China Environmental News Digest

Daily updated Environmental news related to China

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

In China local politics still trump environmental protection

Tue Mar 14, 8:53 AM ET

Two years ago the Chinese NGO Green Watershed successfully led a fight to halt construction of hydropower stations along the pristine banks of the Nujiang river.

But its victory was a pyrrhic one.

While the temporary stay it secured on the power project is still in place, Green Watershed lost it its operating license and its founder Yu Xiaogang had his personal freedoms restricted.

As the group discovered, opposing local officials is fraught with risk.

While China has vowed to step up protection of its heavily degraded environment, local politics all too often trump national policy and effective independent policing, environmentalists say.

The group's troubles began two years ago when it called on the central government to review the planned construction of 13 hydropower stations along the Nujiang, one of only two of China's major rivers that still run dam-free.

If all dams were to be completed along the river, which is on the United Nations' list of Protected Areas, they would extend 700 kilometres and produce more than 100 billion kilowatts per hour of electricity to feed China's voracious appetite for power.

The Thanlwin, as the river is called in Burmese, originates on the snowy peaks of Tibet, its azure, angry waters wending 2,400 kilometres through steep terraced canyons in southwestern China and then Myanmar before emptying into the Andaman Sea.

China's more than 22,000 dams already comprise 46 percent of the world's total, according to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP).

Although the UNEP has given its eco-friendly stamp of approval to many of China's dams projects in the past, environmentalists at Green Watershed argue that damming the Nujiang would damage the local environment, threatening the area's fragile eco-balance as the reservoirs flood fertile land.

New dams could also wipe out fish species whose migration routes to traditional breeding grounds would be blocked, but perhaps more importantly would threaten millions of livelihoods, the group says.

Determined to make the Beijing listen, Yu, who founded Green Watershed in 2002, began to drum up support in the community by letting residents know about plans spearheaded by state-run China Huadian Corp, one of the country's largest power groups.

Yu took residents to Lancan river, known in Southeast Asia as the Mekong, to let them see the impoverishing effects on the populace living around the Manwan dam, a hydro station active since 1993. They also went to Beijing for discussions with the government.

At the time of the conflict, a confluence of concerns about China's over-investment in industry and the effects of environmental damage wrought by 25 years of heated economic development played into the hands of Green Watershed's campaign.

Increasingly concerned that the nation's economic growth model was environmentally unsustainable -- an issue that is now high on the agenda during the National People's Congress -- Beijing began to heed warnings from the State Environmental Protection Agency and NGOs like Yu's.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao ordered the suspension and reassessment of all the multi-billion dollar electricity stations along the Nujiang in April, 2004, a decision that has yet to be reversed.

Yunnan officials were not amused.

"One deputy governor of Yunnan province said in a very public occasion that Green Watershed ... had damaged Yunnan's hydropower development plan, and therefore damaged the economic development of the entire province," says Green Watershed's Yu.

Their wrath turned on Yu and his seven employees. Attempts to curtail the organization's influence led to outright spying, harassment and the revoking of the group's license, he says.

"We've been operating as an unqualified organization for some time, as of a couple of years ago, the government said we were unqualified," said Yu.

Officials did not stop there, however.

"I've been banned from traveling abroad -- they limit my freedom. It's been like this for over one year," Yu says. "Each time I tried police stopped me at the airport. When I asked them why, they just told me there was no reason.

"I can't go to the places that would become reservoirs and I can't get in touch with people living in that region -- the government forbids us to do that.

"They said that we are causing trouble for them by going to those places."

An official from Yunnan Provincial Bureau of Civil Affairs in charge of NGOs refused to comment.

Over the last few years authorities have looked upon NGO's as somewhat benign organizations that can help the government solve common social ills such as prostitution, drug addiction and domestic violence.

But Yu's case is a stark reminder of the fine line between aid and interference in business the government deems as exclusively theirs.

"We know what kind of things we can do and what kind of things we can't do," says Wang Yongchen, director of Beijing-based Green Earth Volunteers.

"We are now calling for all the procedures to be carried out according to law, but if they (government body) do not want to do it then we can't do anything about it," says Wang, who played major role in getting Wen to suspend the Nujiang project.

Xue Ye, director of Beijing-based Friend of Nature, which also opposes the Nujiang project, says that Green Watershed's case was typical.

"Actually it is how the local governments usually reacts," says Xue.

"If they say something bad about the government, then the government will punish them.

"It's not that Chinese NGOs don't want to adopt a Greenpeace-like approach, it's that China doesn't have the conditions yet," says Xue.

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