Network Battles for Rivers, Society





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Why would a Berkeley resident devote her life to keeping a single river flowing in China?

When a dam threatens to cut off the river, displacing nearly 1.9 million people in the "largest forced resettlement" in the history of the world, the reason becomes clear for Doris Shen.

Shen is part of Berkeley's International Rivers Network, a group fighting dams all over the world through education, boycotts and grassroots campaigns that span across continents.

To Shen, the Three Gorges Dam in China, which, if completed, would be the world's largest dam spanning almost a mile across the Yangtze River, is the goliath of all dams, representing everything the International Rivers Network stands against.

After graduating from UC Berkeley in environmental studies, Shen traveled to the Yangtze on a documentary project, to see firsthand the "massive social impact" of the dam and give voice to the Chinese people who oppose it.

"People have been imprisoned for speaking out against it," Shen says. "Journalists can't write (about it). There is repression of any dissension and criticism of the project."

The dam will not only displace villages of people without their consent, but it will also destroy the local habitat by disturbing the flow of nutrients to plant and marine life. It could also possibly contribute to outbreaks of diseases like malaria by flooding areas with still water, says Shen. These are all common features of huge hydroelectric dams, she says, which should be replaced by small dams or wind and solar power.

Though far from the raging currents of political controversy in China, the International Rivers Network is spearheading a boycott against Discover Card in an effort to show Berkeley residents and students that they too can have an impact on the dam.

As credit card vendors bombard students on campus with free gifts, activists like Bodhi Garrett are asking fellow students to pass up the Discover Card.

Garrett, a senior in environmental science and an intern at International Rivers Network, said he thinks students will respond to the call for action.

"We believe college students will be concerned with the environmental ramifications of their consumption practices," Garrett says. "What they don't realize is that the banks they support are engaging in investment practices worldwide that are really bad."

The Discover Card is being targeted because it is a product of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, an investment company involved in the Three Gorges Dam, Shen says. The company, she says, is underwriting bonds for the construction of the dam and also owns substantial shares in a company that gives financial advice for the creators of the dam.

While many other banks, such as Bank of America, are also involved in the dam, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter was the only company that did not respond to calls for dialogue, putting it at the bull's-eye of the activists' campaign. The organization wants the company to develop social and environmental criteria to evaluate all their investment practices in the future.

Morgan Stanley Dean Witter did not return phone calls.

Laura Tyson, dean of the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business, is on the board of directors for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter but says she has not heard of the boycott.

"It's a complicated issue," she says. "(The dam) has been controversial."

When Tyson was national economic advisor to President Bill Clinton, the U.S. Export-Import Bank decided not to fund the dam because its supporters failed "to establish the project's consistency with the bank's environmental guidelines," according to a statement by the board of directors. Even the World Bank, notorious among activists for funding such projects, actually decided not to get involved because of the environmental impact.

Tyson, however, says that evaluating investments with a set of environmental criteria is unreasonable because it is hard to measure.

"Financial rate of return is easy to measure," she says. "Maybe that's why it's the one that people mostly measure. (But) you would expect people in making the decision to consider the sustainability of the project. If you get deeply involved in financing a project that is very controversial, it's not necessarily a good business decision."

The international financial community is starting to take environmental and social issues into consideration after realizing (that) globalization has its drawbacks, Tyson says.

"As the world becomes a more developed and wealthy place, they should address these issues and I think that's healthy," she says.

American activists, however, sometimes fight against a project in a developing country that the country actually wants, she says.

Petra Yee, an International Rivers Network staff member, says that if local people of other countries do not want to fight against a dam, the group will simply have to accept that. Sometimes they just want more community participation in dam planning or better financial compensation.

"We get in touch with local groups (in other countries) and see what the situation is and ask them what they need," she says. "The people we work with are the people who are affected. It's not cool to go into other countries and tell them what to do."

Sometimes, however, the locals are not allowed to express their views. Dia Qing, a renowned Chinese environmentalist and journalist, published a collection of critical essays about the dam and was forbidden by the government to ever be published again. She turned in her Communist Party membership and was later arrested. Many credit her with postponing the dam in its early development.

Qing still lives in Beijing and says she continues to fight for freedom of the press and against the dam, in collaboration with groups like the International Rivers Network.

"Not only is (the organization) very important in being a pillar in protecting rivers around the world, including the Yangtze and other rivers in China, but being a model of what kind of person we should be in the world today," Qing says. "I have been influenced by generations of IRN people since I met and worked together with them in 1992."

The group started out in 1985 simply as an eight-page newsletter, says Yee, who has worked for the organization for eight years.

"A group of activists, engineers and others came together and said, 'Nobody knows about the issues of large dams - nobody talks about it,'" she says.

Now the organization has a staff of 22 people and a budget of $1.5 million. It has campaigns in four different continents and prides itself on its international staff, Yee says, as she names members from Ireland, Laos, Australia, Colombia, Brazil, India and China.

In the case of the Three Gorges and many other dams, however, the campaign often leads back to the United States, where the major financial backers are.

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