Tibet’s elevation has produced a unique, resource-rich geology. The Indo-Eurasian plate collision that began 55 million years ago and resultant compression of the Plateau, has led to the formation of suture (weak) zones where magma from beneath erupt onto surface to form volcanic rocks. These suture zones are highly rich in minerals of various types prominent among them are chromium, copper, gold, lithium etc.
The unchecked mining operations in Tibet have been a major cause for environmental degradation since 1960s. Extraction of mineral ores and natural resources (chromium, salt, copper, silver, coal, gold, lithium, lead, zinc, asbestos, oil, gas, magnesium, potash and uranium) has been vigorously carried out by the Chinese government to fuel its growing economy and to lessen its dependence on costly imports.
Chinese Geological Survey in 2007 estimated that the Tibetan Plateau holds about 30-40 million tons of copper reserves, 40 million tons of zinc, and several billion tons of iron. Copper deposits included the Yulong copper find in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) which has a proven reserve of more than 7.8 million tons, making it the second largest copper mine in Asia.
The mining operations are carried out without any consent, involvement and, in some case, even the knowledge of the local Tibetans. This is a violation of their fundamental right to determine how their economic resources are utilized. The Chinese government has also been actively promoting resource extraction opportunities in Tibet to foreign firms who have both the capital and expertise needed to mine in Tibet’s inaccessible and often hostile environment.
The opening of the Gormo-Lhasa Railway has allowed China to extract Tibet’s resources more efficiently and at the faster rate. The railway has been deliberately routed through areas with rich mineral deposits, which confirms the suspicion that one of China’s prime objectives for the railway is to transport vast quantities of Tibet’s enormous mineral wealth out of Tibet, denying Tibetans any opportunity to benefit from it.
Mining poses devastating social, economic and ecological consequences for the local Tibetan communities. Mine operations have an irreversibly destructive impact on environment, especially gold and copper mining, which use toxic chemicals usually cyanide or arsenic in the processing stage. Of particular concern is danger of water contamination from the waste discarded at mine sites, as most of the proposed mines are in close proximity to Tibet’s main river systems, including the Yarlung Tsangpo.
Increased mining activities further reduce vegetation cover and thus increase the danger for severe landslides, massive soil erosion and loss of wildlife habitat. Mine operations destroy grazing lands, negatively impacting the livelihood of local residents located near mining sites. The heavy influx of Han Chinese migrant workers has also started to cause disastrous effect on the region and lead to potential conflicts with Tibetan residents. Over the past two years, they has been several protest made by the local residents against the mining companies all across the three traditional provinces of Tibet.
China refers to Tibet as its “Western Treasure House”. At the time of China’s invasion in 1950, the Plateau was rich in timber resources, but decades of logging has resulted in large-scale deforestation and half of Tibet’s forest-stock have been exported to China, leaving the region highly prone to erosion. It was only after the disastrous floods of the middle and lower Yangtze River in 1998, that China realized the consequences of stripping Tibet’s forests. Even now logging does continue but at a smaller scale.