Ma Jun helps Chinese find out who's polluting and shame corporations into cleaning up
2012 Goldman Environmental Prize winner Ma Jun enlists ordinary Chinese to help clean up China's pollution.
In a country so vast and so foully polluted as China, it is hard to know where to start cleaning it up.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Ma Jun decided to start with people: properly informed people. And that strategy has turned his small nonprofit organization into China's most respected – and feared – public watchdog, which has brought some of the world's biggest companies to heel.
"The real No. 1 barrier to environmental protection in China is not lack of money or technology," says Mr. Ma, one of the country's best-known environmental activists. "It is lack of motivation. We need the public to provide that motivation. But they must be informed before they can participate in any meaningful way."
Weakly enforced environmental laws
Ma developed his environmental chops on the ground, exploring – and sniffing – China's grossly degraded and polluted waterways as he researched a book, "China's Water Crisis," that revealed for the first time just how grave the situation is.
Neither of those routes was going to work in China, he realized.
"We have the laws and regulations, but enforcement remains very weak," he says. "Environmental agencies in China are hamstrung by local officials who put economic growth ahead of environmental protection; even the courts are beholden to local officials, and they are not open to environmental litigation.
"So we can't go that way," he concluded.
Instead, he thought, the key was transparency. If enough people knew who was spewing what into China's rivers they might be able to put sufficient pressure on the polluters to shame them into better behavior.
'Information is key' to making an impact
"Ma understood that information is key," says Isabel Hilton, founder of ChinaDialogue, a website focused on Chinese environmental issues. "He saw that protest without information tends to make noise, not impact."
Back home, Ma set up a small nonprofit group, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), and began combing public records to compile an online database of companies reprimanded for pollution.