A court in southwestern China has upheld a landmark lower-court ruling to suspend work on a massive hydropower project that environmentalists say would push the endangered green peafowl to extinction.
But the Yunnan Higher People’s Court also dismissed an environmental group’s formal legal bid to end the construction for good and permanently safeguard the habitat of a species that is rarer than the giant panda.
The green peafowl is China’s only native peacock, with just 500 estimated to be left in the wild after decades of excessive hunting, loss of habitat, pesticide poisoning and deforestation.
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The Jiasa River dam project on the upper reaches of the Red River in Shuangbai county was planned for part of the peafowl’s remaining range and Beijing-based Friends of Nature launched a court case in 2017 to have it stopped.
Since the case was first brought to court, the builder of the hydropower dam has shelved the project, a rare instance in China of a public interest lawsuit preventing damage rather than seeking redress for harm done.
In its decision handed down on Thursday, the higher court agreed that the dam project would pose “grave risks” to the key habitat of the peafowl as well as the region’s rainforest ecosystem.
But it dismissed Friends of Nature’s appeal against the intermediate court’s decision in March ordering an immediate suspension – rather than permanent stop – to work on the dam, pending further environmental assessment.
Work on the 3.6 billion yuan (US$506 million) dam project started in 2016 by a subsidiary of state-owned dam builder, China Hydropower Engineering Consulting Group.
However, the environmental protection ministry ordered suspension of the work in 2017 after years of protests from green groups, including Friends of Nature.
Friends of Nature launched a suit to stop work on the dam the same year, and in 2018 the builder shelved the project.
But Friends of Nature said the original environmental assessment was carried out by an institute under state-owned Power Construction Corporation of China.
The group said the institute failed to address the environmental risks of the dam, resulting in the project’s approval, and should be held responsible.
But the complaint was dismissed in March and again on Thursday.
Nevertheless, the builder still needs local authorities to sign off on the stoppage, according to the provincial court’s decision.
The higher court said that even though the “grave risks” posed to the habitat have been “effectively under control”, further assessment was needed for a final decision.
Friends of Nature said on Thursday that the case “has temporarily held on to the last largest and most intact habitat in China”.
“However, according to the first instance judgment, the construction … was only temporarily suspended, not permanently, and the environmental impact assessment could not objectively eliminate the threat of damage to the green peafowl habitat caused by the construction of the project,” the statement said.
Zhang Boju, secretary general of Friends of Nature, said that without a court order, it was too early to tell if the habitat could be preserved for good, even though the builder agreed to cancel the project.
“It’s just an internal decision of the company and has no administrative and, above all, no judicial effect,” Zhang told the Post. “We can’t say that the green peafowl’s habitat has been completely preserved because of this ruling.”
The case is widely seen as a test of how serious China is about protecting its environment as local governments struggle to balance economic growth with ecological demands.
On paper, authorities are committed to protecting ecologically sensitive and vulnerable areas and enforce conservation orders.
In the latest five-year plan, which sets out the central government’s goals for 2021-2025, China pledged to make environmental protection a priority by improving its regulatory system for nature reserves. It also promised to assess the effectiveness of those conservation efforts.
Zhang said the key question was how these policies would be carried out.
He said that in the court case, most of the flooded areas of the dam project fell within “red line” areas set aside by the Yunnan government for protection but “still, the court failed to permanently cease the project, and this is somehow disappointing.”
Gu Bojian, a doctoral candidate in conservation biology at Fudan University, said the court case sounded an alarm over the lack of a full investigation into the biodiversity in China.
Gu was among the first to raise the alarm about the peafowl habitat in 2013, after he made a field trip in the Red River region to study the rainforest.
At the time, the peafowl was thought to be extinct but villagers showed him feathers from the birds and he began pushing for protection for the peafowls and their habitat.
“Many habitats were quietly destroyed,” Gu said.
“It’s not simply about the green peafowl. More effort is needed to survey many endangered species.
“At the very least, one needs to know where they live and what the population size is to provide a scientific basis for conservation measures.”
This article Court reprieve for China’s rare green peafowl but it’s not out of the woods yet first appeared on South China Morning Post