Tag Archives: workers rights

Mining Rubble: Tibet’s Mineral Resources and Fragile Ecology

jaima mine tibet. Image from China Daily

The ecology of the Tibetan plateau, noted the Ministry of Land and Resources two years ago, is “extremely fragile”. Any damage, it warned, would be difficult or impossible to reverse. But, it went on, the China National Gold Group, a state-owned company, had achieved “astonishing results” in working to protect the environment around its mine near the region’s capital, Lhasa. On March 29th at least 83 of the mine’s workers lay buried under a colossal landslide. Its cause is not yet certain, but critics of Tibet’s mining frenzy feel vindicated.

The disaster at the Jiama copper and gold mine, about 70km (45 miles) north-west of Lhasa, has clearly embarrassed the government in Beijing. According to China Digital Times, a California-based media-monitoring website, the Communist Party ordered newspapers to stick to reports issued by the government and the state-owned news agency, Xinhua.

Foreign reporters are rarely allowed into Tibet, least of all to cover sensitive incidents. The official media have avoided speculation about any possible link between the landslide and mining activities in the area. They say the landslide covered a large area with 2m cubic metres of rubble. By the time The Economist went to press, 66 bodies had been pulled out by teams of rescuers with sniffer dogs. The high altitude and lack of oxygen made rescue work hard. A deputy minister of land and resources, Xu Deming, said preliminary investigations had shown that the landslide was caused by a “natural geological disaster”. Fragments of rock left behind by receding glaciers are being blamed, though officials do not explain why the workers’ camp was set up so close to such an apparent hazard.

The Tibetan government-in-exile based in India says it fears the disaster was caused by work related to the mine, which appears to have grown rapidly since construction began in 2008. It was formally opened two years later, at a ceremony attended by Tibet’s most senior officials. The $520m investment was described at the time as the biggest in Tibet’s mining industry by a firm belonging to the central government. The mine is owned by China Gold International Resources, a company listed in Hong Kong and Toronto. China National Gold Group is the controlling shareholder.

Tibet has been trying hard in recent years to encourage such companies to dig up the plateau’s metals and minerals. It has a lot of them to offer: China’s biggest reserves of copper and chromite (used in steel production), among the world’s biggest of lithium (used to make batteries), as well as abundant reserves of uranium, gold, borax (a component of ceramics and glass) and oil. Extracting these, however, often involves boring into a landscape considered sacred by Tibetans.

The Jiama mine, in a valley known to Tibetans as Gyama and revered as the birthplace of a seventh-century Tibetan king, has been the focus of protests by locals angered by environmental and other issues. Water from the valley flows into the Lhasa river. Woeser, a Tibetan activist based in Beijing, has blogged about locals’ fear that their water supplies will be polluted.

Tibetan resentment has been fuelled by the mining industry’s failure to provide much direct employment.

Excerpts, Mining in Tibet: The price of gold, Economist, April 6, 2013, at 54

Ship Recycling or Ship Breaking; Greens against workers

At its height in 2008 Bangladesh’s ship-breaking industry accounted for half of all ships scrapped in the world, according to IHS, a consultancy. Today the country accounts for around a fifth. In these years Bangladeshi ship breakers found themselves at the forefront of criticism as NGOs and pressure groups exposed some of the worst practices causing environmental and human harm. These included high health risks due to injuries, noxious fumes and the handling of asbestos. Critics say one way in which Bangladesh competes on cost is that poor workers are unlikely to file claims for accidents or bad health. Another advantage is (or was) the use of child labour.

In 2009 the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA), a public-advocacy group, convinced the Supreme Court to ban all ship recycling not meeting certain environmental standards. The court’s decision meant that by 2010 the ship-breaking industry had come to a halt. Zahirul Islam of PHP, a local manufacturer with a big ship-breaking division (the industry prefers to call it ship recycling), says that for 14 months the company was unable to import a single vessel for breaking.  Knock-on effects hurt the wider economy. A World Bank study estimated that ship breaking employed over 200,000 in Bangladesh. Many of the jobs were subsequently lost. And domestic steel prices rose sharply. Half of all Bangladesh’s steel comes from breaking ships.  Under pressure from the ship breakers, Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, has since relaxed the regulations. Hefzatur Rahman, president of the Bangladesh Ship Breakers Association, believes this has saved the industry. From just a score of vessels scrapped in the main part of Chittagong two years ago, about 150 were broken up in 2011.

Greens are not happy and want the ban reimposed. Delphine Reuter of the Shipbreaking Platform, an NGO in Brussels, describes ship recycling as “close to slavery”. It and BELA are leading the call for more regulation. That bothers international shipping firms and ship brokers, which argue that Bangladeshi ship breakers have cleaned up their act.

At the International Maritime Organisation, the UN agency responsible for curbing shipping pollution and ensuring safety, the head of pollution prevention, Nikos Mikelis, says environmentalists present Bangladesh with a false choice. “They say they are happy to have the industry, but not on the beaches. Where do they want it? In the mountains?”

Ship breaking in Bangladesh: Hard to break up, Economist, Oct. 27, 2012, at 44