For years in China’s southwest, water engineering and hydropower firms companies have been fanatical about building more dams. Plans of demolition and removal of villages and structures obstructing dam design are always being put in place before plans for resettlement and compensation are appropriately thought out. Ordinary people can only wait in passive anxiety for the uncertainties related to resettlement and their future to be resolved. They are destined to make sacrifices for so-called development.
“Back there are our mountains, our meadows, our fields, and our villages,” says a villager in Shangpu village downstream of the Kala hydropower plant on the Yalong River as she points to her former home up the valley. “The fog is because of the pollution, it’s heartbreaking to see this place become polluted,” The dam’s designer wanted to use the flat land of the village as a location for a construction camp. Eighty people were relocated to an alluvial terrace two kilometers away.
“The local government told us to do whatever the Ertan company people say,” adds the villager.
Most villagers saw little sense in moving since their village, a place they lived in for generations would not be displaced by the rising reservoir created by the dam. Many resisted.
“The elder in my family, my father, held my hand on his deathbed, holding on to his last breath. I told him ‘we will not leave here, don’t you worry, just go without regret.’ Hearing these words, he let go and passed away. I said these words myself. Only these words could comfort him,” says a Shangpu villager who has refused to move to the resettlement. In all, eighty families signed a pact with their fingerprints to resist relocation and are still resisting to this day.
“My father said the water we drink comes from the Himalayas. Drink the water and our children will be blessed.” The villagers are connected to their land in ways that urban city dwellers and lowland farmers fail to comprehend. “Our ancestors left this place for us, and we have lived here for generations. The mountains and water are all wonderful. The trees, every family has walnut trees and apple trees. We don’t have to go out to work for money. The families that live here are already living a good life, that’s why no one wants to leave.”
When my research team conducted a focus group discussion with the Shangpu villagers, the trauma associated with relocation was palpable. A group of village women sobbed openly and angrily.
A local villager added through her tears, “The Immigration Office said that we have to move no matter what, but we can’t afford to move. We are just poor farmers, we have a hard life. We can’t afford to move. Nothing will change no matter how hard they cry. Nothing will change if the policy has already been made. When the people of Immigration Office came here, our people asked them to please let us stay here, please think of something to help us. Many old people started to cry and got ill.”
Yang Lin, an expert in social impact assessment admits exploiting 3000 megawatts while only having to resettle a small group of people is a good bargain on paper. But there is no reason for resettlement not to be done properly. China does not lack the resources to justly compensate these villagers. When securing the benefits for hydropower and construction firms, the government spares no effort. So why can’t villagers receive the similar treatment?
The government’s official response is to prioritize the successful construction of major development projects to ensure development targets are met. Yet the reality is proper resettlement of displaced peoples will not impede construction. Many social and economic problems, many of them unnecessary, arise when the government seeks to solely protect the profits of the developers. In the end, the Chinese people have to pay for the government to solve these problems and conflicts that are neglected in the early phases of construction and planning.
In 2007 China became a signatory to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which says:
States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources. (Article 32)
Villagers’ rights to consent, participate, and be informed in the resettlement process or the project design process is always neglected. A case in point is Danbo Village, the first village to be resettled as a result of the Yanfanggou dam. The villagers have lived in anxiety of resettlement for years. They had no prior notification of the dam project, and one day surveyors hired by the hydropower firm showed up unannounced to measure and assess the “value” of the village.
In a focus group discussion, a villager recalled the process. “No one has explained resettlement to us. Our people are very confused. See, like that,” as he pointed to unidentifiable chalk scribblings on his home. “They taped measured here, and there, and drew some lines and left. We had no idea what happened.”
None of the villagers was satisfied with the result. Many remember the surveyors measuring very little during their time and noted that much property was left out of the assessment. Another villager added, “They came here but did not take the measuring seriously. They only measured for a little while and concluded ‘That will do.’ They didn’t measure as they promised, at all! I have worked my land day after day, all by myself, until my hair turned white, but did they measure the land? The trees, I planted them one by one and the rice fields. Did they count them? No.”
Danbo villagers will be resettled to Muli in Xianyuan township where purchasing a house costs five to six hundred thousand yuan (USD $80,000 to $95,000), in addition relocated villagers must purchase land to cultivate at the cost of RMB 110,000 with a potential yield of RMB 200,000 per year. “All they offer us for compensation is two to three hundred thousand yuan in total! We can’t start a new life with that little bit of money. What we need is fairness, equity, and justice.”
The Danbo villagers recall another time a group of government officials and hydropower firm representatives came to the village. Again arriving unannounced, this time at eight or nine o’clock at night, the group held a two hour meeting where they lectured to the villagers. There were forty or fifty of them and the director general gave the first speech followed by the deputy general and further on down the line. The officials held documents in their hand and read directly from them speaking only in official language and speaking only in Mandarin.
Most villagers had no clue as to what the officials were reading. After two hours, the meeting concluded and the officials went for dinner. Some stayed behind and measured the land and the houses the following day. “They were all over the mountain, like ants. In our language when we say they are like ants, it means the kind of insect that crowds together when it finds a bug,” concluded one villager.
When discussing resettlement with the group anxiety and tension levels immediately intensified. Many noted that they cannot focus on their work with the uncertain outcomes associated with resettlement and compensation occupying their minds. Part of my team’s approach to social impact assessment is to conduct a legal briefing with the village group. A colleague Zhou Yong, Professor of Law at Norway University, Oslo informed the group of one of their most important legal rights: a citizen’s right to know. All Chinese citizens enjoy this right, just as citizens likewise have the right to request information.
The villagers have the right to know the time frame for the dam’s construction. It is unjust to create an environment where villagers are waiting in limbo for resettlement. Sometimes projects are postponed for five to ten years while the affected people live in anxiety.
Social impact expert Yang Lin advocates that in order to guarantee the right to know, the first thing to do is to inform the citizens before the launch of a project. Local governments or hydropower firms cannot only tell them to accept it after the plan has been made. This will give them the time to think about the projects, to raise suggestions and objections. Second, people should know about the overall plan, including the standard of the compensation and the overall plan for resettlement. Third, in ethnic minority areas, simply making an announcement or issuing a notice does not amount to the “guarantee the right of informed consent.” The related department should offer a detailed explanation to the people, answer their questions, and let them truly understand the related information.
Citizens should have the chance to participate in the whole process, from planning to the completion of the whole project. A system needs to be established to make sure people’s voices can be heard. A processing and a feedback system to guarantee citizens’ opinions will be taken into consideration and influence the making of the final decision. Without these systems, participation is just a meaningless and mere formality.
What happens to villagers who refuse to resettle? A Danbo villager recounted her experience:
“I told them that we could not afford to move. They said moving or not was my own business, but they had to measure the house anyway. Then I told them to stop measuring the house, and some of them replied that if I didn’t allow them to measure this time, next time people from a higher level would be sent and force would be used. Most of us were frightened by the threat.”