China: Tibetans stop mining on sacred mountain

Tibetans call the Plateau of Tibet ‘the land surrounded by mountains’. Among the massive mountain chains, a few peaks are especially sacred, attracting pilgrims from afar. In rugged eastern Tibet, nowhere is a sacred as the hidden land of Kawa Kharpo.

The sacred Kawagebo mountain sits on the border between the Tibetan Autonomous Region and China’s Yunnan Province; its eastern side is part of the Three Parallel Rivers area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In February 2011, a small gold-mining operation started near the village of Abin, which is on the western side of Kawagebo, along the path of an 800-year-old pilgrimage route that circles the mountain, attracting tens of thousands of Tibetans annually.

In 2012, Tibetan villagers, acting out of reverence for the holy peak, attempted to stop the operations of a Chinese mining company. The response was threats and violence from company representatives, then harassment and arrests by local police. On two occasions, men armed with wooden sticks with nails reportedly attacked villagers, injuring more than a dozen.

After efforts to negotiate with the local government failed, villagers pushed US$ 300,000 worth of mining equipment into the Nu River. A leader of the group was arrested, but later released when 100 villagers surrounded the local police station where he was being held. A few months later, however, mining resumed and tensions grew. Harassment, death threats and attacks on villagers increased, and some women and children fled to other villages to escape the violence.

On 20 January 2012, a village leader who had tried to confront the mining company was arrested by local police. Some 200 community members surrounded the police station, resulting in violence and injuries on both sides, with at least one villager hospitalized with serious injuries. Hundreds more villagers from the surrounding area joined in. On 23 January, with tensions mounting, a local government leader ordered the mine closed and the equipment trucked out of the village.

This story represents a rare victory in the struggle against the despoiling of the landscape of Tibet. All too often, local Tibetan communities are powerless, knowing that any protest will be quickly labelled as ‘splittist’ and a challenge to China’s rule, invoking a massive security presence to quell dissent. The Kawa Kharpo episode is remarkable, both because the villagers won and because the world got to hear about it, due to a brave conservationist from the Chinese environmental NGO Green Earth Volunteers, who witnessed the protest and reported it. Usually, such protests are not only swiftly curbed but all mention of them is repressed.

Mining is widespread in hundreds of locations across Tibet, despite official bans on small-scale gold mining in 2005 and 2007. The soaring price of gold, and the even faster rise in Chinese domestic demand for gold, has made Tibet a magnet for gold-seekers. The environmental cost of gold mining is extremely high, with cyanide and mercury being used in the processing, despite their toxic effects on those living downstream. The most systematic way of extracting gold in a river is to assemble a dredge, a house-sized machine on tracks, which crawls along, chewing up everything whilst gathering the specks of gold. These methods are highly destructive, yet Tibetans have been unable to form their own community associations, speak up, articulate their concerns and let the world know.

Gabriel Lafitte

For more information, look out for MRG's State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 report (published 28 June).

Photo: Kawagebo mountain, China. Credit:Fon ZHOU.

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Date: 26/06/2012




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