Interview: Lobsang Yangtso on Tibet’s Environmental Crisis

As the U.N. COP28 Climate Summit is underway in the United Arab Emirates, bringing together thousands of political leaders and environmental activists, one topic that is sure to get little attention there is the environmental crisis facing Tibet. Tibet is currently warming three times as fast as the rest of the world. It has the largest reserves of fresh water in the world outside the Arctic and Antarctica, supplying water to one fifth of the world’s population through the flow of its rivers to downstream countries. The Chinese government is extracting Tibet’s natural resources through damming and mining, destroying rivers and mountains that are considered sacred to much of the local population. 

In the latest installment in our interview series focusing on Tibet, we spoke to Lobsang Yangtso, the Environmental Researcher at the International Tibet Network. She was born in Kham, Tibet, and later moved with her family to India. She received her PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, where she wrote her thesis on “China’s Environmental Security Policies in Tibet: Implications to India, 2001-2013.” She has also worked as a Research Associate at the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy, New Delhi. She regularly attends international environmental conferences and forums as an expert on Tibet’s environment. She recently spoke with CDT about how China’s infrastructure development is destroying Tibet’s environment, the challenges for Tibetans of being heard on the international stage, and how neighboring countries could do more to hold China accountable for the environmental destruction that is impacting the whole region. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Lobsang Yangtso

China Digital Times: You were born and spent the early part of your life in Tibet before leaving for India with your family. Could you tell us about the environment where you lived in Tibet, and how those early years might have influenced your current work?

Lobsang Yangtso: I was born in a semi-nomadic family, meaning that when I was in Tibet, my family used to do farming and keep animals as well. And so my village was very rural, where most of the people do farming as their livelihood. So that has really influenced how I see climate change and its impact on farming, and specifically on the farmers. I escaped from Tibet to India in 1991. Then in 2016, after 25 years, I was able to go back home and visit family. During that time, I realized that the farming and livelihoods, and how people depend on farming and animals, has really changed a lot. In front of my house in Tibet, there used to be a small river. And when I was very young, we could just drink straight from that river. Then when I went back home in 2016, that small river was not drinkable at all. I could see lots of waste and garbage on the river. So that has also changed a lot. In my hometown, how people live and how they worship the mountain deities, and believe in the sacred mountain—I still remember that way of life. That has also been their way of protecting the environment. The kind of work that I do right now, I can really see the impact. It’s really important, the impact of climate change on farmers and nomads, and how the local people understand the environment. So these issues are very close to my heart. 

CDT: What do you think is the most urgent environmental issue facing Tibet right now?

LY: The kind of environmental problems that we see in Tibet, all of them are very urgent. But one thing that I would like to highlight is how the Chinese government interprets environmental protection in the name of clean energy and so-called ecological civilization. They bring policies to Tibet and then remove people from their land in the name of protection: people are relocated, nomads are removed from their land. According to the Chinese government, removing nomads is essential to protect the grassland from degradation, and also to elevate the nomads from poverty. This is a really significant issue because nomads are losing their livelihood. And the nomadic way of life is their identity, their culture. The participation of nomads in the decision making is completely missing in the current policy that we see in Tibet. This has an economic, cultural, and political implication as well. So I feel this is very, very urgent. 

The second urgent issue is water security in Asia. Climate change plus the Chinese government’s infrastructure development, and economic development policies like mining, have an impact on the water that flows from Tibet to downstream nations. But unfortunately, downstream nations are not really raising their voices against the Chinese government’s dam construction on the [upper reaches] of the major rivers that flow from Tibet. It’s very worrisome, and it will definitely have an impact not only on Tibetans, but on the downstream nations. If we focus on the Brahmaputra issue, the Chinese are constructing dams on the [upper reaches] of Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) River, whereas downstream, India and Bangladesh should really make China accountable. They have a right to know what is happening, but then because of lack of trust and lack of transparency in what is happening inside Tibet, there is no clear picture. So I think water security, the impact of climate change on glacier melt, and then how that impacts the river that flows from Tibet, is also another urgent issue. I feel that there should be unified voices from the downstream nations to pressure the Chinese government to make them accountable–asking them for transparency, information sharing, and allowing independent researchers to go to Tibet, and do both the scientific and social science aspect of the study on the rivers. I think this is also another very urgent issue that we are facing right now.

CDT: When you say that the downstream countries do not raise their voices to China, in terms of the citizens, is that mainly because they just don’t receive the information about what is happening, or do you think there are other reasons? Do you feel like there’s an awareness among the populations in the downstream nations about how this is impacting their lives? 

LY: It’s both, from the citizens’ perspective and also from the government aspect as well. There are environmental groups who work specifically on the Brahmaputra, the Mekong River, and the Indus River. Forget about the governments, the so-called environmental NGOs, when they talk about the Indus River or the Brahmaputra or the Mekong River, they would completely not mention anything about Tibet. That’s what I have witnessed when I go and attend the U.N. water-related conferences or U.N. climate change conferences. They try to avoid and not discuss what is happening upstream. Then secondly, from the government perspective, most of the downstream nations have political relations with China and depend on economic and trade relations with China. So that could maybe be another reason why the downstream nations are not raising their voices or not making China accountable. 

In the downstream nations, there is obviously a lack of information on exactly what is happening in Tibet. There is also a lack of a network among Tibetans and the downstream nations to have direct information sharing, because in the end, even on the international platforms, it’s the Chinese government who represents Tibet. So even at the global climate change discussion, Tibetans are not included. Tibetans inside Tibet are not allowed to come out and speak about what is happening. And then the Tibetans who are in exile, we don’t have official recognition or an official seat at the U.N. So because of the political problems, it’s difficult to find space for us to raise what is happening inside Tibet.

CDT: Just recently, the U.S. State Department announced that as part of the talks between Biden and Xi in San Francisco, the U.S. and China would resume some level of cooperation to address climate change. Is there any room in that bilateral dialogue for Tibetan voices or concerns? 

LY: There definitely won’t be any space. I am sure that the Chinese will not have any Tibet delegation in this whole discussion. It’s also very interesting to see how China is seen, in terms of climate action, or the so-called clean energy green economy, in the whole global climate discussion, and also in the discussion with the U.S. But what is actually happening? The question is, with all these talks, and the promises that China makes at the global level, does it have any impact on Tibet? I feel that it has no impact and no real implementation of these promises inside Tibet, because what we see in Tibet, especially right now: everyone talks about solar energy, right? China is using Tibet as a place where they can build lots of solar energy and solar panels. But there is no discussion or information about how the Chinese government gained such huge areas of land for the government to produce solar energy. Will they really consult the local people? If the Chinese government builds thousands of solar panels on the grassland, what is the impact on the grassland? Today, there is no discussion, but at the international level, we could see the huge solar panels built on the grassland and then try to project how China is investing in green energy or clean energy. So that is one example of how China is using Tibet in the name of clean energy and using Tibetans’ resources and land, and not really understanding or not really consulting the needs of the local people. 

Also the kinds of infrastructure, the mining and the dam constructions on Tibet’s rivers. There are many cases of people forcefully removed from the rivers so that the Chinese government can build dams. There is no room for public consultation; there is no room for environmental impact assessment. Such cases happen in the Chamdo region as well. We can also talk about the spaces for people to raise their voices: they have so many concerns, and the environmental defenders are put in jail. All of these clearly show that what China tries to project at the global level, it doesn’t reflect in Tibet.

CDT: When you and your colleagues, other Tibetan environmental activists, go to international forums to raise these issues, have you ever experienced direct or indirect interference from the Chinese government toward your work?

LY: I think until now we haven’t faced any pressure from the Chinese government, because we attend international events, where there is the international community. The whole world will know if the Chinese government tries to do something or pressure us, so until now, luckily, nothing of that sort has happened to us. When we go to international platforms, there are also restrictions, even at the COP meeting, in the blue-zone areas, you cannot mention or name or shame any country or use any specific country’s national flag. But at the international platforms, our community is very small, and groups who work on environment issues are very, very few. It’s very challenging in terms of finding resources. Since we don’t have official accreditation, we always have to request some third party, a university or individual, to get accreditation for us. These are the kinds of challenges that we face. But fortunately, this year in Sweden, the U.S. State Department hosted a panel on water security in the Himalayan region during World Water Week in Sweden. And so we were provided a platform by the U.S. State Department. I felt like this was one great initiative by the U.S. State Department for the Tibetans. When we go to other conferences, in Glasgow, even the Czech Republic, officials were kind enough to meet us and then take our briefing papers. So there are some ally countries that provide us spaces. But still, I feel that still there is a lack of spaces for us. We need more resources and more avenues so that our resistance can be heard by everyone.

CDT: In most of the interviews that I’ve done so far in this series, we’ve talked a lot about the Chinese government policy of Sinicization, which is having a deep impact on the survival of Tibetan religion, language and culture. But it obviously has an environmental impact also, especially, as you mentioned, with the forced resettlement of nomads. Can you explain a little bit more about those impacts and how the current Chinese government policy of Sinicization is affecting Tibet’s environment?

LY: When we talk about Chinese government policies, this year, the Chinese government has introduced one policy which is called the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau Ecological Conservation Law. In that policy, they talked about the protection of the Tibet environment and also water resources. In that public policy, the Chinese government says that it is the local government who has the authority to implement these policies and protections. These policies also in a way provided some kind of rights for the local government to carry out mining activities, which has a lot of impact on what we see in Tibet right now. But these policies are not translated into Tibetan language, but are framed or formulated for the Tibetan areas, which is how they try to Sinicize Tibet in terms of language. So, it also has an impact on Tibet’s environment. 

When we talk about environmental policies from the government, the one problem that I see is that, in this whole policy of the Chinese government, economic development is the main emphasis, and in the name of economic development, they try to gain legitimacy from the local people. For them, economic development is more important than environmental protection in Tibet. So many policies like urbanization, especially when we specifically focus on border areas, specifically on the Brahmaputra, that kind of infrastructure development—the roads, the railways, the airports that we see have a lot of impact on water. Slowly, with these infrastructure developments, it will bring more army, more Chinese, and then slowly they will do mining, and then tunnel-building. Everything is all about gaining and extracting the resources from Tibet and then neglecting the respect for the whole nature and ecosystem. For us, we believe in nature reserves and we believe the rivers are sacred, but these concepts have not been really included in the policymaking. Right now, we are under the colonial occupation of China. And yes, the whole global world is facing climate change, but Chinese political control and colonialism has further degraded the whole Tibet environment. 

Right now the problem is that there is also a danger that when you try some environmental protection activity in Tibet, they might politicize it or, if they realize that you are challenging the Chinese government, then you are put in jail. There are many cases of Tibetans put in jail because of their environmental protection work, which creates a fear among other Tibetans. So I feel that it’s very important for the international community to realize what is actually happening, because sometimes the international community, especially the environmental NGOs, don’t really focus much on Tibet, because they say that there is a lack of information. But lack of information also clarifies that it is under a total, complete authoritarian regime. And so, in that space, we should also find a way and find a solution from that. Since there is a lack of information, they feel that there is no scope in working on this specific area. Some environmental NGOs want to have good relations with the government, and they want to have their headquarters in Beijing or Shanghai, and so then they sacrifice Tibet’s environment issue. For them, it’s about finding a scope and finding more resources and more open space with Beijing. That’s what I realized when I tried to interact with other people and tried to learn knowledge. Earlier, the Chinese government would allow Western scholars to go to Tibet. Now, they have stopped that. Now, for many Western scholars, the environment focus has shifted to the [non-Tibetan] Himalayan region. In the long term, there will be a huge gap on the environment issues in Tibet, which will further make it difficult to bring some changes, or actually try to know what is actually really happening in Tibet. 

CDT:  Within Tibet, you’ve mentioned that people who speak up about these issues can be imprisoned. Is there any space at all inside Tibet for environmental advocacy, or for environmental advocates to influence the government at all? 

LY: I believe that Tibetans inside Tibet have been very smart. They are smart enough to find a way. One space that I see right now in Tibet is in terms of waste management or the collecting of garbage. In that case, it seems that there is some space when local people are mobilizing among themselves, especially the traditional leaders like monasteries, and high lamas, and lay persons. They have taken the initiative on waste management. Tree plantation is another [area where] local people have taken the initiative in terms of environmentalism in Tibet, which is great, and I really hope that the Chinese government will not stop that. I think this is another major problem, because in Tibet, most of the grasslands are turning into desert. So, the local people are raising concerns and they take their own initiative. 

Another problem is that in Tibet, there is no space for international agencies to come and work. The resources are limited over there. In terms of waste management, people do collect the garbage, but then what happens after collecting that garbage because there is no recycling system, there is no recycling facility provided by the government, or there are no private companies who can recycle. These initiatives are primarily taken by the local people, but they have to have a lot of resources and support from companies or the environmental NGOs. So that kind of initiative or that kind of space is not seen in Tibet right now. Tibetans are also finding ways in terms of environmental protection through art and music; there are some people finding avenues on that, and they have been smart enough to find spaces. But these kinds of spaces take a really, really long time, and there is no collective or coordinated environmental campaign inside Tibet. It’s really difficult for them to coordinate with the other areas. That is another problem that we see. Environmental issues like waste management, or tree plantations, are not considered very sensitive. But if someone raises their voice against mining or against the damming, they are silenced immediately and the government uses force, because that really challenges the government policies. Similarly, it’s very difficult to find scholars doing research on mining or doing research on damming issues in Tibet because they don’t provide any access, even for the local community. Forget about outside researchers coming into Tibet.

CDT: Has there been any opportunity for you or your colleagues to work together with Chinese environmental activists? Are you aware of any Chinese environmental groups that are focused on issues within Tibet?

LY: International environment-related events are one space where I can make contact with Chinese environmentalists. When I was in Glasgow for COP26, I was trying to interact with one really famous environmentalist, but that person has very limited information on what is happening in Tibet. I requested that person to visit Tibet and to interact with the local people, use your own resources and understand. So I hope that person has taken the initiative. For the environmental groups who are based in Beijing, their access to Tibet is also shrinking. That is another challenge. Earlier we had scholars, not specifically activists but academicians who would come to India to do research. But now it’s been four or five years. During COVID and after COVID, the [Chinese] government doesn’t allow people to come out, even Chinese scholars, to India. They are controlling not only the Tibetans, but the Chinese to come and interact with other people, specifically the Tibetans. But I really personally hope that when we compare the Tibetans and the Chinese, the Chinese environmentalists and activists might have a little bit more freedom. If they could find a space or go and do some work, that would be a great help, not only for the Tibetans, but also for the Chinese as well.

CDT: What are some recent successes in the environmental movement that give you hope?

LY: For me, the hope is that, as I said earlier, in exile we have lots of Tibetan academicians and researchers who do lots of work. But that is purely academic; they use purely the academic platform to highlight the issues in Tibet. Then we have Tibetans, and Tibet groups or Tibet support groups, NGOs, or activists who talk about Tibet’s environment at the global platforms. One success story, or the hope that I see, is that nowadays especially young Tibetan [women] are coming up and doing lots of work. So that is really encouraging to see. Then we have Tibetans inside of Tibet that have been the hope for me–finding a way and then doing environmentalism, in terms of protecting wildlife. Even small environmental work, such as cleaning the garbage, or protecting the ecosystem, these are also another hope that we see. 

But the challenges are much, much bigger. I really hope that in the future, our activism and work will gain more support, and more allies, so that we can work with environmental NGOs, and also highlight the issues at the Geneva U.N. summits. If this could happen, that could be another way of pressuring China, but the Chinese government doesn’t really change its policy. It’s very difficult for us. But in the end, China is also very cautious of their international image. They are also accountable with international media, they are part of COP meetings, and they are a member of the U.N. Security Council, so they should also follow international norms and international law. So I really hope that we bring some positive changes. But then I feel that a political solution is the only solution where we can protect the Tibet environment.

CDT: What can individual members of the international community, including our readers, do to help support environmental protection in Tibet?

LY: As you are aware, finding a platform and space is another big challenge in terms of environmental activism. The international community, or your readers, if you can collaborate with Tibetans and provide a platform for the Tibetans, that would be really important. Second is that in many of the discussions, the whole Tibet environment issue specifically has been ignored, or not gained much attention. For the readers, to try to understand, and give more attention to Tibet’s environment, could be another solution. Readers could also support Tibet NGOs and activist groups. We have organizations like International Tibet Network, Tibet Watch, Free Tibet, International Campaign for Tibet, Students for a Free Tibet. There are many other groups. The Tibetan government-in-exile has a special desk on the environment. So if you could also support these organizations, that also really benefits our work on the environment. 

I also think, how can we bring positive changes inside Tibet? There are many Western tourists or travelers who might get a chance to go to Tibet, even though you travel with a tour guide. If you get a chance, and if you want to travel to Tibet, you could also try to observe and try to understand, and try to find as much information as possible. That could be another way of bringing attention to Tibet.

CDT: Besides those organizations that you just mentioned, what are some places where our readers can get more information about environmental issues facing Tibet?

LY: Our office has a special website called Tibet Climate Crisis. We have social media, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook accounts. Gabriel Lafitte from Australia has a website called Rukor.org which has a lot of information on the latest environmental issues on Tibet, specifically on Chinese government policy. He has recently released a report on lithium mining in Tibet. The Tibetan government-in-exile’s Tibet Policy Institute also has an environment desk, where you can find a lot of information. International Campaign for Tibet has a list of environment defenders and the Australia Tibet Council also has released a report on the environment in Tibet as well. So there are ample websites and resources that people can find. It would be really helpful to us to support our work, and then amplify and then spread and share our information as much as possible. 

CDT: Is there anything else you would like our readers to know about environmental issues in Tibet or about your work that I haven’t asked?

LY: I would also like to highlight how because of the political relations between India and China, both countries are right now in fast competition to build lots of infrastructure development in the border areas, and that has a big impact on the environment as well. The whole Himalaya belt, the Tibetan Plateau, is a very sensitive, very fragile ecosystem. The Chinese government is building infrastructure–the roads, the railway, the border infrastructure, and now they’re also creating the border villages, where they are allowing people to be stationed at the border, so that they can protect the border, but also creating lots of stress on the whole ecosystem. [This] will have a lot of impact on the whole Himalaya belt, which right now is another major emerging issue that I observe and I try to study. I try to travel to Nepal and also Arunachal in India. It’s very concerning and local people are raising concerns, but their voices are not reaching higher decision-making offices. This will have a huge negative impact on the whole Himalaya belt. 

But I would like to emphasize more that it’s really, really important that downstream nations should really include the voices of Tibetans in their policymaking or in their collaborative work. If you ignore the whole Tibetan Plateau, because you want to keep good relations with China and the Chinese economy, it will have an impact on your local people and your environment. Right now is the time to understand these consequences before it is too late.

Resources on Tibet’s environment:

In such a repressive environment, how do Tibetans in Tibet hold onto their cultural identity? How does the world find out what is happening there? How do exiles stay connected with their families and homeland? Where can we find hope for the future of Tibet and Tibetans? CDT has launched this interview series as a way to explore these questions and to learn more about current conditions in Tibet, efforts to preserve Tibet’s religious and cultural heritage, and the important work being done every day by activists, writers, researchers, and others to help and support Tibetans inside and outside the region. Read previous interviews in the series.

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