On Wednesday 19th June 2013, a conference on Tibet’s Environment was organized at the European Parliament in Brussels. It was hosted by the Members of the European Parliament Mrs. Satu Hassi (Greens), Mr. Thomas Mann (EPP) and Mrs. Lidia Joanna Geringer de Oedenberg (S&D), and jointly organized by the Office of Tibet in Brussels, the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) and the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO). Keynote speaker was Mr. Tenzin Norbu, Head of the Environment and Development Desk of the Central Tibetan Administration at the DIIR in Dharamsala, India.
More than 60 people attended the seminar, including Members of the EP and their assistants, journalists, Belgian Tibet Support Groups such as Tibetan-Flemish Circle of Friends (Tibetaanse-Vlaamse Vriendenkring), Lungta Association Belgium and Lights on Tibet, and officials from the European Commission. Representatives of Tibetan-Flemish Circle of Friends were president Dennis Barbion and Phuntsok Dolma. Moderators were Members of the EP Mrs. Satu Hassi and the President of the Tibet Intergroup at the EP Mr. Thomas Mann.
MEP Mr. Thomas Mann welcomed everyone and expressed his gratutide for participating in the conference about this very important subject, the damaged environment in Tibet. “The environment in Tibet has undergone many changes, due to the global climate change, deforestation and depopulation. We warmly welcome Mr. Tenzin Norbu from Dharamsala in India and we are looking forward to hear his speech. We at the European Parliament are united, there is a lot of solidarity and unity for Tibet among many Members of the European Parliament.”
The Tibet Intergroup of the European Parliament consists or more than 110 MEPs and was founded by Mr. Michel Hervé (French member of the EP) in 1989 to fulfill three main objectives: creating opportunities for informal discussion amongst MEPs who were interested in the situation in Tibet, providing information on the subject for their colleagues and the public in general and encouraging various form of political actions.
MEP Mrs. Satu Hassi: “The Environment is a global problem, it’s not only regional or national but it’s global. The ice mass at the poles is melting. Because of general climate changes the glaciers melt. On the three poles the ice is melting, not only at the North of South Pole but also in Tibet, the Third Pole. Many major rivers originate in Tibet. A lot of people depend on those big rivers, 2 billion people or 47% of all the population depend on those rivers that are sometimes heavily polluted. Another great influence on the Environment are the destructive industries, for example mining by the Chinese in Tibet on a large scale. Sometimes there are tragic incidents in the mining like the one in March 2013 when 83 miners got killed.”
After these introductions by the MEPs, Mr. Tenzin Norbu of the DIIR Environmental Department in Dharamsala gave a speech enriched with a PowerPoint presentation showing statistics, pictures and videos.
Mr. Tenzin Norbu: “At the Environmental and Development Desk we are checking the destruction of the Environment in Tibet, the industries who have an impact on this, and the influence on the local people. In my talk I will focus on 3 issues: deforestation, the nomads movement and the global climate change.”
Mr. Tenzin Norbu explained that Tibet is considered by scientists as the Third Pole: “Tibet has the largest reservoir of fresh water, for example in lots of glaciers, but also in permafrost and rivers. Tibet has 46,000 glaciers covering an area of 105,000 sq. km. It is the highest, largest and coldest plateau on Earth. Tibet has more fresh water than the North and South Pole. Tibet is the central point of negotiations between China and India, two world powers. The Tibetan Plateau is 4,500 meters above sea level, but now it looks like an upland island high above sea level as the ice is melting. Tibet is the Water Tower of Asia. 30% of all the water flows from Tibet. The Mekong river is the most important, also for fishermen.”
He mentioned the resource exploitation. There are 200 active mining sites in Tibet, most copper mines but also gold etc. There are more than 30 different resources. Another fact is the deforestation in Tibet. In 1950 there were 25 million hectares forests in Tibet, in 1985 13,5 million. Because of the deforestation there has been a huge flood of the Yangtse river in 1998, so there is a huge global ecological problem because of the new industries. In 2012 there is still lots of deforestation, for example in the East of Lhasa. “Something is not right in Tibet and today we don’t speak about human rights but about the environment only. About the mining, there are 3 zones of copper mining in Tibet. Already 26,700,000 tons of copper was mined and 755 tons of gold. We raise the big question for who is this beneficial? Is it beneficial for the locals? No, not at all…” A short video from 2009 was shown about the wastewater discharge in a local stream in Dineth in Amdo. On the video you could see the dumping in the local water very clearly. Of course this only happens at night.
Mr. Tenzin Norbu: “Another thing are the rare Earth elements. To the South of the Nam Tso Basin, heavy materials and rare elements were found in the soil. There is also a lot of lithium mining. In Gyama Valley, cupper sulphite, a heavy metal was detected in the surface water. The Chinese authorities always say that there is no problem with the water, that the water in Tibet is fresh. Because of the pollution, also lots of animals died.”
In Tibet, the Tibetan people protest against the destruction of the Environment and the mining of the natural resources. In Shigatse there have been lots of protests against the mining in 2010, but also in Shifang, Sichuan, in July 2012. “In 2010 there have been 15 different mining protests in Tibet, and 4 protests in 2012. Thousands of people in total have protested. The locals raised their voice and sometimes the protest was successful and the mining was stopped. Such actions give us a huge hope, not just for the Tibetans but for the environment.”
Another issue is the exploitation of Water Resources, the damming of rivers. This is important for many South Asian countries. No river in Tibet is not being dammed, and because of damming, seismic events were very active from 1973-2012.
Mr. Tenzin Norbu: “The Tibetan word for nomad is ‘drokpa’ and in fact nomad is not a good translation, it’s a mobile lifestyle. For 8000-9000 years there is a pastoralist culture in Tibet. The Chinese authorities say the drokpa are are economic migrants but in fact it’s nomad removal, it’s not a resettlement as the Chinese say. Grassslands need to be grazed, grazing extend the growing season. The first removals of nomads were in the Machu-Drichu-Zachu region. China says it wants to educate nomads but testimonies of nomads who fled Tibet has stated that the policy of removal is not even explained to the nomads. With the removal of nomads and the new lifestyle, there is a big problem of unemployment and alcohol, but there is also a lot of begging, prostitution and poverty.”
The damage to the meadows is final, the grasslands cannot be restalled. The nomads who were expelled, are now living in ghettos. They are also used for tourism reasons. They have to dress up with their traditional clothing and decorations for pictures for tourists. Now people also need to pay an entrance fee to visit the Holy Lake. Nomadic women are also used for washing the cars of the Chinese police and the children are not taught at school. The nomads don’t have a choice, they cannot go back, this is not possible because they don’t have a life stock. Afterwards, the 15 minutes documentary “From Nomad to Nobody” by Michael Buckley was shown, about the life of nomads in Tibet, their removal by the Chinese authorities and the life in the ghettos.
Impact climate change
Mr. Tenzin Norbu: “20% of the glaciers is retreated in 40 years, so 20% of the glaciers is lost. The Himalaya is retreated on a fast rate compared with European and other glaciers. The permafrost is melting because of the global warming but also due to human interference. In connection with those human disturbances, the change is due to renovations, for example the construction of highways. This has a huge impact on the environment. There is thermal slumping, and the highways need to be repaired every few years because of subsidence. There is also vegetation destruction, and because of the highways, the ground temperature is affected. The big questions are: who has benefit of all this, and who is employed? Definitely not the locals. The Chinese always politicize protests by Tibetans, also protests to protect the environment.”
The Tibetan Plateau plays an important role in generating and regulating the Asian Monsoon. Nowadays the rainfall is disturbed, even in India. Because of this, there will definitely be much more migration in the future.
At the end of his talk, Mr. Tenzin Norbu asked for more support and protection of the environment: “China is pollutant no. 1. They don’t have the right to destruct the Environment of Tibetans who live there already 8000-9000 years. The most important import from Tibet to India is silence: Tibetans escaping Tibet are afraid to speak when they still have relatives in Tibet. We hope for more support by the European Parliament and Tibet Groups, because saving the Tibetan plateau saves peace and harmony.”
MEP Mr. Thomas Mann ended the very interesting but confrontational and disturbing conference with a message of hope: “We never stop supporting Tibet. You can be sure that we continue our support. The Tibet Intergroup and many MEPs are interested in the Tibet issue and we follow up everything. From the EP we also take action through resolutions. We continue to do so!”
1. text © Dennis Barbion
2. photo’s © Han Vandenabeele
3. Dennis Barbion is a Tibet supporter, buddhist and human rights activist based in Belgium. Currently he is the President of Tibetaanse-Vlaamse Vriendenkring (Tibetan-Flemish Circle of Friends) and Coordinator of Tibetan Social Service Belgium Chapter. For more information about the associations: www.tibetvlaanderen.be (website in Dutch) or www.facebook.com/tibetvlaanderen (Facebook page in English) and www.tibetalsocialservice.org or www.facebook.com/TibetanSocialServiceBelgiumChapter. To contact Dennis Barbion: email@example.com.