- His graduate research on the social impact of China’s Manwan hydroelectric project documented its negative impact on local communities. Dissemination of his findings stirred controversy and led then Premier Zhu Rongji to order the conduct of an investigation;
- In 2002, Yu established the nonprofit organization Green Watershed, which developed an integrated watershed management program in the Lashi Lake area, in Yunnan
- Using participatory approaches, Green Watershed helped the affected communities organize a multisectoral Watershed Management Committee, and mobilized village associations for irrigation, fishery, and other purposes.
- The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “his fusing social science knowledge with a deep sense of social justice, in assisting dam-affected communities in China to shape the development projects that impact their natural environment and their lives.”
China boasts of a staggering eighty-five thousand dams throughout the country, or 46 percent of all such structures in the world. Clearly, hydropower is a key requirement for China’s economic development. Yet dams have led as well to the displacement of over fifteen million Chinese and incalculable damage to the natural environment. A leading figure in the debate on dams and their social impact is Yu Xiaogang.
Yu fell in love with nature early on, having been raised in Yunnan, a province of amazing beauty and home to three of the largest rivers in the world: Nu, Yangtze, and Mekong. His interest in the environment was cultivated during a stint in the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, and was further deepened when he attended the Asian Institute of Technology, where he earned a master’s degree in watershed management.
His graduate research on the social impact of China’s Manwan hydroelectric project documented its negative impact on local communities. Dissemination of his findings stirred controversy and led then Premier Zhu Rongji to order the conduct of an investigation; additionally, the Yunnan government was instructed to release funds to mitigate the dam’s adverse effects.
In 2002, Yu established the nonprofit organization Green Watershed, which developed an integrated watershed management program in the Lashi Lake area, in Yunnan. Lashi was seriously affected by a dam project that had diverted 40 percent of the lake’s water, flooded farmlands, and devastated the livelihood of people in the dammed area. Using participatory approaches, Green Watershed helped the affected communities organize a multisectoral Watershed Management Committee, and mobilized village associations for irrigation, fishery, and other purposes. The communities undertook other activities as well, including microcredit and training in watershed forest protection and biodiversity conservation.
These initiatives proved so successful that new, ecologically-friendly, and profitable enterprises flourished in the area. The first of its kind in China, the Lashi project became a model for participatory watershed management, and was cited by government as one of the top ten cases of sustainable development in the country. The Lashi project became the springboard for Yu’s advocacy in other dam sites. Green Watershed conducted research and forums and used mass media to promote the cause of people’s participation in the planning and development of dams.
When the local government announced plans to build thirteen new dams on the Nu River, plans that threatened to displace fifty thousand people and negatively impact a UNESCO-designated “World Heritage” nature site, Green Watershed and other environmental NGOs mounted a public debate. The controversy occasioned Premier Wen Jiabao’s decision to put the planned dams on hold, requiring a more scientific study.
Still, it has been an uphill challenge. Yu has met with opposition and even harassment in the course of his work, including a ban on travel outside the country. His position, however, is not simply adversarial. In 2008, he initiated Green Banking, a network of eight major environmental NGOs that gives the “Green Banking Innovation Award” to banks and financial institutions that have contributed to environmental protection in their financing and corporate practices.
Yu recognizes that large-scale infrastructure projects like dams will go on. He is not against dams per se; however, he and his fellow environmentalists will persist in showing that local communities and ecosystems need not be sacrificed in the process of development. Thus, he advocates that a true social impact assessment, in which the people themselves are actively involved, should be a precondition in all dam building programs. For Yu, their initial successes “are only the first steps in the Long March. To realize true sustainable development and build a harmonious society throughout China, we need the full participation of all Chinese citizens.”
In electing Yu Xiaogang to receive the 2009 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes his fusing social science knowledge with a deep sense of social justice, in assisting dam-affected communities in China to shape the development projects that impact their natural environment and their lives.
It is a great honor for me to be elected as 2009 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee. I would like to thank the Board of Trustees and the people of the Philippines.
I come from southwest China, home to Lijiang, a small ancient city which is both a World Cultural Heritage Site and World Natural Heritage Site. Lijiang also has the Internationally Important Wetlands of Lashi Lake and the Naxi minority group who use pictographs to recount the stories of nature and humankind.
The NGO Green Watershed was originally founded in this region in 2002 to improve local environmental protection. But now half of the organization’s time is spent on community disaster relief programs and disaster prevention education. Why has this change occurred? To explain this refocusing of objectives I will borrow from the Naxi story of nature and humankind. This story was written in religious text and is central to Naxi culture.
In ancient times humankind and nature were two brothers, and the brothers divided and reigned over different parts of the earth. Big Brother oversaw the forests, lakes, wildlife, and the weather. Little Brother looked over the fields, crops, livestock, and the happiness of humankind. The two brothers established an agreement of mutual non-aggression and they existed harmoniously. Hundreds of years passed, the weather was good for growing crops, people were well fed and well clothed, and humankind prospered. However, over time Little Brother’s human descendents forgot the original agreement and began to attack Big Brother’s natural world, destroying pristine lands, causing immense deforestation, damming once-free rivers, and rapidly killing off wildlife. Big Brother called upon the natural world to bring floods, storms, droughts, swarms of insects, and plagues. Little Brother’s humankind lost their happiness and prosperity under the punishment of Big Brother. In the end, Little Brother realized his errors and overcame the greed and destruction, once again reuniting with Big Brother and existing in harmony.
This story comes out of an old agricultural society, and may seem rather distant. However, the two brothers are currently in a time of industrialization, and Little Brother’s vision does not consider the forests, lakes, wildlife, or natural ecosystems. Little Brother’s eyes only have visions of resources and methods that he can use to accumulate personal wealth, thus plundering and polluting the environment at an ever growing intensity. Big Brother may react with opposition to this behavior, bringing more serious and intense natural disasters.
China has already become the world’s third highest country suffering from natural disasters. This confirms Green Watershed’s investment in community-based disaster management. Last year alone, we provided training for over one hundred NGOs and over sixty communities. In the future we will place more resources and efforts to promote community disaster management capacities.
Naxi culture has given us this inspiration: to respect and love nature, and to exercise restraint over greed and vanity. Otherwise, our pride in our GDP will change into GDD, Gross Domestic Disaster.
What I am doing is only ‘a drop in the bigger water’. I believe the effort will someday become as big as the Pacific Ocean. I highly appreciate that the Board of Trustees has given me this honor. I am very glad to accept it and will continue my efforts to contribute to human society.