World Bank project is a ‘death sentence’, Tibetans say

By Abid Aslam, Asia Times, 9 June 1999

WASHINGTON—The World Bank is drawing fire over its plans to fund a project to move Chinese peasants from barren hillsides to plains traditionally inhabited by minority Tibetans and Mongolians.

The bank has been forced to delay a decision on the proposed China Western Poverty Reduction Project from June 8 until June 22, to allow for some of the most intense discussions we've ever had on a single project, says Bank spokesman Peter Stephens.

Chief critics of the lending agency are the Dalai Lama's office and international Tibet support groups, who say the project will boost Chinese colonial ambitions, while human rights organizations fear the project will involve prison labor. Green groups also have attacked the World Bank for allegedly skirting its own environmental standards.

Questions about the project have been raised by U.S., Canadian, European and Japanese lawmakers and late last month, U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin told a Congressional committee that the government is inclined to oppose it.

The project will cost some $311 million and the bank is weighing in with $100 millionin soft loans and $60 million at market rates. This includes $40 million to help 58,000 poor Chinese move west some 450 kilometers from the severely eroded hillsides of Qinghai province—a region sometimes compared to the surface of the moon—to barren but cultivable land in Dulan county.

The settlers—including members of the Han Chinese majority and the Hui, Tu and Salar minorities—will make their new homes in an officially designated Tibetan and Mongolian Autonomous Area.

They are the lucky few, according to a briefing paper submitted to the bank's executive board. The document notes that 170,000 people applied to be resettled and the chosen 58,000 are among the poorest people in the world, with incomes of about $60 per year.

Project beneficiaries are to move within one year, settle down in two, eliminate the condition of inadequate food and clothing within three years, and extricate themselves from poverty, according to project documents.

However, Tibetans in Dulan wrote recently to their allies overseas, saying: In the event the resettlement project is carried out with World Bank financing, then the World Bank will have participated in passing a death sentence on us here.

In particular, the Tibetans fear increased conflict with the Salar, shepherds descended from ancient Turkic rulers, in a region that has seen many killings over pasture land.

Many of us will die in the conflicts and even if we survive, where do we go? Tibetans ask in a hand-written letter translated by compatriots in New York. As it is, we do not have sufficient pasture to support our animals. How is the land going to support tens of thousands of new Muslim Salar settlers?

In the long run, roads and other infrastructure built under the project will pave the way for mining operations in the region, critics point out. In turn, the mines will attract even more non-Tibetans.

The area has seen lots of mineral exploration, notes Mary Beth Markey, government relations director at the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet. Bringing in nearly 60,000 Chinese farmers could be seen as setting up a bread basket to feed more Chinese who will be brought in as miners.

If the proportion of Tibetans and Mongolians falls far enough, Markey fears, autonomous status could be withdrawn from an area that is one-tenth the Tibetan plateau.

By the bank's own estimates, Dulan's Tibetan population will fall from 22.7 percent to 14 percent as a result of the project and Mongols will see their share dwindle from 14.1 percent to 6.7 percent.

The percentage of Han Chinese will decline from 53.1 percent to 47.5 percent but other groups will increase—especially the Hui, ethnic Chinese converts to Islam—who will see their proportion rise from 7.2 percent to 22.1 percent.

Nevertheless, bank officials say, the Chinese government has assured them that it will respect local rights. They further note that the project includes provisions for schools and cultural centers to protect Tibetan language and heritage. They describe Dulan as adjacent to Tibet, which China annexed in 1959.

They also say that local authorities have promised in writing not to use labor from a prison farm 48km from the settlement site. Exiled Chinese dissident Harry Wu has accused the bank of funding several past projects that could have supported or benefited from prison labor.

Apart from resettlement, the project involves a dam, irrigation, land conversion and intensification of population pressure on fragile lands, says Dana Clark, senior attorney at the Washington-based Center for International Environmental Law.

Yet it has been classified by the bank as a ‘Category B’ project, hence receiving a minimal environmental assessment. We believe this is a clear violation of World Bank policy.

Privately, some bank staff agree that environmental checks should have been more stringent. Officially, however, the agency maintains that the project will increase crop production without causing harm to the natural surrounds.

Green groups also fault the bank for withholding environmental reports in violation of its public-disclosure policies and say that project documents so far made available contain no reference to an ‘Indigenous People's Development Plan’, also required by bank rules.

We acknowledge that we have not complied with our procedures in one aspect—we did not make the Environmental Impact Assessment public before appraising the project, a bank paper says.

However, the project includes a pilot phase . . . designed to test and resolve any doubts on the environmental aspects of the project.

(Inter Press Service)