Poverty project endangers Tibetans

15 June 1999

In early June the World Bank rushed to defend the proposed China Western Poverty Project from charges that it would disrupt the lives of ethnic Tibetans and had undergone too limited environmental scrutiny. After much pressure from China and pleas from Bank Management the project passed the Board in late June in the face of opposition from the US and Germany. No money will be paid for the most controversial component, however, until a claim to the Bank’s Inspection Panel is dealt with.

The project was drawn up to tackle poverty in Western China by providing seeds, fertilizer, insecticides, rural roads, and support for labour mobility and “voluntary settlement”.

The proposed transfer of about 60,000 people into a prefecture in Qinghai province which has Tibetan and Mongolian autonomous status triggered international concern. From Tibetan support organisations’ knowledge of the area, and two letters smuggled out from China, it was clear that Tibetans in the area faced further erosion of their cultural and economic status.

Whilst the World Bank says it evaluated the project’s merits on a purely economic basis, the Free Tibet Campaign points out that: “the approval of this project is political: China has for the first time secured international funding for population transfer onto indigenous Tibetan lands”. Consultation of people in the “move-in area” appears to have been inadequate, Only 5 per cent of households were interviewed in person, and despite county officials being present, 10 per cent of them opposed the project.

Yet it appears to be the relatively technical matter of environmental categorisation which most angered many Executive Directors. The project, which involves constructing a 40m high dam to irrigate a huge area of fragile arid land, was only rated environmental category B, thus escaping a full assessment.

A series of letters have been written to UK ministers and officials, and questions have been tabled in the House of Commons.

More information: tibetsupport@gn.apc.org.