Tibetan Village Stops Mining Project Near the Nu River

Katy Yan

Mount Kawagebo
Mount Kawagebo

Mount Kawagebo (or Kawagarbo) rises 6,740 meters above sea level – the tallest peak in Yunnan Province, China. Its eastern side is part of the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Area UNESCO World Heritage Site (whose rivers – the Nu, Lancang, and Jinsha – are under threat by a number of proposed dam and mining projects). It is one of the most sacred mountains in Tibetan Buddhism and is visited by 20,000 pilgrims each year. To the local people, who also act as stewards of the sacred mountain, any destruction of the mountain body is unthinkable.

So when a Chinese mining company and local authorities failed to consult with local communities and ignored their repeated calls to halt a gold mining project on the slopes of Mount Kawagebo, the local people decided to take matters into their own hands.

Community Overcomes Threats

A pilgrim climbs through a tapestry of prayer flags. To circle Mount Kawagebo takes nearly two weeks.
A pilgrim climbs through a tapestry of prayer flags. To circle Mount Kawagebo takes nearly two weeks.

The gold-mining operation (which is a particularly pervasive and polluting practice in the region) started back in February 2011 near a village on the western side of Mount Kawagebo. Attempts by local villagers to negotiate directly with the mining company quickly failed, resulting instead in threats and violence from agents hired by the company, and harassment and arrests by local police. Harassment, death threats and attacks on villagers increased after angry villagers pushed $300,000 worth of mining equipment into the Nu River. Some of the women and children had to flee to other villages to escape the violence.

On January 20, 2012, a village leader who had tried to confront the mining company was ambushed by local police and arrested. Some 200 villagers surrounded the police station and a riot ensued. The leader was released, but protests continued as villagers demanded closure of the mine, and hundreds more villagers from the surrounding area joined in. This time, the local government held negotiations with the community on behalf of the mining company, whose boss had reportedly fled the area. On January 23, a vice-official from the prefecture government ordered the mine closed and the equipment trucked out of the village.

A History of Struggle

Communities around the Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage Site are no strangers to protest. For instance, in an incredible victory for the burgeoning Chinese environmental movement, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao announced in 2004 the suspension of a 13-dam cascade on the Nu River, officially for failure to comply with reporting requirements under China's new Environmental Impact Assessment Law. It was delayed again in 2009, after an international coalition including Thai and Burmese groups wrote letters to the Premier calling for an assessment of the downstream impacts of the dams.

In addition, through the close collaboration of activists, journalists and farmers, the movement was able to stop a dam in the stunning Tiger Leaping Gorge on the Upper Yangtze River, also a part of the World Heritage Site. A recent documentary, Waking the Green Tiger, details this movement through incredible interviews with those intimately involved with the campaign.

A Nu Challenge Looms for Ethnic Groups

Roads and makeshift workers huts at Songta dam site on the Nu River
Roads and makeshift workers huts at Songta dam site on the Nu River
Green Earth Volunteers, 2011

After the villagers successfully canceled the mining project near the Nu River in January, they claimed the mountain itself had played a role. In these remote regions of western China, where many non-Han ethnicities reside, traditional views and nature worship can still be found. But while this village was successful, development projects continue to be a looming threat to the traditional livelihoods of thousands of ethnic villagers living along the Nu River valley.

In particular, the 13-dam cascade first proposed in 2004 has returned to haunt the landscape, as seen through the roadwork, tunnels, and make-shift workers huts and equipment springing up along the Nu River. The watershed is home to thirteen different ethnic groups, most of whom are subsistence farmers. As many as 50,000 largely Lisu, Tibetan and Nu villagers would lose their farmland and be forced to move to prefabricated houses in new towns and look for work. Moreover, China has been reluctant to accord its ethnic minority nationalities "indigenous" status under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, which recognizes the rights of indigenous people to prior consultation and consent. The dams would even wipe out portions of the pilgrimage route around Mount Kawagebo – a serious blow to the Tibetans both in and outside the area. As one ethnic Tibetan told the New York Times in 2007:

"If people are forced to move because of the project, they are going to lose the way of life that makes them special. It's inevitable that people will lose their traditions if they move away."

Ethnic groups along the Nu/Salween River
Ethnic groups along the Nu/Salween River
Adapted from the Stimson Interactive Myanmar Map

Downstream in Burma and Thailand, millions of Karen, Shan and Mon communities depend on the Nu (more widely known as the Salween) for food and water. The cumulative impact of both the Chinese dams and a five-dam cascade in Burma on the flora and fauna of the area are unknown but likely to be significant. Even more so will be the cost of these projects to the millions of people who draw economic and spiritual sustenance from the river.

However, as repeated successful attempts to stop these dams in the past have shown, communities along the river will not easily give up the fight. As one Lisu villager told me on my trip in 2011, "We don't support the dam...We will not move." This year, as communities around the world gather to celebrate the International Day of Action for Rivers, brave individuals from Burma, Thailand and China will once again raise their voices for the Salween.

What you can do:

More information: 
  • Read the full account of the Mount Kawagebo success story.
  • Learn more about the Chinese NGO Green Earth Volunteers.
  • Check out the US premier of Waking the Green Tiger, the incredible story about the fight to save the Nu River and Tiger Leaping Gorge.
  • Read about my trip last year to the Nu River and my interviews with dam-affected communities.