Saving Shangri-La

By Other Lisa, cross-posted at the paper tiger

The invaluable Three Gorges Probe, a news service/website originally reporting on the infamous Three Gorges Dam, has for some time expanded its focus to deal with other hydroelectric projects in China and their environmental and cultural consequences. They continue their excellent coverage with this translation of a CCTV documentary about local people in one of China’s most beautiful natural attractions, Tiger Leaping Gorge, whose ancestral lands may be flooded by future dam building projects on the upper Yangtze (Jinsha) River. Here’s an excerpt:

1. Who is going to break the villagers’ rice bowl?

Legend has it that Shangri-La is heaven on earth, a mythical, exotic, dreamy landscape. In Lost Horizon, American novelist James Hilton depicted Shangri-La as a wonderland in which people live in harmony with nature and each other.

Late last century, people found a real Shangri-La in the Hengduan mountain range, where the Jinsha [upper Yangtze] flows in southwest China. Jinjiang town in Diqing Zang autonomous prefecture, Yunnan province, is the real Shangri-La in many people’s minds, where a multitude of minority groups, including Yi, Tibetan, Bai, Naxi, Lisu and Miao, have lived together for generations in peace and harmony.

Recently, however, local people have begun to feel uneasy, upset by a piece of news. They have heard that a big dam is to be built on the Jinsha River so that water can be diverted to central Yunnan province and, in particular, to the provincial capital of Kunming. Roughly 100,000 people will have to move if the project goes ahead.

Engineers are conducting surveys of the proposed dam site, and red marks [indicating the future water level of the dam’s reservoir] have already been painted on some walls, despite the fact that the central government has not yet approved the project. Although the scheme is still at the feasibility-study stage, everybody here is extremely worried, particularly because they have been given so little information about the project.

Chezhou village, part of Jinjiang town, is one of the places that will be affected if the dam is built. Villagers set off together for the village office, hoping to learn more from village leaders. One of the villagers is 67-year-old Ding Changxiu. Her children are grown now, and have left the village for jobs in the county seat. It would be better for her and her husband to move there to live with their children, but Ding would rather stay put because she loves her native place so much.

Villager: We know nothing about the project. I’m wondering if the village leaders know anything about it. We old peasants deserve to know something about it, don’t you think?

Ding Changxiu: I feel as if there’s a stone weighing down my heart. I was told we’d have to leave tomorrow! The whole village is on tenterhooks. I just met an elderly woman in the village who swore she’d rather die at home than be driven away.

Village leader: Calm down, folks! It’s true that the province has proposed building a dam here to move water to central Yunnan. But whether we’ll have to move is not clear, because the project hasn’t been formally approved, and the experts haven’t even finished the feasibility study yet.

The village leader’s comments did nothing to ease the villagers’ anxiety. The local people love dropping in on one another to chat about all manner of things, but now there is only one topic of conversation: the dam.

Villager: We ordinary people know nothing about it. And we have absolutely no way of leaving even if we are forced to move.

Villager: There are four people in my family. Now we have grain that’s surplus to our own needs that we can sell for cash, and I have chickens and pigs that I could kill right now to offer you. We lead a comfortable life, but the good life will be gone forever if we have to move.

Villager: We old people don’t care about ourselves any more; we’re too old now. But we do care very much about our children, and the younger generations are in for a very hard time if we’re moved far away.

This reluctance to move stems not only from local people’s deep attachment to the ancestral land on which they have lived for centuries, but also from their awareness of the special nature of the magnificent place they call home. They live at the famous “first bend of the Yangtze” in the Tiger Leaping Gorge area, and they know the value of this spot.

The section of the Jinsha River in front of their houses, together with two other great rivers Ð the Lancang (Mekong) and Nu (Salween) Ð form the Three Parallel Rivers National Park, which UNESCO has designated a world heritage site. Local people are not only tremendously proud of that, but also genuinely seek to safeguard the environment of their native area.

In March of this year, a work team was sent to the village from Xianggelila county to meet with village leaders. The villagers guessed that the work team’s arrival had something to do with dam-building, but they had been given no real information, so rumours swirled.

Villager: Somebody told me they’ll be paying compensation of 10,000 yuan [US$1,200] per mu [one-fifteenth of a hectare or one-sixth of an acre] of farmland flooded by the dam. The person who told me that said he got the information in a phone call from one of his friends in the county seat. I’m not really sure about it, but in any case I’ll never move. You see, we’re treated like nothing!

Ding Changxiu: Oh dear! Only 10,000 yuan for a mu of land! We can feed ourselves for 10,000 generations by farming our land. Can 10,000 yuan provide the younger generations with enough to eat and wear?

Villager: It’s easier to destroy than to build!

Ding Changxiu: How many days can 10,000 yuan keep us fed? How many years can 10,000 yuan keep us fed?

It’s a measure of the complexity of contemporary China and, I suspect, the factionalization of the Central and Provincial governments, that amidst increasing media and internet censorship, a documentary of this sort can be produced and shown on national television. One hopes that this kind of publicity and the increasing grassroots activism of China’s environmentalists and the local people who stand to lose the most from these ill thought-out projects will be enough to preserve these national treasures for future generations. Right now, however, the decision could go either way. Past reports from Three Gorges Probe have detailed the pressure on local governments to approve such projects as spurs to development and the role of corruption and kickbacks in the decision-making process. It’s still an open question if the government regulations that exist on paper to properly review and prohibit these projects have sufficient teeth to fight this powerful nexis of money and greed.

On the other hand, I’ve often thought that China’s environmental movement contains within it the seeds of greater dem0cracy for China. As unmoored as China has become from much of its traditional culture, the ideas of balance and unity contained in Daoism, that man is a part of nature rather than its detached overlord, still has some potency.

You can find a series of photos of Tiger Leaping Gorge here

The Discussion: 4 Comments

There’s also some background on the location of the real Shangri La here … by yours truly [and I never got paid for it]:

October 1, 2005 @ 2:19 am | Comment

Wow, thanks for that link. Definitely a place on my list to go and see.

October 1, 2005 @ 10:19 pm | Comment

I believe that the environmentalist groups in East Germany, which began in the 1980s, were one of the springboards for the pro-democracy movement there.

October 3, 2005 @ 3:25 am | Comment

David, that makes sense. And in China, I would think that an environmental movement has the potential to unite peasant farmers and the rising middle class…not to mention the factions in the government who realize that China must adopt a sustainable growth model in order to continue their economic miracle…

October 3, 2005 @ 10:31 am | Comment

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