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Spoiling Tibet: China and resource nationalism on the roof of the world by Gabriel Lafitte



13 August 2013

A few years ago, I was seated next to a professor of geology at Oxford University. We broached the subject of China's resource assets. "China has very little that is easily exploitable," he said. I asked about energy resources in Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. He nodded, thought for a bit and then said "Well, but they are hard to get too, and at the moment and the Chinese do not have affordable technology that could do that. Same with Tibet. Everyone thinks it is overflowing with precious metals and all the rest; but it would be very hard to get access to them."

Gabriel Lafitte's book, Spoiling Tibet supports this. But his conclusion is that a highly dysfunctional central state relationship with local authorities, and the greed of prospectors, is nevertheless going to make the Tibetan plateau—a region that covers almost a quarter of China's territory—the object for intensive and potentially devastating mining and extraction projects.

Lafitte sets out his case clearly, and allows plenty of Tibetan voices—those who would be most affected by this vast project—to speak directly. For them, he argues, the Tibetan Plateau, four to five kilometers above sea level, is a place to which they have a unique spiritual and cultural link, almost as though they were inhabiting the body of a living thing. Their nomadic way of life—practiced for thousands of years—is adapted to the delicate eco-systems of the region: moving from place to place and using resources sparingly so that they are not depleted.

Lafitte stresses that the indigenous Tibetan communities are practitioners of their own form of modernity, not victims who never tried to use the land they lived on. He shows that mining and working with gold and other precious metals is something that has been ingrained in Tibetan culture for many centuries. The centralized Chinese state vision of modernity, forged on a template largely taken from developed countries and then applied across China, is simply not easily applicable to local conditions. And he also argues that while the government—especially since the uprisings in 1989 and 2008—can react angrily to local activists and try to paint them as separatists, the fact is that despoiling the Tibetan region with inappropriate resource exploitation would be a disaster for the rest of China itself. China's critical and hugely over-exploited sources of water all come from the Tibetan plateau. Polluting these at their source or close to it would in effect be poisoning the rest of China.


Stripped of the highly contentious politics of the Tibetan issue, the environmental issue as it is presented here at least becomes a little easier to deal with. Lafitte is not attempting to parse historical documents over the sovereignty of Tibet and when and how it came into the orbit of previous Chinese imperial central states. He focuses on the ways in which the mining industry and its current practices pose an immense threat to Tibet. Now that there is considerable transportation infrastructure—railways and roads—into the area, there is even more incentive for risk-taking prospectors to become active in the area. Lafitte describes some of these, often illegal, hugely damaging and run with little if any observance of China's national laws.

The geologist at Oxford I met a few years back was also right. None of the examinations of the main mineral and metal deposits in Tibet indicate that it would have anymines in the world's top twenty. For this reason, Chinese state resource companies are investing heavily in Chilean, inner Asian or African mines. There the geologies and the accessibility of deposits are a little more straightforward, as are the supply chains. In Tibet on the other hand, immense amounts of rock and earth would need to be blasted away to get to the best known deposits.

Only a lingering residue of Maoist hubris towards nature would allow people to think that this would be feasible with current technology. Describing the 2010 high-level work meetings in Beijing on managing the Tibetan Autonomous Region, however, Lafitte shows how this hubris creeps into central government thinking. Tibet, to them, is an area that has to be tamed with intense road and rail building programs and the same mass urbanization projects that are sweeping the rest of the country.

This is a timely and well written book, concise and illustrated with many examples. Forward-thinking officials in both Beijing and Tibet itself must be well-aware of the issues raised here, and of the real possibility that mismanagement of the environment of this region, let alone its politics, could be disastrous for the country, region, and, as Lafitte makes clear, the whole world.

Hopefully, this book will provoke a more enlightened, less partisan debate about what todo now. Lafitteemphasizesthat however bad things are now they are still manageable and reversible. If, however, they are not addressed there is every possibility that the grim scenariosalluded to herewill happen sooner rather than later.