Local Tibetans had petitioned for closure of the billion-dollar copper, silver and gold mine, owned by China Gold International Resources, after reports of poisoned drinking water.

The Chinese state-owned mine at the centre of a major tragedy this weekend is no stranger to controversy having previously been linked to serious environmental concerns.

More than 80 miners are reported to have been buried in a landslide at the Gyama copper, silver and gold mine, in Maizhokunggar county, around 70 kilometres from Lhasa. As of today, 36 bodies had been recovered.

As reported by Gabriel Lafitte on chinadialogue in 2011, the mine was said to pose a threat to the purity of local water supplies, after a study revealed that “elevated concentrations of heavy metals in the surface water and streambed at the upper/middle part of the valley pose a considerably high risk to the local environment…and to downstream water users”.

Local Tibetans had protested and sent a petition to Chinese authorities demanding the closure of the mine.

Instead the owners, a subsidiary of the state-owned China National Gold Group, which claims to be the largest gold producer in China, proceeded with a major expansion of the mine. Two-days before the landslide, China Gold’s chief executive Song Xin reportedly told South China Morning Post that both mines adhered to high standards of occupational health, safety and environmental protection.

The mine was expected to generate sales of 45.6 billion yuan (US$7.2 billion) over its lifetime for the company and 4.9 billion yuan (US$767 million) in Chinese government revenue from taxes.

China mining interests in the remote and often hostile climate of the Tibetan plateau have increased in recent years, aided by favourable government support, says Lafitte:

The mining companies benefit from state financing of railways, power stations and much other infrastructure, as well as receiving finance at concessional rates to corporate borrowers, tax holidays, minimal environmental standards and costs, no royalty payments to local communities and subsidised rail freight rates to get concentrates to smelters or metal to markets. It is these state subsidies that tip the balance towards medium-scale mines in several Tibetan locations, rather than one more big Chinese copper mine overseas.

For Tibet, says Lafitte, it signifies the region’s integration into the Chinese industrial economy.


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