BEIJING, China, 5 April 2013
The ecology of the Tibetan plateau, noted the Ministry of Land and Resources two years ago, is “extremely fragile”. Any damage, it warned, would be difficult or impossible to reverse. But, it went on, the China National Gold Group, a state-owned company, had achieved “astonishing results” in working to protect the environment around its mine near the region’s capital, Lhasa. On 29 March at least 83 of the mine’s workers lay buried under a colossal landslide. Its cause is not yet certain, but critics of Tibet’s mining frenzy feel vindicated.
The disaster at the Jiama copper and gold mine, about 70km (45 miles) north-west of Lhasa, has clearly embarrassed the government in Beijing. According to China Digital Times, a California-based media-monitoring website, the Communist Party ordered newspapers to stick to reports issued by the government and the state-owned news agency, Xinhua.
Foreign reporters are rarely allowed into Tibet, least of all to cover sensitive incidents. The official media have avoided speculation about any possible link between the landslide and mining activities in the area. They say the landslide covered a large area with 2m cubic metres of rubble. By the time The Economist went to press, 66 bodies had been pulled out by teams of rescuers with sniffer dogs. The high altitude and lack of oxygen made rescue work hard.
A deputy minister of land and resources, Xu Deming, said preliminary investigations had shown that the landslide was caused by a “natural geological disaster”. Fragments of rock left behind by receding glaciers are being blamed, though officials do not explain why the workers’ camp was set up so close to such an apparent hazard.
The Tibetan government-in-exile based in India says it fears the disaster was caused by work related to the mine, which appears to have grown rapidly since construction began in 2008. It was formally opened two years later, at a ceremony attended by Tibet’s most senior officials. The $520m investment was described at the time as the biggest in Tibet’s mining industry by a firm belonging to the central government. The mine is owned by China Gold International Resources, a company listed in Hong Kong and Toronto. China National Gold Group is the controlling shareholder.
Tibet has been trying hard in recent years to encourage such companies to dig up the plateau’s metals and minerals. It has a lot of them to offer: China’s biggest reserves of copper and chromite (used in steel production), among the world’s biggest of lithium (used to make batteries), as well as abundant reserves of uranium, gold, borax (a component of ceramics and glass) and oil. Extracting these, however, often involves boring into a landscape considered sacred by Tibetans. The Jiama mine, in a valley known to Tibetans as Gyama and revered as the birthplace of a seventh-century Tibetan king, has been the focus of protests by locals angered by environmental and other issues. Water from the valley flows into the Lhasa river. Woeser, a Tibetan activist based in Beijing, has blogged about locals’ fear that their water supplies will be polluted.
Tibetan resentment has been fuelled by the mining industry’s failure to provide much direct employment. Many miners, as well as builders of infrastructure used to service the mines, are brought in from elsewhere in China. Tellingly, only two of the miners killed by the landslide were reported to be Tibetans. Managers at big state-owned firms are usually Han Chinese, who in turn tend to regard their own ethnic kin as easier to control and communicate with than Tibetans. China Daily, a Beijing newspaper, reported last year that the Jiama mine had hired 191 locals. It said non-Han employees made up 35% of the mine operator’s staff, “the highest percentage among mining companies in China”.
In December Tibet Daily, another government newspaper, said that work was under way on setting up monitoring stations in the valley. One of their functions would be to look out for potential “geological disasters”. It was important, it said, gradually to “set up a green mine, with man and nature attaining harmonious unity”. Such unity was called into question on the Tibetan plateau this week.