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China's green leap forward?

Activists must tread softly to avoid antagonizing Beijing, butthere’s much at stake in this rapidly developing country.

By Christina LarsonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 23, 2009

Yu Xiaogang was instrumental in suspending dam building along the Nu River in 2004. He stands by the Yangtze here.

Courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize.


Kunming, China

Every environmental movement has its ideas people, and Yu Xiaogang is among the emerging John Muirs of China.In a modest office, with the lights and heat turned off to conserve electricity, Dr. Yu is warming his hands over a cup of tea.

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“Please excuse the books,” he says, as he clears a wide-ranging selection of titles, including “China’s Natural History,” “An Ecological Economy,” “Demanding Accountability,” “Choices for the Poor,” and “Feminist Knowledge,” from his desk and his visitor’s chair.

Yu is a former government scientist and today is director of an environmental nonprofit called Green Watershed that he founded in southwestern Yunnan Province.

He is also the architect of what is widely considered the emerging Chinese environmental movement’s greatest victory to date: Five years ago, he led a campaign of coordinated green groups to successfully persuade the government to suspend a series of planned dams along China’s last wild river, the Nu.

Today he is pensive. With the rising demand for energy in China, a new hydropower boom is under way. In just one province, Gansu, the number of large dams has gone from three, 20 years ago, to almost 600 today.

Beijing’s current economic stimulus plan, announced in March, calls for $176 billion for infrastructure projects and $54 billion for rural public works, both of which include such projects as new dams, highways, and housing.

Yu follows such developments closely. Leaning forward in his chair, he points to a map unfurled on his desk, noting the planned construction sites he finds most alarming. “Some places, unique in the world, may be lost that can never be replaced,” he says.

“We cannot be against all hydropower,” he adds, “but we must have the precondition that projects pass environmental- and social-impact assessments. We still need to find that middle way.”

By this he means that dam planners should be required to pay greater attention to the impact of dams on local populations and ensure that adequate measures are taken to provide “poverty alleviation, local education support, and restoration of livelihoods,” as he puts it.

According to Yu’s estimates, in the past 50 years some 40 million people have been resettled as the result of large infrastructure projects in China, about 12 million due to dam construction alone. About half now live “in absolute poverty,” he says.

On paper, China’s resettlement compensation policies have become more generous in recent years. But while resettled families are often moved into newly built homes, land allotments are often inadequate to sustain farming. Villagers receive little help in finding new livelihoods. Such communities are called “empty economy towns.”

A lack of transparency in how compensation funds are distributed encourages corruption, with less money reaching intended recipients.

Yu’s idea is based upon similar requirements in many countries, including China, for environmental-impact assessments, which evaluate the ecological impacts of dams and other major infrastructure projects before construction begins.

He wants to extend that concept to include the concerns of local communities in China: “What would the Nu River be without the Nu people?” The Nu are a minority who live only in a small territory alongside the river.