Tibet Facts 3

Environmental Degradation, 1950-1995 :

Survey of environmental destruction on the Tibetan plateau.

Since the Chinese occupation, Tibet's fragile eco-system has become increasingly damaged Tibet's natural resources are being decimated, and scientists now believe that the environmental degradation of the Tibetan plateau may have a serious impact on both regional and global climatic patterns.

Exploitation of Tibet's Natural Resources: Deforestation

Until the 1950s, the Tibetans' agricultural methods were well suited to the fragile mountainous terrain. A small population lived chiefly off yak-herding and barley cultivation, leaving fields fallow for long periods to prevent leaching and erosion. Hunting and logging were controlled by taboos, particularly around the monasteries.

In 1950, the forested areas of eastern Tibet were annexed to China and renamed as parts of Sichuan and Yunnan. Tibet's forests became the PRC's second largest timber source, and an intense programme of clearance began. It is estimated that in 1950 forests covered 9% of Tibet, but that by 1985 the total area had been reduced to 5%. In Kham, between 1950 and 1985 forest cover was reduced from 30% to 18%-an estimated reduction of 40%. In U'Tsang and Amdo there was a 50% reduction. Roads continue to be built to make the forests accessible for logging. By 1985, 15% of U'Tsang's forests and 50-70% of those in Kham had been opened up by road.

Tourists have reported seeing up to 60 trucks per hour, loaded with mature timber, leaving Tibet on the roads to Chengdu and Golmud. Rivers have also been adapted for large-scale timber transportation. China's demand for timber cannot be satisfied by the forests within its borders, yet in March 1990, China announced that it would cut its timber imports (the second highest in the world) by 40% (China Daily). This will place an even greater burden on the remaining forests.

China's Record on Deforestation

The official Chinese figures for the 1980s, published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), are 0% deforestation for the whole of the PRC and four million hectares reforested annually. Article 13 of China's 1979 Environmental Protection Law states: "Destroying forest to reclaim land and arbitrary cutting and felling are strictly forbidden. Tree planting should be vigorously carried out." However, 'Watershed Management in Mountain Regions of Southwest China', a report for ICIMOD (Li Weihua & Zhang Mintao (eds), 1985), states that in the area to the southeast of the Himalayan/Hengduan mountain ranges, where there has

been extensive clearance: "Restocking has not been undertaken "

According to a report to the US-China Conference on Energy Resources and Environment (1982), China is losing 2.5 million hectares of forest cover per year. The total cover of good natural stands in China is put at 43 million hectares-one third of the official total. China's domestic consumption of wood is 800 m3 a year, while only 200 m3 are replanted (China Daily, March 1989). The report stated that replanting in the last 40 years averaged a survival rate of 1/7; other reports suggest the success rate is only 10%.

Clear felling has been reported in areas where extremes of temperature, heavy but irregular rainfall and steepness of slopes make replanting technically difficult. In most areas, there is no selective felling. Tourist film of Dawu and Riwoche shows that nearly all hillsides are clear felled and only mature logs collected; the rest are left to rot.

Since the end of collectivisation and the disbanding of the communes, forest ownership has been confused. Contracts, where they exist, are drawn up in written Chinese, which most Tibetan farmers do not understand (S.D. Richardson). Logging is supposed to be government- controlled, but in most cases Beijing has no influence on the local timber trade, which is often conducted by cadres responsible for agriculture. There is little or no policing of illegal logging.


Deposits of uranium in the hills around Lhasa are said to be the largest in the world. Tibet is also rich in gold, copper, zinc, lithium, and other minerals. Mining causes local pollution and population increase, bringing new roads and clearing forests for building and making pit props.


As late as the 1940s, travellers to Tibet reported seeing large herds of wild yak and antelope, herds of musk deer and kyang or wild ass, as well as white pheasant, eagle, Brahmani duck and crane. Himalayan brown bears, wolves, lynx and snow leopard were also a once-familiar sight.

Increase in the human population, reduction of forest habitat and a dramatic increase in hunting has reduced several species to critical levels. Endangered species, including musk deer, Thorold's deer and McNeill's deer, are hunted to supply China's huge pharmaceutical market. Pelts of the golden monkey and snow leopard are much in demand in the cities, despite China being a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

Agricultural Policy

During the Cultural Revolution, 80% of arable land was ploughed for wheat. Failure of harvests and the export of grain and meat to mainland China led to famines in the early-1960s. (China admitted for the first time in 1980 that food was being imported to Tibet). The influx of Chinese settlers has placed an intolerable burden on Tibet's natural resources, and forced Tibetan pastoralists westwards on to the high and arid plateau. This rapid population increase has led to an expansion of land under cultivation, particularly on the steep slopes bordering on mountain forests. However, population pressure is such that the area of cultivated land per capita has in fact decreased.

Due to new roads giving access to markets, and the Chinese reintroduction of the market economy in 1979, agricultural output in 1984 was three or four times 1959 levels. In parts of Sichuan, annexed from Tibet in 1950, timber quotas are set at three times the sustainable yield.

Nomadic yak herders have prospered from China's policies, and herds have increased by 25% since 1981 (China's Reforms of Tibet, Clarke, 1987). Yet other experts estimate an increase of 10 or 20 times from 1959 stocks.

Pastures are now overstocked by 17%, and desert areas exceed viable grassland by 30% (The Poverty of Plenty, Wang & Bai, 1986). Pasture is so over grazed that animals have starved: in Qinghai, the average weight of a sheep dropped from 20 kilos in 1949 to 16 kilos in 1989.

Soil Erosion and Climate Change

In eastern Tibet, characterised by heavy rainfall and extremes of temperature, once forest or grass cover is destroyed, erosion is rapid. The ICIMOD Watershed Management Report (1985) states: "steep slope cultivation and deforestation have strongly accelerated the process." According to the Beijing Review (21/11/83), 14 million tons of topsoil is washed away daily in China. Hydro-electric dams and reservoirs on the Yangtse [Yangzi], designed to cope with levels of silt measured only a few years ago, are already inoperable.

Siltation has raised the river beds, increasing the risk of flooding: in Yunnan the incidence of floods has tripled in the past 40 years. Chen Chuanyou (ICIMOD Report) documents five "calamitous" floods in Sichuan since 1950. Acid rain has also been noted by visiting scientists in the early-1980s, said to be due to burning coal at high altitude without sufficient tree cover.

The Nuclear Issue

During the 1960s and 1970s, nuclear waste from the "Ninth Academy", China's primary nuclear weapons research and design facility sited on the Tibetan plateau in Haibei, was disposed of in a haphazard and unregulated way, posing enormous danger to those who lived nearby. Nuclear weapons are deployed in at least three sites on the Tibetan plateau and are believed to number "at least several dozen" (Nuclear Tibet, International Campaign for Tibet, 1993).

There have been detailed and persistent reports of injury and death as a result of living near uranium mines in Tibet. Between 1989 and 1992, "at least 35 of the approximately 500 people" living in one village close to such a mine died within hours of developing a fever, followed by a distinctive form of diarrhoea (TIN News Update, 1992).

Huge prison camps have been built next to nuclear missile sites on the Tibetan plateau, and there are reports that prisoners are used to excavate radioactive ore and forced to enter nuclear test sites to perform dangerous work. Sources say that Chinese officials are open to receiving shipments of nuclear waste from foreign countries in return for hard foreign currency. It is thought the arrival of such waste from Taiwan is "very likely" and would be stored in either Xinjiang Province or on the Tibetan Plateau (Nuclear Tibet, ICT, 1993).

China continues to test nuclear weapons and in 1995 detonated its 43rd nuclear device at Lap Nor in occupied Turkestan, just 200 hen north of the Tibetan border (now Xinjiang). This explosion was six times more powerful than the bomb which killed 140,000 people in Hiroshima and drew strong condemnation from around the world. This was China's sixth nuclear explosion since the rest of the world began the nuclear testing moratorium in 1992.

This information was compiled by Tibet Support Group, UK 9 Islington Green London N1 2XH England.
Additional material was added by the Australia Tibet Council PO Box 1236 Potts Point NSW 2011 Australia.
For more information contact your local Tibet support group. (February 1996)

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