The discovery of gold in Sacramento Valley in 1848 drove three hundred thousand people to California, digging the ground and panning the rivers, chasing the dream of wealth in the Wild West. One and a half centuries later, China launched its own “Go West” movement with the Great Western Development Campaign. Over the past 15 years the central government has poured over half a trillion dollars into the west, aimed at raising the region’s economic standards while eyeing what attracted people to California in the mid-1800s: resources and wealth.
China’s “Go West” investment has created channels to extract resources—water, gas, and electricity—and transfer them from the landlocked west to the east coast. Yunnan, China’s southwestern-most province, lies at the birthplace of much of these resources. Here, over 150 types of minerals boast a potential value of a whopping half a trillion dollars. Its high mountains, deep valleys, and abundant rainfall also favor Yunnan with a hydropower goldmine.
However, this combination of abundant minerals and hydropower potential, while a boon for the local economy in the short-term, has been disastrous to the environment. The intertwined interests of the hydropower, mining, and metallurgy industries are inflating energy demand, spurring on dam-building, and enriching energy-intensive development. These interdependent industries are creating a vicious cycle that pollutes Yunnan’s air and water and threatens the ecosystem in this biodiverse-rich province. Local governments perpetuate this cycle by creating incentives for industrial development, oftentimes contrary to the central government’s orders to curb energy-intensive industries.
In particular, aluminum production has gained traction in Yunnan. The aluminum industry has proved all too eager to exploit Yunnan’s hydropower capabilities. The growth of this industry has catalyzed opposition from concerned citizens, who are left to fight the uphill battle to slow down the perverse cycle of hydropower, mining, metallurgy, and local government interests.
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