In the Shadow of Gaoligong
By Brent E. Huffman
Gaoligong Mountain trembled violently. Gaoligong is one of China’s biggest mountains located in Southwestern Yunnan province. It is terrifying to feel a mountain rumble and shake beneath your feet. My partner Chinese reporter Xiaoli Zhou and I were in its shadow as we walked a thin trail carved out of the deep snow by our local guides. The small road had been blanketed by the biggest snowfall the area had seen in over a century. Rocks, snow, and mud covered the road in ten feet of slippery rubble.
After trudging through the snow for seven hours, we found ourselves trapped on a steep cliff of rock and ice when a rockslide happened right above us. Suddenly the earth shook. The blue green Nu River lay a hundred feet below us and the massive rockslide came tumbling down the mountain. Chinese locals who were helping us navigate the mountain screamed in fear. They yelled, “Run, run!” in a local Chinese dialect Xiaoli couldn’t understand and took off themselves to escape the mountain coming apart. The steep mountainside coated in ice made running nearly impossible. We thought we would be crushed as Gaoligong started collapsing down upon us.
At one time Gaoligong was covered with lush green trees. Countless animal and plant species called the area home. Today, almost all that is gone, left barren after decades of logging. Xiaoli and I had been making a documentary film about China’s damaged environment. We never imagined that we could become victims of the deteriorating environment ourselves.
We were shooting this film when we found ourselves suddenly trapped in a small farming town by the massive snowfall. All power and telephone lines were down and all the roads were blocked for miles. Overnight, the village was cut off, lacking heat, running water, and food.
Such rockslides occur mainly because there are no trees and thus no roots to hold in the soil. It is extremely rare to even see any trees from a main road in Southern China. Ma Jun, a World Fellow at Yale University and a Chinese environmentalist, explained to us that while Yunnan Province used to be carpeted with forests, logging has dramatically decreased coverage on most of the mountains.
Due to the extreme exploitation of natural resources to push China’s development forward, the deteriorating environment is becoming impossible to ignore. China is home to six of the most polluted cities in the world. Over the past 50 years, according to Ma , the country has built over 86,00 dams. Among those, 22,000 account for almost half of the world’s large-scale dams. The film we shot examines a surprising bit of hope, namely the new environmental movement that has sprung up trying to stop such environmental assaults as the logging and, more recently, the proposed damming of the Nu River. This hope, however, treads on thin ground.
The Nu River, or “Angry River” in Chinese, is one of the last undammed rivers in China. More than five minority cultures depend on it for food as it wraps around the foot of Mt. Gaoligong and the Biluo Snowy Mountain flowing with a blue-green luminance. Dams like the massive one planned for Tiger Leaping Gorge, a steep canyon In Yunnan cherished by travelers both Chinese and foreign for Its stunning beauty, will force all locals, Including the Lisu and Nu minority groups who have lived there for thousands of years, to relocate to other areas.
More and more Chinese citizens are slowly becoming aware of the Chinese environmental plight. This Is reflected In the Increasing number of Chinese environmental NGOs, such as Green Earth Volunteers, whose Director Wang Yongchen organizes tours of the Nu River. Wang has brought people from the U.S. and China to see the river with the hope that she can arouse enough public sentiment to stop the proposed dam. But environmental activism In China remains weak. The local government, which owns the company that will dam the Nu River, has an vested interest in dams as the region develops because the demand for power is increasing dramatically. And many residents, unaware of the environmental consequences, believe the dams will bring them jobs and wealth.
China’s State Environmental Protection Agency, the central government organ In charge of balancing the competing demands of economic development and environmental preservation, has been shockingly and woefully Ineffectual In reigning In these local forces. The Chinese government, and Chinese people themselves, often decry foreign Interference with the country’s “Internal affairs.” For better or worse, those of us on the outside have generally been willing to oblige. But ecological damage on this scale Is everybody’s problem. Unless there is a massive international protest, the dams on the Angry River will be built. Landslides like the one we experienced on Mt. Gaoligong will continue and Chinese environmental degradation will proceed, with potentially disastrous consequences for us all.