Editorial and Op Ed Articles
By Doris Shen*
Over 80 people's groups in Thailand and Burma are speaking out against China's plans for large dams on the Nu (or Salween) River. The groups say that the dams will bring devastating effects for people downstream, and called on China to consult with downstream communities who depend on the river for fishing and farming.
Increased criticisms of the plans for the Nu are not only coming from the outside. Within China, academics, journalists and activists from China's burgeoning NGO sector are also expressing concerns about the social and environmental impacts of the dam cascade.
The Nu River, or Gyalmo Ngulchu for upstream Tibetan people, becomes the Salween as it flows into Burma and along the Thailand border. Releases of "sediment-hungry" water from upstream dams could erode riverbanks downstream, destroying dry season riverbank vegetable gardens and destabilizing housing structures. Changes in the sediment load and water flow will carry harmful impacts to fisheries.
"There are many Thai-Karen communities living along the river and its tributaries. These communities have been living there for generations," said Chinarong Sretthachau, Director of the South East Asia Rivers Network (SEARIN), based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. "Their lives depend on the richness of the lush ecosystem and natural resources of the Salween river basin."
With the emergence of a new Chinese leadership that claims to be committed to more openness, public participation, environmental protection, and reducing social inequalities, Chinese civil society is experiencing a marked increase in political freedom. This new freedom is permitting increasing public criticism of China's dam-building plans, in particular of the proposed dams in the southwest. The recent indefinite suspension of a dam by the governor of Sichuan Province following public awareness campaigns about the dam's impacts to a cultural heritage site is a striking sign of the new atmosphere within the country.
Journalists, researchers, and NGO activists from across the country recently came together to discuss the impacts of hydropower projects. Hosted by the Centre for Environment and Development of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), participants in the Beijing meeting were mainly concerned about the dams in the southwest but also discussed resettlement and environmental impacts of dams more generally, international trends in dam building, and the broader environmental impacts of the "Go West" development drive.
China is relying heavily on hydropower to meet its soaring demand for electricity. Officials plan to triple installed hydroelectric capacity to 270,000 MW by 2020.
"This situation calls for reform of regulations governing these projects and the mechanism for implementing those regulations," said Li Dun, a professor with the Centre for Study of Contemporary China at Qinghua University. "Evaluation of project impacts should be done by independent experts and their names should be made public. Construction plans should be subject to public scrutiny, and officials who make decisions that prove to be wrong should be held accountable," Professor Li suggested.
[*Doris Shen runs the China Program at the Internatational Rivers Network based in Berkeley, California. She can be contacted via e-mail at email@example.com]
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Environment Eclipsed By Politics
By Gabriel Lafitte*
As soon as environmentalists take an interest in Tibet, they are immediately pressured to take sides. Environmental NGOs in the rich countries must choose to work in China, by Chinese rules, or to forego all opportunity of doing anything practical and grounded inside China if they choose to associate with Tibetans free to speak, in exile. Environmental NGOs have flourished in recent years in China, and it would be cynical to dismiss them as tools of the Chinese government, though many are offshoots of official institutions and all must operate within strict limits. However many of these Chinese NGOs work in Tibet, helping stop poaching of rare species by immigrant hunters, and in conserving watersheds and wetlands. They do work where the Chinese government has failed to do.
China's all-embracing definition of what is political means that Tibetans cannot organise their own NGOs, for fear of being labeled political and splittist, even if their sole objective is to replant trees on eroding hillslopes. So far the only NGOs able to work in Tibet are founded by Chinese in distant cities, who come to Tibet, but have limited connection with Tibetans.
One way of dealing with the hyper-politicisation of Tibet is to turn environmental issues into strictly technical scientific questions. This is the strategy favoured by international NGOs operating in Tibet such as The Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund. This enables them to get official permission to work in remote areas of the Tibetan Plateau, and do scientific research, and come up with comprehensive integrated plans for biodiversity conservation and biome protection. But the scientific technical language tends to exclude Tibetans from active participation, not just because the language is technical but also because ecology as a discipline tends to consider humans, including populations who have shaped the land for thousands of years, as extra to the ecosystem. Yet again, Tibetans miss out, or are even seen as part of the problem.
Instead of including Tibetans, as owners and managers of reforestation, wildlife rangers, bearers of indigenous knowledge, the locals are all too often sidelined, or blamed as hunters invading the nature reserve with trucks and rifles, stealing firewood from a forest from which they have been fenced out. This sets up an unhealthy antagonism between human and environmental needs, which is quite unnecessary given the Tibetan desire to repair what has been lost in recent decades, as species diversity declined under immigrant predation.
China has discovered it cannot forever take both Tibetan trees and Tibetan water as if they were an unending free public good, a cost free form of natural capital there for the taking. China has switched to conservation of watersheds crucial to downstream water supply. This switch promises to reforest and conserve much of Kham and Amdo, in eastern Tibet, that had been increasingly stripped for timber and mineral extraction. Now that reforestation is official policy, and international NGOs are involved, there is opportunity for Tibetans to regain a direct role in rehabilitation of degraded landscapes. Yet all too often China's method of achieving reforestation or protection excludes Tibetans. China calls one of its remediation policies 'mountain closure', which means fencing regenerating hillslopes against nomadic use, excluding pastoralists from pasture and from involvement in land management. When seedlings are planted and steep slopes reseeded, all too often Tibetans are excluded from employment as careers. Instead much sowing is done by dropping seeds from the air, a wasteful and ineffective, literally top-down approach.
The international NGOs now generating biosphere conservation plans for major parts of Tibet have an important opportunity to quietly overcome this exclusion of Tibetans, and educate Chinese officials in the lessons learned in the past 30 years in social forestry and community participation. Exclusion is self-defeating. The only argument for ongoing exclusion of Tibetans from regenerating Tibet is political. Perhaps we will soon be able to look at environmental and sustainable Tibetan livelihood issues in their own right, not as a purely political issue.
[*Gabriel Lafitte teaches at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia. He can be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org]
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