Tibet’s silent spring

Tibetan New Year marks concerns about repression,the environment

Written by Nimmi Kurian | Published:February 28, 2009 12:10 am

Losar,the ongoing Tibetan New Year,is likely to herald a silent spring. There will be none of the festivities that greet the arrival of spring that marks the most important holiday in the Tibetan calendar. This year has seen Tibetans depart from tradition and mark the day by mourning those dead in the protests last March. By observing Black Losar,they will also be mourning Tibet’s rapidly degrading environment which has brought increased socio-economic vulnerability in its wake. There is growing social angst that,if left unchecked,there could soon be no spring left to celebrate. 

For their part,many in Beijing may well wonder what the fuss is all about. After all,Tibet has been very much the poster child of China’s Western Development Strategy. The policy was unveiled in the mid-’90s to make amends for regional disparities seen as “an eagle spreading only one wing for flight”. The strategy has been a fairly uncomplicated mix-and-stir model of development with an enormous infusion of funds to fast-track the region’s growth. Huge subsidies and investments have poured in,transforming Tibet’s skyline with gleaming engineering marvels. The Tibetan economy has posted double-digit growth rates for several years in a row. In short,an in-your-face prosperity that Beijing thought was guaranteed to end all debate.  

Ironically,it has only started a raging debate on prosperity and its discontents. Its all-consuming obsession with growth has meant that China’s contributions to global warming are today as massive as those to the global economy. Chinese scientists have long warned that Tibet is warming up faster than any other part of the world. Rising temperatures on the plateau will melt glaciers,dry up rivers and set off droughts,floods and desertification. Tibet has also seen a relentless surge in footfall with four million tourists in 2007,outnumbering the local population of 2.8 million and overwhelming its fragile environment. These ecological footprints are fast enveloping areas of North China; those have borne the brunt of powerful sandstorms,with one such storm depositing Beijing with 330,000 tonnes of sand in 2006. The same year also saw one of the worst droughts in over 50 years,leaving 10 million people without access to drinking water.  

It remains to be seen if policy can be sensitised to securing the acceptance of local communities for resource development activities. This will essentially mean acknowledging that conservation and sustainable livelihoods of local people are inseparable. Some of these questions will also bring with them an eerie sense of déjà vu,particularly given that India’s Northeast is also negotiating many of these challenges. Many large projects are being planned in areas that are traditionally revered as sacred landscapes and groves. These concerns were brought out starkly,for instance,when China built a 108 km-long highway to the Mt Everest base camp last year to cut an easy trail for tourists and mountaineers. For the Tibetans,such acts defile the sanctity of sacred landscapes that need to be always preserved since “man should not walk in the house of a god”. Thus development projects that are seen as coming at the cost of traditions have little cultural resonance with communities. 

If handled well,these debates can help define sustainable resource use patterns and the limits of acceptable use. It is true that,while there is deep resistance to accepting any curbs on growth,there is an emerging consensus on the severe extent of environmental degradation. China has set itself a number of ambitious environmental targets for the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-2010). President Hu Jintao also called for a policy reprioritisation when he recently noted,“Development and conservation are equally important — and conservation should be put first.” Environmental NGOs such as Friends of Nature and Green Watershed are expanding a small but growing organisational space to engage the state on the issue of environmental protection. No less significant was the recent decision taken to scale down proposed dams on the Nu River from 13 to 4 in the face of a highly organised campaign led by local farmers and environmental campaigners. New literature coming out of China,such as Cao Jinqing’s China along the Yellow River and The Blue Book brought out by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences,also makes compelling reading,especially for the increasingly frank treatment of complex social pressures. 

Losar and its larger subtext of environmental degradation hold the mirror up to China’s future. If China is prepared to look in that mirror,Losar could be a metaphor for beginning a bold new conversation on change and sustainability while there is still time. If not,Rachel Carson’s chilling warning of “a spring without voices” will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Tibetan New Year may indeed be less a time to celebrate than a time to reflect and unlearn. 

 

The writer is at the Centre for Policy Research,Delhi 

express@expressindia.com 

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