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Date Posted: 07:00 28/10/2004

More Woe in Yunnan

Will they learn from past mistakes in Yunnan Province? Probably not.

ONE OF the most noticeable casualties of economic development in China may well be Yunnan Province. The indigenous peoples are being moved from their long-established rural ways of life to slum dwellings on the outskirts of cities that look very much like every other, with their concrete blocks and neon lights. And if something happens to be preserved from the wrecking ball, it is swarmed upon by hordes of tourists, like Dali, or submerged under a reservoir, like the Tiger Leaping Gorge.

This week, the Yunnan Environmental Protection Bureau has said that since the beginning of the year, environmental destruction in the province has already led to the deaths of more than 100 people and created economic losses of RMB 2.64 billion (about US$400 million). Despite claims by the provincial government that they have to worry about making the place richer before they can make it cleaner, the Bureau is admitting that it isn't simply a trade-off between economic growth and environmental protection. Environmental problems are actually holding back development, they say.

The figures are stark. 70% of the province's natural habitats have been lost, according to the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA). 73 plants included in the Key National Protected Wild Plants List can no longer be found. The virgin forest coverage of Xishuangbanna has dropped by 27%, with little hope of recovery. Most of the cropland has been saturated with chemical fertilizers, the rivers are in more and more trouble, and the air quality in the big cities is getting worse and worse, the report says.

In the traditional approach, you'd develop the economy until the environment got worse and worse, and finally, you'd be developed enough to be able to pay for the clean-up. That's what happened in the Ruhr Valley. Optimists reckon that China will learn from the mistake of the past. Pessimists point to Leaping Tiger Gorge.

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