photo by Ben Stanistreet
Huge peaks tower thousands of feet into the sky. A massive river rushes by, tumbles and roars through waves and holes as it makes its way downstream. The mountain faces are speckled with tiny villages, home to natives who have lived there for generations. The mighty Yangtze is truly one of the most beautiful places on earth. But not for long.
The sudden leap in wealth and industry that China has experienced in the past 10 years is creating a rift. It is quite literally tearing the country apart, both socially and physically. Not too long ago, China was largely an agrarian, developing nation. The sudden influx of wealth has given the upper class much more money and influence, but has done hardly anything for the lower class. This new wealth is centered around the larger cities. When the self-sustaining farming families are presented with a glimpse of this westernization they are captured by a new-found sense of materialism and believe they need to go work in the cities to make money and live this new lifestyle.
In one village that we passed, as is the case throughout the country, the upcoming generation of adults had left their village and their family to go work in Lijiang, one of the largest cities in the Yunnan Province. In many cases, by leaving with the hopes of creating a better life for themselves and their families, they leave their parents with the burden of not only sustaining a farm and themselves, but of raising their grandchildren. The division of families is now fairly common in China, and this is a direct result of the advancement in industrialization its culture has recently experienced.
Another effect of China's industrialization is the rapidly increasing exploitation of its natural resources. The cliff walls and mountain sides that once formed the pristine Great Bend of the Yangtze are now riddled with gold mines, limestone quarries for dams, and hydroelectric stations to power these. As we moved further downstream and closer to civilization, roads and telephone wires began to rob the landscape of its natural beauty. The benefits of such devastation is not widespread, however. The money simply goes into the pockets of a few wealthy individuals and to the government to allow these companies to continue their destructive practices. As one Tibetan national said, "These mines are here no gain wealth. If they really wanted to help the villagers, they would build them a bridge to get across the river."
Both the provincial governments and the companies that are enabling this industrial growth continue to ignore the well-being of the local inhabitants. There is currently one dam in operation, and a string of eight more likely to be approved. Once built, these dams will turn the free-flowing river into a series of stagnant lakes that will conquer the valley, forcing the relocation of over 100,000 people. This is on the Yangtze alone; hydroelectric projects are happening throughout the country, all of which will have a detrimental effect on the livelihood of the villagers.
The people are told that their quality of life will improve as a result of the dams. Once they are there however, the companies who built them will have rights to all of the fish in the reservoir, leaving the many fishermen without means of income or sustenance. They are told they will be given great resettlement packages with resources better than those they currently live with. Brandon Zatt, a journalist who has studied the topic said, "These people are rarely given fair compensation, if any at all." A village nestled deep in the gorge of the Yangtze is launching a formal protest with the local government, but not to try to stop the construction of the dam and save their homes. That, they feel, is already a lost cause. They are simply trying to ensure that they are not overlooked and will hopefully receive a more fair repayment for their property.
Like the people who live here, the natural life will take a large toll as a result of these dams. The stopping of the river that provides a third of the country's fresh water is no small endeavor and will have huge repercussions. All of the rapids will be gone, all of the species that depend on the river will be forced to adapt, and none will be able to experience the untouched beauty of this place as it naturally occurred. In a place where earthquakes cause mountain ranges to crumble upon themselves like a house of cards, one is left to wonder about the longevity of such a monumental dam, or the catastrophic impact should it fail.
There are currently no highly effective NGO's fighting the development of the dam. "Organizations like the Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Federation can't afford to have a policy on hydroelectricity here," claims Travis Winn of Last Descents, a small whitewater outfitter that runs trips down the Great Bend of the Yangtze. "They will be shut down if they don't agree with the provincial governments." As we continue into the 21st century, we should not be asking ourselves, "How can we further ravage the earth to better fit our lifestyle," but, "How can we adapt our lifestyle so that this isn't necessary?"