Mining in Tibet: The Price of Gold

The Economist examines vigorous exploitation of Tibet’s natural resources in light of a landslide that killed 83 at a mine near Lhasa last week:

THE ecology of the Tibetan plateau, noted the Ministry of Land and Resources two years ago, is “extremely fragile”. Any damage, it warned, would be difficult or impossible to reverse. But, it went on, the China National Gold Group, a state-owned company, had achieved “astonishing results” in working to protect the environment around its mine near the region’s capital, Lhasa. On March 29th at least 83 of the mine’s workers lay buried under a colossal landslide. Its cause is not yet certain, but critics of Tibet’s mining frenzy feel vindicated.

[…] Foreign reporters are rarely allowed into Tibet, least of all to cover sensitive incidents. The official media have avoided speculation about any possible link between the landslide and mining activities in the area. They say the landslide covered a large area with 2m cubic metres of rubble. By the time The Economist went to press, 66 bodies had been pulled out by teams of rescuers with sniffer dogs. The high altitude and lack of oxygen made rescue work hard.

A deputy minister of land and resources, Xu Deming, said preliminary investigations had shown that the landslide was caused by a “natural geological disaster”. Fragments of rock left behind by receding glaciers are being blamed, though officials do not explain why the workers’ camp was set up so close to such an apparent hazard.

The Dharamsala-based Central Tibetan Administration has suggested that the disaster “could be a result of the aggressive expansion and large-scale exploitation of mineral in the Gyama Valley—a man-made phenomenon rather than just a ‘natural disaster’.” State media reports on Friday, on the other hand, reiterated the initial conclusion that it was an act of nature. At chinadialogue, Gabriel Lafitte was dismissive of this official explanation:

With indecent haste, the subsidiary of state-owned China Gold International that operates the Gyama mine announced that the landslide was natural. This rush to excuse themselves of culpability is not backed by any scientific monitoring of earthquake activity.

The fact is that this huge mine, despite extremely steep mountainous terrain, is open cut, avoiding the expense of tunnelling. The walls of an open pit mine are prone to collapse, especially in a young and unstable land such as Tibet which is still rising.

The mining company took a calculated cost-cutting risk, and the mine workers paid the price. Open pits mean much blasting to loosen rock, a risky strategy. Now the mine, if it is to operate as planned for the coming seven decades, will have to go underground.

[…] CGI and its parent China Gold Group are in a tight spot. If the landslide is to be passed off as natural, it makes highly questionable the capacity of mine waste tailings dams to withstand earthquakes and debris flows, and the many extremes of climate at an altitude close to 5,000 metres. If, on the other hand, the landslide was not natural, but due to cost cutting, cavalier blasting, and a desire for quick profits, CGI’s corporate strategy is in tatters.


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