Olivia Boyd: As a US-based conservationist, why did the 2004 dam-building moratorium on the Nu River capture your attention?
R Edward Grumbine: There were two reasons. First, I wondered why the Chinese government would voluntarily stop economic development when they have all the power to do whatever they see fit. Obviously, there was more to the story than “authoritarian regime”. And if this was one example of change in China, were there other changes that I was missing that would also not match my foreigner assumptions?
The second reason was that I knew that the Nu River area was a biodiversity hotspot and I wanted to know if that made any difference to the government – namely, what kind of planning was or was not done in important ecological areas. Change occurs so rapidly in China; was the Nu going to become like every other place or was it going to remain special?
I started reading more around the subject and realised the Nu would be dammed at some point – this was a moratorium not a ban. And that led me needing to go there to see the river and the watershed and the people and the plants and animals at risk before development proceeded.
OB: Policy on damming the Nu is still being hammered out. Are dam building and environmental protection simply incompatible in Yunnan?
REG: I think they are right now. It doesn’t mean they will remain so into the future. The original moratorium was stimulated by an outcry against the dams by international and Chinese environmental groups. The local governments were completely against the moratorium against hydro development. And if they had their way, they would do away with it today. But the central government in this case – because hydropower development is something that is more closely controlled by Beijing than other aspects of conservation and development – had enough political authority to make that moratorium last. And the moratorium is still on.
The original plan was for 13 dams on the Nu River. Now that plan has been reduced to four. The question is: will four dams do the same amount of damage as 13? And no one knows because the environmental documents that would answer that question are not available for public viewing. The good news is that the government is yet to act to replace the moratorium.
One key problem moving forward is the severe lack of communication throughout China, south-east Asia and the third pole region. It’s a profound challenge to operate in an environment where people do not talk with each other. Hydropower development needs to be contextualised – it’s not just about what China needs, it’s about what the downstream countries need. They can’t have water diversions in Yunnan impeding the rice-growing sector in Vietnam or the agricultural sector in Laos and Cambodia. And until there’s a regional watershed-based conversation going on, progress will be difficult.
OB: Do you think the campaign that led to the Nu construction freeze was a one-off or could it provide a model for resisting other projects in China?
REG: The short answer is that nobody knows. But there is some story to fill in since the moratorium was put in place in 2004. One is that China’s leaders are getting a greater sense of the importance of climate change and a green economy to combat climate change. And that is a deeply influential learning curve that was lacking when the moratorium was put in place.
Since 2004, China’s civil society has also been granted more space to operate – there are more environmental groups and there are more options for those groups to pursue in influencing the government to take a better environmental policy stance on dams or virtually all other aspects of China’s development. There are more citizens that care.
Another key factor is that the Chinese middle class is also growing more rapidly than any middle class in history. Many scholars believe the Chinese middle class will be larger than the entire population of the European Union in five or six years. Historically, as a middle class grows, its political power also increases. People have money and time enough to care about the civil space that they may inhabit. The question is how much action will that middle class demand as they gain more voice? That remains to be seen.
OB: That emerging middle class is also bringing more tourists to Yunnan. What are the impacts?
REG: Most of the world tourist projections have China replacing the United States as the number one tourist force in the world economy some time seven or eight years from now. In Yunnan, in 2004, there were 61 million tourists – many more than visit Paris, the number one urban tourist destination in the world. Of that 61 million, only one million were foreigners and 60 million were the growing Chinese middle class who now have the money and leisure time to explore the country. And those figures are now five years out of date.
In deep, rural, back-country Yunnan, the impact is still minimal. In some of the more developed areas, most obviously Lijiang, the number one tourist attraction in Yunnan, the tourist visitation is off the scale and continuing to grow. To deal with that rate of growth, they’re essentially growing out from the original core of the World Heritage Site, replicating the preserved traditional buildings in suburban satellite developments. All the satellites being constructed in 2008, 2009 and 2010 still qualify if they follow the architectural standards that the UN has placed on the initial World Heritage Site. It still counts, even though the buildings, instead of being 200 years old are two or three years old.
OB: How did your time in Yunnan challenge your views on conservation?
REG: From an American perspective, we tend to have our nature set over here – we may protect it, but it’s still removed from the normal interaction with people unless you’re on holiday. So Americans visit their national parks to get away from it all. We don’t have numbers of people living inside US protected areas. In China, the opposite is true. No expert even knows how many people live inside the boundaries of Chinese protected areas. The most dependable number I’ve seen is in the order of 30 million. And the Chinese are happy with that because it fits in with philosophies that people and nature are interpenetrated. So that’s a challenging place to be for an American conservation activist or researcher.
OB: With Pudacuo, Yunnan is experimenting with the national park model. What will this mean in the Chinese context?
REG: That is being discovered as things move along. China’s protected-area model is based to a great extent on a United Nations import, let’s call it the biosphere reserve model, where humans are actively discouraged from visiting the core of protected areas. Think of it as a bullseye – the target is where everyone is kept out and as you move toward the periphery, more human use is allowed until finally at the edge you can build some hotels and create a tourist economy. When people are living in the core before the protected area is marked out, that model obviously has limits.
So China is experimenting actively with the US national park model to see if that might be appropriate – protecting the core and allowing visitation and also allowing some development of tourist areas. Like anything in life, the model never quite matches the reality. The fact people are living everywhere in China’s protected areas is one reason why it might be difficult to have the national park model. It’s not just a matter of a protected area system, it’s a matter of the space that the agro-pastoralists depend on for their livelihoods. You can’t just relocate them forcibly – so how are you going to continue to allow those people to get a living at a sustainable level, through grazing, fuel collection and all the things that it takes to maintain a household?
There are many unresolved issues, which is why China looks at this as a pilot project. If after a few years of experimentation, some of these on-the-ground problems can be resolved, then the central government might want to roll this model out to some other provinces. But I don’t see the government embracing the national park experiment until it has been proven several times over in different areas of China. That’s a good thing actually because China is taking it slow and maybe they’ll iron out some of these issues as they go along.
Another issue that many foreigners don’t quite get about China is the difference between what central government would like and what local governments can actually implement. Beijing may ask for it, but they won’t necessarily get it.
OB: One of the ideas in your book is “conservation with Chinese characteristics”. Can you explain it?
REG: Essentially, an alternative path for China might be to let go of some of the conservation models that have been imported into the country from the west and focus more specifically on home-grown ideas that continue to be important in Chinese culture, many of which have their base in Confucianism. One of those ideas might be social unity, which is a key characteristic of Chinese social discourse. Social unity right now is a concept that’s not used well within Chinese conservation or within the government’s approach to sovereign state negotiations. If it was used more explicitly, that might create more transparent communications within the Chinese bureaucracy and between China and neighbouring countries.
Another example might be hydro development on the Nu River. The economy was explicitly hoisted over the environment in the original dam proposal. But the local people were not going to benefit from that hydropower development – they already have electricity. That electricity was going to be sold downstream to power the economic growth of south-east Asia. Instead, if you used “conservation with Chinese characteristics”, you might build very few dams and create local benefits from that development instead of selling it off on the global electricity market.
R Edward Grumbine chairs the masters in environmental studies programme at Prescott College, Arizona, and teaches the undergraduate environmental studies programme. His latest book is Where the Dragon Meets the Angry River. Read an excerpt here.
Olivia Boyd is assistant editor at chinadialogue.
Homepage image by Yunshan Yehua