Category Archives: mining

“Tibet’s resource curse”

ChinaDialogue has a big article about what resource extraction is doing to Tibet- while reading, keep in mind that little or none of the profits ever make their way to the people who have lived on the land for generations:

Chinese geologists exploring Tibet in the 1960s criss-crossed the plateau, searching for the mineral wealth they assumed must be abundant, but had not yet discovered. In remote alpine deserts, the geological expeditions came upon lakes which were slowly drying-up due to long-term climate shifts. High on the empty Chang Tang plain in western Tibet, they found lakes already dry, their beds a shimmering salt pan.

Testing the various salts, the geologists discovered a scientific curiosity. One lake in particular, Drangyer Tsaka (Zabuye), held an extraordinary concentration of lithium salts; measurements of 660 parts per million (ppm) of lithium were recorded. Only in the Atacama Desert of the Andes had such levels of lithium been discovered.

In the Tsaidam Basin of northern Tibet, geologists found not only salt lakes, but also oil, asbestos, lead, zinc; and in Tso Ngonpo (Qinghai Lake) they found minerals that could be used for developing submarine-based nuclear missiles.

So valuable were the lakes in the Tsaidam Basin that a railway was built more than three decades ago, enabling tanker wagons to haul millions of tonnes of oil to Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province. The availability of so many minerals in one basin, as well as gas fields discovered and exploited later, provided the raw materials for a major industrial base. Golmud, formerly a camel-train stop on the long haul between Lanzhou and Lhasa, became an industrial city, with petrochemical plants that produced plastics, fuel, fertilisers and explosives. The salts of the many salt lakes were essential inputs.

Around the turn of this century, China began to separate the mixed salts of Tsaidam Basin lake beds on a large-scale. Separating naturally crystallised sodium, potassium, magnesium and lithium salts requires heavy-duty toxic solvents (such as isobutanol and chloroform), known to cause cancer. Since the Qinghai authorities were keen to industrialise their province – known for its poverty, remoteness and cold climate – land-use controls and environmental regulations were not a priority. From the provincial capital Xining, spreading out to the famous Kumbum Monastery, industrial plants took up land, pouring effluents into nearby streams. Potash and magnesium plants were built and expanded in Gormo, Xining and along the connecting railway line.

Obtaining lithium, magnesium and potassium from salt lakes remains a dirty business. Environmental regulations are ignored, particularly in western china, where mineral extraction pollutes the air, soil and water. The sexy green electric car of the future may not be as green as people hope. Not only does li-ion battery manufacture consume a lot of energy, but given the solvent extraction methods used, there is a major risk that lithium will leak into water supplies.

But the environmental impacts of mineral extraction will intensify in the Tibetan Plateau, in arid areas where pollutants accumulate in basins with no external drainage. Both the Tsaidam Basin and Drangyer Tsaka lithium salt lakes cannot naturally dispose of toxins generated by solvent extraction, and so waste products stay where they are dumped, or evaporate into the thin air and intense heat of a Tibetan summer. No longer will lithium extraction be confined to Gansu, as in the past.

The first large-scale lithium extraction factory in the Tsaidam basin is due to begin operation soon according to Metal Bulletin, and even Drangyer Tsaka is now scheduled to produce thousands of tonnes of lithium annually. It may not be long before your latest handheld passport to mobile connectivity is powered by Tibetan lithium.

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“Tibet’s mining menace”

China Dialogue has a post on mining in Tibet- hardly a shock that massive environmental damage is being predicted as mining steps up on the Plateau:

China has long known of the mineral wealth of the Tibetan Plateau but until now it has been easier and cheaper to buy minerals overseas. Tibet has been too remote, too cold, the air too thin and the infrastructure absent. Small-scale extraction of surface gold from riverbeds has been frequent, and environmentally destructive, with much use of dredges, cyanide and mercury that kill aquatic life and poison streams; but large scale exploitation is new. Publicly, small-scale mining is now banned, but in practice it persists, especially in districts where there are no longer Tibetans on their lands to protect it, having been removed in the name of watershed protection.

Now a new era is under way. The state has paid for the necessary infrastructure of roads, railways, power stations and urban facilities. State geological exploration teams have spent decades mapping known deposits, preparing sites for full-scale extraction. Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) chairman Pema Choling, reporting on the achievements of 2010, said: “With the focus on opening up to the country’s hinterland region, we have actively merged with the Chengdu-Chongqing economic sphere.”

The biggest copper and gold deposits in Tibet, from west to east, are in Shetongmon, Gyama and Yulong districts, where central planners say there will be many mines, ore crushers, chemical concentrators and smelters. Large-scale industrial mining has arrived. These mines contain silver, lead and zinc as well as copper and gold, although the lead and zinc will go to waste. And all these mines are situated in the watersheds of Asia’s major rivers that support hundreds of millions of people downstream.

Shetongmon mine was the first major project to attract publicity, partly because of its sensitive location so close to the Yarlung Zangbo and Shigatse city, the historic seat of the Panchen Lamas; and partly because it was for some time owned by Canadian investors. By the time the railway to nearby Shigatse is completed in 2014, the mine will be operational.

Its proximity to a major river raises serious environmental concerns, since the steep site will have to securely hold at least 75 out of every 100 tonnes of rock mined and crushed to powder to extract a concentrate that can be sent by rail to a distant smelter. According to recent research by Tibetan scientists, there is already a natural heavy-metal load in the river; any leakage from the hillside dam waste tailings could be disastrous. Not only would downstream India and Bangladesh be affected; if the planned water diversion of Tibetan rivers to the Yellow River includes capturing the Yarlung Zangbo, downstream China’s water purity would be threatened too.

Gyama mine, controlled by Vancouver-based China Gold, is already operational and, located just upstream of Lhasa, poses a threat to the purity of the water in Tibet’s most sacred city. Like most of Tibet, the area is seismically unstable, vulnerable to earthquakes. A study of water quality below the Gyama mine carried out in 2010 revealed that “elevated concentrations of heavy metals in the surface water and streambed at the upper/middle part of the valley pose a considerably high risk to the local environment…and to downstream water users. Environmental changes such as global warming or increased mining activity may increase the mobility of these pools of heavy metals.”

Local Tibetans have protested and sent a petition to Chinese authorities demanding the closure of the mine. The mining operation has reportedly dried up spring waters, poisoned drinking water, killed 1,000 domestic animals and destroyed flora and fauna in the region. Despite this, in August 2011, China Gold announced that it had boosted the resources of the mine by over 400% and will proceed with a major expansion of the project.

Note that Tibetans themselves have little or no stake in these operations, instead merely benefiting from them in terms of polluted air and poisonous water.

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“Tibetan Mine Protesters Detained”

RFA reports on more new protests in Tibet, these also centered on the environment:

Chinese authorities have taken into custody two men identified as the “ringleaders” of Tibetan protests against mining in China’s Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), according to Tibetan sources.

The detentions follow a wave of roundups of other protesters who have sought to block mine operations in the TAR’s Chamdo prefecture during the last three months, sources said.

Protests in Dzogang began in May, when local Tibetans learned that “around 200” Chinese laborers had been deployed to work at mines in “several locations” in the county, according to another source.

“Dzogang county authorities, in order to quash the protest, warned the local people that any demonstrations against the mining would be construed as politically motivated, and urged them to refrain from such actions,” the man said.

Police beat Tibetans in Dzogang county’s Bethong township when they appealed for a halt to mine operations, another source said, adding that county officials said the land on which the mines were located had already been sold to a Chinese company.

“The local people were told that the land belongs to local and county government, and that the people have no say in how the land is used,” he said.

On June 30, nine unidentified Tibetans were detained for protesting Chinese mining on a sacred mountain near the villages of Topa and Sapa in Bethong township, the same source said.

“A convoy of official cars and four military trucks descended on the villages and detained nine local people at around 9:30 p.m.,” the source said. “The detentions were in connection with earlier protests against the mining.”

Chinese military personnel were then deployed at four mining sites, and the movements of local villagers were restricted, the source added.

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“Contamination of Drinking Water Caused by Mining”

High Peaks has a translation of an open letter from Kumbum Monastery to the provincial government, asking them to intervene with mining companies in the area and safeguard the environment:

But in recent years, the Ganhetan Industrial Park has been constructed in the vicinity of Kumbum Monastery, attracting the Western Regions Mining and Smelting Works, the Qinghai Salt Lake Chemical Engineering Co. Ltd., the Western Steel Mining Co. Ltd., and the Qinghai Shunxiang Mining Industries Co. Ltd. to carry out large scale mining and extraction around Kumbum Monastery’s holy Lhamo Mountain and Mendan Gorge, causing serious damage to the lie of the land, to the shapes of the mountains and to the water courses, polluting water sources, and destroying the plant cover. In 2006, more than a hundred local children fell ill and suffered from lead poisoning, a matter which to this day has still not been properly addressed.

High-polluting and wanton extractive business practices have brought bitterness and disaster for the local people. Local villagers have obstructed the mining on many occasions, demanding that the sacred mountain not be mined and requesting Kumbum Monastery to act as an official protector. The monastery management committee submitted a report on the situation to the higher authorities, but there was no response. As of this year, the situation has become more serious, especially during the months of May to July, when eight villages had serious contamination in their water pipes with the water becoming muddy and foul smelling. Monks and local people became nauseous, their bodies became listless and they felt dazed and some even had to be hospitalised from drinking the water.

On June 22, representatives of the monks took the contaminated water to Rushar County authorities and protested about the destruction of the sacred mountain by these companies and about pollution to the water sources leading to hardship with drinking the water. The County committee ordered the County environmental protection office to take samples of the water for tests and said they would inform the monks of the results by the end of the month. In the meantime their advice was not to drink the polluted water.

Lacking in the requirements of a scientific outlook on development and violating the provisions for sustainable development, the enterprises, by their actions, are turning a blind eye to the environmental costs of making money, which is seriously hurting the religious feelings of the monks and the ordinary people. This is not good for the progress of unity of the nationalities, not good for stability and harmony in Tibetan areas, not good for the local people’s livelihoods and economic development, and not good for the strategy of sustainable development.

Because the water sources have been seriously polluted and the holy mountain has been seriously damaged, there is strong discontent among Kumbum Monastery’s monks and its surrounding religious believers. The relevant departments are urgently called upon to pay close attention, and the Party and government are urged to severely sanction three enterprises, and please move out the high-polluting enterprises in Ganhetan Industrial Park around Kumbum Monastery, including the Xinzhuang Cement Factory, returning blue skies and clear waters to Kumbum Monastery. Please issue measures for the protection of Kumbum Monastery’s eight-petal lotus mountains and natural heritage, correctly carry out duties for the protection of important state-level cultural heritage, protect nationality cultural heritage, and protect holy Buddhist sites, and resolutely put a stop to the heinous practices of reckless digging and wanton excavation.

I doubt they’ll get an answer they like. Whenever Beijing removes nomads in the name of “environmental protection,” mining companies inevitably move in and strip mine the area soon thereafter. It’s pretty clear what drives Beijing’s agenda, and it isn’t protecting the environment or preventing ethnic unrest.

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“Chinese truck driver swiftly executed for killing Mongolian herder”

Well, that was fast.  Shanghaiist reports:

The Han Chinese truck driver responsible for the killing of an ethnic Mongol herdsman in Inner Mongolia that sparked the worst riots in the region in 20 years was sentenced to death yesterday.

Li Lindong was given the death penalty for running over an ethnic Mongol herdsman named Mergen (Mongols often use just one name) on May 10. Mergen was there with several others blocking the road to protest coal trucks driving through causing pollution in their grasslands. According to official police reports, Li ran over the herder and dragged his body for 145m before Mergen died.

Obviously an attempt to appease Mongolians- but I suspect it’s too little too late. The genie is out of the bottle now, and other long-held grievances ranging from unchecked Han immigration to Mongolian language preservation are being aired. Mergen’s death might have sparked the protests, but now they have a life of their own. Does the execution of a truck driver spell an end to grassland degradation, or will it revive Mongolian culture? The consequences of the last few weeks will live on, long after the riot police have left town.

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“Protests Spread in China’s Mongolian Region, More Cities Under Martial Law”

Again referring to the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center:

Chinese authorities have declared martial law in major cities of the Mongolian region including Hohhot, Tongliao, Ulaanhad (Chifing in Chinese), and Dongsheng in the face of mass protests by students and herders. Tight Security has been imposed as the authorities attempt to quash any protest and unrest. The Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC) received new photos from Hohhot, showing police and army troops deployed to exert control over possible protesters.

According to reliable sources, despite the tight security, on May 28, 2011, hundreds of Mongolian students and herders took to the streets of eastern Southern Mongolia’s Ulaanhad (Chi Feng) City to demand the rights of the Mongolian people be respected.

“Yes, Mongolian students took to the streets of Xincheng District of Ulaanhad yesterday,” a business person near the Ulaanhad Normal School, home to thousands of Mongolian students, said.

“Some Mongolian herders from fairly long distances also joined the protest,” a Mongolian physician who asked not to be identified told SMHIRC, “but the protestors were dispersed shortly by riot police and army.”

Riot police and army troops have been dispatched to Tongliao Municipality (former Jirim League), home to the largest Mongolian population (1.5 million), where all Mongolian schools and colleges are now under heavy guard.

According to the Washington Post, the Communist Party chief of Inner Mongolia has been taking the (very) unusual step of actively getting out there and trying to assuage their concerns.  I’d assume that the arrival of riot police means that they won’t be able to coordinate many more large-scale protests, so unless something drastic happens I think it’ll probably start to peter out now.

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