Local Group Nurtures Indigenous Voices in Development of China's West

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Nestled in a small building complex in the heart of Kunming in southwestern China, the Center for Biodiversity and Indigenous Knowledge (CBIK) is easily overlooked. But behind its modest headquarters, this 100-member strong organization is changing the face of development in China's remote western provinces. By providing channels for ethnic minorities to voice their concerns, the group hopes to foster greater understanding of indigenous issues in development both locally and in the nation as a whole. "Unless local people have a way to speak out about the unintended consequences of resource exploitation projects, there is no way the general society can find out what is really going on," explains Li Bo, head of the Zhongdian Field Base of CBIK's Community Livelihood Project.

In a China that lacks strong legal infrastructure and civil participation, CBIK hopes to play a key role in helping the government both implement its own regulations and hold investors accountable for their social and environmental practices. In recent years, China has passed numerous laws and policies in support of environmental impact assessments, civil participation, and environmental rights in an effort to quell growing civil unrest. "I think that there is a legitimate concern now across all levels of government that the environmental crisis might get out of control," speculates Li, noting that the central government now sees environmental issues as "in their interest" to solve.

The recent flurry of policies is evidence that the government wants to "listen and respond to the needs of civil society," says Li. For example, the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) not only enforces an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) law to "promote and standard­ize public participation" in the EIA process, but it has called for public feedback on the law itself. In 2005, a regulation was issued calling for "fast, professional dealing" with citizen complaints in all government bureaus. And a new "Four Rights Policy" guarantees rural citizens in particular "access to information, access to participation, access to decision-making, and rights to monitor projects that concern their livelihood."

In practice, however, development projects and private investors largely ignore these laws, and local government leaders often choose short-term economic gain over long-term sustainable development. CBIK dealt with one case in which an EIA was filed for a proposed cable car tourism project near Jisha village, within the Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage site, where the organization has done extensive fieldwork. "The report was a joke," laughs Li, "In the section where they were required to gather local opinion on the project, only one farmer was consulted in the village of over 400 farmers, and he was in support of it. We worked in that village for five years. We know everyone there but we didn't recognize the name. So we approached the villagers and they had not heard of that farmer either. What a fake!" In the absence of outside intervention, the project's investors would likely have been able to move ahead with construction without the required public review. But now, the permits have been postponed for at least another year while the EIA is further reviewed.

China's west is especially vulnerable to this kind of exploitation because there is rising interest in the largely undeveloped region, which boasts the country's richest natural resources and ethnic cultures. "The private sector is eager to come here because it is resource rich," Li explains. "And the government is eager to develop here because it wants to stabilize the unrest caused by the economic gap between the eastern and western regions." The problem, according to CBIK, is that the government is encouraging investment from coastal urban centers or from overseas, yet regulations and public participation in the region remain weak. "The result," says Li, "is investments that upset the fragile and pristine environments of the west, destroy the livelihood foundation of local people, and take resources away from the region."

While existing policies protect the rights of local farmers to voice their concerns and defend their rights, the Chinese legal system does not provide them adequate channels for exercising these rights. CBIK acts as a bridge between rural residents and the government policies that protect them. This type of support is especially needed in the west, where most minority groups lack formal education and are unfamiliar with concepts like statuary law or due process. "Most of the villagers in Jisha I have worked with do not even know what a lawyer is," Li points out, "much less what a legal advisor could do for them or how to find one to protect their rights. Just getting villagers to come to a meeting about these issues is a huge effort for us." Moreover, many of the minorities do not have a written language in which to translate key documents—or if they do, often only the elite can read or write. "The result is a destructive cycle of investors who have every incentive to hide, escape, exploit, and distort the interpretation of laws, and locals who do not know the laws, have no access to them, and fear local authorities."

To escape this cycle, CBIK works closely with minority groups to educate them about China's legal framework, document their indigenous knowledge, and facilitate their participation in the development process. This year, the organization will also be collaborating with Conservation International's Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund and Chinese law schools to conduct case studies in the western provinces, giving law students the opportunity to understand the region's unique environmental justice concerns. Although western minorities "are fragile in the sense that they don't know their rights and they have very little resources to protect what comes out of their land, they are not fragile; in fact they are resilient," says Li. "They know their environment and have lived there for generations, adapting through many climatic and environmental changes." Rather than keeping these indigenous residents "poor and barefoot" forever, CBIK aims to involve them directly in the process of change, to allow new developments to happen at a pace to which they can adapt.