Farmers removed while dams await approval

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 April, 2007, 12:00am

Rows of newly built terraced houses stand on the eastern bank of the Nu River at Liuku township in Yunnan , but farmer He Xuewen looks disheartened.

Standing in front of his two-storey house smoking a pipe, the 76-year-old Xiaoshaba villager has yet to pull himself together two months after his eviction from the old riverside house, located about 1km away, in which he lived most of his life but which has been reduced to rubble to make way for a proposed Nu River hydropower station.

'It was old, but still comfortable, at least it was big enough to house my seven-strong family,' he said. 'We used to have pigs, cattle and chickens, rice paddy fields and dry farmland before we moved here.

'Look at the new house. We have only two bedrooms here, farmland has been taken away, and we are told that no livestock is allowed just to make the house look sanitary,' said Mr He, a member of the Lisu ethnic minority, the largest of 22 ethnic groups living along the Nu River, including the Han.

The Liuku power station, the smallest of 13 hydroelectric plants proposed on the middle and lower reaches of the river, will flood 162 mu, or 10.8 hectares, of land and displace Xiaoshaba village's 112 households and 440 people.

The 13 proposed dams would relocate about 50,000 people - nearly half living below the national poverty line - produce more than 103 billion kW of electricity a year, and generate 36 billion yuan in annual income.

Although the controversial damming of the Nu River has yet to be approved by the State Council, Xiaoshaba villagers have become the first to be evicted for the hydropower project, part of a nationwide 'dam fever' to quench the country's demand for energy.

While local officials and some government experts defended the village's relocation as part of preliminary work, which was lawful under existing regulations, environmentalists said it had violated a central government ban on the project since 2004. But one thing both sides agree on: existing regulations are too ambiguous about what preliminary work is acceptable and, arguably more important, what is not.

According to riverside villagers, preparations for the Nu River dams has not stopped in the past four years, despite Premier Wen Jiabao's order in early 2004 to halt the project until a further environmental assessment was carried out.

While it was widely believed that the ban was aimed at easing mounting domestic and foreign opposition, it was international pressure, notably from the United Nations cultural and heritage body, that further delayed damming of the river, also known as the Salween in Myanmar and Thailand.

Preliminary work was interrupted briefly last year during an unprecedented inspection trip to the area, sponsored by Unesco, over concerns that a nearby world heritage site, covering the headwaters of the Nu, Lancang (Mekong) and Jinsha (Yangtze), was under threat. But work is under way at two proposed dam sites - Yabiluo and Maji - with surveyors and labourers on the banks, scaffolding along the river, and survey ships tied on its banks.

Xiaoshaba villagers say they were kept in the dark about the dam project. They were told no new houses or extensions had been allowed since 2001, citing the proposal to build a power plant. The villagers were disgruntled with the rule, saying their lives had been affected.

'We have seen surveyors and officials come and go, but no one had ever told us anything about the power station, such as when it would be built,' said Mr He.

Like many of his fellow villagers, Mr He adamantly opposed eviction because of the unfair compensation and for fear they could never bargain for a better home once they agreed to move out.

Based on interviews with 100 riverside farmers in dozens of villages to be affected by the dams, a field survey by Beijing-based Green Earth Volunteers last year showed more than 60 per cent of villagers were unhappy with government-proposed compensation.

Mr He's family was offered 55,000 yuan per mu of paddy fields. 'We should have got 68,000, but it was reduced to 60,200 in the end and the rest of the money was taken away by local township and village officials,' he said.

He also complained that the price of new houses was too high for poor farmers, with a two-storey house, the biggest of three options, costing almost 120,000 yuan.

'It is not fair that my old brick house was valued at less than 300 yuan per square metre by the government, while the new one was sold for over 700 yuan per square metre,' he said.

'How can we afford such expensive houses without accepting a government subsidy of 10,000 yuan per head, which was made only for those who agreed to move?'

A local government pamphlet issued at the end of last year said investment in building the new village totalled almost 30 million yuan. While the power station developer footed most of the bill, villagers and the government were expected to pay the rest.

'Villagers may feel their new houses are too small to live in, then they can add another floor according to their own financial capabilities, as the foundations of the houses are designed for three-storey buildings,' the pamphlet said.

Villager Ji Renping said: 'Of course we need more rooms, but where can we get the money needed for such an extension?'

Like Mr He, Mr Ji's 62-year-old father has to sleep on the ground floor, which is designed to be a grocery store. No date has been set for when the stores can open.

Many villagers recalled a pledge two years ago by a provincial government official in charge of relocation that compensation on the Nu River would be 70,000 yuan per person, similar to that for the Three Gorges.

'I doubt if we can ever get the promised compensation, but we were unable to defy eviction orders and had to come to terms with being forced out of our homes after Lushui county and township officials convened three meetings for all the villagers to press for an early move out,' said Mr He, a former village head.

A lack of unity and co-operation among villagers has resulted in a feeling of deep disappointment in the village, said 28-year-old Mr Ji. According to the pamphlet for villagers, those who refused to resettle could be forcibly evicted, or even face charges.

The biggest fear for villagers is their future. 'It is difficult to find a job for young people in my village,' said Mr Ji.

Mr He said he began to worry about the future even before he moved into the new house. 'Do you think it is realistic for me to survive with this money?'