Tibetan Environment in New York

The Asia Soceity in New York City is having a day-long conference today (January 16) on “Meltdown: The Impact of Climate Change on the Tibetan Plateau.” This is but the latest indication about the significance of the environment in Tibet to the region and the world. The conference features “IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri, distinguished glaciologists Lonnie Thompson and Yao Tandong, environmental experts from China, the UK, the US, Australia and the Tibetan Autonomous Region, as well as mountaineer and filmmaker David Breashears.” It seems there are some Tibetan speakers, too.

Some of my colleagues have gone up to New York to attend this and I am looking forward to their impression. Taking this opportunity I am posting here a paper that I prepared (I was then working in Dharamsala at the Tibetan Department of Information & International Relations) in 1993 on Tibetan environment that was presented at a conference in France.

An analysis of environment and development issues in Tibet
By Bhuchung K. Tsering
(Paper presented at the International conference on the state of environment in Tibet: III Pole, Environment & People of Tibet, Paris. September 30 to October 1, 1993)

It is a universally accepted notion that changes in the environment are clearly related to economic and social activities. After being under Chinese rule for over four decades, Tibet has experienced grave environmental transformation.  The problem has become complex today.–Past situation: In the past, traditional Tibetan economic and religious value systems led to the evolution of successful environmental protection practices. It would not be totally correct to claim that these practices were on account of the Tibetan people’s knowledge of the importance of environment per se.  Rather, religious beliefs which held forth that the mountains, rivers, lakes, streams, rocks, and soil are the domain of spirits enjoined upon the people not to pollute or disturb them for fear of death or destruction.

Whatever be the case, this led to constant interaction of the people with their natural environment.  The size of the Tibetan population then was such that their needs were being sufficiently met without having to disturb the system. –Future Plan:  Taking a cue from the past, the Tibetan Government-in-Exile has taken a number of steps to lay down a sound environmental policy for future Tibet.  Unlike in the past environemental protection was a result of religious beliefs, we are now basing our argument on scientific reasonings.  In his first major policy initiative for future Tibet – the five point peace plan enunciated in Washington D.C. in 1987 – His Holiness the Dalai Lama has laid great importance on the environment.  Two out of the five points are specifically related to the environment: transformation of the whole of Tibet into a zone of ahimsa and the restoration and protection of Tibet’s natural environment and the abandonment of China’s use of Tibet for the production of nuclear weapons and dumping of nuclear wastes. Again, in his guidelines for future Tibet’s polity spelled out in January 1992, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has categorically stated, “Tibet shall be a zone of peace where there shall be full protection of the environment.”  Given balanced policies, Tibet’s natural resource endowment is suffient for the size of its own population in the foreseeable future.–Religion–Buddhism in particular —  will be very forcefully used to inculcate environmental awareness.

Already a beginning has been made in the form of Buddhist Perception of Nature, a religion-to-help-conservation project. Tibet’s environmental policy will be guided by the inspiration that conservation has more than material implications, that it constitutes a moral and religious task before the human race.

The environmental problems in Tibet have become quite complex and cannot be viewed in isolation.  Minor changes are no solution; what is needed is a strong measure to restore environmental control to the Tibetan people.  In our report on the state of Tibet’s environment, Tibet: Environment and Development issues 1992 and Tibet: Proving Truth From Facts 1993 we have gone into the details of our plans for restoring Tibet’s environment to its pristine glory once again.

Present situation: Although we have prepared for the future after studying the past situation, our greatest concern at the moment is the ongoing environmental degradation in Tibet. In this our biggest handicap is that we are not in control of the situation: Tibet is under an alien rule. As a result the country’s natural resources are being systematically exploited without any regard for their long-term effects.

Impact of Chinese settlers: In the guise of opening up Tibet, there is a massive influx of Chinese settlers.  This is further threatening to deplete the available resources as these have to be strained to fill need caused by the presence of additional inhabitants. Pasture lands are being reduced by turning them into farmlands for the additional Chinese farmers.  Tibetans have no legal or institutional means to check the manifest destruction of their land and natural resource base, or ensure its sustainable use and conservation.

Guidelines for projects inside Tibet: The involvement of international development agencies in projects inside Tibet is of special concern to us.  We would like to make an emphatic plea to all such concerned agencies to undertake a thorough study of the project, including their benefits to the local Tibetans, the environmental effect, before their involvement.  Sometimes the presentations made on paper do not get anywhere close to ground realities.  A case in point is the Yamdrok Yutso hydel power project.  We Tibetans are all for any projects which will be of direct benefit to the Tibetan people while not disturbing Tibet’s fragile environment.  Therefore, all potential project partners in Tibet need to make an indepth assessment of the situation.  Although the Tibetan Government-in-Exile unfortunately does not have any direct say in the implementation of the projects, we believe it is the moral duty of the international development agencies, whether private or public, to consult His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his administration in Dharamsala  — as free spokesman of the Tibetan people — to get our views. We have compiled a set of suggestions to individuals and organisations interested in projects inside Tibet.  In these suggestions we have prioritised our objectives: a) to discourage population transfer of Chinese settlers because of its economic and environmental impacts; b) improvement in educational facilities; c) improving health conditions; d) contributing to the welfare of women; e) environment; and f) encouraging increased participation of Tibetans in all levels of the projects.

Study of transnational impacts:  The protection of Tibetan environment is of common interest to the international community.  On account of its strategic position, the developments in Tibet have transnational impacts, particularly hydrological impacts and those connected with atmospheric and climatic effects. Many issues have been raised: deforestation, nuclear wastes, biodiversity, etc. However, we have not been able to undertake indepth study of these developments.  The Tibetan Government-in-Exile, given its very nature, cannot initiate such programmes.  Therefore, we can only appeal to eminent scientists and others concerned with the issues to investigate into all these aspects. A detailed study in the atmospheric impacts of the Tibetan plateau should be undertaken by competent scientists and research institutions.  Since China continues to claim that all such charges of environmental degradation in Tibet are groundless, we feel there is no reason why they should not allow investigators.  In our Environment and Development report of 1992, we had called for the appointment of an International Monitoring Commission to investigate all incidents of nuclear waste disposal in Tibet.  This is becoming more imperative now.

Training of Tibetans: On account of our peculiar background there are no Tibetan experts on the environmental, at least people who are wellversed with modern techniques.  The Tibetan Government is trying to utilise all available opportunity to expose the concerned officials to all aspects of environmental issues.  In this we need encouragement in the form of invitations to all gatherings concerned with environment.  We believe, gradual exposure will lead to a better understanding of the situation by the Tibetans.  Our government, within its limitations, is trying to improve the situation by planning for the training of Tibetans.  We are already in the process of organising a training for experts on Buddhism and environment as well as on agro forestry.  Within the next few years, we hope to have at least a few trained Tibetans. Just as Tibetans in exile needs these trainings and exposure, we also feel it important that international organisations encourage the Chinese government to train Tibetans inside Tibet on these matters.  This is specially important given the current situation where we are not able to do much with the the developments inside Tibet. -As this is totally a non-political matter, the scientific community can in fact pressurise the Chinese authorities to give environmental education to Tibetans in Tibet.

Flow of information:  The strict control over Tibet by the Chinese authorities has meant that there is no free flow of information on enrivonmental issues from inside Tibet.  This is hampering us in our proper understanding of the situation there, specially in the matters of nuclear waste disposals, deforestation, reduction in grasslands, etc. Again, the international community can assist us in this by undertaking projects to gather relevant information.

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