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History of Tiger Leaping Gorge

Over the past 150 years few Western and Chinese scholars have examined the nature of the environment in Hutiao xia (Tiger Leaping Gorge) and its various inhabitants. However, as a unique geographical and geological feature, one of Asia’s deepest gorges, part of the headwaters of the Yangtze River, and a common destination for tourists, the gorge has taken on greater and greater significance. Americans, Chinese literati, Party Cadres, and others have commented on Tiger Leaping Gorge. This essay will examine both the local environment and local environmental practices related to the gorge. Considering historical and contemporary land use practices, the gorge and its changing status can act as a microcosm of western China’s various kinds of land development strategies, their implications for local and larger concerns, and land use ideologies of various sorts.

Through discussing soil composition, water management, natural vegetation patterns, population growth, and recent developments in tourism, this essay will discuss the human impact on the natural environment of Tiger Leaping Gorge between the 1870s and 2002. It will not only demonstrate patterns in environmental degradation based on both natural and human processes, it will also show that depending on the form of institutional authority and local management practices, the environment in the gorge has been most effected by the political and ideological changes of the last half-century in comparison to earlier times. However, despite increasing challenges in the face of various human factors, some recent environmental practices have succeeded in helping to minimize elements of local soil and vegetation degradation.

Gingerly stepping along a trail swept with scree to allow an old fellow with a donkey to pass; resting atop a rock, exhausted, looking up to see the snow-shrouded peaks, then down to see the lingering rays dancing on the rippling waters a thousand metres below. That pretty much sums up Tiger Leaping Gorge, long one of the great treks of southwest China. Add in modern development, power lines and water pipes that follow the high trail, and a few stretches of road walking: this is no longer wild nature, but the views are still grand and it’s still worth the trip.

In 2006, farmers from a small village by China’s Jinsha River took seven hydropower surveyors hostage in a brazen attempt to stop the Tiger Leaping Gorge Dam. The dam would have flooded them out of their homes and ancestral lands, and massive opposition had arisen to it. 

And the crazy thing is, it worked.

Four years later, in 2010, I came to this village with my father to help with the production of a documentary, Waking the Green Tiger, which tells just how activists, journalists and local farmers worked together to stop this dam. My father, who was involved in the movement, was to be interviewed, and I was translating for the filmmaker, Gary Marcuse.

On our first morning in the village, we stood on a hill overlooking the Jinsha River and the valley below, our shoes damp from the morning dew. The Jinsha, which is the upper stretch of the Yangtze River in Yunnan Province, means “Golden Sand” in Chinese. Despite the remnants of early morning fog, streaks of sunlight shined on the river, and its ripples glittered. 

Cornfields lined the banks of the river, irrigated by streams that flow into the Jinsha. Further up the banks lie clusters of brick houses that form the Chezhou Village, its residents mostly Naxi minorities who had lived and prospered in this river valley for many generations. An occasional cow or ox wandered and grazed on the hill that I was standing on. 

All of this had been under threat by the proposed Tiger Leaping Gorge Dam. It was planned to be some 200 meters high, and would have flooded the Jinsha River valley 200 kilometers upstream and displaced 100,000 people from ethnic minorities. If not for the efforts of environmental activists, journalists, and local farmers over the last decade, everything we were seeing now would have been under water.

As we took in the sight before us, my father told Gary how in 2004, he reported on the construction of the Jinanqiao Dam as a journalist. Jinanqiao was the fifth dam of an eight-dam cascade (of which the Tiger Leaping Gorge Dam was the first) planned for the Jinsha River. My father and a colleague found that illegal construction on the dam had already started, despite the lack of government approval. Their article caught the attention of Premier Wen Jiabao, and the project was later suspended. But this was far from the end.

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