Nearly three weeks after the death of 83 workers in a landslide near a village in Tibet, which official Chinese media characterized as a natural disaster, suspicion is rising that it resulted from improper mining activity.
The disaster occurred in Zibug, known as dZibug in Tibetan and Sibu in Chinese, in Maldro Gungkar County roughly 63 km northeast of Lhasa. Nearly two hours before sunrise in Tibet on March 29, the landslide roared about three kilometers down the valley, burying workers in a mining camp belonging to Tibet Huatailong Mining Development Ltd., a subsidiary of China Gold International Resource Corp., under 10 stories of rocks and mud. Immediately after the incident, the state-run news agency Xinhua reported that it was a natural disaster and said rescue workers were hopeful of finding workers alive. However, researchers in the United Kingdom and at the Tibet Environment Desk in the exile capital of Dharamsala in India began raising suspicions.
Four days after the tragedy, a spokesperson for China Gold International Resource Corp., which operated a mine employing the dead workers, insisted that it was a natural disaster. Asked how she knew it was a natural disaster, she said, "It is all in the news." She did not make any further comment, describing it as a "sensitive issue." So far Xinhua is the only source of news about the incident because it was reportedly the only media outlet that had access to the area.
Rescue efforts continued until at least April 4, by which time Xinhua reported that 66 bodies had been dug from the rubble. On the same day an official memorial ceremony was reportedly held at Zibug Village, about 6 km below the site of the landslide. There were no survivors. Of the dead, 81 were Chinese, two were Tibetan women.
"Take care and live on for a good life," Xinhau quoted Chen Quanguo, the Communist Party Chief of the Tibetan Administrative Region, as saying to family members. The official news agency has not reported anything further on their online English news. But researchers outside Tibet started discovering more evidence that appears to contradict the official Chinese claim.
Last Tuesday, the Environment Desk of the Tibetan exile government released a report that said it was the "result of the aggressive expansion and large-scale exploitation of minerals in the Gyama Valley – a manmade phenomenon rather than merely a ?natural disaster’."
The UK-based independent researcher Adrian Moon conducted a study as well, which he made available a few days before the Dharamsala report. In his study, he indicated that mining activity on the top of the mountain was more likely to be the cause of the disaster.
On April 12, David Petley, Professor of Hazard and Risk in the Department of Geography at Durham University in the UK, said his analysis also found that the possible cause was more likely man-made.
"The properties of the landslide are consistent to what you’d expect to see from mining rather than from natural processing," Petley said.
These findings raise another question. Why would Chinese official media and China Gold International immediately jump to the conclusion that it was "natural disaster"? Tibet environment researcher Gabriel Lafitte says Xinhua’s conclusion actually made him more suspicious of the reliability of its claim. He said landslides require more complex investigations because they destroy much of their evidence.
China Gold International identified the mountain from where the landslide occurred as Tseri Mountain. Google Earth images show the changes to this mountain between 2010 and 2012. An earlier image shows roads had been built on the mountain. A later one reveals greater activity taking place on the top of the mountain and the development of more roads. There are unidentifiable machines seemingly engaging in work on the ridge of the mountain. From some angles, the mountaintop appears to have become flatter. Jigme Norbu, a researcher at the Tibet Environment Desk in Dharamsala, described the mountain as being "decapitated."
According to a report on the American Geophysical Union’s blog, a satellite image shows that the slope that failed "had been subject to a huge mining operation – basically a mountaintop removal exercise. Perhaps more importantly, the spoil that has been removed has been dumped down the slope that subsequently collapsed. The scale of this operation is very large, and it is notable that the spoil has mostly accumulated on the upper part of the slope, although some has passed to the foot of the slope. So, how come the Chinese news reports about the event did not mention this huge modification of the slope?"
The landslide took place at the southern side of Tseri Mountain, which falls under the jurisdiction of Zibug Village. It is about 30km via road from the Gyama Township where the Huatailong mining operation has been largely taking place, according to previous reports. The two townships, or xiangs, are located at each end of the valley where Tseri Mountain stands in between. According to Moon’s study, the mining company was previously only licensed to mine in Gyama area and did not come under the jurisdiction of Tashi Gang Township.
Observers like Petley also questioned the safety practices of the Chinese mining company. He said he was surprised to see the location of the camp where the workers were buried, most likely while sleeping.
"In Europe or North America, you wouldn’t normally expect to see people camping so close down the slope." In fact a larger mining landslide occurred in the US state of Utah on the evening of April 12. But no one died or was injured because the company was monitoring the situation and evacuated workers eight hours before it occurred.
Google Earth images of Tseri Mountain that were taken before the mineworkers’ camp was set up show it was located in a very steep valley below the mountain.
The incident also raised the issue of inequality in job opportunities. Tibet observers like Robert Barnett point out that having only two Tibetans in the workforce of 83 people reveals how the locals are denied receiving benefits from mines like this.
China has claimed that the locals are benefiting from the mine. On March 20, an official Chinese information website on Tibet called "China’s Tibet" reported Maldro Gongkar County held a ceremony for the graduation of 100 local students from a school in Yunan Province with different skills in mining. The report said all the students had received scholarship from the mining company and that the company spent a total of RMB5 million ($84,000) for the program. Beijing Review reported August last year that the company spent $28.48 million on environmental protection, although some Tibetans connected to the region say the environmental program was mainly tree plantations in a lower valley.
But money is not what the Tibetans are fighting for, says Tibet researcher Robert Barnett. He says Westerners assume Tibetans want more money from the mines, but that the real fight is not for money.
"What we hear Tibetans saying is not that they want more money, though of course they raised that generally about the fact that the money should be benefiting the area, but what they’ve been raising, though, is about the damage to their environment?the long term damage."
One Tibetan living in the San Francisco Bay Area who was originally from Gyama area, said he believes that the local Tibetans had protested against establishment of the mine.