On July 3, 2010, the verdict was rendered: Rinchen Samdrup, 44, was sentenced to 5 years in prison for “inciting separatism”; it was believed he supported the idea of a split between Tibet and China. This judgement came after his two brothers had also been sentenced. The first, Chime Namgyal, 38, who is handicapped, was accused of “illegally compiling three discs of audio-visual materials on the ecology, environment, natural resources and religion of Chamdo Prefecture”. In October 2009, he was sent to a forced-labour camp for 21 months. On June 24, it was 42-year-old Karma Samdrup’s turn to be judged for desecrating tombs. He was found guilty and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He will be deprived of his political rights for 5 years. After being tortured in prison, these three Tibetans were victims of summary justice.
Rinchen, Karma and Chime who are all environmental militants were the first to make their community aware of environmental issues. They observed the effects of climate change and pollution on their environment early on: “During my grandfather’s time this all used to be thick forests with tigers and other wild animals. But then all the trees were cut down like a head being shaved”, explained Rinchen. It was therefore necessary to protect nature and this necessity drove the brothers to become environmentalists. They started by getting involved in the government’s environmental projects. In 1990, there were still only a few civil organisations that were controlled by the Communist Party. However, the political context at the end of the 1990s allowed the Samdrups to develop their own programmes. Karma Samdrup, a businessman who prospered in the antiques business, personally funded their environmental activities in the community’s different villages. According to Rinchen, “protecting the environment is part of Tibetan culture”. It was therefore easy to talk about environmentalism with the Tibetans. However, the three brothers felt they needed to be more active. Even though they avoided the traditional spiritual setting, their charisma and their motivation encouraged the different communities to get involved.
Thus, the villagers of the Tibetan plateau mobilised around the brothers and started organising waste removal. Everyone in each village collected their own waste. Collective expeditions were then organised to pick up abandoned rubbish. Everything was sorted, burnt or sold. Money from the collective recycling was then reinvested in local associations. Another initiative: the reforestation of neighbouring forests was undertaken by volunteers. The villagers replanted endemic tree species and followed the growth of trees from one year to the next to ensure healthy growth. The three brothers’ different campaigns were a success.
In 2006, all these efforts gained international recognition: Rinchen received an award from the Ford Motor Company Conservation and Environment Protection Grants. And even more surprisingly, the Chinese government named Karma “philanthropist of the year” for “creating harmony between man and nature”. This award was a strong symbol. It highlighted the results that had been achieved without taking the ethnic origin of those who were awarded prizes into account. And, especially, it encouraged the application of Chinese laws on the land. Indeed, even though the central government had adopted laws to protect the environment, they were rarely respected in the provinces.
Planting trees and collecting rubbish were consensual activities. Indeed, self-financing projects were not a problem for local authorities in areas where corruption was, and is still, rife. The activity of these Tibetan civil societies was accepted well; it was a first.
But when the brothers started tackling the illegal exploitation of mines and the poaching of rare animals, things changed. At the end of 2006, they accused the local Chinese representatives of illegally hunting threatened species. They were in fact merely upholding the law. But this was not to the liking of the region’s politicians as their authority was being challenged. As tensions increased, the 2008 Tibetan demonstrations were an excuse to lock up the brothers. They were no longer considered as environmentalists but as partisans of the Dalai Lama. And so, even though their work was in perfect agreement with the laws on the environment, the three brothers became the victims of provincial justice – in August 2009, Rinchen and Chime were imprisoned. Karma was trying to free them. He was in turn sent to prison in January 2010. According to Kate Saunders, the Communications Director for the International Campaign for Tibet, “these imprisonments are solely down to local representatives who felt threatened by the brothers’ accusations – which were, moreover, legitimate”.
The organisations defending the brothers believe that the evidence that supports the allegations of « separatism » don’t exist. Indeed, the brothers have always been careful to behave apolitically and have also stayed away from movements that actively support the Dalai Lama. So, according to Thierry Dodin, the director of TibetInfoNet, it is above all a settling of scores. “The case has taken a political turn”, insomuch as the Chinese government has decided not to intervene, rather than defend the environmental work of the three brothers. It is thus showing its support for its representatives, in spite of the environmental violations they committed.
The Samdrup brothers’ convictions were designed to act as examples. In the region that is autonomous from Tibet, the villagers from different communities were threatened. They have stopped all their environmental activity for fear of retaliation. In Gonjo, in the Chambo province, the rubbish has returned. Soon, the planted shrubs that no-one is protecting, will wilt.