Dalai Lama wants to go green

By Saransh Sehgal

DHARAMSALA, India – United States secret diplomatic documents disclosed by WikiLeaks have shown that the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader in exile, wants to shift the focus of the Free Tibet movement from Tibet’s political future onto climate change in the Himalayan region.

Frustrated by the stagnation of five decades of political wrestling with Beijing over Tibet’s future, analysts say, the Dalai Lama now hopes that pressing Beijing over climate change in Tibet will attract more attention and support inside and outside of China.

Near the end of 2010, WikiLeaks released a series of Washington’s diplomatic secrets related to the Dalai Lama, Tibet and India. The most controversial revealed that the Dalai Lama told Timothy Roemer, the US ambassador to India, that the political agenda should be sidelined in favor of climate issues.

“The political agenda should be sidelined for five to 10 years and the international community should shift its focus to climate change on the Tibetan plateau. Melting glaciers, deforestation and increasingly polluted water from mining projects were problems that ‘cannot wait’, but the Tibetans could wait five to 10 years for a political solution,” the leaked memo quoted the 75-year-old Nobel peace laureate as telling ambassador Roemer during a 2009 meeting between the two, according to the cable obtained by WikiLeaks and released by British newspaper the Guardian.

The Dalai Lama also hoped for Washington’s support for his new approach. “The Dalai Lama requested the United States consider engaging China on environmental issues in Tibet,” the leaked US memo said, and Roemer speculated that “the Dalai Lama’s message may signal a broader shift in strategy to reframe the Tibet issue as an environmental concern”.

Interestingly, this tactical change was revealed at a time when many in the exiled Tibetan community are becoming impatient with their god-king’s “middle way” approach and are eagerly awaiting the election of a new exiled leadership in March 2011. The Dalai Lama himself has pledged to give up his political role after the election.

The Dalai Lama’s new tactic has become a hot subject among Tibetans in exile. Many hope this will attract more attention and bring more support not only from their compatriots inside Tibet, but also from foreign countries and environmental organizations. Many exiled Tibetans here also think it is a very wise move by the Dalai Lama. For, while he is unlikely to see a political settlement on the Tibet issue in his lifetime, he could keep the world’s focus on Tibet by highlighting the climate issue.

The Tibetan region, the world’s largest and highest plateau, is well known among environmental activists as the Earth’s “third pole”. It contains the biggest ice fields outside the Arctic or Antarctic, and its glacial melt has direct consequences even outside of the region. No other area in the world has a water repository of such size as in Tibet, where it serves as a lifeline for much of the continent and millions of people in countries downstream.

In its efforts to integrate the Tibetan region under its full control, the Chinese government has fully utilized the Himalayan plateau for its industrial potential. Extensive mineral exploitation, hydropower projects and the mining of uranium – of which Tibet contains the world’s largest known reserves – have been going on unchecked, leaving the region irreparably marred.

The Dalai Lama blasted “China’s energy policies, alleging that dam construction in Kham and Amdo has displaced thousands of Tibetans and left temples and monasteries underwater. He recommended that Beijing compensate Tibetans for disrupting their nomadic lifestyle with vocational training, such as weaving,” noted the leaked memo.

The West has already shown its deep concern. Western scientists and development specialists have been watching the environmental situation in the Tibet region and reacting with alarm. At the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009 in Copenhagen, a joint Tibetan and Western multi-disciplinary team called the International Network of Parliamentarians on Tibet brought the environmental crisis in Tibet and the fate of Tibet’s nomads to the attention of negotiators, the media and the general public. In an open letter to the conference it said:

We write to urge that the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen give serious attention to the “Third Pole”, as Tibet is known for being the largest repository of glacially stored water outside of the Arctic and Antarctic. We believe that multinational policies to mitigate the causes of and adapt to the effects of climate change must consider the challenges of climate change in Tibet, and include the direct participation of Tibetan stakeholders, particularly nomads. This is now a global issue and of huge importance.

The UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier de Schutter, recently asked the Chinese government to reassess its policies, which are displacing people in Tibet and Inner Mongolia. In response to the UN report, the Environment and Development Desk of the exiled Central Tibetan Administration at Dharamsala, India, said the UN report showed that Chinese government policies for Tibetan nomads were unsuccessful.

Particularly telling are data obtained by Chinese researchers. The scientists found that the total surface area of glaciers has decreased 17% in the last 30 years; many have even disappeared. But of even greater importance than area is ice volume. These measurement efforts – a challenging task at 5,000 meters or higher – show that “the impact of climate change on some Himalayan glaciers is much worse than previously thought”, advises Tian Lide, a glaciologist associated with the Third Pole Environment Program.

On the other hand, Beijing takes no advice on Tibet from outside voices and claims to be urbanizing the large nomadic population. Chinese authorities recently said that Tibet maintained steady economic growth in 2010, with the annual gross domestic product (GDP) estimated at 50.6 billion yuan (US$ 7.7 billion). The figures go up year after year, which makes Tibet the fastest growing among China’s provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities.
And it is not that Chinese authorities do not recognize that climate change is happening in Tibet. Beijing has already issued its “White Paper” on ecological improvement and environmental protection in Tibet. Zhang Yongze, director general of the region’s environmental protection bureau, said the scale of environmental problems facing Tibet called for a concerted response, and he singled out climate change as a key worry.

Analysts believe that the Dalai Lama’s new focus on climate concerns will affect Tibet’s political stature as well, and could be a game-changer in the long term.

Samphel Thupten, the spokesman for the Tibetan government in exile, said about the WikiLeaks memos: “Now the international pressure on Beijing will increase, and the international community will convince Chinese leaders that it is in China’s own interest to develop a plan which would enrich the Chinese people and ensure sustainability, but does not damage China’s environment.”

Interestingly, radical young Tibetan exiles who push for full independence of Tibet and protest every move by Beijing have mixed reactions on the climate tactic. They support the Dalai Lama’s climate call, but do not want to wait for five to 10 years on the political front.

Among the most radical groups in exile is the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC). Its joint secretary, Tenzin Norsang, told Asia Times Online that with the environmental issue “we can raise our political issue as well”. He explained that although the group and many Tibetan exiles had different stances on political issues, on the environment “we are together”.

“Our concern is its political value. Climate change in Tibet affects all of Asia. Then of course, the global climate campaigners will join us to pressure China. Climate is a way to keep the issue of Tibet at a global level and gain us more supporters,” he said. He also said support would come from many Westerners who are not as concerned with the political future of Tibet as with environmental problems in the region.

But many some Tibetans in exile are less optimistic. “It is already too late for the Tibetan people and those richly forested mountains inside Tibet, which have become bald like a monk’s head. But now that these environmental impacts are creating problems not only to the six million Tibetans living on the Tibetan plateau but also to the other millions of people living on the continent, pressure will mount on Beijing,” said Tsering, an elderly monk in exile.

Tibetans in exile have already launched initiatives with Western organizations that aim to call attention to issues like climate change and China’s coercive resettlement of nomads. The Tibet Third Pole is one such group that shows the world how climate change is threatening Tibet’s ecosystem.

Tibetans watched closely as the United States launched the Strategic and Economic Dialogue with China, and they want the US to reach out to China on climate issues in Tibet. Other WikiLeaks documents show the Dalai Lama asking diplomats to “use all effective means to persuade the PRC [People's Republic of China] to engage in dialogue with him” and urging Washington
to take action that would “make an impact” in Beijing. “Tibet is a dying nation. We need America’s help,” the Dalai Lama said in one cable.

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