A Focus of Tibetan Ire: Mining

Authorities in Tibet were on heightened alert Tuesday for possible unrest on the 50th anniversary of a failed uprising against Chinese rule as the Dalai Lama said Tibet had become "hell on earth" under Beijing's control. Video by AP
By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 10, 2009

GANGCHA, China -- Sonam Dorje and his family live on a grassy slope a mile above one of the entrances to the Xiekeng Copper & Gold Mine, which he and his neighbors in this Tibetan area blame for killing their livestock and reducing the amount of pasture available for grazing.

Their sheep die when they drink tainted water flowing from the mine, or lick crushed ore left on the hillside, villagers say. Now there are reports that the mine will open another cave this year in the upper grassland above Dorje's home.

"We are trying to think of every possible way to stop this. If we have to, we will carry stones and wood sticks to block the entrance as soon as they begin to dig again," he said.

The Chinese government is on high alert this week, bracing for the possibility of protests as Tibetans mark the 50th anniversary of a failed uprising. Communist Party officials have left nothing to chance, deploying paramilitary troops and plainclothes security, shutting down the Internet and text-messaging services, and stepping up propaganda against the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader they brand a dangerous separatist. Last year at this time, monks in Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, staged protests that prompted a crackdown. More than 200 people were killed.

But as the government focuses on suppressing political dissent this week, Tibetans are struggling with the economic conditions that help fuel their anger. Mining operations in Tibet and other nearby areas have been booming since the arrival of the Qinghai-Tibet rail line in 2006, bringing wealth to local governments and Chinese mine owners. But they have provided little benefit to local Tibetan farmers and nomads who say the mines scar mountains they consider sacred and kill the yaks and sheep they need in order to make a living. Protests by Tibetans against China's billion-dollar mining industry are expected to rise as mines closed for the winter begin to reopen as early as next week.

"Last year, eight of my yaks died. They just fell down, foaming at the mouth," said Gompo Dondrup, a nomad and farmer in Bathang county in western Sichuan province, whose family has lost more than 60 percent of its herd. "At first we didn't know why. Later, the veterinarians told us it was because of the mine. We protested, but the mine continues to operate. They said they gave compensation to the government, but the government never gave us any."

Chinese officials argue that they are bringing development and prosperity to regions that badly need the investment. They have also been quick to accuse mine protesters of political motivations and separatist aspirations, allegations that are sometimes used to justify tighter restrictions.

"Yes we blocked the road and smashed some machines, but we did those things not to split the country but to stop the mine," said Aben, 34, a nomad who said he participated in three or four protests against a silver, lead and zinc mine that began formal production in Bathang county's Chaluo township last year.

Aben, who like some Tibetans uses only one name, said he was unafraid of speaking out because many hundreds of people had protested. "If there are only dozens of us, we dare not go," he said. "We hoped the government would develop tourism, but if the mine is in operation, who will come here?"

The mine does have its local supporters. "The government welcomes mining. Workers come with the mines and they will buy local goods, so the local economy will benefit," said Sun Kangjing, a Tibetan who is employed by nearby Cuola town.

Chen Shaohua, chief of office for the Xiasai Silver Co. Ltd, the owner of the controversial mine in Bathang county, said the company had already paid $1.5 million in environmental compensation and was feeling squeezed by lower market prices for ore. He said that local Tibetans steal equipment such as electrical cable and that even those who live far from the site continue to demand money from the mine.

"The more we produce, the more we lose. We already paid compensation to the local government. But as far as whether they paid the local Tibetans, we don't know," Chen said.

A $50 million, seven-year government survey of the Tibetan plateau released in 2007 found as much as 40 million tons of copper reserves, 40 million tons of zinc and lead reserves, and more than 1 billion tons of iron reserves. Over the next several years, officials expect mining revenue in Tibet alone to reach $1.5 billion, or one-third of the autonomous region's gross domestic product. Last month, Qinghai province announced a new round of geological surveys that will cost $100 million and that are aimed at making more mining discoveries. In a sign of their nervousness about potential unrest, officials in recent years have instituted new rules aimed at banning freelance gold mining operations and have ordered mine owners to properly dispose of their waste or pay huge fines. But there is little sign that the rules are properly enforced or that the money is used to undo the damage.

"Conflicts over mining are growing," said Luo Li, an economics professor at Minzu University who has studied Sichuan's Ganzi prefecture, where there are at least 90 mines in operation, accounting for 30 percent of the prefecture's GDP. "Generally speaking, ordinary people aren't consulted about mine projects in their area. It's mainly the local government's business."

Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.

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