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Where the Dragon Meets the Angry River: Nature and Power in the People's Republic of Chinaby R. Edward Grumbine
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China’s meteoric rise to economic powerhouse might be charted with dams. Every river in the country has been tapped to power exploding cities and factories—every river but one. Running through one of the richest natural areas in the world, the Nujiang’s raging waters were on the verge of being dammed when a 2004 government moratorium halted construction. Might the Chinese dragon bow to the "Angry River"? Would Beijing put local people and their land ahead of power and profit? Could this remote region actually become a model for sustainable growth?
Ed Grumbine traveled to the far corners of China’s Yunnan province to find out. He was driven by a single question: could this last fragment of wild nature withstand China’s unrelenting development? But as he hiked through deep-cut emerald mountains, backcountry villages, and burgeoning tourist towns, talking with trekking guides, schoolchildren, and rural farmers, he discovered that the problem wasn’t as simple as growth versus conservation.
In its struggle to "build a well-off society in an all-round way," Beijing juggles a host of competing priorities: health care for impoverished villagers; habitat for threatened tigers; cars for a growing middle class; clean air for all citizens; energy to power new cities; rubber for the global marketplace.
Where the Dragon Meets the Angry River is an incisive look at the possible fates of China and the planet. Will the Angry River continue to flow? Will Tibetan girls from subsistence farming families learn to read and write? Can China and the United States come together to lead action on climate change? Far-reaching in its history and scope, this unique book shows us the real-world consequences of conservation and development decisions now being made in Beijing and beyond.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
"A fascinating read for anyone interested in China and a wake-up call to take much greater care of matters related to ecology and conservation worldwide. Highly recommended."
“Ed Grumbine spent decades working with federal land managers and teaching classes in the mountains, canyons, and universities of the American west. Some years ago, he took on mastery of the complex biogeography and anthropology of southwest China: especially Yunnan (south of the clouds) Province. He made many trips to China (and read exhaustively) and met the right people to get a solid grasp of the dilemmas that the current government is both creating and grappling with. I don't know a better introduction to the problems of China and its environment—its border peoples, impoverished farmers, and threatened plants and animals—than this book right now.”
“There is no other book that comes close to Where the Dragon Meets the Angry River for pulling readers into the wild ride of China’s rise. If you want to understand the growing force of nature that is China, Grumbine’s account is the best place to begin.”
"There is no other book that comes close to Where the Dragon Meets the Angry River or pulling readers into the wild ride of China's rise. If you want to understand the growing force of nature that is China, Grumbine's account is the best place to begin."
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Where the Dragon Meets the Angry River
Nature and Power in the People's Republic of China
By R. Edward Grumbine
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 2010 R. Edward Grumbine
All rights reserved.
The Highest Good
The highest good is like water.
Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive.
It flows in places men reject and so is like the Dao.
LAO-TZU, sixth century BCE
(translation by G. Feng and J. English)
THERE ARE FEW PLACES left in the twenty-first-century world where conversation can be numbed into silence by the power of raging water. The Nujiang (Angry River) in Yunnan Province, PRC, at the tail end of the summer monsoon, is one of them. And barely an hour into our upstream journey, I was also losing my ability to count—I simply could not keep track of the number of roaring rapids we were passing. Nor could I comprehend fully their size—some of the standing waves looked like they could swallow our bus. The river mesmerized, pulled at my power to think clearly, as if it wanted to replace my normal consciousness with something wilder.
Maybe it was the all-night ride on a Chinese sleeper bus (narrow bunks, no seats) or waking to a world of dense, humid air, banana trees, and terraced rice paddies. Perhaps it was that I understood none of the nine languages spoken in this region, or that the Myanmar border, replete with rumors of smuggled timber, drugs, and people, defined the mountains immediately to the west. All I knew was that it was difficult to count and speak and impossible to take my eyes off the Nujiang.
Riding in a minibus a few yards from the Nu was a far cry from reading about the Angry River in the New York Times. In 2004, comfortably nestled in an armchair at home, in the pine woods of central Arizona, I had come across an article about the PRC's decision to halt hydropower construction on the last undammed river in China. The plan had been to build thirteen dams along the Nu to generate electric power and enormous profits; local tax revenues would skyrocket if all the dams were built. It was unclear exactly where the power would go and how much money might trickle down to valley residents, although it was abundantly clear that the wild Nujiang would become a series of slack-water reservoirs. Against all odds, however, Beijing appeared to be giving in to pressure from both Chinese citizens and international NGOs, overruling local government officials to slow construction down.
If the dams were built, it wasn't just the Angry River that would be tamed. The Nu flows through the Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage Site, a protected area twice the size of Yellowstone National Park containing some of the world's greatest concentrations of unique plants and animals, from apes and brown bears to more rhododendrons and bamboo that any place on the planet. Such a designation, however, does not confer complete protection; it was known that eight of the thirteen Nu dams would be built near or within the boundaries of Three Parallel Rivers. But no one knew what negative consequences might be in store for the Nujiang's biodiversity—the government refused to release the results from environmental impact studies.
Maybe most disturbing, thousands of local people would be displaced. Beijing was debating how to relocate the fifty thousand ethnic nationality residents who would be flooded out of their homes by the dams, not an easy task in this part of Yunnan where poverty, life expectancies, and literacy rates are lower than they were in the United States sixty years ago. I knew that the central government was committed to raising living standards in western China up to the level of the wealthy eastern coast. But did that mean that wild Yunnan's future was to become as densely populated and polluted as the rest of the PRC?
For me, this question held more than academic interest. I had been fascinated by Chinese philosophy, classical poetry, and history since high school. And as an environmental studies professor and researcher, I was well aware of China's ever-growing ecological footprint. I had read countless academic papers about Yunnan and the country at large, but the Times article was truly revolutionary. This was the first time Beijing was actually considering changing a major environmental policy due to public pressure. Yunnan could conceivably set a new precedent for development in China. And as unlikely as it seemed, this poorly known province might even serve as a model for the rest of the world.
Having worked for twenty-five years on biodiversity protection in the United States, I saw that the PRC had an opportunity to move away from its modernize-at-all-costs mentality toward leadership in sustainability. But if China, with its 1.3 billion people, could not diverge from business as usual, then what did that mean for the future? If the huge population of the PRC adopted American consumer habits, was there enough Earth to go around? Given all that was at stake, I was driven to visit the Nu and see for myself.
So in September 2005, I packed my bags, ready to trade in dryland Arizona for the steamy subtropics and Himalayan snowfields of Yunnan. I had a month before my students returned to Prescott College for classes and a challenging itinerary. I would travel up the Nujiang, a place for which I could find no English-language guidebook, all the way to Dimaluo, a small village where the road system ended and backcountry trails began. For company, I had convinced my friend Albie, an agroecology researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, to join me. Like me, Albie preferred field travel to armchair research.
To get to wild China, you first must travel through some of the largest, most fast-paced cities on Earth. After Beijing, Yunnan's capital city, Kunming, seemed slow, but with three million residents, endless high-rises, and digital billboards twenty stories high, it was thoroughly modern. On my first full day in Yunnan, I stood in a glass skyscraper gazing down at six huge cranes moving bundles of steel at as many nearby construction sites. I had come to Kunming to visit the offices of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and to meet the group's operations director, Stefan Kratz. TNC was one of the international groups that had played a significant role in convincing Beijing to institute the Nu moratorium and it was developing conservation plans across the Three Parallel Rivers region. If I wanted to understand the central government's sudden move toward slowing down development, I would need to know what this and other NGOs' presence really meant for Yunnan. Stefan could point me toward the political players who were shaping conservation and development.
"You say you're going up the Nu?" Stefan eyed me carefully. "It's pretty sketchy if you don't speak Mandarin."
"Well, I don't have any maps either," I pointed out. "You can't get any. But I still have to visit the Nu. It's going to be gone soon."
Stefan understood my fascination with the river, but he also appreciated that the moratorium was about more than nature—it was about culture, politics, and power.
"I'm not a biologist," he said. "I run this office and do fundraising. TNC's goal is protecting biodiversity, but in China, you have to deal with people, too. The local officials in the Nu believe that dams are the only way to get rid of poverty and they'll do anything to get them built. Beijing supports the dams, too, but the central government is worried about how the rest of the world will view China if development wrecks such a special place. So you get a 'moratorium.' You've got different levels of the government arguing over how to handle this issue and I can relate; not everyone agrees with TNC about our plans for nature reserves."
For a better picture of what was happening on the ground, Stefan suggested I talk to one of TNC's field staff, fungi expert Dr. Zhou Dequn. He worked in Three Parallel Rivers and was in town that day, so later that evening I met Dr. Zhou for dinner in the courtyard of a quiet, two-hundred-year-old building.
"Kunming wants to be like the rest of China," Dr. Zhou smiled. "But it's very different in the villages. People are poor and they're mostly not Han [China's dominant ethnic group]. In Lijiang where I work, it's Naxi country. In the Nujiang, you have a mix of Nu, Lisu, and Tibetans, almost no Han except for government officials.
"Do you like fat?" Dr. Zhou gestured toward a dish in the center of the table. "Try this—it's traditional Yunnanese." He took a sharp knife and sliced a wedge off the side of a large pyramid of roasted pork fat. He inserted the fat into a steamed bun and chewed.
I followed his lead, then drank more tea—oolong helps the body digest rich foods.
"What about the Nu dams?" I asked. "Is Beijing's moratorium going to hold?"
"It's difficult in China," Dr. Zhou replied. "I'm not sure about the Nu; Beijing is in control of hydropower development. In China, we are just beginning to create a rule of law, environmental regulations, and a court system to back them up. China has solid environmental legislation, but enforcement isn't as tight as you would expect. Beijing is far away and local governments sometimes do things differently. Current law allows for some citizen access to plans and public input, but this hasn't happened so much with the Nu dams."
I told Dr. Zhou that I didn't understand why China's national environmental laws weren't being enforced in the Nu.
Dr. Zhou smiled. "If you push for change too hard, it can be bad for you, but it's much better than it used to be." He paused. "It's hard to understand China from the U.S. perspective, Ed, so be careful when you look around. I have trouble understanding the U.S.—I mean, how could you folks have elected Bush twice?"
We laughed and drank a toast to more responsive governments. Dr. Zhou set his cup down. "I can see that you understand how important it is to protect the Nu, and we both know that China cannot have as many cars as America. The only way to go is friendship between us. Otherwise, it will be the end of the world."
* * *
Stefan and Dr. Zhou's insights reinforced my sense that the complexities of conservation and development in China couldn't be understood fully from just an NGO standpoint. Like TNC, many international environmental groups had been active in Yunnan for over a decade. While they brought tremendous knowledge and resources, they also brought assumptions, and at times, plans that didn't meet local needs.
Yunnan was one chapter in a contentious history of conservation exported from the world of wealth to the world of poverty. The challenges were manifold. First, not all conservation work is altruistic; what the poor need doesn't always equal what the wealthy want to give. NGOs no doubt assume that rural people will benefit from nature reserves, but it is unclear whether there is any difference between imposing reserves and imposing tourism, roads, and dams. Second, the slender chance that biodiversity has to survive in Yunnan depends on international groups working in partnership with their PRC colleagues. There must be give and take between different groups of players who do not always share common cultural values or visions. Third, community-based conservation, where local people are involved in project planning and execution, is more likely to succeed than most brands of top-down planning imported from the outside. Evidence from conservation work around the world shows that success is more likely when villagers are participants. Fourth, every action in China is constrained by what central and local governments allow—but that space is expanding.
Mulling over these ideas, I finalized plans to travel with Albie from the bright lights and digital displays of Kunming to the Nujiang, where electricity existed in the form of low-watt light bulbs dangling from slender cords. I wanted to try to see Yunnan not just from the vantage point of an American environmentalist but through the eyes of a villager struggling to scrape a subsistence living from the land. I imagined that neither government-mandated dams nor NGO-DESIGNED nature reserves could provide enough for all the people in the Nu. Were there other alternatives? There was only one way to find out. So, two days after my abstract discussions in sleek high-rises and expensive Ming dynasty–era courtyard restaurants, I found myself bumping through another washout along the Nujiang's single main road, the roar of the river ringing in my ears.
After six hours of bone-jarring bus travel, we took a break in Fugong town. Albie and I hiked away from the busy market in the center of town through winding lanes of low wooden farm buildings past groups of shy, barefoot children. I wondered how many of these kids went to school. How would their world change as they grew older?
As we ascended into the emerald hills east of the river, every scrap of arable soil was terraced and planted with subsistence plots. It was late September, and the rice was turning ripe. We followed a water ditch past clusters of thatch-roofed houses, climbing into a narrow canyon draped with cascading ribbon waterfalls. Men carrying heavy sheets of corrugated roofing with tumplines passed us on the trail. There was no "forest," only the rank growth of recent fallows. The pressure to grow food was palpable—on the far side of the canyon, corn patches were planted on thirty-five-degree slopes.
"That's why the Nu's so muddy," Albie observed. "There's no way this corn can keep the soil in place. There's only two reasons why people would plant up here—their population must be pushing the limits, or government policies are forcing them to expand into marginal lands." But there was no obvious answer that we could detect on the slopes above Fugong, and the bus was waiting to take us upriver.
Back on the bus in the valley above Fugong, there were no billboards, scenic pullouts, or visitor services, nothing to distract me from watching the Nujiang rage through more monster rapids. As the river sheered across huge talus blocks, remnants of a recent landslide, I considered Dr. Zhou's admonition, local peoples' lack of adequate food, water, and waste systems, and the imminent arrival of the dams. All of these are linked to "development," but what is that?
Rivers embody development through flow. For a river, development is complete when nothing impedes water's inevitable response to gravity. The ancient Chinese recognized a connection between water and human character. In China's oldest text, the I Jing (Book of Changes), the image of water under mountains signifies youth. The I Jing suggests that human maturation results from cultivating "a thoroughness that skips nothing, but, like water, steadily fills up all gaps." And in the 2,500-year-old Daodejing, the foundational text of Daoism and the third most translated book in the world, Lao-tzu wrote that "water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive." To Daoists, flowing waters are the roots of growth and change.
For the ethnic nationality peoples of the Nujiang, development is more complex. What do they want? What do they need? Dr. Zhou cautioned against jumping to conclusions about anything in China, so I want to be careful here. I expect that villagers want adequate food, clean water, and the freedom to pursue their livelihoods. But immediately, a host of questions arise. There are nine ethnic groups living in the Nujiang watershed and I can't believe that they all want the same things. There's a history here, too, one with many inequalities. Some local people are better off than others, but all are seen as "poor" and "backward" in the government's eyes. Yunnan is a borderland region, on the periphery of the Middle Kingdom as it has been since imperial times. The state did not seek the locals' permission when the first regional nature reserves were set aside in the 1980s—they simply imposed them.
Nor is the government seeking permission for the dams. In China, however, even this single issue is multilayered. The dams are one piece of a much larger central government drive to xibu dakaifa, "develop the west," or the so-called Go West strategy—but does this mean that Kunming is destined to become another Shanghai? If so, then I wonder about the fate of both Yunnan's local people and wildlife. There is a reason why China's primates, bears, tigers, and elephants no longer live across most of the country—their habitat has been obliterated.
Ecosystems, ethnic nationality peoples and their cultural values, conservation plans, and government policies are all in flux. Like the Nujiang, everything is in motion, cutting deeper into the bedrock that upholds the land and the people.
Reaching Gongshan, we crossed the Nujiang a final time. The road deteriorated rapidly, the last thirty-two kilometers (twenty miles) taking almost an hour and a half to travel. The track petered out in Dimaluo.
Excerpted from Where the Dragon Meets the Angry River by R. Edward Grumbine. Copyright © 2010 R. Edward Grumbine. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
R. Edward Grumbine has been involved in integrating conservation science into resource management planning and policy since the 1980s. Currently on leave from Prescott College in Arizona, he is serving as a senior international scientist at the Kunming Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Yunnan Province. His current work includes dam development impacts in the Mekong River, hydropower issues in the India Himalaya, and defining environmental security on China’s western borders. He is the author of numerous academic papers and several books including, Where the Dragon Meets the Angry River: Nature and Power in the People's Republic of China, Ghost Bears: Exploring the Biodiversity Crisis, and he is editor of Environmental Policy and Biodiversity.
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