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Paving Mount Everest?

China announced plans to build a paved highway to Mount Everest to facilitate the journey of the Olympic torch to the top of the peak prior to the 2008 Bejiing Games. The current road to base camp–a rough path–will become “a blacktop highway fenced by undulating guardrails,” according to the Xinhua News Agency.The ambitious project is slated for completion within four months. According to the Associated Press, the new highway will “become a major route for tourists and mountaineers.”

Environmentalists claim the road will tax an already fragile ecosystem.

According to Harshvanti Bisht, an Indian mountaineer, “The road will increase pressure on the entire region. There is enough knowledge on roads impacting ecologically rich areas all over the world. One can only guess the disastrous results such development could have around the world’s highest peak.”

Says Mark Bain, director of Cornell University’s Center for the Environment, the concern is not pollution from the road but that it will create “the opportunity for further development” to accommodate the increased numbers of tourists.

Other groups decry the symbolic message to Tibet.

China occupied Tibet in 1951. Despite protestations from Tibetans in exile and people from all over the world, China still controls the country today.

“Taking the Olympic torch to the top of the mountain” is “seen by some as a way for Beijing to underscore its claims to Tibet,” says the Associated Press.

According to the India Times, officials in New Delhi stated that Mount Everest is “held in veneration in Tibet and the road coming soon after the railway project was meant to rub in Chinese president Hu Jintao’s Tibet policy that is designed to hasten the plateau’s integration with the mainland.”

A day prior to the announcement of the relay route, five members from Students for a Free Tibet protested the plan. China held the five briefly and then expelled them from the country.

Despite the controversy, some see the potential benefits of the project. “It is a good thing for the local development and the local people, because more tourists and mountain climbers will be attracted to the region,” said Zhang Mingxing, general-secretary of the Tibetan Mountaineering Association.

According to the India Times, China plans to break ground by the end of June.

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