MINERALS AND NATURAL RESOURCES IN TIBET
Tibet is richly endowed with energy and mineral resources. There are huge reserves of natural gas, copper, iron, coal, mica, silver, boron, mercury and sulfur. The landlocked lakes abound in borax, salt, mirabilite and natural soda. Oilfields have been found in recent years in the Qaidam basin in Qinghai and the northern Tibet Plateau. By one count there are deposits of about 126 different minerals and significantly large deposits of gold and iron. Tibet contains a large chunk of the world's lithium reserves, China’s largest chromium deposits and its third largest copper mine. The former Chinese Communist Party Chairman in Tibet, Yin Fatang, reported that the world's largest supply of uranium is located in the Himalayan region of Tibet. . Many diamonds come from Tibet. Turquoise and many gems come from three specific areas in the southern and western Tibet. Tibet abounds in forest resources in the eastern gorge area.
Tibet has more than 3,000 proven mineral reserves, including China biggest chromium and copper deposits. The China Daily quoted a Tibetan official saying that mining could make up at least 30 percent of Tibet gross domestic product by 2020, up from 3 percent in 2010. Exiled supporters of the Dalai Lama claim the government in Beijing wants to drive Tibetans off the land so it can extract minerals and water resources from the mountain region. The communist government says it is investing heavily in measures to improve the environment of the region. Tibetans have traditionally frowned up mining because its disturbs the sacred essence of the soil. The Chinese however have no such qualms and have conducted extensive geological surveys across Tibet.
For centuries people in India, China and Nepal depended on Tibet for salt. I met one traveler in the mid 2010s who attended a university in Chengdu, Sichuan and said when her professors mentioned about Tibet all they talked about was resources, resources, resources. The new railway to Lhasa that opened in 2006 was partly built to exploit Tibet's large deposits of copper and iron. Chinese geologists have found new deposits of copper, iron, lead, and zinc, and possibly oil, accessible to the train route. Total possible reserves have been estimated 20 million tons of copper and 10 million tons of lead and zinc. The regions' nearly 500 salt lakes contain industrial and agricultural raw materials such as borate and potassium salt.
Significant reserves of 26 of mineral types have been verified, with that of 11 ranking among the top five in China by province or region. Prospective copper and gypsum reserves rank second in China; boron, magnesite, barite, and arsenic, third; mica and peat, fourth; and kaolin, fifth. Other significant mineral deposits include phosphorus, potassium, diatomaceous earth, Iceland spar, corundum, rock quartz, and agate. The largest copper mine in China is in Jiangxi Province. There are large copper deposit in Yulong in Tibet and the Pulang and Yulong regions of Yunnan. [Source: chinaculture.org, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]
Although Tibet may be rich in mineral and natural resources some of them are in locations that too remote or too difficult to mine to be commercially exploited. One reason China is spending so much money on building roads and railroads and other infrastructure in Tibet is to make it easier to exploit them in the future.
Problems and Environmental Damage from Mining in Tibet
According to Associated Press: “The Chinese government has been encouraging development of mining and other industries in long-isolated Tibet as a way to promote its economic growth and raise living standards. Tibet remains among China's poorest regions despite producing a large share of its minerals. A key source of anti-Chinese anger is complaints by local residents that they get little of the wealth extracted by government companies, most of which flows to distant Beijing. Projects usually import workers from other parts of China, seldom employing Tibetans in significant numbers. [Source: Didi Tang, Associated Press, March 29, 2013]
Miles Abadilla wrote for Borgen Project: Mining projects run by “the government of China has displaced numerous Tibetans. The Central Tibetan Administration reports that around 240 mining sites have affected areas formerly used by nomads. The Stop Mining in Tibet movement states that local Tibetans do not benefit in any capacity from the numerous mines that have sprung up. The group equates mining with looting and called for its immediate termination. It has accused Canadian corporations of collaborating with the Chinese government on mining pojects in Tibet that negatively affect the Tibetans and do ecological damage to the Tibetan plateau. Mining sites have been set up near the headwaters of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, threatening to pollute their waters as well as rivers that flow into India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Money from from many of Tibet’s resources flows straight to Chinese companies and the Chinese government, with few benefits passed on to Tibetans. [Source: Miles Abadilla, Borgen Project, 2014,
Simon Denyer wrote in the Washington Post: “In the villages outside Xiaosumang township in Qinghai, residents blame a lead and zinc mine for the deterioration of the grasslands for miles around, and even for falling harvests of caterpillar fungus, a highly prized health cure that is the backbone of the local economy. Contaminated water from the mine, residents said in a joint letter to the authorities in 2010, not only killed their livestock but alsocaused people who drank it to die of cancer, they said. “Over the years, many herders would sigh and say: ‘Life can’t go on like this anymore. Even drinking has become a big issue for people living on the grasslands,’?” the letter said. [Source: Simon Denyer, Washington Post, December 26, 2016]
“Whether the mine is truly the culprit for all the grasslands’ ills is another matter — climate change, for example, is probably an important factor. But that doesn’t soothe local anger. “When I was young, there was more grass, more flowers, it was really beautiful here,” said one 27-year-old man in a valley downstream from the lead and zinc mine. “Now you see it’s less beautiful every year. People see all this and they are not really sure what happened, so they think it must be the mine.”
Opposition to Mining in Tibet
Simon Denyer wrote in the Washington Post: “China’s thirst for mineral resources — and its desire to exploit the rich deposits under the Tibetan plateau — have spread environmental pollution and anguish for many of the herders whose ancestors lived here for thousands of years. The land they worship is under assault, and their way of life is threatened without their consent, the herders say. “Old people, we see the mines and we cry,” a 67-year-old yak herder said, requesting anonymity for fear of retribution. “What are the future generations going to do? How are they going to survive?” [Source: Simon Denyer, Washington Post, December 26, 2016]
A local environmentalist in a Tibetan area of Sichuan told the Washington Post that he had done an oral survey of local opinion and found that Tibetans would oppose mining projects even if companies promised to share profits with local communities, to fill in mines after they were exhausted, and to return sites to their natural state. “God is in the mountains and the rivers, these are the places that spirits live,” he said. “When mining comes and the grassland is dug up, people believe worse disasters will come. It destroys the mountain god.”
“Nevertheless, across the Tibetan plateau, resource extraction, land grabs and environmental destruction remain flashpoints for conflict between Tibetans and the authorities, said Free Tibet director Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren, reflecting both local grievances and the wider problem that Tibetans do not have the right to decide what happens to Tibet and its resources. “Those resources feed the demands of Chinese industry instead of the needs of the Tibetan people,” she said. “That is why their environment is put at risk and their rights are trampled upon, and why we can expect to see this conflict played out repeatedly in the future.”
Protests Over Mines in Tibetan Areas
Simon Denyer wrote in the Washington Post: “Across Tibetan parts of China, protests regularly erupt against mineral extraction, according to a 2015 report by Tibet Watch. “When protests break out, China’s response “has generally been heavy handed,” with authorities seeking to politicize the protests, Tibet Watch wrote. Understanding those risks, Tibetan communities sometimes use creative ways to get their message across.[Source: Simon Denyer, Washington Post, December 26, 2016]
“In August 2013, hundreds of people gathered in Zadoi county in Qinghai province to protest against mining on what they considered to be a holy mountain; they flew Chinese flags to demonstrate their loyalty to the state, and erected posters and placards quoting President Xi Jinping’s words on the need to balance economic growth and environmental protection. It didn’t help. Police and paramilitary forces arrived in large numbers, firing bullets above the crowd, arresting eight people and injuring many more, according to campaigners at Free Tibet.
“A May 2009 protest in Xizha village prompted a severe crackdown, the letter said, with guns and tear gas used, seven women severely beaten, and 12 men blindfolded, detained and tortured. Authorities threatened to cancel poverty-alleviation grants, including income and housing subsidies, if anyone in the region brought up the issue of environmental protection again, the letter said, adding that the crackdown “caused great fear to spread in our hearts.”
Gold in Tibet
Gold comes from three main c areas in the southern and western Tibet. The China National Gold Group,a government-sponsored organization and China's largest gold producer., runs mines on the Tibetan plateau.
The Mayum gold deposit in western Tibet is largest gold deposit in Tibet. It was discovered in 2002 and has estimated resources of more than 80 tonnes gold. According to Science Digest: The Mayum gold deposit is located in eastern Ngari region, western Tibet, China (Lat. 30 °28 ~ 30 °30 , Long. 82 °24 ~ 82 °31 ), on the Tibetan Plateau. The average elevation of the deposit is 5300 meters above sea level. The deposit is located more than 1500 kilometers west of Lhasa. In 1999, local geologists from the Geothermal and Geological Party of the Tibet Bureau of Geology and Mineral Exploration and Development discovered alluvial gold in the Mayum area, by tracing ancient placer gold mining workings. Four placer gold orebodies were outlined, the largest being 15 km in length, as much as 0.5 km wide. The Mayum lode gold deposit was discovered in 2002 by tracing the source of the placer gold upstream into the headwaters of the Siguo branch of the Jiemayangzong River. It is the largest lode gold deposit found in Tibet, and one of the most important gold discoveries in China in recent years. Resources of more than 80 tons of gold have been estimated, with an average gold grade of 32 grams per ton.[Source: Science Digest, March 2009]
Thok Jalung was a goldfield in Tibet that gained international attention when it was discovered by the West in the 19th century. Thok Jalung (Coordinates: 32.24°N 81.37°E) was one of many goldfields north of the Tsangpo River watershed in western Tibet. Situated on the Changtang, 4,980 meters (16,330 feet) above sea level, Thok Jalung was the highest altitude goldfield in the world and the highest place in the world inhabited all year round. Thok Jalung was first visited by a non-Tibetan in 1867 when the pundit Nain Singh Rawat, who was secretly surveying Tibet, visited the mines. He said that Thok Jalung was the coldest place he had ever visited. It was not until 1906 that the first European visited Thok Jalung. [Source: Wikipedia]
Thok Jalung was very productive and Nain Singh reported seeing one nugget weighing nearly 2 pounds (0.91 kg). The goldfield was about 1.6 kilometers (one mile) long, with a small stream running through the field, used to wash the gold out of the soil. Miners lived in yak-hair tents pitched in holes two or more metres below the ground. There were about 300 miners during the summer and over 6 000 during winter, as frozen ground was less likely to collapse. As in many cases the miners' families were also staying onsite, one author has suggested a winter population of 20 000 at Thok Jalung. Tibetans believed that gold nuggets contained life and were the parents of gold dust. If a nugget was excavated in error from Thok Jalung it was immediately reburied.
Gold Mine Disaster and Issues in Tibet
In the late 1980s and early 1990s there was huge gold rush in western Qinghai. Thousands of illegal gold diggers flocked to region and disrupted the fragile environment there. In July 2010, China National Gold Group, the nation largest gold producer, began work at a polymetallic mine whose daily output is expected to reach 15,000 tons.
In March 2013, 83 workers were killed after an enormous landslide buried parts of the Jiama gold mining site in a mountainous area of Tibet. The Chinese government stated that mining did not cause the landslide, but the Tibetan government in exile, operating from India, claims otherwise. Associated Press reported: The state-run China Central Television said more than 2,000 rescuers have been dispatched to Lhasa's Maizhokunggar county to search for the buried. About 2 million cubic meters (2.6 million cubic yards) of mud, rock and debris swept through the area as the workers were resting and covered an area measuring around 4 square kilometers (1.5 square miles), CCTV said.[Source: Didi Tang, Associated Press, March 29, 2013]
“The miners worked for a subsidiary of the China National Gold Group Corp., a state-owned enterprise and the country's largest gold producer.“The reports said at least two of the buried workers were Tibetan while most of the workers were believed to be ethnic Han Chinese, a reflection of how such large projects often create an influx of the majority ethnic group into the region.
Chromite in Tibet
Tibet’s 2,500 square kilometers of chromite (ore used to make chrome) deposits are concentrated along the Lake Banggong Co to the Nujiang River rift zone in northern Tibet and along the Yarlung Zangbo River rift zone. They are the largest such deposits in China. The Norbusa Chromite Mine in the Shannan Prefecture has become a chromite production base.
Tibet may have large chromite reserves but they are not enough or too difficult to extract to meet China’s need. According to the OEC, In 2020, China imported $1.24 billion in Chromium Ore, making it the world’s largest importer of Chromium Ore. The same year, Chromium Ore was the 177th most imported product in China. China imports Chromium Ore primarily from: South Africa ($954 million), Turkey ($98.8 million) Pakistan ($47 million) Oman ($30.7 million) and Albania ($23.3 million). [Source: Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC)]
According to the OECIn 2020, China exported $3.95 million in Chromium Ore, making it the 18th largest exporter of Chromium Ore in the world. The same year, Chromium Ore was the 1126th most exported product in China. The main destination of Chromium Ore exports from China were South Korea ($1.43 million), Indonesia ($528,000), Austria ($394,000), Chinese Taipei ($382,000), and Japan ($213,000).
Lithium in Tibet
Tibet's prospective lithium deposits are among the largest in the world and the region serves as China's lithium production base. Known as “white oil,” lithium ore is an essential component in electric vehicle batteries as well as rechargeable batteries used in smartphones, laptops and other electronic gear and demand and prices are often high. . China has the sixth-largest lithium reserves in the world, but the country still imports 75 percent of its lithium resources to meet the metal’s increasing demand. Several lithium deposits have been discovered in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, but the ores were either of low grade or in areas unsuitable for mining. [Source: Wu Peiyue, Sixth Tone, February 17, 2022]
In February 2022, Chinese researchers announced the discovery of a lithium deposit in the southwestern Qiongjiagang region in what could be the country’s third-largest deposit of the metal. Wu Peiyue wrote in Sixth Tone: The deposit is located 5,000 meters above sea level in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and has over 1 million tons of lithium oxide resources, state broadcaster China Central Television reported. The news came a month after Chinese authorities promised to support domestic lithium mining at the policy level amid escalating international competition and rising costs for lithium resources. [Source: Wu Peiyue, Sixth Tone, February 17, 2022]
Experts consider the deposits in the Qiongjiagang region to make up the first industrially valuable lithium pegmatite deposit in the Himalayas and have said the discovery could help reduce China’s over-reliance on imported lithium resources. Some academics have even gone as far as to say that the Himalayan region could become the country’s “most important lithium base” with the potential to “guarantee the development of China’s new energy industry.”
“The Qiongjiagang lithium has good mining conditions — it has high-quality ore, transportation to it is convenient considering the mining area is connected to rural cement roads ... the ore body is exposed, and no deep excavation is required,” Qin Kezhang, the leader of the research team, told China Science Daily. Qin added that previously discovered lithium resources found in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau were located in ecologically fragile areas but the recent site was “far away from the core nature reserve of Mount Everest.” Lithium extraction can pose risks to the environment, harming local water resources and contributing to soil and air pollution.
Protests Over Lithium Mines Pollution in Tibetan Sichuan
Reporting from the Jiajika Lithium Mine in a Tibetan area of Sichuan, Simon Denyer wrote in the Washington Post: “In the shadow of holy mountains, the Liqi River flows through a lush, grassy valley, dotted with grazing yaks, small Tibetan villages and a Buddhist temple. But there’s poison here. A large lithium mine not only desecrates the sacred grasslands, villagers say, but spawns deadly pollution. This river used to be full of fish. Today, there are hardly any. Hundreds of yaks, the villagers say, have died in the past few years after drinking river water. [Source: Simon Denyer, Washington Post, December 26, 2016]
“It was in 2009 that toxic chemicals from the Ganzizhou Rongda Lithium mine first leaked into the river, locals say, killing their livestock and poisoning their fish. “The whole river stank, and it was full of dead yaks and dead fish,” said one man in the downstream village of Balang, who declined to be named for fear of retribution. Another pollution outbreak and a protest by villagers in 2013 forced the government to order production temporarily stopped, locals said.
Over several months, officials came to the village to try to persuade people. A local environmentalist said. “They said we have to have the mine, but promised they would take time to fix the pollution problem before reopening it.” But a few months later, in April, just after mining restarted, fish began dying again, locals said. “That’s when we just knew they had lied,” the man said. A month or so after that residents gathered to stage a protest, scattering dead fish on a road in the nearby town of Tagong, only to be surrounded by dozens of baton-wielding riot police. Again the government stepped in, issuing a statement to “solemnly” promise that the plant would not reopen until the “environmental issues” are solved.
After this "the commercial pressure to reopen the lithium mine mounted. In January, 2016 Youngy Co. Ltd., the parent company of Ganzizhou Rongda Lithium, promised investors that the local government would step up efforts to reopen the mine in March. That same month, an article in the local Ganzi Daily newspaper outlined the authorities’ dream of making the area “China’s lithium capital,” calling Jiajika the biggest lithium mine in the world with proven reserves of 1.89 million metric tons and even greater potential. Three companies, including Rongda, will invest 3.4 billion yuan ($510 million) in the site by 2020, the article said.
“He Chengkun, Youngy’s media officer, said an official investigation had established that the plant was not responsible for killing fish in 2013 or this year. “The local government has made it clear it is nothing to do with our company,” he said. “They are looking into it, and have already zoomed in on some suspects.” He said the plant has been closed since late 2013 because of problems relating to land acquisition, and denied that it had restarted operations in April as locals claimed.
Chinese-Run Water Company in Tibet
“A prominent mineral water company called 5100 that is registered in Hong Kong but managed from Beijing has set up a factory in Damxung, on a grassy plateau three hours north of Lhasa, to collect glacial runoff and bottle it as high-end mineral water. Last year, the company, named after the altitude of the glacier, produced almost two million gallons of water. The water is shipped out on the Qinghai-Tibet railway.” [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, July 24, 2010]
“The water that is collected would otherwise flow through wetlands where yak graze. It is unclear how the factory work has affected the ecosystem. Jiang Xiaohong, the factory manager, who moved to Tibet three years ago, said the company did an environmental assessment before starting operations in 2006. There no impact on the wetlands,” she said. [Ibid]
“Because the company employs Tibetans, it receives government subsidies, Jiang said. About 95 percent of the 150 or so workers are Tibetan, and the average salary, including housing subsidies, is about $740 a month, a small fortune on the Tibetan plateau, she said. But ethnic Han are the company managers and owners, and the ones who ultimately profit from it. Hao, the regional vice chairman, said the key to making Tibetans more competitive in business is to enhance Tibetan people skills through education and training.” [Ibid]
There are more than 120 mining sites in Tibet. Mining accounts for about a third of Tibet’s industrial output. The Hong Kong-based South China Post reported in 1996 that a half million Chinese laborers had been brought the Tibetan plateau to work in copper mines.
Bitcoin ‘Mining’ in Tibetan Sichuan
In some places on the Tibetan Plateau, bitcoin “mines” have been strategically placed next to a hydroelectric power plant to take advantage of cheap electricity. Reporting from Kongyu in the Tibetan part of western Sichuan, Simon Denyer wrote in the Washington Post “Inside a metal shed in the Tibetan highlands, thousands of microprocessors flank narrow corridors, generating a constant hum and stifling waves of heat. Outside, the sky is clear and blue, with a mountain peak looming at the top of a narrow wooded valley. A flock of goats ambles idly past a pile of discarded foam packaging. Inside, though, tranquility is transformed into clamor. Red, blue and green lights constantly flash; cooling water trickles down the walls, and large ventilation fans thrum as they struggle to shift the hot air produced by all this concentrated computing power. [Source: Simon Denyer, Washington Post, September 12, 2016]
“This is a bitcoin “mine,” the engine room of the world’s leading digital currency. The microprocessors here approve and record all the transactions that keep the bitcoin system running. They also compete to solve complex mathematical problems and are rewarded with bitcoins: That’s a way of putting fresh digital currency into circulation and incentivizing more people to set up “mining” operations....It is here because of extremely cheap hydropower, cheap wages — and perhaps because Chinese entrepreneurs have a knack for the business. In 2016, mines run by Chinese companies account for about 70 percent of the world’s bitcoin processing power, its factories produce the cheapest microprocessors to run these mines, and its exchanges account for about 70 percent of the world’s bitcoin trade. At that time there were around 15 million bitcoins in existence: Each was worth $615, with a market capitalization of $9.2 billion.
Ryan Xu,a Chinese-born Australian, launched a bitcoin mine outside of Kangding in western Sichuan, Xu has moved his mines around the world in search of the cheapest power, from Iceland to Georgia, and then to Washington state, from the coal fields of China’s northern Inner Mongolia province and now to the mountains of Sichuan. His latest mine is still under construction, between a hydroelectric power plant and the concrete shell of a disused power transmission station, between Kongyu and the city of Kangding.
“As China’s economy boomed, private companies set up hydroelectric plants in western Sichuan; then, as the economy slowed, they found themselves unable to sell to the national grid, elbowed out of the market by more politically powerful state-owned firms. “It took a lot of money to build the plants, but it doesn’t cost that much to maintain them,” said HaoBTC’s Mu. “So it makes sense for them to sell the power to anyone willing to buy, even at a low rate.”
“Maintenance staffers are cheaper here than in the West. Mu says his company employs 10 people at three mines in the mountains, paying them around 6,000 yuan ($900) a month, a “decent salary” for this part of the world. HaoBTC runs one other mine in Sichuan and one farther west in Xinjiang, with more than 11,000 machines, earning more than 80 bitcoin a day — a daily income stream worth about $45,000.
“Here in the mountains, miners while away their free time playing mah-jongg or poker, smoking cigarettes or surfing on their smartphones. Site manager Guo Hua used to run a small camera-repair shop and still likes fiddling around with machines. Marketing manager Mu, who spends only a few weeks of the year here, likes to translate books in his free time or run to the nearest town to buy cigarettes for his colleagues. Sometimes he hikes into the mountains, toward a remote Tibetan village or a looming peak, a welcome change of change of pace from Beijing and its polluted air. And all the time, the microprocessors keep on running.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2022