Environmental Justice and Tibetan Unrest

Recently, world news agencies have reported on the multiple protests and riots taking place in Tibet, Nepal and many other nations around the world. The causes and conditions precipitating these conflicts are by no means simply stated. In fact, they are rooted in long standing political, sociological, and ideological misunderstandings that long predate both the Dalai Lama and the Chinese Communist Party. Among the many things this crisis represents is the vital importance of environmental justice to the stability and well-being of any populace. In Sundancechannel.com’s new online series, “The Good Fight,” hosted by Simran Sethi, we intend to focus on this very subject, bringing you many issues from the forefront of the rapidly growing field of environmental justice. These webisodes will demonstrate how the green movement must broaden its scope and include the needs and voices of all people, no matter what their race, beliefs or ethnicities.

In Tibet, we can clearly see the additional complexity that environmental justice places upon environmental reform. At best the situation demonstrates the very real costs to a government for failing to consider the needs of all of its people when making environmental decisions. At worst it shows the great suffering that can ensue from duplicitous policies put forth for political gain under the guise of social or environmental reform.

Regardless of the motivation, the victims are invariably the same, the poor and disenfranchised, in this case—the Tibetan people. Their victimization takes many forms: loss of homes, jobs and means of sustenance, overcrowding and excessive pollution in their villages and neighborhoods, intolerance and discrimination and much more. If we can take something positive from these uprisings perhaps it could be that they stand as a lesson, a testament to the serious results that can arise when issues of environmental justice are not considered as a matter of national concern.

For a closer look at the Tibetan problem we urge you to refer to a Human Rights Watch report titled: “No One Has the Liberty to Refuse”Tibetan Herders Forcibly Relocated in Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and the Tibet Autonomous Region,” hrw.org which we are excerpting below:

“Two Chinese policies put in place since 1999 are particularly relevant to understanding the current situation. Both policies appear to have been designed for ecological purposes, but are reported to have been implemented in ways that are opaque and generally lack due process and compensation in Tibetan pastoral areas.

The best known and most widely implemented was called “convert farmland to forest” (tuigeng huanlin). It envisaged tree planting on marginal farmland to reduce the threat of soil erosion, but in Tibetan areas it has been used to justify arbitrary land confiscation, requiring farmers both to provide labor and other inputs for tree planting, and to seek alternative livelihood.

The second policy, known as “revert pasture to grassland” (tuimu huancao), was aimed at reversing degradation in pastoral regions by imposing total, temporary, or seasonal bans on grazing.

The largest area selected for a total ban was the Three Rivers Area (Sanjiangyuan) in Qinghai’s Golok (Guolou) and Yushu prefectures. The ban led to compulsory resettlement and herd slaughter in Golok beginning in 2003. In other Tibetan pastoral areas of Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, and the TAR, less drastic measures such as reduction of herd numbers and state confiscation of pasture have been implemented in the same period.

The explicitly environmental turn in central government policy started with the forestry ban in the Yangtse catchment region following the 1998 floods in China, the first tacit official acknowledgement that deforestation in eastern Tibet since the 1960s had significantly increased the vulnerability of downstream regions to serious summer flooding.

In the local context, the policies present resettlement and livestock limitation as a necessary response to an environmental crisis of pasture degradation and overgrazing. Official policy has in essence blamed this crisis on the “backward” and “unscientific” behavior of Tibetan herders—language similar to that used to justify the “liberation” and “emancipation” of Tibetans in the 1950s. In the Communist Party’s terminology, the term “scientific” carries strong political undertones. An article on the economy of Qinghai Tibetan areas explains, “The concept of scientific development is distilled from the practical experience of China’s reform and opening building by the party’s central authorities.” The practical implication of this concept is that whoever opposes the policies of the party is “unscientific.”
“The education level of herders in our province is relatively low; they cannot scientifically cultivate land and raise livestock. They don’t know how to use fertilizer and chemicals, even less how to scientifically develop their household economy,” writes a typical study from the National Statistics Bureau.

The most recent piece of relevant legislation, the revised 2003 Grassland Law, explicitly provides for the government’s right to radically limit herds and resettle people. In addition, it criminalizes any use of grasslands deemed to be “illegal,” a vague designation likely to discourage any violations. The constraints these policies impose, and the specificity of the people they affect, make it difficult for them not to be seen as opposed to herders and their way of life in general and opposed to Tibetans or Mongolians or other non-ethnic Chinese herding peoples in particular. Interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch show that policies to divide and fence pastureland, to cut the size of herds, and to relocate herders to new housing have been intensified in these areas in recent years. This was reportedly presented in the name of “modernizing” the herders in order to “solve the difficulties of Tibetans.”

Water management is central to the policies designed to preserve and promote economic advances locally and in China’s east. The dual objectives are flood control and the maintenance of stable water levels for hydroelectric power generation. Interview with L.S., from Sanchu (Xiahe) county, Gannan prefecture of Gansu province told Human Rights Watch, “They said that if the Tibetan plateau is converted into forest it would decrease the risk of flooding in cities in China.” F.H., from Pema (Banma) county, Golok (Guolou) prefecture in Qinghai echoed this: “The [officials] said resettlement is to promote harmony between humans and nature, the policy of protecting and improving the physical environment of Golok prefecture should be implemented and flooding downstream should be brought under control.”

Golok prefecture seems to have been targeted because it is at the source of the Machu (Yellow) river, protection of which has become a focus of national concern. F.R. described the reasons given for the so-called MaDriZaSum [Machu, Drichu, and Zachu] Rivers Source Protection Scheme, which had meant removal of herder families in Golok TAP (see also below):

The water flow of the [Yellow] river to the Lungyang hydroelectric station’s dam reservoir in the upper Machu area has decreased a lot. Not only that, the water level of the Yellow river of Tibet is decreasing day by day and for the past few years the wet areas of the Yellow river source area in Mato county in Golok TAP have decreased …

The strength of the river source is depleted; the water flow in between Kyareng lake and Ngoreng lake has stopped six times and the water flow in some other streams has also been dry for the past half year. Because of low flow of water in these rivers, many hydroelectric stations built by the Chinese government in Kham and Amdo region [most of Qinghai province and the western part of Sichuan province] cannot produce energy.

F.R., from Qinghai, told Human Rights Watch that the Tibetan herders feel that they are being forced to resettle without reason, without due regard to their rights and in violation of them, in order to suit policy goals of the PRC administration.

That policy was announced in August or September 2003 from the provincial government to Golok prefecture and then down to the counties and then down to the township level. Then the township leaders came to the pastoral areas to make the announcement. They said that the relocation of the [Tibetan herders] from the grasslands was in order to stop the erosion of the source area of the Machu [Yellow river], and to protect the environment, and wasn’t this of benefit to the local [Tibetan herders] themselves? They said that they were protecting and monitoring the environment of the upper Machu in Qinghai, and they said the main thing is that the hydroelectric stations powered by the Machu can no longer produce electricity, which is causing hardship to the Chinese people who are the consumers, and so we the Tibetan [herders] have to leave our land.

Even in areas where the environmental arguments for relocation are compelling, the Chinese government is still required to respect herders’ rights in determining, formulating and implementing solutions to environmental problems. Compounding alleged environmental crises with human rights abuses only worsens already fragile ecological and political situations in Tibetan areas of China.

“Land suitable for forest should be planted with trees and land suitable for grass should be planted with grass and the policy of giving up farming for forest and giving up animal husbandry for grass should be diligently continued and carried forward. The traditional livelihood of the [herders] should be exchanged for market economy and prosperity should be embraced.”
—F.H., from Pema (Banma) county, Golok prefecture, describing Chinese policy in his home district, January 2006.

“Because there are no Chinese living in the remote pastoral areas of Tibet, many of our local people believe that the policy of putting Tibetan herders in the towns is in order to control those areas, and after the older generation passes away, we will gradually be assimilated into the towns…
—A.M., from Machen county, Qinghai Province, September 2005

On the basis of the policies described above, and in a variety of ways, tens of thousands of Tibetan herders have been required to give up their homes and traditional practices and to resettle, generally into urban or township settings where they struggle to establish themselves; in many cases the displacement and forced resettlement resulted in hardship and lower standards of living. Resettlement often entails the compulsory slaughter of livestock. Detailed below is the range of recent experiences with which Human Rights Watch is aware.

The accounts given to us by those forcibly resettled indicate some variation in the quality of the housing to which they were moved and the number of livestock they were forced to slaughter. But almost uniformly the interviewees recounted how the policies that led to their compulsory resettlement were implemented in a manner that gave them no effective opportunity to object, and little or no compensation (the issue of required consultation and compensation is discussed in more detail in Section VII).

Some of the affected people and communities have had to relocate more than once. E.A. told Human Rights Watch, “Our township is near the Tsa-nga hydropower station on the Yellow river, which was built by the government in 1988. Many villages had to migrate due to the damming of the river, and the Rabge Dewa [village community] was moved [near our township] at that time, and now they are being moved to another place called Tang Karma …” (Tang Karma is described in more detail below). One villager, N.M., said, “First they said that grass and willow trees were to be planted on the fields of our village to give protection against flooding. Then they said that [we have to move] to make the townships and county towns bigger…”

Additionally, an article in the March 19, 2008, New York Times reported:

GABU VILLAGE, China — For Caidan, a 40-year-old farmer whose life in this traditionally Tibetan area revolves around its Buddhist temple, the aluminum smelter that belches gray smoke in the distance is not a symbol of material progress, but rather a daily reminder of Chinese disregard. “Look at the walls of our temple, they have all gone grimy with the smoke that pollutes our air,” said Caidan, who, like many Tibetans, goes by a single name.

Asked if Tibetans in this part of Qinghai Province in China’s rugged west had benefited from jobs at the factory, a man sitting nearby shook his head and launched into a litany about preferential treatment that he said was systematically given to members of the country’s Han Chinese majority.

“Tibetans get the low-income and the hard-labor jobs, and although there are some Han who make the same as us, most of those who were brought in by the boss make twice as much money,” the man said. “They’re all paid as technicians, even though some of them really don’t know anything.”

After decades of heavily financed Chinese efforts to strengthen its control over Tibet and to tame the country’s far west through gigantic infrastructure projects and resettlement of Han Chinese from the east, the outbreak of protests and riots and a fierce crackdown by Chinese security forces in and around Tibet have laid bare a harsh reality of policy failure.

In Tibet and in neighboring provinces, like Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan, where Tibetans and other ethnic minorities live in large numbers, Tibetans and Han live in closer proximity than ever before, but they occupy separate worlds. Relations between the two groups are typically marked by stark disdain or distrust, by stereotyping and prejudice and, among Tibetans, by deep feelings of subjugation, repression and fear.

To be sure, there is no legalized ethnic discrimination, but privilege and power are overwhelmingly the preserve of the Han, while Tibetans live largely confined to segregated urban ghettos and poor villages in their own ancestral lands.

Chinese news programs on the events in Lhasa have reinforced an impression of separate universes that scarcely intersect — one Han and one Tibetan. The programs were clearly intended as propaganda to place the blame for riots on Tibetans and rally Han Chinese in support of a government-led suppression. Over and over, television broadcasts have repeated the same footage of rampaging Tibetans smashing shop windows and of injured, hospitalized Han, while making no mention of the widely reported deaths among Tibetans during the police crackdown that followed, nor of the underlying grievances that sparked them.

Since the last widespread unrest in Tibet two decades ago, Beijing has sought to undermine separatists in what it calls the Tibetan Autonomous Region. It has invested billions of dollars, encouraged an influx of Han Chinese, and inserted itself deeply into the mechanics of Tibetan Buddhism to eliminate the influence of the Dalai Lama, who fled China for India in 1959 after a failed uprising. But real assimilation, if it were ever the goal, remains elusive.

In the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, Han shopkeepers, hostel owners and others who are picking up the pieces of their lives after riots that destroyed many Chinese-owned business there spoke with scarcely concealed condescension, and often with outright hostility, of Tibetans whom they described as lazy and ungrateful for the economic development they have brought.

“Our government has wasted our money in helping those white-eyed wolves,” said Wang Zhongyong, a Han manager of handicraft shops, said in an interview in Lhasa. Mr. Wang’s shops sell Tibetan-themed trinkets to tourists, one of which was smashed and burned in the riots. “Just think of how much we’ve invested in relief funds for monks and for unemployed Tibetans,” he said. “Is this what we deserve?” Among Han in Lhasa, comments like these stood out for their mildness.

“The relationship between Han and Tibetan is irreconcilable,” said Yuan Qinghai, a Lhasa taxi driver, in an interview. “We don’t have a good impression of them, as they are lazy and they hate us, for, as they say, taking away what belongs to them. In their mind showering once or twice in their life is sacred, but to Han it is filthy and unacceptable.

“We believe in working hard and making money to support one’s family, but they might think we’re greedy and have no faith.”

Even among long-term residents in Lhasa, Han Chinese said they had no Tibetan friends and confessed that they tended to avoid interaction with Tibetans as much as possible. “There’s been this hatred for a long time,” said Tang Xuejun, a Han resident of Lhasa for the last 10 years. “Sometimes you would even wonder how we had avoided open confrontation for so many years. This is a hatred that cannot be solved by arresting a few people.” Tibetans, meanwhile, complain that they have been relegated to second-class citizenship, that their culture is being destroyed through forced assimilation, that their religious freedoms have been trampled upon.

A Tibetan university student in her early 20s who declined to give her name explained relations this way. “I really don’t want to talk about politics, saying whether or not Tibet is part of China. The reality is that we are controlled by Chinese, by the Han people. We don’t have any say, so in my family we don’t even talk about it.”

Although the young woman said that her family was relatively well off and that she was receiving a good education, the future was bleak here even for someone like her because the system favors the Han.

“I’m not even sure I can get a job after graduation,” she said. “For rich Tibetans and for officials, they send their children out to Chengdu or Beijing.”

A sense of the fear many Tibetans live with could be heard in the comments of a religious leader in Aba Prefecture in Sichuan Province, the site of a protest by monks and others earlier this week in sympathy with the Lhasa demonstrations, and the scene of a subsequent fierce crackdown.

“I only know that the Communist Party is good, that they are good to us,” said the religious leader, Ewangdanzhen, when asked about official explanations that have blamed the Dalai Lama for the protests. “I only believe in the Communist Party. Splitting is bad. We want unity and harmony. We don’t have any contacts with him and we don’t need to contact him.”

Far from giving up on their way of life, though, or renouncing their attachment to the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader the Chinese government has long vilified as a separatist, or “splittist,” most Tibetans interviewed while dodging heavy police checks during a 450-mile road trip through Tibetan areas in Gansu and Qinghai provinces professed near-universal devotion to the Dalai Lama, and vowed to continue resisting government attempts to control their faith.
“All Tibetans are the same: 100 percent of us adore the Dalai Lama,” said Suonanrenqing, a 40-year-old resident of a Tibetan village in Jianzha County in Qinghai Province. Asked about China’s decision to commandeer an ancient Tibetan religious rite and select the Panchen Lama, the second-highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism, in 1995, and the implications for how Beijing would manage things after the Dalai Lama, who is 72, dies, Suonanrenqing’s response suggested indefinite tensions between Chinese and Tibetans.
“We’re not sure if it’s true that the Panchen was appointed by the government, but if it is true, we cannot support him,” he said. “We wouldn’t support a Dalai Lama appointed by the government either. These people should be chosen by monasteries.”

Although Suonanrenqing spoke candidly, worrying only at the end of a lengthy conversation if his comments could bring him trouble, many conversations with Tibetans began with nervous denials that they knew anything at all of the events of Lhasa. Their wariness was warranted by a severe security crackdown in clear evidence wherever Tibetans live in large numbers.

After dodging one police roadblock, a reporter making his way late at night toward a town in Gansu Province where Tibetans had protested in sympathy with the Lhasa demonstrators the day before was set upon by plainclothes police officers at a highway tollbooth and forced into a nearby building for questioning before being turned away.
The following day, when visiting Taersi, an important Tibetan monastery in Qinghai Province, the reporter was closely tailed by plainclothes police officers who were seen videotaping his conversations with local monks.
“I have no idea what’s happening in Lhasa,” said one 32-year-old monk, who agreed to sit and chat in a small restaurant with a foreign visitor but apparently felt the topic was too dangerous to touch upon. “We don’t have anything to do with that.”

Despite the vigilant police, the nearby Lijiaxia Valley, a starkly beautiful area dominated by the Yellow River with craggy, desiccated mountains and windswept farmland, Tibetan villages were easy to spot by the colorful prayer flags that flew from roofs and hilltops.

Here, many initially claimed to know nothing of the events in Lhasa. But some quickly dropped this cautious pose. One poor villager, who rolled homemade cigarettes using old newspaper, was aware that Chinese news broadcasts were showing footage of Tibetans rioting in Lhasa.
“Have there been any pictures of Tibetans getting killed?” he asked. When told no, he nodded his head and said, “Of course not.”

The Tibetan situation is not just a random regional issue it’s endemic of a worldwide problem of discrimination and neglect. Whether it’s the natives of Tibet or the victims of Hurricane Katrina, we must remember to fight the good fight and not neglect or transgress the rights of those that are less fortunate. Environmental rights are civil rights. The environment must be saved but it must be saved consciously and justly.

Photos courtesy: