April 22, 2020
By Uyghur Human Rights Project
On Earth Day, UHRP highlights the connection between state oppression of Uyghurs and environmental degradation in East Turkistan. The Chinese government has increased the extraction of East Turkistan’s natural resources, such as minerals and foil fuels, and has massively expanded intensive agriculture and industrial production in the region. Maintaining control over these resources is a major reason for their determination to create “long-term stability” through a campaign of cultural genocide. Uyghurs are not only marginalized from the exploitation of their homeland’s natural resources, but also have no freedom to speak out about environmental issues that affect their wellbeing.
The US State Department issued a report on April 14th which discussed increased activity around Lop Nur, a 38,610 square mile weapons testing area used as recently as the 1980s and 1990s for detonating nuclear weapons. The negative health effects caused by the testing became a major environmental issue. The report stated the extensive excavation activity might indicate the preparation of the site for resumed nuclear tests.
This report caused alarm among many in the Uyghur diaspora; the World Uyghur Congress pointed out the health problems which previous weapons tests had caused Uyghurs. UHRP wrote extensively about the legacy of the Lop Nur tests in its 2016 report Without Land There is No Life, discussing Uyghur protests against the tests and Chinese state retaliation against them. Even the limited room to speak out which existed in the 1980s has been eliminated.
“UHRP shares the concerns of the Uyghur diaspora regarding the possibility of the resumption of nuclear testing,” said UHRP Executive Director Omer Kanat. “The impact of nuclear tests on public health is well documented. The Chinese government’s disregard for the health of the environment and the Uyghur population are a longstanding issue which will worsen the long-term effects of the ongoing human rights crisis.”
These longstanding environmental issues include the overconsumption of water resources, which is likely worsen not only due to climate change but also by the Chinese government’s attempts to increase the Han population in the region, luring settlers with free land, housing and jobs and creating large new cities in the desert. Government plans to expand the water-intensive textile industry, building factories where many Uyghurs are being sent under duress, will cause further pollution and water constraints, already an issue due to the massive cotton growing industry. Heavily polluting industries are leaving wealthy Chinese provinces and are setting up in East Turkistan.
Environmental degradation and its unequal effects on different groups has come to be understood as a major human rights issue. Even as Uyghurs suffer startling abuses, such as arbitrary detention, torture, and forced labor, the Chinese government’s discriminatory and unsustainable development of East Turkistan represents a further violation of Uyghur rights to a safe, clean, healthy environment.