Saving Tiger Leaping Gorge: A Reflection

Legeng Liu
Naxi farmers and guides.
Naxi farmers and guides.
Joani Carpenter

In 2006, farmers from a small village by China’s Jinsha River took seven hydropower surveyors hostage in a brazen attempt to stop the Tiger Leaping Gorge Dam. The dam would have flooded them out of their homes and ancestral lands, and massive opposition had arisen to it. 

And the crazy thing is, it worked.

Four years later, in 2010, I came to this village with my father to help with the production of a documentary, Waking the Green Tiger, which tells just how activists, journalists and local farmers worked together to stop this dam. My father, who was involved in the movement, was to be interviewed, and I was translating for the filmmaker, Gary Marcuse.

On our first morning in the village, we stood on a hill overlooking the Jinsha River and the valley below, our shoes damp from the morning dew. The Jinsha, which is the upper stretch of the Yangtze River in Yunnan Province, means “Golden Sand” in Chinese. Despite the remnants of early morning fog, streaks of sunlight shined on the river, and its ripples glittered. 

Cornfields lined the banks of the river, irrigated by streams that flow into the Jinsha. Further up the banks lie clusters of brick houses that form the Chezhou Village, its residents mostly Naxi minorities who had lived and prospered in this river valley for many generations. An occasional cow or ox wandered and grazed on the hill that I was standing on. 

All of this had been under threat by the proposed Tiger Leaping Gorge Dam. It was planned to be some 200 meters high, and would have flooded the Jinsha River valley 200 kilometers upstream and displaced 100,000 people from ethnic minorities. If not for the efforts of environmental activists, journalists, and local farmers over the last decade, everything we were seeing now would have been under water.

As we took in the sight before us, my father told Gary how in 2004, he reported on the construction of the Jinanqiao Dam as a journalist. Jinanqiao was the fifth dam of an eight-dam cascade (of which the Tiger Leaping Gorge Dam was the first) planned for the Jinsha River. My father and a colleague found that illegal construction on the dam had already started, despite the lack of government approval. Their article caught the attention of Premier Wen Jiabao, and the project was later suspended. But this was far from the end.

Local Farmers Take the Lead

The old town of Shi Gu.
The old town of Shi Gu.
Heng Duan Shan Society

Ge Quanxiao, a farmer and local leader, told us that activists had compiled information and articles – including my father’s article – to educate villagers about the impact of dams. They disseminated thousands of copies to villagers. This made a huge difference, because villagers had almost no information besides government propaganda. They decided they should have the right to protect their homeland and participate in government decisions. That’s when the struggle between villagers and the dam began.

In early 2006, hydro companies and the local government started preliminary work on Tiger Leaping Gorge. Helicopters flew in the sky, and surveyors appeared in the fields. The surveyors would put down markers in the fields at night, and in the morning the farmers would pull them out again. The conflict kept escalating until March 21, 2006, when farmers seized a group of seven surveyors and held them hostage in the fields. The villagers did not think that the surveyors had the central government’s approval.

“We asked to see their documents, to see if they have permission to start work,” Ge Quanxiao told us, “We weren’t being unreasonable, but they said there was no question that the dam will be built. They told us we’d better find someplace else to live.”

The next morning, a government official said he was taking a surveyor to breakfast, and then helped him escape. The villagers were enraged. 

On the muddy street in Chezhou Village after a rain, an old Naxi woman described to me that day. 

“The official was chased by the angry villagers from the field all the way to the river. He had no choice but to jump in!” she laughed. “He was saved later, but even then the police wouldn’t fight us. They said, ‘How can we fight our own parents?’”

The angry villagers began gathering in front of the local government building. Soon, 10,000 people from the surrounding area showed up. They brought metal bars and rocks with them.

However, Ge Quanxiao and the other local leaders received a tip from a local official: the provincial government wanted to resolve the conflict as quickly as possible. The government was ready to make concessions, but armed police would be sent in if the protest continued. Ge Quanxiao told the villagers, “We’ve already won, let’s go home before we lose completely!” The streets cleared by the next morning.

In the morning, the provincial government posted a statement all over town: the Tiger Leaping Gorge dam was to be stopped, and any further dams will not be built without the consent of the locals. The jubilant villagers took the flyers home to keep as evidence. A violent conflict had been avoided, and their homes were saved.

The Free-Flowing Tiger Leaping Gorge

Tiger Leaping Gorge.
Tiger Leaping Gorge.
International Rivers

As we hiked up the trail to Tiger Leaping Gorge, I heard the rapids roaring in the distance. Around a few more twists and turns, the thundering got louder and louder until I was greeted with the most spectacular sight: The gorge was at its narrowest, perhaps only forty or fifty yards across, and sandy water poured down onto the rocks downstream. In the middle of it all was the Tiger Leaping Rock, only a tiny tip showing above the water. It was on this rock that a tiger supposedly leaped across the gorge.

I could not help but think that these waters, as well as the beautiful Chezhou Village and hundreds of other villages along the Jinsha, would not exist without the locals and outside activists joining the fight together. 

Waking the Green Tiger was released in September 2011 in 30 different countries and won 10 major prizes. It received great applause from the public in countries like Malaysia and Cambodia, whose people face the same challenges and were inspired by the film. Today it’s been translated into more than 13 languages. I was proud to contribute to the making of the film, however small my efforts were, so that more people would know the story of this movement. 

We all faced the Tiger Leaping Gorge – Ge Quanxiao, my father, and I – and shouted, “Save the Tiger Leaping Gorge! Save the Tiger Leaping Gorge!”

More Tiger Leaping Gorge Dams Around the World

The first grand bend of Yangtze River, which would have been submerged by Tiger Leaping Gorge Dam.
The first grand bend of Yangtze River, which would have been submerged by Tiger Leaping Gorge Dam.
Heng Duan Shan Society

Fast-forward five years, and here I am in August 2015, having just finished my internship with International Rivers. The trip to the Tiger Leaping Gorge was my first introduction to dams, but now I suddenly faced hundreds of dam projects that carry on the legacy of the Tiger Leaping Gorge Dam – flooding precious cultural sites, ruining the biodiversity of rivers, and displacing thousands of people whose livelihoods depend on the river. 

It’s incredibly sad to see that hydropower companies are not content with just damming China, but want to ruin the environment and infringe on human rights in underdeveloped and developing countries all over the world. And all this is done under the pretext of “sustainability” and “development,” just as damming rivers in China is supposed to fight climate change and lift residents out of poverty. 

A recent article in the New York Times discusses the state of overseas Chinese investments, particularly in Ecuador. China is investing heavily in unstable economies where the West is unwilling to go, in return for rights to the natural resources of these countries. 

In Ecuador, China’s Sinohydro is constructing the $2.2 billion Coca Codo Sinclair hydropower project, which is also financed by a Chinese bank. The project “sits in an area prone to earthquakes and near the base of a volcano that erupted this spring and produced short lava flows.” The dam “will nearly dry up a 40-mile stretch of the Coca River for several months of the year, including the falls. An entire aquatic system will be wiped out.” It seems that the only winners here are the construction company and the governments, all of which will no doubt make a handsome profit.

The Upside

I noticed a common narrative arc in my research. First, a dam is planned on a river, and therefore the indigenous people must relocate. They don’t want to move because they depend on the river, whether for fishing or irrigation, and their people have lived on that land for hundreds of years. They’re not compensated enough by the government, and have no means to live on their new land, which is often far from the river. And finally, the dam’s economic benefits prove to be minimal – in fact, the locals still don’t have electricity because most of the energy generated is sold to neighboring countries. This pattern happens over and over again.

However, I noticed another, more optimistic side to the pattern. People all around the world are fighting back, every day. In Myanmar, Malaysia, Ecuador, Brazil...wherever a dam’s being built, indigenous people, small farmers and fishermen are petitioning the government, requesting that they be consulted, and holding protests. They’re use legal means to fight for their rights, but they’re not afraid to use force and to even die if necessary. 

One story about the São Manoel dam in Brazil stood out to me. Four Amazonian tribes, bitter rivals who used to fight each other often, have united to face the dam that’s threatening their lives. They have tried legal appeals, fighting the dam in lower courts, and the leader of the Munduruku tribe even addressed the UN’s 29th Human Rights Council in June, accusing the Brazilian government of violating its own laws. 

The Amazonian tribes demand that the government stop construction, and they’re even prepared to occupy the construction site. Similarly, across the globe in Malaysia, a blockade by the locals against the Baram hydropower project, which would displace 20,000 people, has been in place for 21 months. It was these stories of strife and courage that touched my heart and brought me right back to the Tiger Leaping Gorge: there, two men had told my father that they would go into the mountains and start a guerrilla war if the dam construction started, and that many more people would join them. After all, when people are faced with losing their homeland and everything they hold dear, what more do they have to lose?

Despite differences in our language, culture, and upbringing, and despite living thousands of miles away from each other, the human response to oppression is the same everywhere. People are willing to stand up, speak out, and even die to protect their homeland. It is this most fundamental aspect of our shared human experience – love and courage in the face of oppression – that moved me the most during my research.

Tiger Leaping Gorge has taught me that even the most marginalized people can make their voices heard and create change when they unite, and people are doing this around the world, every day, whether it’s in Latin America, Southeast Asia, or China. The struggle for free rivers and free people will not be easy, but we’ve done it before at Tiger Leaping Gorge, and we can certainly do it many times again.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015