Rights activists oppose heritage listing of Tibetan region

Wild donkeys rest near a lake on the grasslands in Hoh Xil on May 14, 2011.
Wild donkeys rest near a lake on the grasslands in Hoh Xil on May 14, 2011. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING • Besides Gulangyu, Unesco's World Heritage Committee, which met over the weekend in Krakow, Poland, has also approved China's request for special recognition for a vast, traditionally Tibetan region known as Hoh Xil or Kekexili.

The region was inscribed last week on the World Heritage List of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation as a natural site - in a controversial decision opposed by pro-Tibetan groups.

The groups argue that the Unesco designation will reinforce China's control over the region, allowing the Chinese authorities to remove residents from the area and threaten its environment and nomadic culture, reported Reuters.

"The (Unesco) Committee ignored the reality that Tibetans, and nomads in particular, are stewards of the landscape, whose role is essential to sustaining the wildlife," executive director Kai Mueller of the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) told Reuters.

The area - part of the high-altitude plateau in Qinghai province where nomads roam - has an elevation of over 4,500m and is twice the size of Belgium. It is home to several endemic species and the entire migratory route of the endangered Tibetan antelope, or chiru. The animal's soft fur is so coveted for luxurious shawls called shahtoosh that poachers have nearly wiped it out.

Designation of protected areas does not give Unesco any powers of enforcement, but has proved to be controversial in areas plagued by conflicting territorial claims.

"Unesco is supposed to uphold and safeguard the world's culture, but this shameful decision will do exactly the opposite, and will ultimately assist China in denying Tibetans their fundamental rights," executive director Pema Yoko of advocacy group Students for a Free Tibet said in a statement.

China's foreign ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment last Saturday, reported Reuters.

A Unesco spokesman said the Chinese government had made a commitment that no forced relocation would be undertaken.

"They also commit to work with communities and other stakeholders to ensure protection and management of the site," she told Reuters.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 10, 2017, with the headline 'Rights activists oppose heritage listing of Tibetan region'. Print Edition | Subscribe