02/23/2007, 00.00
CHINA

Train to Lhasa to take out Tibet’s mineral riches

The Qinghai-Lhasa railway line, much vaunted by Beijing as a tool to develop the territory’s economy, will be used to strip the area of its vast mineral riches to the benefit of far-away industries. Recent finds show Tibet is a mining company’s dream, but many fear that development won’t bring much prosperity to Tibetans.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The Qinghai-Lhasa railway line, which Beijing has showcased as an essential part of Tibet’s development, will open up the region’s vast mineral deposits to exploitation, by reducing hitherto high transportation costs.

State-run China Tibet Information website reported early this month that since 1999 more than 1000 researchers divided into 24 separate regiments fanned out across the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, to geologically map the area. They found 16 major new deposits of copper, iron, lead, zinc and other minerals worth an estimated US 8 billion in about half of the territory. That leaves the other half of the region’s 2.6 million km2 area still unexplored. If the findings are confirmed that would make Tibet one of the richest areas of China.

China needs vast amounts of copper and iron which it currently must import at high cost. Altogether Tibet is now said to hold as much as 40 million tons of copper (one third of China's total), 40 million tons of lead and zinc, and more than a billion tons of high-grade iron.

Last year China imported 326 million tonnes of iron and the prices of high-grade iron with the net result that prices more than tripled in the last two years largely because of China's demand.

One Tibetan mine is now estimated to hold as much as 18 million tons according to Xinhua. With the new Tibetan copper finds China's total copper reserves could increase by a third.

“Once mines are developed they will greatly relieve the strain on China's existing resources,” said Zhang Hongtao, deputy director of the China Geological Survey, which carried out the investigation.

“Lack of resources has been a bottleneck for the economy,” Meng Xianlai, director of the China Geological Survey.

Inaugurated on July 1, 2006, the railway that links Qinghai to Tibet has sparked protests by the Tibetans who see it as a tool to reinforce China’s stranglehold over their country. Beijing, by contrast, has always said that the rail link will bring prosperity and development to the territory.

And Beijing is going one step further, accelerating transportation development. A fresh set of satellite images on Google show a large increase in road construction branching off the new railway route.

Similarly, the Chinese are extending the railway from its present terminal in Lhasa to the western city of Shigatze, and beyond.

According to China’s Geological Survey agency, there are rich crude oil and gas reserves in Tibet's Far West and the Yulong find would make it China’s second largest copper mine.

Yet, education and health care spending in Tibet continue to lag far behind the rest of China, provoking the ire of human rights advocates.

“Clearly China's leaders have never intended the railway to benefit Tibetans,” said Matt Whitticase of the London-based Free Tibet Campaign.

According to the group, Tibet may hold 40 per cent of all of China’s mineral resources, including petroleum, coal, uranium, gold and copper. But it fears that their development and exploitation will bring little benefit to the Tibetan population. Instead, the same ethnic Han Chinese who have ruled the region for so long will further take advantage of Beijing’s policies which are designed to favour their immigration into the area.

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