This is the last in a series of interviews with previous winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize. Founded in 1990, the prize is given annually to six grassroots environmentalists working for change around the globe. So far, we've met a salmon saver and an Amazonian advocate. This year's prize winners will be announced on April 14.
If the dam represents the trade-off between China's heavy energy needs and the health of local communities, Yu Xiaogang (于晓刚) represents China's hope for a sustainable balance. His career began with a focus on improving water resource management, but the 2006 Goldman Prize winner has become one of China's leading crusaders for the rights of local populations affected by development projects, funneling helplessness and anger into participation. In the process, he's helped turned dam-building projects into a rare chance for the public to get involved in decision making in China.
A report he wrote in 2002 on the social impact of the Manwan Dam on the Lancang (Mekong) River--the dam had decimated the local fishing economy and turned many villagers into scavengers--was endorsed by the prime minister, leading to a change in how Beijing provided for the affected communities. Around that time, Yu launched Green Watershed, an NGO based in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, that has used the Manwan example to educate other communities about the negative impacts of controversial development projects, especially a series of dams proposed on the Nu River (Nujiang, or Salween River), the last free-flowing international river in the area and one that passes through a UNESCO World Heritage site. His lobbying and work with locals -- in 2004 he even brought a group of peasants to a hydropower conference in Beijing sponsored in part by the United Nations -- helped lead the government to order a temporary suspension of the project and made environmental impact assessments (EIAs) on such projects more common. His involvement also reportedly helped put Yu in the government's sights.
Today, Yu focuses his attention on the Lashihai [Lashi Lake] area near the city of Lijiang, and continues to educate local communities on sustainable fishing practices and watershed management. As official support grows for dams along the Nu river, and companies make plans to turn local forests into resorts, Yu knows he has his work cut out for him. But the specter of follies like the Manwan -- not to mention the Three Gorges, and numerous other examples across Asia and elsewhere -- propel him to work hard on combining China's development needs with its basic human ones.
I spoke to Dr. Yu by phone in Kunming.
TH: Your focus is foremost on the people who are affected by dam projects, as opposed to the affected eco-systems. Is this a more productive approach to environmental protection in China--to focus on the social issues first?
Yu Xiaogang: I think in China the biggest environmental impact is a result of large companies, sometimes state owned companies, implementing very big development projects, with support from the government. When it comes to the impact, the local people and the environment are usually conjoined. This is very important when we studied the Manwan dam. We can say that the community suffered from two kinds of impacts: one is environmental -- they lost their land, their forests, and development caused landslides -- and the second is the direct social impact of resettlement. In some places, resettlement was involuntary, and they lost their livelihood completely. So when you combine these together, the desire to protect their homeland and to safeguard the environment that surrounds their village -- this is how you can best involve people in protecting their livelihood, their surroundings, and environmental resources.
I think if you go into a village and do some underground work, you'll find that protecting the environment and local sustainable development go together, they have the same goals; there's no contradiction. But some governments will say that environmental protection and development is a contradiction. That's their point of view. They often think environmental protection will stop development.
TH: And what about the locals? To them, is development necessarily bad?
Yu: Development doesn't adequate pay the local people. The companies want to reduce their costs, the local people can calculate carefully how much money they can get and for how many years. If they give up their land, what will they be giving for the next generation? If they get a small amount of money for their land, they often know they'll lose their livelihood, and also impact the following generation, their children. Even villagers have their own opportunity cost analysis. They never just take the money, they will calculate very carefully. I've never seen a case in which the government just promises more money or development and the people are happy. Sometimes, it's just the government offering compensation plus the threat of force. The people are intimidated, and they're not happy with the money.
TH: What kind of intimidation do you mean?
Yu: The local governments can be very strong, and have very good propaganda, telling people that these projects are important for development. And the sense is that whoever will be against this development, they will be punished. The public may also think that these are political issues, and they don't want to get involved. But they don't always realize that they will lose their own natural resources.
TH: What are the most important needs for villagers who are affected by dams and similar projects, and what rights do they still lack?
Yu: Of course, they need, for example, the right to be informed. Their rights need to be protected, and they need to participate in some decision-making that will impact the environment and their livelihood. "We don't need money," they say, "we need to participate, we need to know."
TH: What projects are you working on now?
Yu: We're implementing three projects now, but the largest remains our Lashi Lake [Lashihai, Yunnan] watershed management project. With this project we want to empower local people [most of them of the Naxi minority] in local watershed management, mostly through six components: water uses group, fishery assessment, macro-water management group, eco-tourism, eco-compensation, and a watershed management committee. It's a long project that we've been working on for about eight years.
We want to set up a good practice in China for participatory watershed management. We have two advocacy projects going. One is social impact assessment, which I can talk about later, the other is green finance. Green finance advocates banks to have good social and environmental policy when they decide to give financial support to large development projects. We are preparing some training workshops for Chinese NGOs so they can learn more about this, and can join us to advocate that banks develop these policies.
TH: What sort of challenges are you and the locals facing at Lashi Lake?
Yu: One is that the government built a dam there--the purpose is to transfer water to Lijiang city. The local community has suffered from loose land along the reservoir. Because the people have lost their livelihood, many people are using illegal nets to fish, and this too has caused the fishery reserve to become degraded.
Another challenge is a big development project at Lashi Lake. A Hong Kong company is investing about 8 billion RMB [about $1 billion] to develop a golf course, a real estate development, and so on. But the local people they don't know how to deal with such a project, one that will require large amounts of land. How can the people get compensation? How can the people be sure this development will not cause a huge environmental impact? We are there doing some investigation, trying to have the people understand how to proceed, and we also want to set a good example of watershed management.
TH: How does the situation in Lashi Lake compare to the conditions you saw when you began your work around the Manwan Dam?
Yu: We can see that the problems are mostly similar. In Manwan, the dam had already been built. The people suffered. The people were already aware, they had already been affected by the time we did a social impact assessment. The people very much understood what was wrong, and they very much wanted to participate. At the least, they were very cooperative, and even wanted to help us do our analysis, which was very useful to them.
But at Lashi Lake, many things are just starting to happen. And the impact is not fully known understood by the people. Some people think this development is good for them. But most of the people think it's bad. Still, when projects like these are implemented, the government exercises very close control, so many people dare not fight construction.
TH: What kind of power do private developers have over people in this area?
Yu: They will actually exercise power through the government. The government will usually guarantee that the company's investment will be smoothly implemented. But it's also hard to tell where the power is coming from. Sometimes these projects get approval from the central government, up on high. Gradually, the orders are passed down to the provincial, and then the local governments. Usually, government officials have good cooperation with the company.
TH: It's argued that corruption is the biggest threat to China's environment...
Yu: I think that's true. Two very important driving forces here: the GDP is still the no. 1 criteria when the government evaluates officials. If local officials want to get a promotion, they will have to show they have created a high GDP, and, if they can drive very fast development or very strong development, all the better.
Usually this is on the surface, the central government wants high GDPs. But on the ground, there's a lot of corruption. That's the second problem. We often see in the newspapers or magazines officials who once appeared very powerful, very good at economic development - they'll end up in jail three years later for corruption.
TH: It's generally understood that China needs dams in order to meet the country's energy demands. What is your position about the need for dams in China? What alternatives exist?
Yu: Of course China needs hydropower -- this is a very basic thing. The challenge is how to get it. We don't think that China doesn't need hydro. That isn't realistic. But what we're debating is what kind of hydropower. And in what areas. Do we have other, more sustainable ways to solve the energy problem? For instance, if we had a very integrated, systematic plan for overall electricity needs, and an integrated method to meet these needs. And when we really do need to build this dam, we need an environmental and social impact assessment. And then make sure we reduce the ecological impact. There are many things we should do, not just simply say, "we need hydropower, let's just build it."
TH: The central and some local governments seem to be acknowledging the negative impact of dams, even the controversial Three Gorges project. What's your opinion of that dam?
Yu: I don't want to say too much - I haven't done very much research on this dam. But generally I agree with environmentalists and many researchers on this. At the time of construction, they were no social impact assessments or environmental impact assessments. It's natural there would be problems.
Yu holding a meeting will village elders as part of the Lashi Lake Watershed Project.
TH: At this point, as speculation rises that dams will be built along the Nu River, what are your hopes and fears?
Yu: Of course, I think that to dam the Nu River would impact this World Heritage site. I don't want any dams to be built. But recently I've heard that the National Development and Reform Commission (NRDC) gave the green light one of the small dams along the main stream. That means the Nu will be developed as hydropower base; if this dam is built than all 13 will be built.
But on the other hand, I also think that the local government needs the revenue. If they don't build dams, they should at least get some ecological compensation from the central government.
Let's face it: the local government is in need of revenue. But the central government needs to recognize that this is a natural heritage site, and it needs to be preserved as a national park. It should designate this a "forbidden development zone," and for such zones the central government should allocate some kind of budget to local governments. We fought for this sort of thing, but making demands from the national government and telling the local government not to build dams can put NGOs and scholars in an awkward situation. We can advocate for no dams, but we can't solve this problem unless the central government takes action. So the local government would be forced at last to develop hydropower here. Of course we uphold a no-dam solution. But we think our advocacy has become increasingly weaker.
TH: Would you say that's true in general for NGOs in China? Or is the climate for NGOs improving?
Yu: That depends on what you're doing. If your advocacy or your influence on some specific projects are not very challenging to government power, it's easy. For example, the air conditioning or energy efficiency movement--that isn't challenging the power of the government. The government will agree.
Of course, in the past few years, the debate over the Nu River also offered a very good opportunity for environmental NGOs to challenge the dam company and also the local government's decision. That case is very important and well-known in China. And this year, a lot of NGOs have grown in big and small ways, and are building influence.
Still, I think compared to the threat that China's environment faces, NGOs need more influence. NGOs are still weak. We, Green Watershed, also don't feel like we have many NGOs who can and will collaborate with us. We need more.
TH: How are social impact assessments, like the kind you helped initiate at the Manwan dam, implemented by the government today?
Yu: If the government really wants to implement a harmonious society, if it really wants to create qualitative development, good development, it must have social impact assessments as part of decision-making. But sometimes, "harmonious society" is only a phrase, it's not really implemented. This is a very sad situation. They are not really implementing this concept. But this concept is not from the government's mouth; it's the desire of people across Chinese society. So we can use this idea, and hopefully gain some political space to advocate for social impact assessments.
In 2002, we implemented the social impact assessment around the Manwan dam and advocated for a social impact assessment in the government. We held many training workshops about this for NGOs. And last year, we gave training to teachers at the central Party school in Beijing. Forty teachers attended our one-day training, after which they said that it's very important that they teach these principles at the school. They said it could help political leaders know how to make good decisions.
Also, gradually more and more people found out about this through the media. Many people are now aware that social impact assessments can help protect their rights, their livelihood, and regulate some development projects.
TH: So these assessments aren't mandatory?
Yu: In 2006, we heard that some components of assessment are already in some secret government documents, and that the central government has tried to implement it. Some officials say that big projects need this kind of impact assessment as a tool. However, that is still not an open policy or regulation. It's still closed.
So there is no social impact assessment law or regulation. That means that almost all development projects do not include one.
TH: Aside from making social impact assessments mandatory -- and, it at all possible enforceable -- what else can the central government do to ensure protection of the environment going forward?
Yu: If the Chinese government wants to protect the environment, it's most important to ensure peoples rights. They need to be able to participate in decision-making for big projects. If they can give these rights to the people, that will be the threshold to protecting the environment. It's very difficult. If not, local governments can still have illegal deals with companies, deals that lead to environmental disasters.
Second, not just GDP, but environmental conditions should be important when judging the achievement of government officials. If environmental protection isn't achieved, no matter what the GDP is, it should not help an official's promotion. Environmental quality should even be reason for promotion or punishment.
The third is the business, the investment side. We need green finance. With improved regulation, companies would be required to disclose the details of their project to banks, who would take the companies' responsibility for the environment and society into account when giving loans.
Just one approach is enough. But I think among these approaches, ensuring people's rights comes first.
TH: Dam building was once a much more heated topic of debate in the United States than it is now. Have you learned anything from the US example, and how does it apply to China?
Y: I've learned a lot from cases in developing and developed countries. In some ways, they are the same situation as China. Either in socialist countries or capitalist countries, people have the same concern: the impact of big projects on local communities. People cannot participate. Decision-making is kept in a black box. People suffer. This happens in India, in the southeast Asian countries -- think of the Narmada dam in India, the Pak Mun dam in Thailand -- and even in some developed countries. We need to learn from many cases. The World Commission on Dams has summarized 900 in the world. So we can learn a lot from them and we do.
TH: How did the 2006 Goldman Prize -- the recognition and the $125,000 -- help you and Green Watershed?
Y: It gave us more support when we didn't have other resources to focus on projects related to green finance, social impact assessments, and NGO trainings. We also supported some expeditions that tried to investigate watershed areas, including a Yangtze to Yellow River expedition. We also supported some local people so they could do a social impact assessment themselves.
TH: Amidst all of the challenges in China, and the common belief that mei you banfa , nothing can be done, from where do you draw your determination?
Y: There are 100 million people in the world who suffer from these kinds of projects, and in the future even more people will suffer. Even if today you may not suffer from bad decision-making, maybe tomorrow you will. We think that affected people have a right to be informed in the decision-making process. But most people in the world won't think that these things could ever happen. We need to do something for them.
The second reason is that now there are many good practices out there. We have a lot of ways now that we can do better. If there were no solutions, we might say "there's nothing you can do." But if there are some solutions, and we don't practice them, then we can't tell the next generation that we tried. The government too couldn't tell the next batch of leaders that they tried. So we know that this is a long battle, a long march, but we must try to promote good practices, good solutions, and not just let things happen. There are many good experience and some very bad lessons to learn from. We cannot simply say that hydropower is necessary. We should say we need hydropower, but we need hydropower to do good.
2006 Goldman Prize: Yu Xiaogang
China Dialogue on the Nu River
Wilson Center: 7 Commentaries on Public Participation in Chinese Sustainable Development
All photos courtesy of Tom Dusenbery