Mining Disaster at Gyama: Just Upstream from Lhasa, the capital of Tibet

The Gyama mine landslide occurred on March 29, state media said that over 80 people had been buried. Photo: Outlook Tibet
The disastrous waste of 83 human lives at China’s copper and gold mine in Tibet, at Gyama, is a reminder of China’s plans for intensive extraction of Tibetan wealth, for China’s lowland factories.

So big was the landslide down the steep terrain of Gyama, the 83 mine workers may never be found. Not only are they buried in a landslide kilometres long and up to 30 meters deep, making recovery of bodies a huge task; there may be nothing to recover. Tumbling rocks grinding against each other can obliterate human flesh so totally that nothing remains.

This gruesome reality is a reminder of the violent forces inherent in mining. Just as rocks grating against each other turn rock to flour, so too the mining process, after blasting and scooping up, requires crushing rock to flour, in a giant mechanical ball mill, so that the various metals to be extracted can be concentrated and separated.

It is a metaphor used sometimes by Tibetan Buddhist retreat masters, that retreatants rub up against each other, in the 24/7 intimacy of a group retreat, and, like freshly dug potatoes, the dirt is scrubbed off by the rubbing. But rubbing potatoes clean of dirt, and grinding rocks to flour are vastly different: one is gentle, the other extremely forceful.

The Gyama tragedy is a reminder that China, after six decades of geologising Tibet, is now able to exert maximum force on the land of Tibet and its minerals, and make its fortune. Ironically, this capacity to establish intensive extraction enclaves in Tibet comes too late to make much difference to China. The demands of the world’s factory, in China, for raw materials is now so great that even the most intensive exploitation of Tibet would do little to reduce China’s need to import minerals from all around the planet.

Gyama, just upstream of Lhasa, had seemed like the least forceful of China’s big mines in Tibet. In fact Gyama’s Vancouver-based owners, the state owned China Gold International, had invested a lot in corporate PR, sending reporters to Gyama to tell the world the mine is not only good for the economy but also for the environment, and for Tibetans. Feature stories in some of China’s mainstream international media emphasised the good news story of this wonderful mine.

China’s approach to mining was not always so forceful. In Inner Mongolia, rich in iron ore, coal and rare earths, Chinese miners long ago decided on extraction, but also knew the local people, devout practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism, would object. So the Communist Party arranged for the sacredness of the mountain designated for mining, to be transferred, by Buddhist ritual, to another mountain nearby. Maybe the Buddhist ritual specialists who negotiated with the earth gods had little choice but to comply with the Party’s request. But there was at least a negotiated outcome, a three-way compromise between the Party, the lamas and the gods.

That was decades ago. Can one imagine Party leaders in Tibet working in this way with Tibetan lamas to arrange a negotiated compromise that retains the sanctity of peaks and lakes, yet still makes room for mining? In today’s Tibet, where authority regards local populations with fear and suspicion, such deals are no longer imaginable. Nor, in today’s situation of deep alienation and mistrust of authority, is it possible to imagine Tibetans willing to persuade even the most humble of earth gods to move out of the way of mining.


Gabriel Lafitte is a public policy analyst who has worked with Tibetans for over 30 years, most recently as consultant to the Environment & Development Desk of the Tibetan exile government.

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