of the mountain. The report was absent any reference to a larger investigation and did not acknowledge the opinion as a final analysis. (Xinhua, Rescue resumes amid new Tibet landslide threats – April 2, 2013)

There have long been concerns about the Gyama mine, which is rich in copper, gold, molybdenum and silver, for its impact on the environment.

Gabriel Lafitte, a specialist on Tibet based in Australia, wrote on chinadialogue.net: “The fact is that this huge mine, despite extremely steep mountainous terrain, is open cut, avoiding the expense of tunneling. The walls of an open pit mine are prone to collapse, especially in a young and unstable land such as Tibet, which is still rising. The mining company took a calculated cost-cutting risk, and the mine-workers paid the price. Open pits mean much blasting to loosen rock, a risky strategy. Now the mine, if it is to operate as planned for the coming seven decades, will have to go underground.” (chinadialogue.net, April 4, 2013)

Tibetan researcher Tashi Tsering has charted the environmental destruction in the mining area through GoogleEarth images, showing the scarred mountains as evidence of intense drilling, prior to becoming the open pit mines of Gyama (Tibetan Plateau, January 9, 2011).

There have been protests against mining in the area from the early 1990s onwards soon after miners moved into exploit ore deposits. Several Tibetans were tortured and given lengthy prison terms for non-violent protests against the activities of the miners. (Environmental News Service, Canadian Treasure Hunt in Tibet Triggers Protest – October 21, 2010) Farm and grazing land was confiscated, and animals died because of toxic materials released in drinking water. In one study undertaken in 2010 on streams in the Gyama Valley, researchers determined that the presence of elevated concentrations of chemicals resulting from acid mine drainage “pose a considerably high risk to the local environment.” The same report found that the presence of heavy metals resulting from the ore processing “poses a great potential threat to the downstream water users.” (The Science of the total environment, September 1, 2010)

Local resentment against mining in the area has also been high because the Gyama Valley is of historical and cultural significance in Tibet as the birthplace of Songtsen Gampo, one of the three main Tibetan kings, who unified the Tibetan empire in the seventh century and brought Buddhism to Tibet. It is also a recognized pilgrimage site known for its holy mountains and shrines.

Bhuchung Tsering, Vice President of the International Campaign for Tibet, said: “There have been so many lives lost in the Chinese mining industry and now this tragedy has reached Tibet. The disaster at Gyama highlights the dangers of China’s ambitious and disquieting policies of industrialization across the fragile ecosystem of the Tibetan plateau. Even some Chinese scholars and policy-makers as well as Tibetans are questioning the basis of current development policies for Tibet, pointing out that migration and profit extraction from outside, on this scale, are neither beneficial nor sustainable. These voices must be heard by the Chinese state.”

State media seeks to repress news of the disaster

Reports from state-run news agencies remain the only source of information regarding the disaster on March 29. The day after the landslide, the Central Propaganda Department issued instructions to news outlets in China that they are to “use Xinhua wire copy and information issued by authoritative departments as the standard,” and “not send journalists to the scene to investigate or report [live].” (China Digital Times, Ministry of Truth: Tibet Mine Landslide – March 30, 2013) Accordingly, news reports have largely focused on the rescue efforts, limiting any further examination into the cause of the disaster, the nature of the rescue/recovery effort, and other details regarding the history of the mine.

The number of rescuers sent to the site have been estimated to be approximately 4,500 (Xinhua, April 1, 2013), which include over “3,000 troops, armed police and militia members” from nearby Lhasa and Meldrogonkkar county. (Xinhua, March 30, 2013) That several thousand military and security personnel were available to be deployed from nearby Lhasa and the surrounding area was left without explanation. However, the increased militarization and intense security climate across the Tibetan Plateau in the wake of the protests that swept across Tibet from 2008 onwards and the more recent self-immolations (now numbering at least 112), has been documented by ICT. (ICT report, Storm in the Grasslands)

The Chinese authorities have prioritized the exploitation of Tibet’s mineral reserves in their efforts to meet a growing national demand and to maximize the potential economic value of Tibet to the Chinese state. The Gyama mine was officially opened in 1993 and recognized as one of the seven “priority construction projects” in the Tibet Autonomous Region Specialist Plan. (Tibet Information Network, ‘Mining Tibet,’ p. 34).

Profitability of the mine and expansion of processing

Current operations at the mine are overseen by the Vancouver-based China Gold International Resources Corporation, whose controlling shareholder is the state-owned China National Gold Group Corporation, China’s largest gold producer. As was the case when the mine first opened in 1993, expectations regarding the mine’s profitability remain high. Copper production at the Gyama mine increased 20% in 2012 over year-end results from 2011, marking the second straight year of increased production at the mine (China Gold International Resources Corp., January 29, 2013) Gabriel Lafitte writes on chinadialogue.net: “The scale of this mine is far beyond anything seen before in Tibet. It could take seven decades to complete extraction, leaving behind waste dumps far bigger than the extracted metals. So steep is the terrain that excavated rock is sent on a conveyor belt, through a five kilometre long mountain tunnel to the ore concentrating plant 400 metres below.”

A pre-feasibility study was completed last fall for plans that would expand processing capacity at the mine by nearly seven-fold (6,000 to 40,000 tons per day) by way of expanding “current open-pit operations and the development of new open-pit and underground mining operations.” The expansion of the mine, due to be completed by 2016, is expected to generate an additional US$3.5 billion over the 31 years of the life of the mine. (China Gold International Resources Corp., January 29, 2013) News regarding the expansion plans, including any work already undertaken based on the feasibility study, has been notably absent from recent news reports.

The enhanced development of the Gyama mine, as with other mining sites in Tibet, has been made possible by the Qinghai-Tibet railway. Since going into operation in 2006, the railway has made it possible to more efficiently ship ores out of Tibetan areas, many of which were previously remote and inaccessible. The presence of the large-scale transportation infrastructure that is now in place has attracted significant new investment in Tibet’s mining sector, allowing for greater exploitation of Tibet’s mineral resources. (ICT report, Tracking the Steel Dragon)

Despite the costs paid by local Tibetans who lost farmland and pasture area to the Gyama mine, as well as the environmental risks to drinking water supplies borne by those downstream, the mineral wealth generated by the Gyama mine has largely bypassed Tibetans themselves, who are generally allowed little to no input into mining projects. In a telling report issued by Xinhua, all but two of the 83 mineworkers were Chinese migrant workers from outside of the Tibet Autonomous Region, where the Gyama mine is located. According to the report, two of the workers were identified as being from a village in Gyantse (Chinese: Gyangze) county in the Tibet Autonomous Region and likely to be Tibetan, while 31 were from the far northeastern provinces of Jilin (27), Liaoning (3), and Heilongjiang (1). Twenty-six of the workers were from Shaanxi province, in what is considered China’s northwest, while 21 were from the southwestern Chinese areas of Guizhou province (13), Sichuan province (6), and the municipality of Chongqing (2). The northern province of Hebei, south-central Henan province, and Shandong province in the east were each home to one worker. (Xinhua, China releases names of Tibet landslide victims – April 3, 2013).

Gabriel Lafitte draws attention to the strong sympathy among many Chinese for the preservation of the Tibetan plateau, the highest and largest in the world. He writes: “As more Han Chinese discover the charms of Tibet, bloggers are openly calling for restraint and compassion. Television director Zhang Ronggui said he was ‘strongly opposed to the development of heavy industry and mineral resources in Tibet’ in a widely quoted Sina Weibo post. ‘It is the world’s highest and purest holy land, and I hope the government can leave a blue sky, clean water and white clouds for the next generation,’ he wrote. Well-known author Zhang Yihe, in a message to her 339,000 fans, said: ‘I don’t understand why we have to dig up gold in areas that are above 4,000 metres. Why must we also build dams on rivers, including the Yarlung Zangbo? Why don’t we leave something for the next generation?’” (chinadialogue.net, April 4, 2013)