By Stephen Chen | SCMP
ON THE WEB, 22 April 2017
China is considering turning the entire Tibetan plateau and surrounding mountains into a huge national park to protect “the last piece of pure land”, according to scientists briefed on the project.
Dubbed the Third Pole National Park because the plateau and mountains, including the Himalayas, have a natural environment that in many ways resembles polar regions, it would be the world’s biggest national park. The plateau covers an area of more than 2.5 million sq km, mainly in Tibet and Qinghai, dwarfing the biggest national park at present, Greenland’s 972,000-sq-km Northeast Greenland National Park.
This summer, the Chinese government will launch the biggest scientific survey of the Tibetan plateau, with a large number of scientists from China taking part, accompanied for the first time by others from neighbouring countries such as Nepal and Pakistan. The researchers will be assisted by advanced research equipment including drones and new earth-observation satellites.
One important mission of the survey will be to help draw the boundary of the new national park, according to some researchers preparing for expeditions.
Project’s feasibility questioned
Professor Liu Jingshi, researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ (CAS) Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, said the Third Pole National Park, if established as proposed, would be difficult to manage due to its unprecedented size.
He said it took the United States government decades to figure out how to manage Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, which was established in 1872. The Third Pole would be more than 250 times larger, with a much more sophisticated natural landscape.
“It is too big for a park,” Liu said.
And unlike the unpopulated park in Greenland, the Tibetan plateau is home to cities, towns and nomadic tribes, with native Tibetan population estimated at 7.8 million. The main purpose of a national park is conservation, which would limit a wide range of economic activities and might necessitate the relocation of some residents.
“Some people will lose their jobs. The lives of many may be affected,” said Professor Yi Chaolu, another researcher with the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research. “To establish the park or not may go beyond science. It is also a political issue.”
The Tibetan plateau is also rich in natural resources, but establishing a national park would mean an end to most, if not all, mining. The region is home to some of China’s largest copper reserves and significant deposits of other minerals including chromium, iron, lithium and gold. State-owned energy companies, who have been prospecting the region for decades, have found promising oil and natural gas reserves. There are also nearly 500 salt lakes in the region, which contain industrial and agricultural raw materials such as borate and potassium salt.
“The last piece of pure land”
But the government is serious, according to some researchers, with the impetus for the Third Pole National Park coming from the very top. At a meeting with leading scientists studying Tibet in Beijing late last month, CAS vice-president Liu Weiping passed on an instruction which he said came directly from President Xi Jinping, saying they must contribute to the “guarding and keeping of the last piece of pure land”.
Liu said the ruling Communist Party, led by Xi, had an “urge” to protect the Tibetan plateau and regarded it as an environmental and ecological imperative.
China’s three largest rivers — the Yellow, Yangtze and Lancang (known downstream as the Mekong) — originate on the Tibetan plateau, as do other major Asian rivers including the Indus, Brahmaputra, Irawaddy, and Salween. The Indian Monsoon carries humid air over the Himalayas where it falls as snow and feeds the rivers during seasonal melting.
To protect domestic water supply, China has established a protection zone, the Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve, in Qinghai province. To its west, the high mountains of the Hindu Kush Himalayan region are known as the “water tower of Asia”, providing water to many countries including India, Nepal, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bhutan.
Dr Wang Weicai, a researcher involved with the Third Pole Environment programme, a multinational effort spanning 5 million sq km initiated by China to address regional concerns, said turning the Tibetan plateau into a national park would help ease the water supply concerns of neighbouring countries that had been prompted by economic development in Tibet.
“It will also help the implementation of ‘One Belt, One Road’,” a Chinese initiative to strengthen economic cooperation across Eurasia, he said.
India, which has border disputes with China in the region, has refused to participate in the plateau survey or the Third Pole Environment programme.
Professor Wang Shiping, a researcher with the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research and a member of China’s natural reserve review committee, said the national park would not only save plants, animals and people currently living on the roof of the world, but also benefit future generations.
Economic activities were threatening the fragile environment, he said. In some areas, mining and overgrazing had caused the degradation of grassland. In a period of rapid climate change brought about by a buildup of greenhouse gases, some damage might never be repaired, he said.
“The government has decided to keep the natural resources in Tibet as a strategic reserve,” Wang said. “We will not tap this last resort as long as we can buy oil and ores cheaply from overseas.
“The Tibetan plateau is huge but few people live there. Even if its economy is growing at double-digit rates, it will not contribute much to China’s gross domestic product.”
Tibet’s GDP was about 100 billion yuan (US$14.5 billion) last year, just 0.13 per cent of mainland China’s total.
“The future generations will thank us for what we do today,” Wang said.
Since the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, fled the region after a failed uprising in the late 1950s, Tibet and surrounding areas have become politically sensitive, with additional restrictions on visits by foreign tourists. There’s a strong People’s Liberation Army presence in the region and the regional government cracks down hard on Tibetan dissidents.
The government has encouraged members of China’s ethnic Han majority to settle in Tibet and engage in farming, mining and trade. Large infrastructure projects including railways, highways and ultra-high-voltage power lines have been built to assist such activities, but some of the new settlers have engaged in illegal activities that damaged the environment, such as unlicensed gold mining, poaching of endangered animals including Tibetan antelopes, and widespread foraging for wild plants with medicinal value.
The national park, however, would be open mainly to tourists. Some senior officials in Tibet said they were ready for a change. Luosang Jiangcun, the former chairman of the Tibetan autonomous region, told mainland media last month that he had not approved any mining projects in the past three years.
“When I was a boy, my father placed a rock at every water source we passed,” he told Xinhua. “I asked him why and he said water is the source of life, it cannot be destroyed.”
With about a third of Tibet already in designated protection zones, the government is building more rail lines, roads and airports for tourists. Tibet Airlines plans to treble its fleet in three years to fly more tourists from Nepal to Lhasa, Tibet’s regional capital.
More than 20 million tourists visited Tibet last year, but Luosang said most of those were Chinese and there was enormous room for growth.
“The foreign markets, especially the European and American markets, have huge potential,” he said. “We only had about 300,000 foreign tourists last year.”