Tibet advocacy group challenges China on its bid for Unesco Heritage Site

BEIJING (NYTIMES) - An international advocacy organisation is challenging China's effort to secure special recognition from the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) for a vast, traditionally Tibetan region, arguing that the designation would disrupt the lives of nomads who have roamed its fragile lands.

The region, known as Hoh Xil or Kekexili, is part of the high-altitude plateau in Qinghai province and is twice the size of Belgium. It is home to the endangered Tibetan antelope, or chiru, whose soft fur is so coveted for luxurious shawls known as shahtoosh that poachers had nearly wiped out the species.

Unesco's World Heritage Committee, meeting this week in Krakow, Poland, is scheduled to vote on the designation on Friday (July 7).

The advocacy organisation, the International Campaign for Tibet - which is critical of China - is trying, at a minimum, to delay consideration of the application to address concerns about development plans for the region.

In a report released late last week, the group argued that recognising the region as a "world heritage site" would bolster China's efforts to resettle tens of thousands of pastoralists from the plateaus into villages, while threatening the habitat of the antelope and the environment in general.

"This controversial nomination would signify Unesco endorsement of China's forced relocation of Tibetan nomads, who have protected the grasslands and wildlife for centuries," said Mr Matteo Mecacci, president of the Tibet organisation.

China's government has actively sought Unesco's designations for various sites since its first application 30 years ago. China now has 50 natural or cultural heritage sites, which are defined as having "outstanding universal value".

While Unesco has no enforcement powers over the places it recognises, it can withdraw designations, which are considered important for promoting tourism and, in some cases, political aims.

China also has a second application under review this year which covers Gulangyu, the pedestrian-only island near the city of Xiamen, in Fujian province

If Unesco accepts the two new applications under consideration, China could become the country with the most heritage sites, surpassing Italy, which has 51. That landmark has been touted by Chinese state media as a major accomplishment..

The International Campaign for Tibet's argument is that China's designation of Hoh Xil would erode, not protect, the area's fragile ecosystem. In particular, the organisation's report argued that China has declared the region a "no man's zone", discounting the unique environment and the role people play in it.

The report said Unesco's review of the site did not take into account the concerns of local inhabitants, as required by its own guidelines. The report also complained that China's application exempted a 2.5 mile-wide corridor in which a highway and railway bisect the region, allowing unfettered development. That, the report noted, would threaten the migratory paths of the antelope the designation is meant to protect.

Officials in Beijing declined requests to comment on the opposition to its application, but Secretary-General Du Yue of China's delegation to Unesco, circulated a letter in Krakow challenging the criticism of the application.

The letter said that China would "fully respect the will of local herders and their traditional culture, religious beliefs and lifestyle".

The advocacy organisation's opposition puts it at odds not only with the Chinese government but also with environmentalists and others who say the designation would protect the antelope habitat.

Mr Jin Yuanpu, director of the Cultural Industries Institute at Renmin University of China in Beijing, said that China's embrace of Unesco's heritage designations reflected a new attention to cultural preservation after the repressions of the Cultural Revolution under the late leader Mao Zedong.

"From the central government, to the Culture Ministry, to a lot of grassroots groups, a lot of attention has been given to the work of preservation of cultural and natural relics," he said.

He added that the designation was "in line with Tibetans' interests" and would help fight poaching of the Tibetan antelope, which was dramatised in "Mountain Patrol: Kekexili", a 2004 film directed by Lu Chuan.