Tibetan Environment

“Destruction of nature and natural resources results from ignorance, greed and the lack of respect for earth’s living things.”

– His Holiness the Dalai Lama, 1993

nomadThe Tibetan Plateau is the largest and highest plateau in the world. It sustains a unique, yet fragile high altitude eco-system much of which remains unspoiled due to its remoteness and inaccessibility. However, human impact is now taking an unprecedented and devastating toll on the natural resources – the wildlife, forests, grazing lands, rivers and mineral resources are now at a point where they may never

ICT’s Environmental Rights Initiative is based on the belief that Tibetans have the right to be decision-makers over a range of issues critical to Tibet’s environment, including population resettlement, natural resource extraction, environmental stewardship, and sustainable development.


Pre-1950 travelers in Tibet compared it to East Africa, so vast were the herds of large mammals. Today, the herds are all but vanished, wiped out mainly by Chinese soldiers shooting automatic weapons from trucks in the 1960s. Poaching by Tibetans and Chinese continues, threatening the survival of some species. One Tibetan nomad told Dr. George Schaller, the foremost Western specialist on Tibetan mammals, “If the officials obey the law and stop hunting, we will too.”


Forests in Tibet are the third largest in China’s present day borders and government lumber operations are cutting at an unprecedented rate. Reforestation is neglected and ineffective, leaving hillsides vulnerable to erosion. Rapid and widespread deforestation has life-threatening consequences for the hundreds of millions who live in the flood plains of the major rivers of Southeast Asia, many of which have their headwaters in Tibet. Clear-cutting also threatens the habitat of Tibet’s other residents – the rare giant panda, golden monkey, and over 5,000 plant species unique to the planet.

Nuclear Activities

The northern Tibetan Plateau was home to China’s “Los Alamos,” – its primary nuclear weapons research and development plant, and nuclear weapons were first stationed in northern Tibet in 1972. Today there are at least 3 or 4 nuclear missile launch sites in Tibet housing an unknown number of warheads. Nuclear waste from the research facility is feared to be dumped on the nearby plains where Tibetan nomads allege they have suffered illness and death from strange diseases consistent with radiation sickness. ICT’s ground-breaking report Nuclear Tibet, addresses this troublesome area.


Government-encouraged population migration into the northern Tibetan plateau, now under control of Qinghai Province, has caused massive and irreparable environmental damage to huge tracts of fragile tableland. Experts attribute the deterioration to overgrazing, irrational land reclamation, and wanton denudation of surface vegetation.

Agricultural Development

Large-scale agricultural development projects are now being carried out in Tibet which are disrupting traditional practices and the ecological balance maintained by farmers for centuries. Motivated by the need to feed the growing Chinese population in Tibet and reduce the costly wheat imports, the projects may ultimately harm Tibetans more than help them. One of the projects, which is funded by the United Nations World Food Program , employs hundreds of Chinese and few Tibetans and is opposed by local Tibetans, ICT and other Tibetan organizations.

Natural Resource Extraction

The extraction of minerals and wood from Tibetan regions is largely done by, or at the direction of, newly arrived Chinese workers and administrators. Some meager benefit may accrue to local Tibetans, but more often than not, the land is left despoiled and traditional Tibetan livelihoods disrupted. Moreover, roads built to access uncut forests or untapped minerals usually result in an increase in local Chinese government administrators who may then assume more control over the local monastery, probably leading to greater restrictions on religious freedom. Implementation of family planning policies may also increase, which could involve coercive methods.

Hydro-electric Construction Projects

China has plans to build dozens of hydro-electric dams on Tibet’s rivers and export the electricity to Chinese cities such as Chengdu, Xining, Lanzhou and Xian. The most heated environmental issue in Tibet may be a hydro-electric construction project on Yamdrok Tso, a sacred lake between Lhasa and Shigatse. A correspondent for The Independent wrote, “environmentalists fear this giant project will create one of China’s worst ecological disasters of the 21st century.”

*Photo by Galen Rowell