The current U.N. COP28 Climate Summit, taking place in the United Arab Emirates, is a gathering of political leaders and environmental activists. While many important topics will be discussed, it is unlikely that the environmental crisis in Tibet will receive much attention. Tibet is experiencing a rapid increase in temperature, three times higher than the global average. This region holds the largest reserves of fresh water, excluding the Arctic and Antarctica, and provides water to 1/5th of the world’s population through its rivers. Unfortunately, the Chinese government is exploiting Tibet’s natural resources through activities such as damming and mining, causing harm to sacred rivers and mountains that hold significant meaning for the local community.
In our latest interview, we had the opportunity to speak with Lobsang Yangtso, an Environmental Researcher at the International Tibet Network. Originally from Kham, Tibet, she later relocated to India with her family. She holds a PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, where she focused her thesis on “China’s Environmental Security Policies in Tibet: Implications for India, 2001-2013.” Additionally, she has worked as a Research Associate at the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy in New Delhi. As an expert on Tibet’s environment, she regularly attends international environmental conferences and forums. In a recent conversation with CDT, she discussed the detrimental effects of China’s infrastructure development on Tibet’s environment, the difficulties of gaining international attention for Tibetan issues, and the responsibility of neighboring countries in holding China accountable for the widespread environmental damage in the region. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
China Digital Times: You were born and grew up in Tibet before relocating to India with your family. Can you share with us about the surroundings in Tibet and how they may have impacted your current professional endeavors?
I come from a semi-nomadic family in Tibet, where my family made a living through farming and raising animals. Growing up in a rural village, I saw firsthand the effects of climate change on farming and the livelihoods of farmers. After escaping to India in 1991, I was able to return home after 25 years in 2016. During my visit, I noticed significant changes in the farming practices and reliance on farming and animals. The small river near my house, which we used to drink from, was now polluted with waste and garbage. This was a stark contrast to my memories of the clean and drinkable river. The way of life in my hometown, including the worship of mountain deities and belief in the sacred mountain, was also a way of protecting the environment. As someone who is deeply connected to the local community and environment, I am able to see the impact of climate change on farmers and nomads through the work I do. These issues are very important to me.
What is your opinion on the primary environmental concern currently affecting Tibet?
LY: The environmental issues present in Tibet are of great urgency. It is worth noting that the Chinese government’s approach to environmental protection, under the guise of promoting clean energy and ecological civilization, involves implementing policies in Tibet that result in the displacement of individuals from their land. This includes relocating people and removing nomads from their traditional grazing areas. The government claims that this is necessary to protect the grasslands from degradation and improve the economic status of nomads. However, this has a significant impact as nomads lose their means of livelihood and their unique cultural identity. Sadly, the current policies in Tibet do not involve the participation of nomads in decision-making processes, which has economic, cultural, and political implications. This issue demands immediate attention.
One pressing concern is the security of water in Asia. The actions of the Chinese government, such as infrastructure development and mining, along with the effects of climate change, have an impact on the water flow from Tibet to neighboring nations. However, these downstream nations have not been vocal about the Chinese government’s construction of dams in the upper areas of major rivers originating from Tibet. This is concerning as it will not only affect Tibetans, but also those downstream. Specifically, the construction of dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) River by China is a major concern for India and Bangladesh, who should hold China accountable. However, due to a lack of trust and transparency in Tibet, there is a lack of information on the situation. Therefore, it is crucial for downstream nations to unite and pressure China for transparency, information sharing, and allowing independent researchers to study the rivers from both scientific and social science perspectives. This is another urgent issue that needs to be addressed.
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CDT: Do you believe that the citizens of downstream countries are not speaking up against China because they are not informed about the situation, or are there other factors at play? Are people in these countries aware of how this is affecting their lives?
LY: Both the citizens and the government are affected by this issue. There are specific environmental organizations that focus on the Brahmaputra, Mekong, and Indus Rivers. However, when discussing these rivers, these organizations and governments often neglect to mention Tibet. This is evident at U.N. conferences on water and climate change. The downstream nations also have political and economic ties with China, which may prevent them from speaking out against China’s actions.
In the countries downstream, there is a clear absence of information regarding the current situation in Tibet. Additionally, there is a lack of communication between Tibetans and these countries, as the Chinese government is the sole representative of Tibet on international platforms. This means that even in discussions about global issues like climate change, Tibetans are not given a voice. Those living in Tibet are not allowed to share their experiences, and those in exile do not have official recognition or a seat at the U.N. As a result of political complications, it is challenging for us to bring awareness to the situation in Tibet.
Recently, the U.S. State Department revealed that as a part of discussions between Biden and Xi in San Francisco, there will be renewed collaboration between the U.S. and China to tackle climate change. Will there be an opportunity for Tibetan perspectives and issues to be included in this bilateral conversation?
LY: It is highly unlikely that there will be any space for a Tibet delegation in the global climate discussion, as China has not shown any interest in including Tibet in these talks. It is intriguing to observe China’s image in the global climate discussion and its relationship with the U.S., particularly in terms of climate action and clean energy initiatives. However, the question remains: do China’s promises on the global stage have any impact on Tibet? From what I have seen, these promises have not been implemented within Tibet and have had no effect on the region. For instance, while China touts its use of solar energy in Tibet, there is no mention of how the government acquired the land for these projects and whether they consulted with local communities. This raises concerns about the potential impact on the grassland ecosystem. Yet, at the international level, China is praised for its investment in clean energy, without addressing the cost to Tibetans and their resources. This is just one example of how China exploits Tibet in the name of clean energy, without considering the needs of the local people.
Infrastructure, mining, and dam projects on Tibet’s rivers have resulted in the forced relocation of numerous individuals by the Chinese government. Public input and environmental impact assessments are not considered in these decisions. Similar instances have occurred in the Chamdo region. The lack of opportunity for people to voice their concerns is evident, as environmental activists are often imprisoned. This demonstrates that China’s global image does not align with the situation in Tibet.
Have you or other Tibetan environmental activists faced any interference from the Chinese government during international forums where you raise these issues?
LY: So far, we have not experienced any pressure from the Chinese government as we participate in international events where the international community is present. If the Chinese government were to try and pressure us, it would be known to the whole world. However, we have been fortunate enough to not face such a situation. Even at international platforms such as the COP meeting, there are restrictions on mentioning or shaming specific countries or using their national flags in the blue-zone areas. Our community is small and there are very few groups working on environmental issues, making it challenging to find resources. As we do not have official accreditation, we must rely on third parties such as universities or individuals to obtain it for us. These are the difficulties we encounter. However, this year at World Water Week in Sweden, the U.S. State Department organized a panel on water security in the Himalayan region, providing us with a platform. This was a great initiative by the U.S. State Department for Tibetans. We have also been able to meet with officials from ally countries such as the Czech Republic during other conferences in places like Glasgow, where they were kind enough to take our briefing papers. Despite this, there is still a lack of spaces for us and we need more resources and opportunities for our resistance to be heard by everyone.
I have discussed the concept of Sinicization, a Chinese government policy, in several interviews. This policy greatly affects the preservation of Tibetan religion, language, and culture. However, it also has environmental consequences, particularly in regards to the forced relocation of nomadic communities. Could you elaborate on these impacts and how the current Chinese policy is impacting Tibet’s environment?
LY: The Chinese government has recently implemented a policy known as the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau Ecological Conservation Law, which focuses on preserving the environment and water resources in Tibet. This policy grants authority to the local government to enforce these regulations and also allows for mining activities to take place. However, the policies are not available in the Tibetan language, further contributing to the attempt to Sinicize Tibet. This not only affects the environment of Tibet, but also has a significant impact on the region as a whole.
One issue with the Chinese government’s environmental policies is their focus on economic development, which takes precedence over protecting the environment in Tibet. This can be seen in their push for urbanization and infrastructure development, which can have negative impacts on the region’s water resources. As a result, the government prioritizes gaining and extracting resources from Tibet, disregarding the importance of respecting nature and preserving the ecosystem. The concept of nature reserves and the sacredness of rivers are not incorporated into policymaking. This is exacerbated by China’s colonial occupation of Tibet and their disregard for the effects of climate change on the region.
Currently, the issue at hand is the potential for politicization and imprisonment when attempting environmental protection efforts in Tibet. This has resulted in a fear among Tibetans, and it is crucial for the international community to acknowledge this reality. Unfortunately, due to a lack of information, many environmental NGOs do not prioritize Tibet in their work. This lack of information is a reflection of the oppressive authoritarian regime in place. Despite this, it is important to find ways to address the environmental issues in Tibet. However, some NGOs prioritize maintaining good relations with the Chinese government and therefore overlook the environmental concerns in Tibet. This is often driven by a desire for resources and opportunities in Beijing or Shanghai. It has become apparent through interactions and research that Western scholars are no longer allowed access to Tibet, leading to a shift in their focus to the non-Tibetan Himalayan region. In the long term, this will only widen the gap in understanding and addressing environmental issues in Tibet.
Is it possible for environmental advocates to have an impact on the government within Tibet, or are they at risk of imprisonment for speaking out about these issues? Is there any room for environmental advocacy within Tibet?
LY: I believe that Tibetans living in Tibet possess a great level of intelligence and resourcefulness. They have been able to find solutions to various challenges, such as waste management and environmentalism. I have noticed that there is a growing effort among local residents, including traditional leaders like monasteries and high lamas, to address waste management by collaborating with each other. Another positive development is the involvement of local communities in tree planting for environmental conservation, and I sincerely hope that the Chinese government does not impede this progress. The degradation of grasslands into desert is a pressing issue in Tibet, and it is heartening to see that local individuals are taking the initiative to voice their concerns and take action.
One issue in Tibet is the lack of space for international agencies to work. Resources are also limited, particularly in waste management. While people do collect garbage, there is no recycling system or facility provided by the government or private companies. Local initiatives for recycling rely heavily on resources and support from companies or environmental NGOs. Tibetans have found ways to protect the environment through art and music, but creating these spaces takes a long time and there is no coordinated environmental campaign in Tibet. Coordination with other areas is also difficult. Environmental issues such as waste management and tree plantations are not given much attention, but speaking out against mining or damming is met with immediate silencing and government force. It is also challenging to conduct research on these issues in Tibet due to limited access for both local and outside researchers.
Has there been any chance for you or your coworkers to collaborate with environmental activists from China? Do you know of any Chinese organizations that specifically address environmental concerns in Tibet?
I am able to connect with Chinese environmentalists at international events focused on environmental issues. During my attendance at COP26 in Glasgow, I attempted to engage with a well-known environmentalist from China. However, this individual had limited knowledge about the situation in Tibet. I urged them to visit Tibet and interact with the locals using their own resources to gain a better understanding. I hope they have taken the initiative to do so. The accessibility for environmental groups based in Beijing to Tibet is also diminishing, posing another challenge. In the past, we had scholars, not necessarily activists, who would come to India for research purposes. However, for the past four or five years, due to COVID and government restrictions, even Chinese scholars are not allowed to travel to India. This control not only affects Tibetans but also hinders Chinese individuals from interacting with others, specifically Tibetans. Personally, I believe that Chinese environmentalists and activists may have more freedom compared to Tibetans. If they are able to find opportunities to work and contribute, it would greatly benefit not only Tibetans but also the Chinese community.
Can you share any recent achievements in the environmental movement that bring about optimism?
LY: My belief is that, as previously mentioned, there are many Tibetan academics and researchers in exile who are actively working on various issues. However, their focus is mainly on academia and using academic platforms to bring attention to Tibet. On the other hand, there are also Tibetans, Tibet support groups, NGOs, and activists who discuss Tibet’s environment on a global scale. One particular success story, and a source of hope for me, is the increasing involvement of young Tibetan women in environmental work. This is truly inspiring to witness. Additionally, there are also Tibetans inside Tibet who have found ways to contribute to environmentalism, whether it be through wildlife preservation or small-scale tasks like garbage clean-up and ecosystem protection. These efforts give us hope for the future.
However, the obstacles we face are significantly greater. I am optimistic that our activism and efforts will receive greater support and gain more allies in the future. This will allow us to collaborate with environmental NGOs and bring attention to these issues at the Geneva U.N. summits. If this were to happen, it could potentially exert pressure on China. Unfortunately, the Chinese government has shown reluctance to change its policies, making it incredibly challenging for us. Nevertheless, China is also mindful of its international reputation and is held accountable by international media, as well as being a member of COP meetings and the U.N. Security Council. Therefore, they should adhere to international norms and laws. I have hope that we can bring about positive changes, but ultimately, a political resolution is the only way to safeguard Tibet’s environment.
How can individuals in the international community, including our readers, contribute to promoting environmental conservation in Tibet?
LY: One of the major challenges in environmental activism is finding a suitable platform and space. It would be greatly beneficial if the international community, or readers, could collaborate with Tibetans and provide a platform for them. Additionally, the issue of Tibet’s environment has often been overlooked in discussions and deserves more attention from readers. Supporting Tibet NGOs and activist groups, such as International Tibet Network, Tibet Watch, Free Tibet, International Campaign for Tibet, and Students for a Free Tibet, can also aid in our work on the environment. The Tibetan government-in-exile also has a dedicated desk for environmental matters, so supporting these organizations can greatly benefit our efforts.
I am also considering ways to promote positive developments within Tibet. Despite traveling with a tour guide, there are numerous Western tourists who may have the opportunity to visit Tibet. If you are among them and are interested in traveling to Tibet, you could take the opportunity to observe, understand, and gather as much information as possible. This could serve as another means of bringing awareness to Tibet.
Can you suggest other sources for our readers to learn about environmental concerns in Tibet, in addition to the ones you mentioned?
LY: Our office has a unique website called Tibet Climate Crisis that is dedicated to providing information on the current environmental issues in Tibet. We also have active social media accounts on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. There is another website called Rukor.org, managed by Gabriel Lafitte from Australia, which offers extensive information on the impact of Chinese government policy on Tibet’s environment. Most recently, he published a report on lithium mining in Tibet. The Tibetan government-in-exile’s Tibet Policy Institute also has an environment desk where you can access a wealth of information. Additionally, the International Campaign for Tibet has a list of environmental defenders, and the Australia Tibet Council has also published a report on Tibet’s environment. With numerous websites and resources available, we encourage everyone to support our work by sharing and spreading our information as much as possible.
Can you share any additional information about environmental concerns in Tibet or your work that I haven’t inquired about?
I would like to emphasize the current competition between India and China to develop infrastructure in their border areas, due to their political relations. This has major consequences on the sensitive and fragile ecosystem of the Himalaya belt and Tibetan Plateau. The Chinese government is constructing roads, railways, and border infrastructure, as well as establishing border villages, which adds additional strain on the ecosystem. This emerging issue is of great concern and I have personally studied it through travels to Nepal and Arunachal in India. Unfortunately, the voices of local communities expressing their concerns are not reaching decision-making offices, which will ultimately have a significantly negative impact on the entire Himalaya belt.
It is crucial for downstream nations to prioritize the inclusion of Tibetan voices in their policymaking and collaboration efforts. Ignoring the Tibetan Plateau in order to maintain positive relations with China and its economy will ultimately affect the well-being of local communities and the environment. It is important to recognize these potential consequences before it is too late.
Resources on Tibet’s environment:
How do Tibetans in Tibet maintain their cultural identity in a restrictive environment? How is information about Tibet shared with the world? How do those living outside of Tibet stay connected with their families and homeland? Where can we find optimism for the future of Tibet and its people? CDT has initiated this interview series to delve into these inquiries and gain insight into the current state of Tibet, efforts to safeguard its religious and cultural traditions, and the valuable contributions of activists, writers, researchers, and others in supporting Tibetans both inside and outside of the region. Check out past interviews in this series.