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No Recourse: Upper Mekong Dam Spells End for Tibetan Village

Cizhong village in the background along the west bank of the Upper Mekong in Yunnan.

Cizhong village in the background along the west bank of the Upper Mekong in Yunnan.

Cizhong, a remote Tibetan village in China’s Yunnan province, has no recourse against the onslaught of impacts from the construction of the Wunonglong dam on the Upper Mekong River.

This year has seen no pause in activity from civil society organizations and community level stakeholders in the Lower Mekong targeting criticism at the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams in Laos, both high-profile projects on the main stem of the Mekong River. Moreover, evidence shows how efforts of these groups are actually delaying the construction of these projects and raising the costs associated with their completion. Dual influences of economic uncertainty in China and Southeast Asia and the unavoidable effects of climate change in addition to grassroots efforts are challenging the popular notion of a “domino effect” of inevitable hydropower development on the Mekong.

Yet while the domino effect on the Lower Mekong may be under question, it has prevailed in China’s stretch of the Mekong , silencing activism and subjecting affected communities and local ecologies to the vagaries of unchecked development. The 990MW Wunonglong dam, scheduled for completion in 2019, and the impacts of its reservoir on thousands of households serves as a case in point.

Construction began at the Wunonglong dam site in 2010.

Construction began at the Wunonglong dam site in 2010.

I first heard of the impacts of the Wunonglong dam on the day I walked into Cizhong, a village 40km upstream of the construction site. Cizhong sits on a small plateau 100 meters above the Mekong at the southern end of Deqin county in one of the most remote areas of Yunnan province. I crossed into Cizhong on a bridge that will be inundated by the dam’s reservoir in a few years.  Looming fifty meters above, a half constructed bridge built by the dam developer Huaneng Hydrolancang will upon completion bisect a patch of carefully maintained rice paddies located between the river and the village.

Cizhong is majority Tibetan, and for years both Chinese and foreign tourists have flocked to the village for two reasons.  First, eighty percent of the village’s 115 households are members of the local Catholic church established in the late 19th century by French missionaries. Several times a week, villagers file into the stone Cizhong cathedral, a nationally protected structure, to take part in mass led by Li Fei, a priest from Inner Mongolia.  The prayers sung in unison before mass are to the tune of commonly known Tibetan Buddhist chants.  European tourists typically line the back pews to catch a glimpse of this uncommon marriage of cultures.

Cizhong’s Catholic Church, a nationally protected structure built in the early 20th century.

Cizhong’s Catholic Church, a nationally protected structure built in the early 20th century.

Second, Cizhong is home to a growing cottage wine industry, also introduced by the French missionaries prior to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.  The wine boom started in the late 1990s with the resurrection of a Rose Honey grape variety found growing on the cathedral grounds and no longer cultivated in France.  About ten years ago, the local Deqin county government introduced agricultural assistance programs that brought in other kinds of grape varieties as well as technical aid to supply a larger wine making industry in the Shangri-la region.  Currently, most villagers sell their grapes to middlemen each harvest, but some choose to make their own wine to retail at Cizhong’s local wineries and guesthouses.

New neighbors

However, the things that make Cizhong special may not be around for long. The Wunonglong dam threatens not just Cizhong’s local economy that has delivered modest levels of prosperity to the village over the past thirty years, but also the religious harmony between local Tibetan Catholics and Buddhists.

In two years Yanmen, an upstream community with more than two hundred households, will be entirely relocated to Cizhong.  Yanmen sits low along the banks of the Mekong and will be completely flooded by Wunonglong’s reservoir and the only place to transplant Yanmen’s residents is on top of Cizhong’s rice paddies.  Upon hearing the news of Yanmen’s takeover of their rice paddies, Cizhong’s villagers reacted emotionally as the paddies create a critical community space for social interaction. “The village elders cried when they heard the rice paddies would be destroyed.  The paddies were carved with their bare hands in the 1960’s and now the government wants to take them away?” says a local villager. Another villager claimed one rice harvest can feed the village for two years. Without a rice crop, villagers will have to generate income to overcome a critical food security issue.

Part of Yanmen village located below the inundation zone of Wunonglong's reservoir.

Part of Yanmen village located below the inundation zone of Wunonglong’s reservoir.

The day I walked through Cizhong was the last day for the giant walnut trees that lined Cizhong’s only road. To widen the road making way for Yanmen’s relocation, the remains of the trees, which each can produce up to 10000 RMB (1500 USD) of walnuts per year for sale at local markets, were stacked into wrecked piles of limbs and logs. Villagers received 300-10000 RMB in compensation per tree, at most enough to cover one year’s harvest.

The wine industry, as well as walnuts, has suffered as a result of the relocation. “They cut down an entire row of my grapes,” says a villager who also lost walnut trees to the road’s expansion.  “We were only compensated 40 RMB for a healthy vine and 30 RMB for saplings.  One vine produces 40 RMB of grapes per year, and I have no new land to plant on.  They took 100 of my vines.”

Road widening brings down scores of Cizhong’s walnut trees.

Road widening brings down scores of Cizhong’s walnut trees.

No equity, nowhere to turn

Land compensation is an issue of major contention in Cizhong.  More than half of Cizhong’s agriculturally productive land is being claimed for redistribution to the incoming residents of Yanmen and originally villagers were offered 30,000 RMB per mu of land (1 acre equals 6 mu) lost to Yanmen’s relocation.  Currently the local government is offering 100,000 RMB per mu, but Cizhong’s villagers continue to hold out.

“The villagers who moved to the city long ago and no longer live here agreed to 100,000 RMB per mu.  It’s easy for them because they have other jobs and other income, but to us, the taking of our land is taking away our only source of income,” says a villager surnamed Wang. Some villagers will lose all of their productive land. Stall tactics make sense since the local government will take 30% of the compensation and only dole out the agreed upon compensation in monthly installments over 15 years.  At the current offer, with only 3000 RMB per mu in compensation per month, even the most business savvy individuals will not be able to survive.  “We will wait,” says Wang with unsteady confidence.

Yanmen’s residents will rebuild on Cizhong’s carefully cultivated rice paddies

Yanmen’s residents will rebuild on Cizhong’s carefully cultivated rice paddies

I inquired about legal recourse.  “The local mayor only listens to money.  He’s not on our side,” continues Wang.  “I tried to file a petition in Deqin, the county seat, but the official there said the only way he’d review our petition was if the entire village showed up. That’s impossible. We don’t know who to turn to.”

Two hundred meters from the village on the opposite bank of the Mekong, new road construction and a tunneling project carries on day and night. Like the old bridge, the current road to Cizhong will be flooded by the dam’s reservoir. Noise from stone crushing machinery and cement processers pervades the valley.  Last year a landslide created by the road project forced the river to change course and washed away three mu of Wang’s riverside agricultural land. To date he has received no compensation.  Wang claims landslides opposite the village have resulted in the deaths of more than fifty construction workers. He points to cracks in the plaster walls of his traditional home built of wood and earth.  “My house shakes all day long from the construction.”

Highway construction opposite Cizhong has led to landslides and more than 50 deaths.

Highway construction opposite Cizhong has led to landslides and more than 50 deaths.

“Ten years ago we had everything we needed and now life is only getting worse,” continues Wang. Electricity generated by the Wunonglong dam will not be distributed to Cizhong.  In a prelude to Cizhong’s current worries, a small-scale hydropower project adjacent to the village was constructed a few years ago. It sends no power to the village, and to make matters worse, the small scale project cut off access to a local stream and to pasture lands beyond it.  “We let our cows out to pasture in the hills but they came back with bloodied legs because they couldn’t cross the land affected by the small hydropower project. Now there’s nowhere for our cows to graze.” When the small scale project was commissioned, developers promised locals 500 units of free electricity – those promises were never fulfilled.  Not a single Cizhong villager was employed in the construction of the small scale power station, and the price of electricity has been on a steady rise in the village.

Squeezed by national development needs

When Chinese dam developers conduct feasibility studies and first meet with locals affected by projects, they fervently sing praises of hydropower, boasting of how the dam will deliver local communities out of poverty and provide new income sources.  Reality tells a different story as infrastructure development projects in southwest China nearly always fail to provide net benefits to those who live closest to them.  In the case of China’s hydropower development on the Mekong, most power is sent to cities on or near China’s eastern coast. And as China doubles down on its commitments to reducing carbon output, the investment in hydropower projects, particularly in the under-developed southwest is amplified.

In Cizhong as in many other parts of upland southwest China, the Chinese government’s “core interests” of energy dependence and carbon reduction combine forces to turn land held by indigenous ethnic peoples  into a marketable commodity. Individual livelihoods, the social cohesion provided by generational practices and reliance on the land, and local traditions are consistently marginalized.

A few years ago at a village meeting, a former Cizhong mayor berated the villagers shouting “This land, this water, these mountains, they are not yours!  Stop acting like these are yours!  This is the state’s land, and these are the state’s resources.”

From a legal perspective, the Chinese state owns the land and everything above and below it, but villagers who are responsible for the productive economic activities that happen on that land are legally guaranteed compensation at fair market value for land grabbed by developers or involved in relocation efforts. Yet on China’s periphery, even the commoditization process fails. The marginalized nature of Cizhong and distance from the state’s judicial apparatus prevents fair compensation. Further, the law lacks consideration for values attached to various ways upland ethnic peoples use the land.

The Chinese state apparatus sees compensation to and relocation of rural peoples affected by development through standards applied to lowland agriculture, where patches of land are treated as commodities producing an accountable thus taxable yield on an annual basis. In upland China as in parts of Southeast Asia, land use patterns are less standardized and less predictable. Villagers there use mountain slopes as common pasture land for grazing animals, the forests as areas for collecting consumable and marketable products such as the matsutake mushroom and caterpillar fungus, or as in Cizhong’s case, walnuts produced by trees lining its roads and fields. The value of community-building functions created by these shared land use practices often is greater than the cumulative economic value derived from the land.

Sunday mass in Cizhong's Catholic church.

Sunday mass in Cizhong’s Catholic church.

“We are worried about village harmony,” Wang continues, discussing how the daily routines of Cizhong’s Catholics are still deeply entwined with Tibetan Buddhist culture.  “It’s common to see Buddhist monks present to give blessings at Catholic weddings and Christmas and Easter. We’ve achieved this harmony through decades of exchange with our Buddhist neighbors.”  However, all of Yanmen’s residents are believers in Tibetan Buddhism and unfamiliar with Catholic culture. Wang is worried that despite common ethnic heritage, the influx of Buddhists will upset community harmony and social interaction.  He labels Yanmen’s residents as overly superstitious and tells stories of how they are caught up in a spiteful sectoral feud between a local protector deity and the Dalai Lama that divides families in this part of the Tibetan world.

As if matters could not get any worse, when Yanmen village moves in, Cizhong will lose its name. Yanmen is one rung higher in China’s administrative ranking of localities, providing further risk to the interdependent cottage tourism and wine industries that have bet their futures on Cizhong’s name and unique history. The name change coupled with the inundation of Tibetan Buddhist villagers from Yanmen will dilute the uniqueness of Cizhong’s past and have a particular impact on Cizhong’s tourism industry.  With less land available for agricultural production per household, villager’s annual grape yields will decrease having an impact on income.  Villagers might choose to switch to higher value crops, but options for diversification are few in the canyonlands of the Upper Mekong. Alternatively villagers will be pressured to intensify the use of fertilizers to increase grape yields, pushing limits on sustainability and subjecting the local ecology to the effects of dangerous chemicals.

Spring grapes in Cizhong

Spring grapes in Cizhong

With no avenue for legal recourse and no one coming to aid the villagers, Cizhong’s days are numbered. The demoralizing effects of the Wunonglong dam are obvious and with nowhere to turn to for assistance or relief, Cizhong’s villagers can only passively wait to absorb the next shockwave. Censorship and the tightening of restrictions on NGOs under Xi Jinping’s government discourages civil society groups from intervening in cases like Cizhong’s making this unfortunate village just one of many caught up in the inevitable leviathan of energy infrastructure development in southwest China.

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