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Three Gorges Probe - Eradicating Shangri-La

The villagers who seek to safeguard Shangri-La

One of the world's most spectacular natural attractions, Tiger Leaping Gorge, and the area known as Shangri-La (Xianggelila county), are threatened by dam-building plans on the Jinsha River, as the upper Yangtze is called. No final decision has been announced, but preliminary site work and feasibility studies are under way.

A recent China Central Television documentary highlighted the distress of local people who had been told virtually nothing about a project that might force them off their ancestral land. As one local put it: "We beg officials at every level: Please don't allow paradise on Earth to be flooded!"

The following is a transcript of the program, Safeguarding Shangri-La (Shouhu Xianggelila), which was first broadcast on Sept. 18. The Chinese transcript, posted on the CCTV website on Sept. 21, can also be found on the popular Chinese Internet portal,

(English translation by Three Gorges Probe. Below, and at the end of the transcript, screen shots from the program.)


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 — the Lancang (Mekong) and Nu (Salween) — 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?

Villager: What would you do with 10,000 yuan if you were given it?

Villager: Money? I don't want money, no matter how much, not even 100 million [yuan]. How many generations can be fed with 100 million? You've got to be kidding! How can you eat without farmland?

Villager: Besides, why can't we protect the world heritage that's in front of our homes? I'll feel guilty if we don't do a good job of protecting this precious heritage that's right on our doorsteps.

Villager: Everybody's talking about farmland because it's so central to our interests. Flooding our land is like breaking the rice bowl in our hands. How can peasants survive without land?


2. The farmer who addressed an international conference

Ge Quanxiao lives in the village of Wuzhu and, like Ding Changxiu in neighbouring Chezhou village, feels very uneasy these days. Despite being a local peasant like them, Ge is regarded by other villagers as a learned and capable man. He always loved reading from a very young age, and he has devoted himself to the development of his native land and protection of its natural resources. For the first time ever, a peasant was invited to attend a United Nations conference in Beijing on hydropower and sustainable development. And at that international conference, held last year, Ge lobbied for the right of indigenous people in China to be allowed to participate in the planning of hydropower projects. As a result of Ge's action, the head of the village sought his help in preparing a document outlining villagers' opinions, to be submitted to higher authorities.

Village head: We local cadres also have no idea whether to move or not.

Ge Quanxiao: It's knowing nothing about the project that makes everybody so worried!

Village head: Nobody dares to say whether they'll move or not, because the whole thing is still so uncertain.

Ge Quanxiao: But as a village representative, you have to do some research on the subject. You have to find out how local people feel about moving, and then you can convey their views to higher authorities.

Village head: Of course we can take our views to higher levels of governments. As I said to you days ago, we should produce a written report on the matter.

Ge Quanxiao: I think I'll continue speaking my mind regardless of what happens in the future. What I'm trying to do is to inform as many people as possible on the issue, so they'll become knowledgeable, and participate.

Villager: The government talks about environmental protection being a priority, so why then do we have to move away from this beautiful valley at the expense of the environment? After polluting the environment outside this area, they [power companies] come here wanting to spoil our surroundings and drive us out. But doing this really hurts us a lot.

Villager: Nobody is happy to see their farmland and gardens flooded by a dam, nor is anybody happy to have to say goodbye to relatives, friends and neighbours they have lived so closely together with, for so many years.

Ge Quanxiao: I don't think it's a good idea to develop one area at the expense of another area. And the current development [plan] compromises the development of the younger generations.

In order to write a good report, Ge Quanxiao travelled to nearby villages to gather as many views as possible. He wanted to find out how local people were really feeling. After an intensive round of visiting and interviewing, Ge began drafting his report:

"Local people are very worried, having learned that the provincial government has submitted to the central government for approval a proposal to build a water-transfer project. The interests of local farmers would be seriously harmed if the dam project is allowed to proceed, and their rights, such as the right to information and the right to participate in project decision-making, would have been ignored.

"The valley at the 'first bend of the Yangtze' is an ecologically pristine agricultural region, and part of the cultural community of the Three Parallel Rivers world heritage site, where numerous minority groups have lived together peacefully for centuries. If the valley is flooded, economic and social problems leading to conflicts will follow in Xianggelila and Lijiang counties, posing a threat to the stability of the border area in the province. The dream landscape and its spectacular attractions will be ruined.

"We local people in Xianggelila sincerely hope that local officials will help protect the world-famous name of Shangri-La. We beg officials at every level: Please don't allow paradise on Earth to be flooded!"

The villagers of Wuzhu held a heated discussion on the letter drafted by Ge Quanxiao.

Villager: We have to place more emphasis on the importance of the local environment by presenting specific facts.

Villager: In my view, they should consult us before doing anything significant. And they should ask our opinion and seek our approval before making the final decision. Whether we move to make way for the project should be worked out by mutual agreement, like a contract between two parties.

Ge Quanxiao revised his draft after canvassing villagers' opinions. The village was all set to submit the letter to higher authorities when something happened in Chezhou village. officials were elected by us, vote by vote. You promised to speak for us and to serve us once you were elected. But now your Ding Changxiu complained that the head of the village had threatened her. He had told her, she said, that her children's salaries would be reduced if she refused to move, and this made her extremely unhappy.

Ding Changxiu [with tears in her eyes]: Why did he [the head of the village] have to involve my children? They're working for the government and they have nothing to do with what I think. I don't think it's fair.

Villager: As head of the village, he should be representing and serving us.

Villager: What on earth is he doing? Let's call a mass meeting and demand his resignation!

After this event, the villagers believed the time had come for the village leader to step down.


3. Villagers try to force the resignation of the village head

The villagers in Chezhou decided to remove the village leader from his post, but they also felt it would be wise to follow formal procedures. And so they chose representatives, who met with members of the village committee to request that the cadres call a meeting to listen to villagers' views.

The villagers gathered in a grove at the edge of the village, and members of the village committee showed up.

Villager: We want to have a talk with you. If someone goes to see you individually, what he or she says cannot represent all of our views. So we're here today, and we hope you can listen to all of us.

Villager: What did the county work team say? You know what they said, so we want you leaders to tell us about it.

Peng Jiancheng (head of the village): I know you're very concerned about the dam and the resettlement related to the project. Yes, the work team did talk to us about the dam project.

Villager: What is this water-transfer project? We know nothing at all about it!

Villagers: You reluctant to tell us anything, which makes us anxious and worried.

Peng: The county work team told us that delegates from Yunnan province submitted a bill to the National People's Congress this past March. In it, they proposed building a project to divert water from here to the central part of Yunnan, where there's a shortage of water. The decision has not been finalized. I know that construction of the dam would have a huge impact on our local people. At the meeting, I hesitated to reveal my real feelings. I said we local cadres don't have the authority to make these kinds of decisions, even if we oppose the proposal. But speaking personally, every single member of the village committee who attended that meeting, myself included, do not want to move.

Villager: We have lived here for so many generations. Why do we have to move so far away?

Peng: I am very aware that nobody in the village wants to move. But what can we do if the experts say yes to the dam project, and then the National People's Congress gives the go-ahead? My concern is that if that happens, there will be nothing we can do about it.

Villager: Under the circumstances, we should be well prepared for it. We can do nothing about it once the dam project goes ahead. How can we oppose it after the project has received official approval and construction has begun? Everybody should be psychologically prepared.

Ding Changxiu: I was told the village head said that he would be the first to move. Why do you care so little about us?

Peng: Don't believe that! Where would I go to, even if I liked the idea? I was born and raised here, just like all of you, and my family has lived here for generations. I'll never go anywhere, leaving you behind, because I'm the head of the village. If resettlement is unavoidable, I'll be the last person to move.

Villager: We should do our best to protect the land and the world heritage on which our lives depend.

Villager: I'm 69 years old, so I'm not worried for myself. But what about the younger people in my family? How will they survive without land? \

Villager: You can't buy a Jinsha River with a million tons of gold. We love our land, and care about it. This is what we are feeling and thinking. We hope you cadres take our feelings seriously and deal with this issue well.

Village Party boss: We haven't done our job very well.

Villager: A storm is brewing, but you cadres have turned a deaf ear to it.

Village Party boss: That's not fair. As a matter of fact, we're working hard to convey your views to the leaders above, though we haven't done enough work "below" — we've had little communication with you.

Villager: You can't treat us this way, saying: "I don't know this" and "I don't know that." We'd rather elect a new leader if you keep on acting this way.

Village Party boss: I think we made mistakes in our past work. On behalf of both the party committee and the village committee, I'd like to apologize to you, my compatriots. We failed to give you information on the dam in a timely fashion, and that had an impact on your right to know relevant information about the project. We really regret that, and we're sorry about it.

I believe that you have a better awareness of your rights and of the environmental issues than we cadres do. All of us drink water from the Jinsha River and eat grain harvested from the land along the Jinsha valley. And, you know, it's legal for you to gather spontaneously to make your views known to higher authorities. We can say no to the dam project, because all of us are well aware of how invaluable the place, the river, the climate and everything else here is.

In view of the local cadres' honesty and sincerity, the villagers didn't press ahead with their original plan to remove the village head from his post. Now a new plan occurred to the villagers — to invite officials from the town government to take part in their discussions. The village leaders agreed with the idea, and promised to make the invitation.

Ding Changxiu: We peasants can invite officials from higher levels to join us for a mass meeting, which would, of course, be an unprecedented event.

And so officials from the town government gathered with villagers and village leaders for a joint meeting, where a consensus was reached:

After the two meetings, the villagers thought it would be a good idea to set up a public notice board, where material related to environmental and resource protection could be posted, to ensure local people had access to that information. And they also thought it would be a good idea to set up the bulletin board in co-operation with village cadres.

Translated by Three Gorges Probe (Chinese) editor Mu Lan.

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Three Gorges Probe is dedicated to covering the scientific, technical, economic, social, and environmental ramifications of completing the Three Gorges Project, as well as the alternatives to the dam. Three Gorges Probe welcomes submissions. As part of our service, we also reprint articles about the Three Gorges Project we feel will be of interest to our readers.

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Publisher: Patricia Adams
Editor (English): Kelly Haggart
Editor (Chinese): Mu Lan

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