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Destroying Natural Treasure in the Name of Progress

[Trin-Gti-Pho-Nya: Tibet's Environment and Development Digest. Tibet Justice Center http://www.tibetjustice.org, Vol. 2, No. 5. October 5, 2004.]

By Wen Huang [South China Morning Post, August 16, 2004. Edited for space considerations]

Mugecuo lake, known to local Tibetans as [Megoe Tso] Yeti lake, remains one of China's few untainted ecological treasures. Situated in the Ganzi Tibetan autonomous prefecture of Sichuan province, it is surrounded by other pristine glacial lakes, primeval forests, and hot springs. The area is home to more than 1,000 species of rare tropical plants and 2,000 varieties of animals and birds.

But this unspoiled land has been targeted for a hydroelectric dam project, pitting Huaneng Power International - China's largest independent power producer, headed by the son of former premier Li Peng - against environmentalists and locals. The battle has intensified in the past months, especially after the new Chinese leadership took over in March. Both Huaneng and opponents of the project hope to get support from President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

[Huaneng's] stated intention to generate electricity to meet increasing demand due to the region's rapid economic expansion may be legitimate. But the worry is the lack of a public hearing or debate.

In recent years, pressure has been building within the Chinese government to be more accountable to the people. Mr Hu and Mr Wen have spoken extensively about the importance of running a transparent government. If we apply this to the Mugecuo project, it follows that the public - especially experts and local Tibetans - should be allowed to participate in the decision-making process. Moreover, the newly revised Chinese environmental impact evaluation law, which comes into force next month, requires all dam developers to incorporate the views of experts and local residents into the evaluation and review process. For bigger projects, the law requires public hearings to be held. The Mugecuo project should not be an exception.

The Mugecuo region is considered one of the world's richest areas of biodiversity. Surely, an international committee, comprising Chinese and foreign experts, should be set up to review the project's environmental impact.

Moreover, if the government's goal of building this dam is to improve local economic conditions, the people should be consulted first. Officials in Sichuan told the China Youth Daily that tourism in the Mugecuo lake region, a government-designated national park, has begun to take off and residents are directly benefiting from the unique ecological resources. On top of this, local officials say there are already a number of hydroelectric power stations in the area and power supplies are plentiful. If this is the case, ploughing ahead with the project, without hearing or considering the feelings of the local Tibetans, could further exacerbate racial and ethnic tensions.

Tang Xueshan, a professor at the Forestry University in Beijing, was a member of the review committee. He says he understands the government's priority of promoting economic development and ethnic unity in the Tibetan region, but believes preserving China's ecological resources is equally important. "No other country in the world allows a dam to be built in national parks," he told the China Youth Daily. Once these precious ecological resources near Mugecuo are gone, he continued, "it would be irreparable".

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