When a group of foreign journalists paid a rare visit to the impoverished mountains of northern Guangdong recently, local peasants tracked them down to smuggle out a petition bewailing their fate. In 1958, Mao Zedong ordered the hasty construction of a dam that flooded the land where 100,000 peasants lived. Forty years later the displaced population has doubled and many are still living in dire poverty. 'What has the government done for us? During the past 10 years no one has cared for our lives. Only one person in 14 has found a job,' says the petition, written on behalf of 300 peasants who say that in 1988 their farmland was expropriated for the second time without compensation, and that an agreement with the authorities to assist them was dishonoured. Two years ago, the Guangdong government began a renewed effort to end the poverty created by the damming of the Xinfeng river. Thousands of peasants who were scratching out an existence in the wooded and steep mountains around the reservoir - an area bigger than Hong Kong - were brought into government-run settlement camps. Many of those interviewed at the Le Yuan (Happiness Garden) camp, where several thousand families had been resettled, complained bitterly about their new conditions. 'They forced us to come here but there is nothing to do and we are all poor now. Before, I could grow enough food to eat well,' said Li Nienkun, a 60-year-old evacuee. The government believes it has provided the settlers with enough land to grow tea and other cash crops and is trying to provide higher standards of education and health services. But the settlers look poorly fed and clothed, and many of the children listless and in ill-health. Like the others there, Mr Li lost his land in 1958 when, at the height of the Great Leap Forward, his house and land were submerged. 'We were given only a few hours warning: there was no time to prepare,' he recalled. His family trekked out of the doomed valley into the surrounding hills where they opened up virgin forest. There he claimed compensation. The authorities provided inadequate grain rations. 'Quite a few people starved to death. Others were swollen with oedema,' Mr Li said. Although the area is only 180 kilometres north of Hong Kong, no details of this man-made disaster have hitherto been reported. All over China, millions of others were displaced by similar gigantic dam schemes launched at the same period. In Hubei province, hundreds of thousands made way for the Danjiangkou reservoir; and 319,000 for the Sanmenxia Dam on the Yellow River. About 306,000 moved to make way for the Xinanjiang reservoir in Zhejiang province and tens of thousands lost their homes for the Dingpinghu in Shandong province. During the Mao era, China built 84,000 dams, including 2,700 large and medium-sized reservoirs which displaced more than 10 million people. A report commissioned by the Chinese Government and released in 1984 revealed that one-third of these involuntary resettlers were living in abject poverty 30 years later, while another third were just getting by. Few details of the hardships suffered by the victims of these huge dams have been published in China. But in April last year the magazine Chinese Writer described how 'refugees' were moved from the Yellow River to arid regions in western Shaanxi and Ningxia after cadres set fire to their houses. Compensation payments were cut in half to 360 yuan (about HK$336) per household and peasants were instead exhorted to display 'self-reliance'. When grain rations fell to 3.4 kilograms a month during the Great Leap Forward, people tried to flee in their thousands but were stopped by officials stationed at bus stations and ports along the Yellow River. The magazine said one group had crossed the Gobi Desert, mountains and rivers, 1,000 kilometres in all, avoiding authorities all the way, to reach their homes. 'It was as bitter as the exodus of the Jews out of Egypt,' the magazine said. Conditions in Guangdong may not have been so terrible as for those trekking in north China because the southern climate is better and some were able to flee to Hong Kong. But officials in Guangdong's Heyuan prefecture admit the large influx of landless peasants plunged the district into such poverty that, decades later, the raising of living standards is still a challenge. 'We experienced great difficulties after the construction of the dam. But in the past few years 220,000 have been lifted out of poverty, although 73,000 are still below the poverty line,' said Yang Huawei, Heyuan's party secretary. Officials refused to disclose how many had died of hunger during the intervening period but did say that, after 1962, the survivors were given 13 kilos of grain per month. Although efforts to help the evacuees began in 1981, the Communist Party launched a new initiative two years ago earmarking 200 million yuan to improve life for the poorest 50,000. Chen Heling, a resettlement officer at Happiness Garden, said 20,000 people had been encouraged to leave the region and move in with relatives working in the province's big cities. Another 20,000 still lived in the mountains, while 10,000 have been resettled in camps. As in other mountainous areas of southern China, the local authorities have ambitious employment schemes, under which fruit trees have been planted on 625 square kilometres of previously barren hillsides. As well, they have made each official personally responsible for helping a family escape poverty. The officials are obliged to make regular visits and give money to the families they are helping. Such measures have won China praise from international resettlement experts. In 1994 the World Bank carried out a comparative review of 200 dam projects around the world and concluded that in recent years China had performed well in the field. 'We found China has had a remarkably satisfactory resettlement performance during the 1980s and 90s, consistently better than most other developing countries,' said Michael Cernea, the World Bank's top expert on resettlement and author of a book on the subject, Putting People First. Yet at Happiness Garden interviewees said they were frightened to complain about their conditions to the authorities. 'I am worried what the police would do because they brought us here. And I have no money to go to Beijing to make a complaint,' Mr Li said. The small group of 300 farmers from Sunshine Village, who dared draft the petition, wrote that they had nothing left to lose. 'Even to get food is a serious problem,' their four-page letter said. These peasants originally belonged to a commune brigade resettled on land close to Heyuan city but in 1988, when Heyuan was allowed to expand, their land was appropriated. The petition complains that developers breached an agreement by refusing to compensate their losses or provide alternative farmland. Critics of China's resettlement policies believe such cases illustrate the lack of democratic consultation in China and the weakness of villagers in defending their interests against those of the state. 'These people were sacrificed in the interests of the state so others could have clean water,' Chen Heling said. In fact, the original purpose of the reservoir was to provide hydroelectricity but China's economic difficulties in the 60s delayed the installation of turbines. Local officials are now promoting the reservoir as a key source of clean water for Guangzhou and Hong Kong and have drawn up plans to pipe the water direct to Hong Kong. Indeed, local sources said the real reason the peasants were being forcibly removed from the hills was to guarantee water quality. 'The whole area around the reservoir has been re-afforested and the locals have been moved out to guarantee the purity of the water,' a local resident said.