MAC: Mines and Communities

Tibet's holy Mt Kawagebo protected from mining

Published by MAC on 2012-02-14

Last month, Tibetan villagers brought to a standstill a private gold mining project which, they claim, violates holy Mt Kawagebo and the World Heritage site in which the mountain is located.

Nonetheless the region remains under pressure from other mining activities, such as marble quarrying, and the "greater overarching threat" of hydroelectric dam development.

An Open Letter from the villagers of Abin village

20 January 2012

"We are the farmers from Abin village, Chawalong County, Linzhi Prefecture in Tibet and we have been living for generations under the foot-hill of holy mountain Mt. Kawagebo, on the eastern bank of Nu River. We love our home and our life here. Under the wise leadership of the Communist Party, our village with other villages in Chawalong is living a peaceful, happy life.

Pilgrim path to Mt Kawagebo
Pilgrim path to Mt Kawagebo. Source: He Ran Gao

But ever since February 2011, a group of mine workers came to our village. Without presenting any permission nor informing us beforehand, they started intensive mining activity right on the mountain slope above our village. This bold destruction has badly injured our land and disturbed our life. The protection of our home and nature is in accordance with both national policy and our religion teaching.

Therefore, we decided to take issue with the mining company. But this action has caused us trouble. Whenever we confronted the mining site, the local government defended the mining company and sent policemen to bully us. Many times people were subject to physical violence, arrested with hand locks or ended up in hospital with severe injuries.

The boss of the mining company is named Zhang Zuo, a rich and unreasonable man. Once he hired 32 hatchet men with forged military uniform to oppress us. These hatchet men were armed with wooden sticks with iron nails; they rushed directly to villagers and harmed a dozen. Another time they came with 45 men. Many villagers were injured.

The boss incited the armed men that it was "better to kill several at the same time" and he can "handle [any resulting problems] with money, so not to worry". This extreme behaviour has greatly angered local villagers, but we try not to use violence and have been waiting for the solution from the government, and thus have not fought back

But the conflict was ever increasing: after failing to stop the mining and negotiate with the local government, local villagers together pushed the mining machine, which is worth about 2 million , into the Nu River.

A leader was later arrested, but forced to be released when a hundred villagers surrounded the local police station in Chawalong County and threaten to break in if they didn't release the leader. This case seemed successful in the beginning when no revenge came from the local government, but it also didn't stop the mining. After a couple of months the mining of the holy mountain continued.*

The condition became worse after this, when the mining company took revenge and lined up with local government; policemen and hired men. They were harassing, attacking and arresting Abin villagers for 6-10 months (which has been documented in video interviews). 86 households and 526 people's lives were under threat.

Many women had to run to nearby villages with their children to avoid the violence. Many had the idea of committing suicide, including an old woman of 70 year old. She didn't want to suffer any more and tried to commit suicide by jumping from a tall roof, but was found by neighbours and revived.

The whole village was living under tension for half a year and villagers had no voice. We felt sad and angry. The conflict between villagers and the mining company had become conflict between local people and local government now, we are seeking for attention and social justice.

Mt. Kawagebo and its eco-cultural surrounding area is significant in several ways:

Mt. Kawagebo is the holy mountain of Tibet, it is a sublime symbol of nature's grandeur and people's belief. For a thousand years people have been worshipping and protecting the environment and species around Mt. Kawagebo. Since 1990s many climbers tried to conquer the holy mountain but no one has succeeded. From 1996 China Government prohibited any climbing activities on Mt. Kawagebo. This mountain is also believed by many as the original place of Shangri La, the wonderland from 'Lost Horizon':-

In summary, local people are trying to restore the balance with the holy mountain and their traditional way of life.

We wish to appeal their case to a higher court or spread the word to the public to gain the attention of society. We love the country, trust the Party and government; we are patiently and sincerely looking forward to a fair negotiation with local government and companies for a just result. We will not allow any further suppression on our life and land; nor leave the matter easily, and we are willing to protect our homeland with own life.

Abin village, Linzhi Prefecture, Tibet

* This paragraph has was added in the translation to bring clarification to the text


Tibetan Village Stops Mining on Sacred Mountain

Amberly Polidor

26 January 2012

In Tibetan culture, where people live in intimate relationship with the natural world around them, reality and mythology have a way of blending together. So it was perhaps no surprise to local villagers when, after a Chinese mining company and local authorities repeatedly repelled efforts stop a gold mining project on the slopes of holy Mount Kawagebo, the mountain appeared to strike back.

Mount Kawagebo, so sacred that climbing is banned, sits on the border between Tibet and China's Yunnan Province; its eastern side is part of the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Area 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.

To the local people, who believe strongly in the sacredness of Mount Kawagebo, direct destruction of the mountain body, through activities like mining, is unthinkable. Further, villagers said the project was started without permission or prior consent. Thus began a community effort to halt the project.

Villagers said their attempts to deal directly with the mining company resulted in threats and violence from agents hired by the company, and harassment and arrests by local police. On two occasions, men armed with wooden sticks with nails attacked villagers, injuring more than a dozen.

After efforts to negotiate with the local government failed, villagers pushed $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 January 20, 2012, a village leader who had tried to confront the mining company was ambushed by local police, tased and arrested. Some 200 community members surrounded the police station, and an ensuing riot resulted in violence and injuries on both sides, with at least one villager sent to the hospital with serious injuries. The leader was released, but protests continued as villagers demanded closure of the mine, and hundreds more villagers from the surrounding area joined in.

This time, the local government held negotiations with the community, including the just-released leader, on behalf of the mining company, whose boss had reportedly fled the area. Villagers involved in negotiations said they were offered money in exchange for allowing the mining to continue, but they refused.

On January 23, with tensions mounting, a vice-official from the prefecture government ordered the mine closed and the equipment trucked out of the village.

While the persistence of the community to protect its holy mountain ultimately paid off, some villagers suggested the mountain itself had a role to play. During the negotiations, many reported hearing the sound of a trumpet shell-used in Tibetan religious rituals-coming from the mountain, while others reported unusually windy weather, which stopped once the conflict was resolved.

A Tibetan hired to provide catering to the mine workers described being struck by a physical pressure that forced him to drop what he was carrying; only after he prayed did the sensation disappear. Several months earlier, according to another account, a village leader who had accepted bribes from the mining company died suddenly, and a member of his family was seriously injured in an accident.

He Ran Gao, a researcher who works for the Chinese NGO Green Earth Volunteers and has been closely involved with the communities of the area, described the context of these supernatural accounts. "In a place like Tibet, people have an unusual sense of divinity in nature, based on a whole system of worship and interaction, which sometime seems superstitious to modern citizens," she said. "But it is not necessarily irrational or unreasonable."

This sense of nature worship, Gao said, with its attendant conservation values, is "barely left due to past communism and later economic development." But in the Himalayas and other mountain areas, where non-Han ethnicities reside and remain somewhat protected, those traditional values can still be found. She described Kawagebo as a success story showing "how sacred nature can be" and how it can "still be respected, protected and continue to make an impact in people's lives."

Unfortunately, Abin is but one of many villages threatened by mining activities - in most other cases, marble quarrying - and a greater overarching threat to the region: hydroelectric dam development.

Along the Nu (Salween) River, the longest free-flowing river in mainland Southeast Asia, a proposed 13-dam cascade-including several dams in or very close to the World Heritage site-would wipe out portions of the pilgrimage route around Mount Kawagebo and displace the communities of the river valley, likely dealing a blow to their traditional culture as well. Although the project was put on hold in 2004 in the wake of widespread protest, it is certainly not dead.

Last year, the World Heritage Committee issued a statement expressing concern over reports of unapproved construction under way at one dam site on the Nu River, and surveying work-including road-building and drilling-at three others. It warned that "the many proposed dams could cumulatively constitute a potential danger to the property's Outstanding Universal Value."

The committee asked China to submit by February 1 of this year a detailed list of all proposed dams, as well as mines, that could affect the World Heritage property, along with the environmental impact assessments of any proposed projects, prior to their approval.

The committee also requested, by the same deadline, a report on the state of conservation of the property and on the progress made in completing a strategic environmental impact assessment on all of the proposed dams and related development that could impact the site's World Heritage value.


Many thanks to He Ran Gao, who provided reporting and other source material for this report. He Ran wishes to thank villagers who provided her with information, but whose names have been witheld.

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