Due to the onslaught of hydropower construction in the upper reaches of the Yangtze River watershed, tens of thousands of ethnic Yi and Miao peoples have relocated from mountainside villages deep in the Yalong River valley into lowland resettlements in China’s Sichuan province. A shared result of all peoples forced to leave their homes due to China’s development plans is a substandard compensation package due to the failure of local governments and hydropower firms to properly assess the impact of relocation on the villagers. In the case of ethnic peoples relocated from the Yalong River valley, the distribution of land parcels for agricultural purposes to individual households in resettlements falls short of matching the land use patterns enjoyed by villagers in their remote mountain homes. A villager in the Gubai resettlement commented that in the mountains he “used to fish at night and could usually get five, six, seven, to eight pounds of fish. If we were lucky we might even get ten pounds. We would boil them – it was such a good time.”
The Yi mountain village of Muli had groves of walnut trees each two to three hundred years old. Villagers could earn extra income of more than 1000 RMB per year from each tree. In the Gubai resettlement few opportunities like this exist. Each household is only given two mu of irrigable land and less than one mu of paddy field for rice cultivation. Ma Erzi, Director of the Liang Shan Yi Minority Culture Research Institute identifies four functional areas of land use in Yi mountain villages each abundant with food resources and used throughout the year in the Yalong river valley. He comments that traditional Yi people from Liang Shan autonomous prefecture lived by traditional farming methods and taking animals to pasture. With their houses at the center, they divided land into pasture land 禾普, farming land 么普, forests for collecting timber and food like fruits and mushrooms 斯普， and water areas for fishing and fetching drinking water 日普. These areas formed a special distribution pattern each linked to the other, none of them dispensable.
Local governments may compensate resettled villagers for houses and land, but the water areas, forests, and pastures cannot be compensated. These missing links will provide a major challenge for resettlement. There are two common misconceptions about resettlement. First the Chinese government believes that as long as compensation standards are followed, resettled villagers will be compensated appropriately and once compensated there is no need for follow-up. In actuality resettled peoples think their losses are far from covered. The products and services provided by mountains and forests where they could dig wild herbs and mushrooms, their religious facilities, the loss of community – all of these losses should be compensated for. Second, the government economic compensation will solve all problems, but in actuality what people need is to be taught a new way to make a living and to build a new social network. Only in this way can the resettled truly build a new life. The Yalong River valley is an ancient corridor for the movement and settlement of Tibetans, Yi, Pumi, and Miao (Hmong) peoples who have all lived to the south of Hengduan mountains for generations. Will the demand for hydropower development cause us to turn a blind eye to the historical and cultural value of this corridor? When resettlement separates the people from hundreds if not thousands of years of traditions, how will it harm the people who have lived there for generations?
To illustrate the loss of culture and the lack of recognition of the cultural values of indigenous peoples by local governments and hydropower developers, we should examine the near desecration of Yi family graves in the Liang Shan autonomous prefecture. Over the last decade, the development of dams on the Yalong, Dadu, and Jinsha Rivers has sent countless criss-crosses of electricity lines through the blue skies of Liang Shan. In 2009, a series of the electricity towers was scheduled for construction on a mountain specified for placing the Ji, Mu, Wu, and Qi family graves – the core ancestral clan of the Liang Shan Yi people. “To build an electric tower on our mountain is like hammering a nail into someone’s head – it will hurt for sure!” recalls Feng Gebo, a local leader and representative of the Ji-Mu-Wu-Qi clans. “That tower is hammered into the head of our mountain, it gives us a feeling that we can never develop again because we are being stepped on.” Feng took my research team to a hole five to six meters deep, dug initially to support an electricity tower. “We filled this hole in on our own after the ground breaking ceremony for the tower network. (The hydropower firm) didn’t do anything.”
The Ji-Mu-Wu-Qi ancestral tombs date back to 1556 and play a key role in maintaining and preserving Yi identity and historical understanding. Feng pleaded to the local government to move the towers to an adjacent ridge without tombs. But his original pleas fell on deaf ears as local officials failed to understand his request or cited state development as a priority over local needs. “They believe it’s for the construction of the state and the stated outcome of this hydropower project is to help us overcome poverty and achieve prosperity. But we know what’s good for us, and we believe the best thing to do is to let this place stay just the way it was.” Feng acknowledged during his initial pleas to the local government he discovered that officials held different views. He discovered some officials understood the importance of protecting the social customs, religions, and cultures of minority peoples. “At that time, I managed to arrange more than 100 people to help me, to make sure construction would not start until I finished the negotiations.” He was only asking for the two towers to be built 200 meters away so his ancestors could rest in peace. To keep vigil over their movement, farmers would spend nights at the construction site warming themselves by a fire in the subzero autumn temperatures to prevent construction from starting up.
This lasted until February 2010 when the local party secretary ended negotiations with Feng and asked him to send the farmers home due to exposure the extreme temperatures. “The secretary promised me the construction would not start without the permission of the farmers. In the end, the provincial design institute redesigned the towers and removed them.” Prior to the establishment of the PRC in 1949, ethnic groups in the mountainous regions of southwest China defended their culture, lands, and traditions with arms and kept the expanding Chinese state at arms’ length. Feng noted, “At that time if you built something like that on top of a mountain, you would be in real trouble and make enemies for sure.” The Yi people have a saying often asserted in a quarrel or argument, “Are you an Apukeh or not?” An Apukeh refers both to the ancestral tomb and the essence of an honorable person. “You can mess with anything you like, but you simply cannot mess with an Apukeh – it’s a matter of life. As a part of the next generation if you cannot protect the ancestral tomb, then you can’t protect anything. You don’t call yourself a man or even a person. That’s how important the Apukeh is – more important than our lives.” In September 2010, Feng Gebo’s efforts and the collective efforts of Yi people in the Ji-Mu-Wu-Qi clan successfully saved their ancestral tombs. But how many other ancestral mountains will be flooded due to rising reservoirs behind dams or destroyed by the construction of electricity towers or roads that support the hydropower projects?