China Environmental News Digest

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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

FEATURE-China's pollution galvanises peasants to action

02 Feb 2006 01:00:14 GMT,Source: Reuters

By Lindsay Beck XINCHANG, China, Feb 2 (Reuters) - Mrs Song never had much interest in politics but when factory pollution began poisoning well water and killing crops, the young mother got angry. After an industrial park housing several chemical plants went up on the outskirts of her town in China's wealthy, coastal province of Zhejiang the water became undrinkable. Then crops began producing vegetables that were unfit to eat. Residents say rates of cancer sky-rocketed and Song says her 5-year-old son is prone to frequent lung infections. "We're just regular people and don't understand other issues. But this affected us personally, our lives," said Song. She asked that her real name not be used for fear of trouble with authorities, and spoke with a group of other residents in a nearby town to avoid the attention of local officials. After authorities had turned a deaf ear to years of petitions to stop the chemical factories, residents of Huashui took action, blockading the road to the factory complex to halt production. "Give back the land, I want health! Give back the land, I want descendants! Give back the land, I want food to eat! Give back the land, I want an environment!" the protesters shouted. When two elderly women were killed as police struggled to disperse the crowd, the blockade turned into a riot involving up to 30,000 people and requiring thousands of police to quell it. After decades of all-out economic growth, China now has 20 of the world's 30 most polluted cities, the World Bank says. An estimated 300 million nationwide have no access to clean water. But as the Zhejiang protest and others like it show, China's environmental woes are no longer just a matter of poisoned rivers and smoggy skies -- they are becoming a trigger for the kind of social unrest the Communist government is at pains to avoid. TOXIC WASTE In Xinchang, where peasant riots last year forced closure of the Jingxin Pharmaceutical Company, residents lived more than decade with a river unable to sustain fish and shrimps and a population with so many liver problems they say the army rejected recruits from their village. Down the road from the Jingxin plant, Lao Wang leans out of the back window of her small restaurant, pointing towards the factory a few hundred metres away. "You should have smelt it in the summer. There was waste water flowing all down here," she said, gesturing toward the river running past and holding her nose. In Pingnan County in southern Fujian province, more than 1,700 residents are plaintiffs in a case against a polluting chemical factory in what China's Caijing magazine says is the world's largest class-action environmental lawsuit to date. With pollution problems cutting to the heart of everyday life for millions of Chinese, analysts say the link with popular protests is likely to grow. "As the impact on human health becomes more obvious and widespread, it is leading to greater political mobilisation and social unrest from those citizens who suffer the most," Nathan Nankivell, a researcher at Canada's Department of National Defence, wrote in a recent report. SMOKESTACKS AND CRANES Chinese scholar Lang Youxing, who has followed the cases in Zhejiang, says the environmental protests do not yet count as a social movement. "Presently, China's environmental resistance hasn't developed into a concept of social justice, it's still within the scope of safeguarding personal rights and interests," he wrote in a study of the two protests. But that is likely to bring little comfort to a government facing environmental degradation that shows no sign of abating and struggling to manage ever larger and more frequent protests. Officials have voiced concern about pollution, but environmental controls have taken a back seat to efforts to develop the economy. In January, national environment chief Zhou Shengxian said about 100 Chinese chemical plants posed safety hazards, an admission that came just months after an explosion at one such plant poisoned the Songhua River, the source of drinking water for millions in the northeast. Zhejiang residents said pollution was the first issue that had galvanised them into action, despite knowing that the consequences for involvement in such protests could be jail. But they said that if they had no political interest before, they could not stand by and ignore what was affecting their lives, their incomes and the health of their children. "If the environmental pollution impacts the production of crops and farmers' lives, of course you won't be able to preserve stability," said Lao Wang. Song looks up from her tea and out of the window, where smokestacks and construction cranes dot the horizon. "If the environment is not protected, how can people exist?"

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