Landslide Draws Attention to Toll of Mining on Tibet

Rescue work has resumed at the site of a disaster-struck mine near Lhasa after being suspended on Monday due to the risk of further landslides. The bodies of 59 of the 83 workers buried last Friday have now been recovered. China Daily reported that, in addition to the cold and the danger of fresh landslides, rescuers face the growing risk of disease, and have sprayed 1,000kg of disinfectants around the site as a preventative measure. A preliminary investigation, it added, has blamed loose rocks formerly held in place by glaciers for the disaster.

At The New York Times, Edward Wong summed up the sensitive social and environmental issues surrounding the mine, from which a leaked propaganda directive issued on Saturday warned domestic media away:

Ethnic tensions have played into the outrage over mining. Most of the mines in Tibet belong to large state-owned enterprises based in eastern China, and they mostly bring in ethnic Han managers and workers, shutting Tibetans out. Of the 83 miners buried by the Gyama avalanche last week, only two were Tibetan, according to official news reports.

Environmental concerns, though, have dominated. Scientists have documented significant problems brought by the ravages of the Gyama mine, which belongs to China Gold International Resources Corporation, a company based in Vancouver, British Columbia, that is a unit of the state-owned China National Gold Group.

A paper published in 2010 by Science of the Total Environment, a journal, discussed the impact of mining activities on the surface water in the valley, including on streams that feed the Lhasa River. The researchers found elevated concentrations of six metals in the surface water and streambeds in the middle and upper reaches of the valley. These “pose a considerably high risk to the local environment,” according to a summary; meanwhile, pools of heavy metals were “a great potential threat to downstream water users.”

Establishing the mine at Gyama resulted in the relocation of nomads who had roamed the valley and grazed their animals there. The forced settlement of nomads is a policy that Communist Party officials have been pushing for years in many parts of Tibet, despite the widespread resentment it causes.

chinadialogue, meanwhile, highlighted its own article from 2011 reporting local Tibetans’ protests at the mine’s environmental impact, and warning of the area’s seismic instability.