An avalanche of rock and mud buried 83 miners at the Gyama mine in central Tibet last Friday. Thousands of rescuers have slowly been pulling out their bodies in hazardous, freezing conditions. They have sprayed 1,000 kilograms of disinfectant on more than 20,000 square meters of land on the Tibetan plateau that had been home to nomads and their herds for centuries.
The Gyama mine is one of the largest in Tibet; it is controlled by Vancouver-based China Gold, a company that is a unit of the China National Gold Group (which is owned by China). Chinese authorities have hailed the mine as a “flagship project” (in the words of the New York Times) that can meet the country’s insatiable demand for heavy metals and help to maintain its economic growth.
China produces the most copper in the world and is on track to exceed other countries (including the European Union and Japan) in consuming it, copper being necessary to produce the cars, household appliances and power cables that China’s increasingly wealthy population wants. Gold (which China is the world’s second biggest consumer of) and molybdenum (which has a number of industrial uses) are also produced from the mine.
Tibetan Hatred of the Mine
The Gyama mine has been part of a wide-scale expansion of mining in Tibet by China. Tibetans have fervently objected to it and other mines. Mountains are seen as sacred sites among Tibetans so the creation of the mine was simply a desecration of the land. Even more, Gyama Valley was the birthplace of Songtsen Gampo, the first king of the Tibetan empire in the seventh century; pilgrims can no longer visit its holy sites, including caves and rock paintings, due to the mining operations.
In addition, the Gyama mine is the likely cause of environmental damage in the form of water supplies contaminated with heavy metals, including those for Tibet’s most sacred city, Lhasa. Via his blog, Tibetan Plateau, Tashi Tsering (a Tibetan environmental scholar who lives in Canada) has charted the changes to the Gyama Valley’s landscape by posting images from Google Earth. The plateau now features “huge open-pit mines, a processing plant at the confluence of two major rivers and mountainsides marred by webs of dirt roads.”
The mine has also added to every-simmering ethnic tensions. Only two of the miners buried in the avalanche were Tibetan; all the rest (including, certainly, managers) were ethnic Han brought in from China itself.
A Natural or Human-made Disaster?
Chinese authorities and scientists are seeking to characterize the recent avalanche as a natural disaster, the result of “loose rocks” that had once been hidden under large glaciers that used to cover the area. Rain, snow and “thermal expansion and contraction” have resulted in the rocks “collect[ing] together and snowball[ing] into a massive landslide that was incredibly destructive,” according to Dorje, an academic from the Chinese Academy of Engineering.
But as Tibetan social critic Woeser, who has previously written about the mine, tells the New York Times that “this was not a natural but a man-made disaster. For locals, it says loud and clear how crazy the mining has become there.”
What Beijing has proclaimed a “mining miracle” has been, plain and simple, a nightmare.
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Photo of Tibetans protesting a mine via SFTHQ/Flickr
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