Tibetan rights groups have criticised the UN’s cultural body for listing a plateau in China as a Unesco World Heritage site.
They say the move may embolden Beijing to resettle Tibetan nomads who currently live as herders on the Hoh Xil plateau.
Unesco noted that the plateau, located in the western Qinghai province, is the largest and highest in the world.
Its unique biodiversity includes the endangered Tibetan antelope.
Qinghai province, which borders the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), has a sizeable Tibetan population.
When Beijing sent in troops to assert China’s claim to the region in 1950, some areas became the TAR while others were incorporated into neighbouring provinces.
What’s the controversy about?
Hoh Xil, which is also known as Kekexili, is a part of the larger Qinghai-Tibetan plateau. China says it is a key habitat and breeding ground for Tibetan antelope and holds important migration routes.
The area – comprising 4.12 million hectares (15,907 square miles) – is also home to wolves, bears and contains “a vast landscape of extraordinary beauty for the planet”.
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China’s submission for the listing estimates that 50,000 people roam the area and its buffer zone.
Tibetan activist groups say that the Unesco move, announced over the weekend, will give Beijing cover to relocate Tibetan nomads out of the area.
China has resettled Tibetan herders in many areas. It says it is pumping resources into improving their living standards but activists say it harms their traditional way of life and further erodes Tibetan culture.
Students for a Free Tibet said Unesco’s decision was “outrageous” and gave China “the green light to continue with its plan to forcibly remove Tibetan nomads off their traditional lands and, ultimately, wipe out this ancient way of life”.
The International Campaign for Tibet said China’s nomination of the plateau came from policies that encourage mass tourism and government control.
It accused Unesco of supporting the nomination “without question” and ignoring the role that Tibetan nomads played as “stewards of the landscape”.
What do Unesco and China say?
China says it nominated Hoh Xil out of conservation concerns, noting in its submission that the plateau is “the most important habitat” for the Tibetan antelope as well as other flora and fauna.
A Unesco spokeswoman told the BBC that the issue of resettlement was discussed during the examination of the nomination.
The Chinese government “made (a) commitment that no forced relocation will be undertaken”, the spokeswoman said, and committed “to work with the communities and other stakeholders to ensure protection and management of this site”.
Activist groups have pointed out that any evictions or resettlement would directly contravene Unesco guidelines, and called on the cultural body to closely monitor the situation.
UNESCO Adds to List of World Heritage Sites
A remote Iranian desert city, Ice Age-era caves in Germany and a stone wharf in Brazil built for arriving African slave ships are three new additions to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites.
The World Heritage Committee spent a week meeting in Kraków, Poland, to consider 34 significant historical and cultural sites to add to the list.
This year’s selections include the Iranian city of Yazd, which UNESCO describes as a “living testimony to the use of limited resources for survival in the desert.”
The city has managed to avoid so-called modernization that destroyed many similar Iranian towns, and has preserved its traditional homes, bazaars, mosques and synagogues.
Another site UNESCO added to the list is in the Swabian Jura in southern Germany, one of the areas in Europe where humans first arrived more than 40,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age. They settled in caves, first discovered in the 1860s, and where they created some of the oldest known figurative art.
The U.N. cultural organization said the ancient musical instruments and prehistoric carved figures of animals and humans found in the caves help shed light on the origins of human artistic development
UNESCO also placed the Valongo Wharf in central Rio de Janeiro on the World Heritage List. The stone wharves were built in the early 1800s for slave ships sailing from Africa to Brazil. UNESCO called the wharves “the most important physical trace of the arrival of African slaves on the American continent.”
UNESCO added the World Heritage designation to more than 22 sites during its weeklong meeting in Poland, including choices that were controversial.
They include the Hoh Xil area in the China’s Qinghai province, a traditionally Tibetan area. By designating this a World Heritage site, the International Camnpaign for Tibet, an advocacy group critical of China’s administration there, said UNESCO endorses the forced relocation of Tibetan nomads by Chinese authorities.
China has promised to preserve the traditions and cultural heritage of the Tibetan region.
UNESCO also designated the Old City and Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron as a Palestinian World Heritage Site, angering Israel.
The city is split between Israeli and Palestinian control with the Old City and tomb in the Israeli sector. The tomb is sacred to Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Israel accuses UNESCO of trying to hide Jewish ties to Hebron, while Palestinians contend Israel is seeking to undermine their history.