The village that refused to die, Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan, China
Mountain community fights plans for a giant dam, in a country that badly needs more clean energy
Jonathan Watts in Tiger Leaping Gorge
Monday July 3, 2006
When the hydro-engineers made their way up the steep, winding Himalayan road to Chezhou village, they knew that they could not expect a warm welcome from the residents.
They were coming unannounced to survey the site for a dam in Tiger Leaping Gorge - one of the deepest and most famous ravines in the world - that would submerge every house in the community and force locals to leave a mountain idyll that had been home to their families for generations.
But they did not anticipate just how determined the villagers were to prevent the dam from being built. All 10 members of the team were abducted and held hostage until government officials came to plead for their release. In a show of solidarity more than 4,000 local residents staged a demonstration.
The story of the Chezhou protest earlier this year is slowly spreading beyond this remote community and is now being told up and down the reaches of this spectacular gorge, which rises up 3,500 metres (11,500ft) from the Jinsha river to the peak of towering mountains in Yunnan province.
It is a sign of China's increasingly assertive environmental movement, which is using the law, the media and mass mobilisations to promote grass-roots participation in the decision-making process for big infrastructure projects.
North-west Yunnan - one of the most ecologically diverse and spectacularly beautiful regions in the world - has become a focus of the green movement. The provincial government recently announced that half a million people would be relocated over the next 10 years in a push to triple the output of hydropower, which energy-hungry China sees as a cheap, clean alternative to nuclear or coal-fired plants.
None would be as effective - or as politically controversial - as the dam proposed at Tiger Leaping Gorge. Towering 278 metres (912ft) high with a reservoir stretching back more than 120 miles, it would generate more power per cubic metre of water than other Chinese hydropower plant and help to alleviate the build-up of silt further downstream at the wider but shallower Three Gorges Dam.
But environmentalists say it would force the relocation of 100,000 people, destroy 200 species of wildlife, and threaten the growing tourist business in the Shangri-la region. "We live in such a beautiful place that we don't want to leave," Xiao Jialin, a Chezhou villager, told the Guardian. "We want the right to participate in the decision-making process."
Their protest appears to have worked, at least temporarily. The prefectural government has publicly stated that it will not push ahead with a dam if local people are opposed. The 300-strong survey team, which was previously working up and down the 100-mile area of the proposed reservoir, has also reportedly halted its work.
But the Yunnan government and the National Reform and Development Commission - the most powerful body in the central government - both favour a dam at the gorge. They are said to be paving the way for an announcement giving the go-ahead in 2008.
Yu Xiaogang, head of Green Watershed - a non-governmental organisation which runs seminars on environmental issues and residents rights - believes that Tiger Leaping Gorge is a key to green activism. "It is particularly important because there are many people there who are ready to stand up and protect their interests," he said. "We can't oppose all dams, but we want to stop the bad ones."
Local officials, who are supposed to represent residents, are reluctant to oppose higher authorities. "I am worried about the possibility of a dam, but we have been told there will be very little impact on the environment," said A Wa, head of the tourist bureau of Shangri-la.
Many visitors find it hard to imagine a concrete barrier across the pristine gorge. At the narrowest stretch, where legend has it that a tiger leapt the 35 metres across the roaring cascade, tourists now queue up to pose for photographs. "I am totally opposed to a dam here," said a visitor from Beijing, who declined to give her name. "China must do more to ensure that we live in harmony with nature."
But not everyone is against the project. Many locals are resigned to change. Some are building extensions to their homes in the hope that they will qualify for more compensation. Deng Xiaojia, who works on a trinket stall next to the site of the proposed dam, would lose both her job and home to the reservoir, but the 19-year-old is phlegmatic. "I would never find another place like this, But I would just have to move on."
The residents of Shangri-la are getting used to the damming of the many mighty rivers that flow through the area. According to Zeren Pingcuo, a Tibetan photographer and green campaigner, there are more than 40 dams either built or under construction in the area.
Among them is a hydropower plant close to the ethnically Tibetan village of Jisha, where residents say they have been forced into changes they never anticipated when the dam was proposed. In the past their dead were given river burials, but the bodies can no longer float downstream. So more families are now forced to use sky burials - leaving the bodies on the tops of mountains for birds and animals to feast on.
"It is very traumatic for the bereaved because we believe they will have a bad reincarnation unless the body is eaten in three days, which almost never happens," said a local, who asked to remain nameless. "Locals have had no say in the matter, but dams really have a big impact on the Tibetan way of life and spirit."
· Additional reporting by Huang Lisha