MAC: Mines and Communities

China update

Published by MAC on 2007-07-14

China update

14th July 2007

In a week where Interfax China has reported yet more Chinese 'outsourcing' (notably Beijing-based Sinosteel Group most likely cooperating with privately owned steelmaker, Zongheng Steel, on its Indian steelworks project and with Baosteel poised to ink an agreement on a joint steelworks project with CVRD in Brazil), the Chinese government is still focussed on exploiting what it considers its own 'interior' (notably the Tibetan Himalayas).

Everest at risk as new road conquers roof of the world

By Dan McDougall in Lhasa, The Observer -

8th July 2007

It is meant to pave the way for the Olympic torch, but Tibetans fear that China's highway to heaven will mean yet more pollution and repression.

The harsh strip lighting of Lhasa's cavernous railway station illuminates a tiny Tibetan girl as her mother tucks her in on an oil-stained patch of ground. Dozens more rag-wrapped pilgrims on their way to Jokhang Temple settle in cheek by jowl in the darkness. Child porters scurry back and forward carrying the brightly coloured luggage of Chinese tourists and wicker baskets of yak dung, used to fuel stoves.

Crackling loudly over the PA system, a folk singer croons longingly of the Himalayas and the beauty of Qomolongma, known in the West as Mount Everest. 'It calls Everest mother earth,' says Kelsang, a Tibetan guide, grimacing at the static. 'They play this over and over again. It is a Chinese song written about Tibet. 'Propaganda,' he says, pointing at a huge TV screen showing images of demure, dancing Tibetans. 'It's part of the myth they want the Chinese tourists to buy into. They are turning Tibet into Everestland, that way it's easier to forget the past and make us into a theme park.'

The push to open the area to tourism has attracted international controversy, with China planning to build a road - and possibly a hotel - right up against the slopes of Everest itself. The vaudeville show at Lhasa's station celebrates the Qing 1, the train that takes 48 hours to reach Lhasa from Beijing. For five years, more than 100,000 workers swarmed over this forbidding land, building a £2bn engineering miracle through 1,140 kilometres of mountains to link Tibet's capital and China's frontier city of Golmud.

With the link to the outside world comes a bitter price. Tibetans are now officially a minority in Lhasa. Encouraged by subsidised rail fares, migrant workers and tourists are pouring in. In the past year, more than 2 million Chinese have visited Lhasa alone.

China has spent 50 years keeping Tibet's plight hidden from the outside world, but next year one of the world's most remote and troubled lands will form the centrepoint of the build-up to the Olympic Games when Chinese mountaineers carry the Olympic torch to the summit of Everest.

The new road is meant to facilitate the torch's journey. But it has outraged environmentalists, who fear it will further damage Everest's fragile ecosystem, already under threat from the climbing boom on its slopes. The theme of the torch relay, ironically, is Journey of Harmony, and the slogan is 'Light the Passion, Share the Dream'.

Qiangba Puncog, chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region, conceded that improving the road was ultimately part of a wider bid to increase tourism. He said: 'There is already a 110km rough path running to base camp but our road project will transform the road into a major tourist route.'

He added: 'In the past two years, many, many tourists have gone to Everest base camp, even tourists coming from Europe and America like to go and have a look at Everest. They have said the road is not good and is not safe, so the goal of improving this road is to make it more convenient for tourists visiting the mountain.'

Qiangba Puncog said a hotel was a distinct possibility. 'We need to look towards improving infrastructure. Tibet had 2.5 million visitors last year, of whom 154,000 came from abroad, and the overall figure is expected to rise to 3 million this year, so part of attracting more tourists is about improving hotel provision in all parts of Tibet.'

According to the Nepal Mountaineering Association's president, Ang Tsering Sherpa, a record 514 climbers reached the summit this spring and that figure is set to grow. 'It's become a gimmick to either tackle the mountain or become one of the thousands to visit base camp each year,' he said.

'My main concerns about the Chinese road are simple. If it's possible for civilians to drive up to the base camp on a good road, the first thing they'd need would be some kind of high-altitude hotel or restaurant, bathrooms. Where there is demand there is supply. Tourists want facilities no matter where they go. The environment is too fragile to support that kind of invasion.'

Prakash Sharma, director of Friends of the Earth Nepal, believes the road will endanger rare wildlife. 'The road is a disaster,' he told The Observer. 'Mount Everest is a haven for rare flora and fauna and of course for the endangered snow leopard and Tibetan antelope. All the evidence suggests that the greater number of climbers on the mountain and now the creation of a tourist infrastructure will undermine the ecosystem.'

Forging an untroubled route for the Olympic torch is the official reason for the road to Everest but the project falls within a wider plan to pave 80 per cent of Tibet's roads by 2010, to help exploit its vast mineral resources. Last week, Chinese officials said minerals in the Tibetan Himalayas could become a cornerstone of China's economy. Lu Yan, an engineer with the geological and minerals exploitation bureau in Tibet, said that tapping minerals in the region - such as gold, copper, chromium, lead, zinc, iron and boron deposits - could be worth more than a trillion yuan (£65bn).

Friends of the Earth UK points to existing concerns over mining operations run by Chalco, China's largest aluminium company, which runs its largest smelter in the Amd province of Tibet and is accused of poisoning livestock and local rivers, and PetroChina, which is constructing oil and gas pipelines across Tibet and East Turkestan.

Such is the concern over mining in the Chengdu and Dawu areas of Tibet, The Observer has learnt, that more than 100 Buddhist monks have gone on hunger strike in the past week to protest.

Prakash Sharma believes the reason for infrastructure improvement in Tibet is not for tourism but for mining activities. He added: 'We need to look at the bigger picture. China has spent nearly 1.1 billion yuan since 1999 surveying Tibet's resources and has found more than 100 minerals.

'Mining pollutes lakes, underground glaciers and destroys entire ecosystems at a time when gobal warming and glacial melting are already posing a grave threat to the region,' he said.

Tibetan activists say that by allowing the torch to run over Everest, the International Olympic Committee endorses China's brutal rule, with tens of thousands killed or sent to labour camps. Outside the Potala Palace, former winter residence of the Dalai Lama, a Buddhist monk chases away another group of Chinese tourists. 'We cannot stop them coming here, it has become their home more than ours,' he says. 'With the train thousands come every day. They want to take our photographs, walk through our sacred temples. Some offer us money for our robes. We have become nothing more than a sideshow.'


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