The birth of the environmental movement in China may be the first time key events were captured on videotape and independent documentaries helped to galvanize the movement.
Snub-nosed monkey Photo by: Xi Zhinong
A major contributor to this project is filmmaker Shi Lihong. Trained as a journalist, she initially wrote articles for the English language China Daily. She then studied film at Berkeley where she became interested in the observational documentaries of Barbara Koppel who recorded the organization of coal miners in Harlan County and Ogawa Shinsuke who documented the struggle of farmers in Japan to prevent the expansion of Tokyo's Narita aiport in the 1970s.
Back in China, Shi Lihong worked with her husband Xi Zhinong on a documentary about the endangered snub-nosed monkeys in the mountains of Yunnan province beginning in 1996. Their work exposed plans for logging in the monkey's habitat and launched the first of a series of national campaigns to protect wildlife. The film also marked the beginning of their company Wild China Film, based in Beijing. Shi Lihong returned to Yunnan in 2004 with a group of journalists led by Wang Yongchen, an outspoken environmental reporter at China National Radio and the founder of Green Earth Volunteers. Wang was leading a tour by activists and journalists to the Nu River in Yunnan province in southwestern China. In 2003 plans had been announced for the construction of a chain of 13 dams on the free running Nu (which translates as the 'Angry River'). 50,000 people who live by the river would be displaced and the wild Nu would be turned into a chain of lakes.
Shi Lihong joined the tour and began filming the debate and the growing resistance to the dams by farmers and activists in February 2004. Soon after, additional plans were announced for eight more dams on the Upper Yangtze river, increasing the number of people affected to 150,000.
Interviewing Yu Xiaogang
In the spring of 2004 Local organizer Yu Xiaogang, director of the Kunming based Green Watershed environmental NGO, invited Shi Lihong to record an unusual meeting between two groups of farmers. One group, from the small village of Xiaoshaba on the Nu river would be displaced by a dam near their village. The other group, on the Mekong River, were displaced 20 years earlier to makway for the Manwan dam. Yu's plan was to bring the two groups of farmers together, to record their discussion, and to share the video with other villages in Yunnan that would be affected by the proposed dams.
Yu, a social scientist, had studied the impact of the Manwan dam the 7,500 people who were displaced by the dam in the 1980s. Yu wrote a report that was highly critical of the resettlement policies practiced by the province and the levels of compensation that were provided. Similar criticisms were being leveled across China during this time as the long term impact of resettlements became better known. The situation of the people in Tianba village, seen in the film, is a dramatic example of the hardships faced by more than 16 million people throughout China who have been moved to make way for 80,000 dams (including 22,000 big dams) that have been built in the past 50 years. While the total number of dams of all sizes is not much greater than the number in the United States (approximately 70,000) the impact on densely settled populations clustered around scarce farmland in China is far greater.
Shi Lihong documented the meeting organized by Yu Xiaogang in a short film titled Voice of an Angry River. 200 copies were made and circulated in the Nu valley and the Upper Yangtze valley. The reaction to the film was especially strong in the Upper Yangtze, a long settled area of rich farmland that would be flooded by a dam slated for Tiger Leaping Gorge. The dam would create a reservoir 265 kilometres in length, the largest in China after the Three Gorges dams on the lower Yangtze. Resistance to the new dams began to build during the fall of 2004, encouraged by the intervention of Premier Wen Jiabao who took note of the controversy and called for "cautious" study of the dams.
In December 2004 Shi Lihong was invited to visit the Upper Yangtze by a local activist, Zhao Liangzhong, who had been showing her film Voice of An Angry River in villages along the river. Shi Lihong returned to Yunnan and filmed one of these screenings where farmers viewed and reacted to the film. The documentary was a key organizing tool used by farmers and activists to build a movement in opposition to the dam.
No cameras were present when a confrontation erupted between villagers and the dam developers erupted on 21 March 2006 but Shi Lihong and journalist Liu Jiangiang returned the valley to collect stories about the uprising and the negotiations that led to the unprecedented cancellation of the big dam at Tiger Leaping Gorge. Shi incorporated this footage into a longer documentary about this historic collaboration between activists and farmers in the Yangtze valley that activists say marks the beginning of an environmental movement in China. Her documentary premiered in Beijing in 2010. Shi Lihong gave us access to her documentaries and to her raw footage for use in Waking the Green Tiger.