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Tibet may soon be in your pocket - new book on mining Tibet

November 4, 2013

Book review - Gabriel Lafitte’s new book: Spoiling Tibet: China and Resource Nationalism on the Roof of the World, is a revelation of China’s hunger for Tibetan natural resources, and of the strong preference of Tibetan communities to protect their sacred mountains, pilgrimage circuits and resource patrimony, even, if necessary, with their lives.

In a book full of surprises a story emerges of the world’s factory, its’ insatiable appetite for minerals and energy, and Tibet’s place in this global commodity chain. The copper, gold, silver and other minerals found in abundance in Tibet are suddenly being mined, for the first time, on a global scale. This means that your next smartphone, if made in China, especially if made in the new manufacturing hubs of western China, will probably be powered by a lithium-ion battery reliant on lithium extracted from Tibet. Far from being remote, or only tangentially relevant to everyday life in the modern world, Tibet may soon be in your pocket.

 Tibetans in exile have often expressed fears that their homeland has already been despoiled, but there is still time for China to reconsider leaving Tibet sustainable and extensive; since even rapid exploitation of Tibetan minerals would not add much to China’s demand for minerals. China’s growing use of Tibetan minerals and hydropower to refine those minerals now connect Tibet with global consumption, raising the prospect that a new European Union regulatory regime to exclude conflict minerals may expand to include consumer products made of Tibetan minerals. Tibetans are likely to continue to protest against mining, and  such protests are increasingly repressed violently, which outs this issue on the agenda of everyone buying a mobile phone or tablet.

This is one of several surprising conclusions of a book that is also about Tibet’s mountainous landscapes of solitude, the retreat caves of the great saints who explore the nature of the human mind, undistracted by society, in the mountains.

China says Tibet’s rapid industrialisation merely follows the universal laws of development, the slow ascent to modernity and civilisation that all countries must climb. Tibetans see this quite differently. Not only does mining cause great environmental damage, since the major deposits are so close to Asia’s greatest rivers, but mining is an intensification of land use that neglects the surrounding productive countryside. Mining enclaves concentrate money, technology and a workforce in a small area, with maximum environmental impact; utterly reversing the logic of a pastoral nomadic society which maintained the pastures through always remaining mobile. The switch, from extensive, mobile land use to intensive enclaves, far from being a law of history, as China claims, is unsustainable, and will only accelerate the serious degradation of Tibetan land triggered by recent state policy failures.

 These are among the key arguments of Spoiling Tibet: China and Resource Nationalism on the Roof of the World, which connects the wave of protest suicides in Tibet to the increasing intensity of mining, even in officially protected areas and national parks. The Zed Books Asian Arguments series, of which this book is part, provides readers with access to much that is new, even counter-intuitive, in only 60,000 words.

Gabriel Lafitte’s conclusion is that Tibet is not yet spoiled, but soon will be, if all the state owned mining corporations go ahead with their plans for the rapid extraction of Tibetan minerals. Until recently, the gold rushes across Tibet were on a much smaller scale, but highly destructive of the environment. Now, the big mines are about to go into full scale operation.

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