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’, https://savetibet.org/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.

Lessons from Tibet for COP15 biodiversity conference

By Palmo Tenzin, ICT Germany
Palmo Tenzin is the Advocacy and Research Officer at the International Campaign for Tibet in Germany, where she primarily focuses on advocating for Tibet at United Nations institutions. Palmo has an academic background in Sinology and is an experienced policy officer.


This week, countries are meeting virtually to open the first sessions of the COP15 conference on biodiversity in Kunming, People’s Republic of China. This conference is significant, as it will finalize the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework—a new ambitious plan to halt and reverse the loss of the planet’s plants, animals and ecosystems.[1]

This year’s biodiversity conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity is split into two sessions. The first session is currently underway in Kunming and is a virtual, largely ceremonial event which will culminate in a “Kunming Declaration.” The second session is where the key negotiations will play out and will be an in-person meeting from April 25 to May 8, 2022. The location of the meeting has yet to be confirmed.

Why is COP15 so important?

The new Global Biodiversity Framework is not only an opportunity to set ambitious targets to halt and reverse biodiversity loss, it is also an opportunity to shape a binding vision with a compliance mechanism in global environmental management—a first in the environmental space. The GBF can be a new mechanism that can institutionalize and operationalize human rights principles, such as the rule of law, participatory development, transparent governance, and compliance and accountability in environmental governance. Such success would empower citizens, including Tibetans, to access information, submit complaints and seek effective remedy when states have failed to fulfil their duties with respect to environmental management.

In the long run, the framework can further streamline the ecosystem approach to environmental conservation, which assesses environments according to the biological unit of the ecosystem; treats ecosystem management as a social process that must involve communities; and recognizes the need to balance the conflicting goals of conservation and economic and social interests. This approach is also more consistent with traditional Tibetan conceptions of the environment. For example, as one Tibetan environmental activist noted:[2]

“In the Tibetan approach to environmental protection, all living beings are equal. The [W]estern approach designates certain places as protected and leaves other places out … The livelihood and outlook of local farmers and nomads are central to successful environmental protection.”

Institutionalizing the ecosystem approach also creates future opportunities to address environmental challenges in Tibet that are transboundary (such as river systems, mountains, grasslands), consult and involve local communities and confront the drivers of biodiversity loss (such as urbanization, mining and in-migration).

What role can Tibet play in the biodiversity conversation?

Tibet is a region rich in biodiversity, and the biodiversity challenges facing Tibet offer insights into what is needed to shape a practical, inclusive, and accountable Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.

The Tibetan Plateau is characterized by four large ecosystems which contain over 12,000 species of vascular plants, 5,000 species of organisms that grow on plants, 210 species of mammals, 532 species of birds and 115 species of fish.[3] The Tibetan Plateau is also situated at the intersection of three biodiversity hotspots—defined as the earth’s most biologically rich but threatened terrestrial regions.[4] These biodiversity hotspots have at least 1,500 vascular plants not found elsewhere and have 30% or less of its original natural vegetation.[5]

Conserving Tibet’s biodiversity ensures ecosystems are more stable, productive and resilient to environmental stress—including climate change. A biodiverse ecosystem also ensures the healthy provision of ecosystems services[6] and natural resources that at least 1.4 billion people in the Himalayan river basins rely on.

Our research shows that the Tibetan Plateau is increasingly threatened by climate warming, a lack of scientific data, blind infrastructure development and a lack of locally defined responses. One clear example of poor locally-defined responses to environmental challenges has been the creation of protected areas, such as nature reserves. The top-down approach has relocated Tibetan nomads from their grasslands, effectively ignored key areas of biodiversity and dismissed local environmental knowledge at the cost of the wellbeing of both residents and the environment.

With these Tibet-specific lessons in mind, the International Campaign for Tibet presented governments with four recommendations for designing a meaningful, inclusive and effective Global Biodiversity Framework:

  1. Integrate a rights-based approach throughout the framework, as it is empowered people who can enact and sustain environmental interventions
  2. Institute strong transparency and accountability measures
  3. Using the ecosystem approach, directly address the drivers of biodiversity loss
  4. Calibrate the language on protected areas, noting the risks of removing local communities and excluding traditional knowledge.

See a full copy of ICT’s briefing.

[1] https://ec.europa.eu/environment/news/un-biodiversity-summit-cop-15-phase-one-eu-leading-ambition-new-deal-protect-people-and-planet_en
[2] Kunga Lama (Director), 2010, Shielding the Mountains [Film].
[3] Wu and Feng in Ibid. Zhang et al, 2002, page 138.
[4] Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, 2019, ‘What is a biodiversity hotspot?,’ https://www.cepf.net/our-work/biodiversity-hotspots/hotspots-defined.
[5] Ibid., Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, 2019.
[6] For example, water retention, soil retention, sand storm prevention, and carbon sequestration.

Global conservation depends on human rights

In a recent press statement, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment David Boyd urges the inclusion of human rights principles in conservation planning and specifically in the UN Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. According to the statement, the Global Biodiversity Framework does not yet reflect the import of integrating—rather than silo-ing—environmental and human rights, constituting a major flaw in its efficacy.

“Leaving human rights on the periphery is simply not an option, because rights-based conservation is the most effective, efficient, and equitable path forward to safeguarding the planet,” concludes David Boyd, the special rapporteur.

Boyd goes on to emphasize the necessity of involving indigenous people and local communities who “must be acknowledged as key partners in protecting and restoring nature … their human, land and tenure rights, knowledge, and conservation contributions must be recognized, respected, and supported.”

Tibetan nomads.

Ironically, a conference of 190 countries will meet in October to finalize the Framework in China, where the government’s relentless assault on human rights and the environment in the Tibetan Plateau stands in stark contrast to the principle of environmental justice.

For over six decades, the regime of the People’s Republic of China has deployed environmental destruction as a key weapon in its campaign to systematically dismantle Tibetan culture in the pursuit of expansionism, assimilation and hegemony.

A striking example is the PRC’s declaration that it plans to construct dozens of dams on Tibet’s rivers in the decade ahead. Six of the world’s major rivers originate in Tibet, and nearly 2 billion people across the Asian continent depend on the healthy flow of these rivers. Such extensive damming will place the water supply of countries throughout the region at risk and under the Chinese government’s control. Thus, denying Tibetans’ self-determination over their own resources will create a cascade effect that also denies downstream countries the right to their self-determination, providing the PRC another tool to expand its global power.

The Chinese government’s forcible relocation of Tibetan nomads from their ancestral grassing lands is another example of the regime’s strategy to exert control over indigenous peoples through the repurposing and destruction ancestral lands. Based on available data, at least 1.8 million Tibetan nomads have been resettled in sedentary houses under PRC policies in a two-pronged plan to erode Tibetan identity while cashing in on pit mining, logging, damming and other forms of environmental degradation. The plunder of Tibet violates the increasingly scientifically, pragmatically and ethically validated linkages between environmental progress and basic human rights, as expressed in the special rapporteur’s statement.

A third devastating example is the PRC’s indiscriminate clear-cutting in the biologically rich Tibetan forests. This deforestation represents double indemnity. Forests are carbon sinks, therefore continued logging will exacerbate climate change, undermining global climate goals. Given that forests function to preserve watersheds and waterways, clear cutting will also worsen the region’s water challenges.

These destructive activities to further PRC control have already resulted in calamitous disasters in Tibet. At the same time, Tibetan protests against environmental damage to their homeland have been met with brutal responses from the Chinese Communist Party. Major recent incidents include:

  • In 2009, toxic chemicals from a mine near the town of Lhagang leaked into the river, resulting in massive fish deaths.
  • 2010 saw over a thousand people in Drugchu die when landslides ripped through the deforested hills surrounding the town and Tibetan demonstrators against a mining operation in Palyul were gunned down by Chinese police.
  • Another mudslide at a Gyma mine in 2013 claimed 80 people.
  • That same year, hundreds of Tibetans were beaten and tear-gassed while protesting a Chinese mine in Dzatoe.
  • 2016 brought more protests as Tibetans and police faced off in Amchok in response to mining at Gong-ngon Lhari, a sacred mountain.

Over its decades-long occupation, the PRC’s strategy of exploiting the Tibetan environment and oppressing its people have gone hand in glove, one reinforcing the other. This is particularly offensive because it denigrates deeply held Tibetan Buddhist beliefs in the protection of all living things. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has expressed this belief, which dramatically contrasts Tibetans’ historic relationship to the environment with China’s brutal disregard, stating:

“For over 1,000 years we Tibetans have adhered to spiritual and environmental values in order to maintain the delicate balance of life across the high plateau…inspired by the Buddha’s message of non-violence and compassion…we have sought to respect every form of life, while our neighbours live undisturbed.”

Embedded here is a message of hope and pragmatism. It is impossible to survive the global problem of environmental disruption without recognizing it as a collective human challenge. It is a challenge that depends on transboundary accord and mutual respect. Failing to embrace that wisdom places our global home and future generations at grave risk.