Engaging the Chinese Public in Environmental Issues

China is currently facing a wave of dissatisfaction over the state of pollution in the country with calls for greater transparency. A new Blacksmith project might just have a solution. This report is from Abby Schultz in Blacksmith’s China office:

The Blacksmith Institute is piloting a soil remediation project in Hunan Province that is giving the Chinese insight into how to engage the public in environmental issues, specifically remediation.

The project comes at a time when the Chinese public has become more aware and concerned about environmental pollution in the air, water, and soil, and as the Chinese government considers changes to the 1989 Environmental Protection Law to encourage public participation, among other things.

The purpose of this effort is to promote improved environmental governance in China, and it is being done with the European Commission and matching funding from the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation. The Chinese Research Centre for Public Policy (CRCPP) and the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research of the China Academy of Sciences (IGSNRR-CAS) are partners.

The soil remediation project in Deng Jia Tang Village, Chenzhou City, Hunan, is the first of two pilots that will be used to show how to include the public in an environmental remediation project.

In Deng Jia Tang, 20 hectares of farmland was deserted in January 2000 after an industrial accident at a local factory producing arsenic-related products discharged toxic wastewater into the environment, contaminating the groundwater used as a drinking water source for the village.

The accident reportedly resulted in two deaths, 249 hospitalizations, and 885 people were found to have arsenic in urinary samples.

Now, residents of the village want to remediate the farmland so they can plant again. The project is engaging the public by working with local village committees and village representatives who have been asked to be part of a project stakeholder group. This group will be the main point of contact for informing the community as the project progresses.

This past spring, seven representatives of the village attended a meeting with the project team. The representatives, who have lived in Deng Jia Tang for more than 20 years, expressed a strong desire to remediate their farmland.

By involving the public in the cleanup project, local Chinese environmental officials should experience how engaging the public openly and transparently can lead to better community relations, build trust, and ultimately help the project succeed. Another objective is for other local governments to see the benefits of this approach and adopt it.

The plan in Deng Jia Tang is to use phytoremediation techniques to remove arsenic from the soil. Phytoremediation is the process of stimulating microorganisms already in the soil to speed up the transfer of toxins—arsenic in this case—into carbon dioxide.

At the meeting with the village representatives, the team explained the current status of the tainted soil, the plans for phytoremediation and how it works, and the estimated cost and timing for the project.

Creating workable methodologies for engaging the public in environmental remediation could prove useful on a national scale, where the government is considering changes to environmental law to improve transparency, emphasize the role of popular opinion, and to encourage participation by the public in environmental reviews of major construction projects, according to The Economic Observer, a Beijing-based publication.

“These amendments have been added as a direct response to the frequent outbreaks of ‘mass incidents’ or protests in recent years that are said to have been caused by a lack of ‘public supervision’ over decision making and a failure to share information,” the Observer said.

Read more about the project.

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