Palmo Tenzin

How human rights protections offer an alternative future for biodiversity conservation in Tibet

The COP15 UN biodiversity conference is beginning this Wednesday in Montreal, Canada. It was meant to be held in Kunming, China, under China’s presidency, but was rescheduled and relocated due to strict COVID restrictions in China, as well as delays in the ambitious negotiation process.

The COP15 on biodiversity is a meeting of countries signatory to the convention on global biodiversity. Although the meeting on biodiversity enjoys less fanfare than its climate change meeting counterpart, this 15th meeting of the parties is a major calendar event. It is carving out a post-2030 global framework for biological diversity conservation, and it is being ambitious in setting targets and indicators. Biodiversity is critical, as it is a measure of the earth’s environmental health and resilience—something we will need as we face increasing pressures from climate change.

While there are many contestations in the negotiations, the International Campaign for Tibet is concerned by the methods used to achieve the targets. Any solution to biodiversity should always include human rights protections, such as the right to information, right to consultation, and right to participation, remedy and compensation in cases of abuse.

In the past, it has not been enough to push for such human rights protections. For many, human rights seem unrelated to the issue of biodiversity, dismissed as an unrelated political issue, agenda or distraction. But in this article, I want to show how human rights protections offer an alternative future for biodiversity conservation in Tibet, one that is worth pursuing. I want to do this through a counterfactual for the situation in Tibet. I want to explain how human rights protections and genuine participation can empower and activate a community whose health is tied to its regional biodiversity. Through a counterfactual, I hope to show why it is just as important to set the standards on methodology and not just the end goals of biodiversity. These lessons will not only be relevant to biodiversity, but also climate change responses.

Tibetans: ecological natives and environmental stewards?

First of all, I’m not offering up Tibetans as model “native ecologists” or natural “environmental warriors.” Tibetans, Tibetan culture and Tibetan Buddhism cannot and should not be essentialized and simplified to fit an externally defined environmental criterion to be deemed worthy of attention and support. More importantly, western concepts of ecology, environmental protection and climate change don’t fit neatly with the Tibetan worldview or the vocabulary that Tibetans use when they engage with environmental issues. However, Tibetans are environmentally conscious and conveniently endowed with cosmological and normative frameworks that should not be lost and that make them well suited to designing sustainable environmental initiatives in their homeland. Here I want to draw out some of the concepts in the Tibetan worldview and religion to demonstrate why empowering Tibetans to speak up and engage without fear is so important for Tibet’s environment.

Tibetan cosmology: mutually sustaining relationship with nature and deities of the landscape

Cosmology is how we understand our creation and relationship with nature and the universe. Tibetans have a cosmology grounded in the concept of “the container and its contents.” The container is the world, and the sentient beings are the contents or the inhabitants. While Tibetans can and do interpret this analogy in slightly different ways, the essence is that the container and its contents exist in an interdependent relationship.

In addition to this, worldly territorial spirits and deities inhabit the natural landscape, such as lakes, mountains and rivers. These spirits have agency and can be both benevolent (providing protection and prosperity) and wrathful (unleashing natural disasters and other misfortunes) based on the conduct of local individuals or the community.[1] With this worldview, Tibetans live in a mutually sustaining relationship with the nature and the deities of their local land. This cosmology predates the arrival of Buddhism to Tibet and is rooted in indigenous traditions.

This view treats all land as important, with sacred sites perceived to be more critical. To illustrate this, some Tibetans draw an analogy with the body and its organs, arguing that injuring a sacred mountain is similar to injuring a critical organ like the heart or brain.[2] Combining this with the interdependent relationship between the container and its contents, one elderly Tibetan pastoralist describes how “digging gold from the mountain is like taking my heart out of my body.”[3]

Tibetan Buddhism

Buddhism arrived in Tibet in the seventh century under the reign of King Songtsen Gampo and has since become the dominant religion of Tibetan society. Buddhist principles of no-self, interdependence, compassion, non-harming and karma have significantly shaped Tibetan views and approaches to the natural environment, especially in the treatment of living beings.

While these concepts do shape a broader Buddhist environmental philosophy or ethics, there is no singular definition of Buddhist environmental philosophy. As a result, there can be variations in how Buddhist principles are interpreted in the environmental context. For example, as Emily Yeh points out, the Buddhist law on cause and effect and, in particular, the concept of karma can treat environmental destruction as the fruit of past individual and communal karma, which can only be corrected with improving one’s mind and conduct over infinite lifetimes.[4] Extending this logic, an individual could choose to seek spiritual education and service to others with a goal to benefit future lifetimes over engaging in immediate environmental interventions in the present.

Putting it all together: conserving biodiversity

Conserving biodiversity requires a people who are empowered and a culture rooted in environmental consciousness. So, if human rights protections are secured in the post-Global Biodiversity Framework, how might Tibetans apply their cosmology and Buddhist religion to manage biodiversity? One successful example is the management of sacred sites.

Sacred landscapes

Local Tibetan communities or monasteries have already taken the initiative to manage sacred sites, with some even negotiating legal rights through community conservation agreements.[5] Through establishing environmental associations or NGOs, or working through existing monastic institutions, Tibetans have been protecting sacred sites by engaging in activities such as monitoring and regulating hunting, fishing, logging, mining, grazing, harvesting or other destructive activities. Some have also been cataloguing and monitoring local flora and fauna, replanting trees, and organizing waste removal as well as community environmental education activities. Many have also begun with sacred sites and extended their work into other landscapes. What is distinct about their approach is that Tibetans are not prioritizing specific animals above others or drawing on financial rewards to induce good behavior.

Tibetan environmentalists have found that drawing on Tibetan cosmology, culture and Buddhism is useful for environmental protection, as these traditional frameworks shape the rules of human use of nature and make environmental protection an ethical, rather than economic, issue. In doing so, it creates a culture of self-surveillance and accountability.

Human rights: a prerequisite

For Tibetans inside Tibet working on environmental issues, it has been clear that “Tibetan cultural survival, religious continuity and ecological health are inseparably linked.”[6] However, it is equally important to recognize that human rights are the prerequisite for all.

We saw this with Rinchen Samdup, who drew on Tibetan culture and religion to mobilize his community around illegal poaching and deforestation in his area. In 2003, Rinchen together with his brother Karma Samdup and friend Tador created an environmental group with more than 1,000 adult residents from 11 hamlets. They drew up a detailed list of rules and fines for hunting and fishing in their community area and plans for afforestation that saw half a million sea buckthorn, spruce and poplars in the first two years. They also organized community garbage clean-ups, wildlife patrols and monitoring, and environmental education activities, including the publication of an environmental protection journal.

Rinchen later went on to co-found the Three Rivers Environmental Protection Group with his brothers Karma Samdup and Chime Namgyal. Despite being recognized as award-winning environmental activists, Rinchen and Chime were arrested in August 2009 for challenging a local police chief who hunted endangered species on a Tibetan nature reserve.[7] Rinchen was sentenced to five years in prison, while Chime received a 21-month prison sentence. Karma, who lobbied for their release, was arrested on Jan. 3, 2010 and subsequently sentenced to 15 years in prison. He is due for release in 2025.

As long as human rights are not protected, meaningful environmental protection work and biodiversity conservation will remain precarious and secondary.


[1] Annabella Pitkin, ‘Sustaining the Sacred Mountains: Tibetan Environmentalism and Sacred Landscape in a Time of Conflict’. Volume II Intellectual History of Key Concepts, edited by Gregory Adam Scott and Stefania Travagnin, Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 2020, page147.

[2] Emily Yeh, ‘Reverse environmentalism: Contemporary articulations of Tibetan culture, Buddhism and environmental protection’. Religion and Ecological sustainability in China, edited by James Miller, Dan Smyer Yu, and Peter van der Veer, 2014, page 192.

[3] Yonten Nyima and Emily Yeh, ‘Environmental Issues and Conflict in Tibet’. Ethnic Conflict and Protest in Tibet and Xinjiang: Unrest in China’s West, edited by Ben Hillman and Gray Tuttle, Columbia University Press, 2016, page 168.

[4] Op. Cit., Yeh, ‘Reverse environmentalism: Contemporary articulations of Tibetan culture, Buddhism and environmental protection,’ 2014, pages 201-204.-

[5] See cases such as the Voluntary Association for the Protection of the Natural Environment of Domed Anchung Sengge Namzong, Khawakarbo Culture Society, Nyanbo Yutse Environmental Association, and more small scale local village initiatives such as anti-poaching patrols on Karpo Lhasham mountain in Gomri village, Hashul Township, Yushul prefecture, Qinghai.

[6] Op. Cit., Yeh, Reverse environmentalism: Contemporary articulations of Tibetan culture, Buddhism and environmental protection,’ 2014, pages 214-215 and Pitkin, ‘Sustaining the Sacred Mountains: Tibetan Environmentalism and Sacred Landscape in a Time of Conflict’, 2020, page 193.

[7] International Campaign for Tibet, 4 August 2010, ‘”A sharp knife above his head”: the trials and sentencing of three environmentalist brothers in Tibet’,

We need to talk about Tibet’s role in climate change and what Tibetans offer

Last week in Glasgow, I chaired a very special COP26 panel on climate change in Tibet titled “Tibet’s Climate Crisis: Critical Lessons for Global Climate Policy.” The event was cohosted by the International Tibet Network, Free Tibet, Tibet Watch, Students for a Free Tibet and the International Campaign for Tibet, as well as the Tibet Policy Institute. COP26 is a major UN climate conference that has brought together leaders from around the world.

The panel was special because it brought together a glaciologist, anthropologist, policy analyst and civil society researcher and activist to speak on Tibet’s climate. This rare conversation offered an opportunity to construct a more complete image of Tibet’s climate from individuals who approach Tibet through different frameworks and with different foci.

Despite their diverse backgrounds, all the speakers agreed that Tibet’s climate needed urgent attention. In their presentations, Dr. Martin Mills (senior lecturer in Anthropology) highlighted Tibet’s critical role as the center of continental Asia’s water cycle and therefore central role as the lifeblood of the region. Dr. Tobias Bolch (glaciologist and remote sensing expert) showed how rising temperatures are increasing glacial and permafrost melt, and how this would significantly impact the water resources of highly populous downstream countries, with particular respect to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Dr. Mills and Dr. Bolch also underscored the dangerous lack of scientific information on the region. Ms. Dechen Palmo (research fellow) showed how glacial melt was causing glacial lake expansion and the ways in which local Tibetans drew on traditional communal practices to respond to the flooding of villages and pastures. Dr. Lobsang Yangtso (research and campaign assistant) explained how environmental and legal education was needed in Tibet so that Tibetans were empowered and protected when undertaking environmental activism. She also highlighted the role that platforms like the COP26 conference should play in making space for groups, like Tibetans, who are at the frontline of climate change and best placed to monitor and mitigate climate change.

Panelists were also quizzed on what they believed should be done to tackle climate change in Tibet. Across the board, it was clear that climate change in Tibet needed urgent attention in order to prevent environmental hazards—such as landslides, floods, and droughts—that seriously impact the livelihoods of over 1 billion people downstream. Panelists also emphasized the need to open up Tibet to scientific research and meaningfully include local Tibetan people and their traditional knowledge in climate responses. After all, Tibetans are the people on the ground who know how the environment changes with the seasons, what unusual weather is, how the local animals behave and how to navigate tough terrain and conditions on foot, horseback or with yaks. This is the kind of valuable partner you need when conducting research and monitoring studies. It is also the partner you want protecting the land that supports Asia’s population, because it is their home. They are not intermittently sent to locations to conduct research for a couple of years. It is their home and their futures are tied to the wellbeing of the land.

For me, there were two key takeaway messages, which are closely related. First, not enough people understand the importance of Tibet for the regional climate and environment. This is no doubt because Tibet is censored by China in international conversations, lest it receive the serious attention that it deserves as the source of Asia’s water and food security. Unfortunately, because of these attempts to silence Tibet and Tibetans, many haven’t heard the science or the Tibetan voices and can’t see the need for urgent climate action. We, therefore, each have a role to play in sharing information about Tibet’s climate and environment and underscoring the urgency of action.

Second, there is so much to be gained from open dialogue across disciplines and sectors that work on Tibet’s climate. This panel was unanimous in highlighting the serious threat climate change poses for Tibet and Asia. It showed that this was a serious issue that transcends politics and individual countries. In addition to explaining the climate problem, the panel also provided potential solutions. For example, it showed how sustainable responses to climate change in Tibet can come from Tibetans inside Tibet who draw on their traditional communal practices. Not all climate solutions have to be grand, top-down, high-tech engineering projects. In fact, such responses are often the least suitable and unsustainable for places like Tibet. It’s therefore clear that more interdisciplinary exchanges are needed so that decision-makers can learn about the urgency of Tibet’s climate crisis and, at the same time, be introduced to potential solutions that they would not normally hear or even know were possible.

A world heritage in danger: World Heritage Committee reviews Lhasa’s UNESCO-protected cultural heritage

Before and after shots of the Jokhang Temple entrance dated 2014 (left) and May 2020 (right) by Tsering Woeser[1]

This week, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee is meeting online to discuss the management of select UNESCO-protected cultural and natural heritage sites. From Wednesday, July 21, to Friday, July 23, the historic ensemble of the Potala Palace—comprising the Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple and the Norbulingka area—is scheduled for review.

This year’s review of the historical ensemble of the Potala Palace is of particular interest, as there is mounting evidence of mismanagement and institutional disregard for the cultural heritage of Tibet— both serious threats to what UNESCO terms the “Outstanding Universal Value” of the site and sufficient reason to inscribe the site as “Heritage in Danger.” The review, previously scheduled for 2020, was also postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and is notably being hosted in Fuzhou, China. As a result, a discussion of the Potala site is unlikely due to the host country’s political sensitivities. Despite this limitation, it is important to review the historical management of the site, sustain efforts and continue to pressure the World Heritage Committee to fulfil the mission of the World Heritage Convention and apply the Operational Guidelines, which set out the criteria for effective management of a UNESCO-protected site.

A concerning response to the 2018 Jokhang fire

First, there is still uncertainty about the February 2018 fire that engulfed the Jokhang Temple. Very little information is known about the cause, effects and response to the fire. Although a Reactive Monitoring Mission in 2019 concluded that “the 2018 fire did not affect the whole of the structures, art, or belief system of the Jokhang Temple,”[2] there still remains a high level of secrecy around the incident. Even China’s required 2019 “state of conservation report” about the site was not publicized until the International Campaign for Tibet pressed the UNESCO World Heritage Centre on its absence. A two-page executive summary was subsequently published one month after the required date; it described minimal damage and provided no detail about a restoration or conservation plan.

The “unresolved” pavilions in front of the Jokhang Temple

Second, in 2020, China constructed two new Chinese-style pavilions directly in front of the Jokhang Temple. The construction of the two large pavilions, which stand in stark contrast to the Jokhang Temple, notably began during the first COVID-19 lockdown and only became known to the public on April 28, 2020, already near its completion.

As is customary with World Heritage Committee meetings, the UNESCO World Heritage Centre (WHC) publishes a report on the state of conservation at each site and outlines a draft decision to be considered by the committee. In its report on the historic ensemble of the Potala Palace, the WHC recommends the pavilions be redesigned “to be less visually prominent and less historically confusing.”[3] The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), an organization that provides technical expertise to UNESCO, also “advised that they [the pavilions] have a negative impact on the cultural setting and cultural context of the Jokhang Temple Monastery” and stated “alternative solutions should be considered.”[4]

Despite the expert advice and subsequent correspondence between China and the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, the report describes the matter over the newly constructed pavilions as “unresolved,”[5] suggesting China has failed to accept and act on the advice; another cause for serious concern. In fact, the advice by the WHC for the pavilions to be “less visually prominent” and to be “less historically confusing” appears to be a moderately put ask. The “alternative solution,” as implied by ICOMOS, could be their demolition.

Timeline: The construction of the pavilions in front of the Jokhang Temple

Heritage management without boundaries and conservation plans

Third, and perhaps one of the clearest indicators of institutional disregard for heritage management, China has failed to provide the UNESCO World Heritage Centre clearly defined boundaries for the heritage site and buffer zones for 18 years. Similarly, requests for a conservation plan for the site has been outstanding for 14 years. This means that UNESCO does not clearly know the boundaries of the heritage site, nor how its heritage will be managed into the future.

Tourists prioritized above Buddhist worshippers at the Jokhang Temple

Finally, it is important to note that the Jokhang Temple and other components of the Historic Ensemble of the Potala Palace are living culture. The buildings are not relics or museums that reflect a culture frozen in time from the past. Local Tibetans as well as pilgrims from across Tibet visit the sacred Jokhang Temple to prostrate, circumambulate, pray, give alms and gather. It is the people, their knowledge and their relationship to the site and their practices that give meaning, value and create a unique culture. However, in the name of COVID-prevention, on May 19, 2021 Chinese authorities introduced new rules to separate pilgrim and tourist visiting times and prioritize tourists.[6] New rules allow Buddhist worshippers to visit the temple between 8 am and 11:30 am (3.5 hours), while tourists may visit between noon and 7:30 pm (7.5 hours). While the WHC conservation report indicated that ICOMOS reviewed pilgrim and tourism management of the Jokhang Temple plaza, it is not clear if this included the May 19 rules.

While some may rejoice that there is at least some transparency and an attempt at accountability in the UNESCO World Heritage management system, the mission to protect cultural heritage (as outlined in the World Heritage Convention) is not genuine if the World Heritage Committee does not act on reliable information about consistent mismanagement. The World Heritage Committee member states should therefore invoke more serious measures, such as consider inscribing the site as a World Heritage in Danger. As per paragraph 179 of the Operational Guidelines,[7] the lack of conservation policy and threatening effects of regional planning projects, as well as significant loss of historical authenticity are at least three criteria that the property satisfies for inscription on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

Over the past decades, Lhasa has seen a tremendous loss of Tibetan cultural heritage. If UNESCO and its member states take their role seriously, the longstanding mismanagement of UNESCO-protected sites such as the Jokhang and the surrounding old Town of Lhasa must have consequences. If UNESCO doesn’t act, Lhasa’s UNESCO-protected sites and Tibetan cultural heritage will suffer further irreparable damage.

In the meantime the Chinese government will draw international recognition and prestige from its UNESCO sites and present itself as guardian of Tibetan cultural heritage, which it is not.


[1] Facebook post by Tsering Woeser, 7 May 2020,

[2] United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 21 June 2021, ‘Item 7B of the Provisional Agenda: State of conservation of properties inscribed on the World Heritage List’,, page 19.

[3] Ibid., page 20.

[4] Ibid., page 19.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Radio Free Asia, 18 May 2021, ‘China Cuts Hours for Tibetan Buddhists at Lhasa’s Jokhang Temple to Half That of Tourists’,

[7] World Heritage Centre, July 2012, ‘Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention’, United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organisation,, paragraph 177-179.