05 February 2007 00:00 [Source: ICB]
China's environmentalsits find a united front gives them strength in numbers as they put their cases to China's authorities
IN A 300-year-old temple compound, a stone's throw away from Beijing's Forbidden City, representatives from non-governmental organisations (NGOs), lawyers, journalists, professors and activists discuss how best to tackle China's environmental woes.
It is a heated debate in the cramped, cold room among the 18-strong group. Eventually, there is agreement that exposing chemical, power generation and other high-polluting industries by working together is the best method, rather than taking on authorities head-to-head as individuals. This cooperation is proving to be a useful weapon for green activists intent on putting the environment, and not just the economy and wealth creation, at the forefront of public imagination.
Last year, villagers from Xiping, Fujian province, complained about a chemical factory they alleged was polluting local rivers, leading to the destruction of farmers' crops. The case was taken up by reporters and then by the Centre for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims (CLAPV), a prominent NGO from Beijing. Despite China's comprehensive lack of western-based rule of law, it was made legal in 1991 for people with environmental complaints to bring class action lawsuits - as long as they did not sue the government itself.
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Xu Kezhu, deputy director of the CLAPV and a participant at the temple meeting in Beijing, described how villagers were taught by local journalists to become their own investigative reporters by taking photographic evidence and collecting samples of the greenish water.
In the end, the hard work paid off. A provincial court ordered the factory to pay around $80,000 (€62,000) in damages to farmers who brought a US-style class-action lawsuit - a first for China. "Our role is to help pollution victims by protecting their rights, while promoting greater public environmental and legal consciousness," Xu says. The centre was started in 1998 by Wang Canfa, and has trained more than 300 lawyers in the complexities of Chinese environmental law. Since then, it has received 9,000 calls to its hotline and has won at least one-third of its case load.
"We win a lot of cases probably because we have credibility through our day jobs as professors at the China University of Political Science & Law," she says. "But that still doesn't stop us facing pressure from local authorities who defend polluting companies because they contribute tax receipts and employment.
"There is far too much short-term thinking among enterprises and officials and not enough about sustainable business development."
The group is currently fighting a court case on behalf of farmers in the Guizhou province, in the southwest. They claim a chemical factory's discharge has killed off their orange groves, destroying their livelihoods and the local agricultural economy.
Media scrutiny and awareness of the harmful effects of chemicals dumped into rivers have created a huge backlash. In fact, the authorities in China are witnessing an explosion in water disputes, with the official number rising by 60% from 1984 to 2004. And many people are taking to the streets, which has unnerved a government obsessed with maintaining public order. As many as 87,000 large-scale protests and riots involving more than 100 people were recorded in China in 2005, directed at corrupt practices or the incompetence of local officials. While most were aimed at illegal land seizure, there is evidence from NGOs that many were sparked by the industrial contamination of water supplies, says Andy Rothman, an analyst with brokerage CLSA Asia Pacific Markets.
In April 2005 local Chinese media reported that thousands of people attacked police after it was alleged that chemical companies at Zhuxi Industrial Park in the Zhejiang province were polluting groundwater. Locals were convinced that birth defects and still-born babies were the casualties of chemical pollution. In April last year, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported that villagers had attacked a water treatment plant, causing more than $100,000 of damage because they thought it was polluting a river.
This trend has also given power to NGOs, which numbered 2,768 at the end of 2005. However, only 7.2% of those are independent organisations without government affiliation. "We will play a more important role in protecting the environment in the future, but there simply isn't enough momentum at the governmental level to do something comprehensive now about chemical pollution," says Mao Da, the international coordinator at NGO group Global Village in Beijing.
The task has been made more difficult by rapid economic growth and demand for chemical products. BASF estimates that total ethylene demand will hit 27.34m tonnes by 2010 - up by around 9m tonnes from 2005. And by 2015 consumers of chemical products will reach 700m - the World Bank says a potential consumer of chemicals is defined by an annual income of $10,000 in purchasing power parity.
"People's lifestyle and consumption relate directly to the environmental problem we are facing and everyone has to understand that," says Mao. "We can't live without chemicals so the government has to make implementation of laws and regulations a top priority," he adds.
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