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A lone voice in China wins friends for environmental campaign

by Staff Writers
Beijing (AFP) Dec 4, 2007
From a spartan office in a humble brick building on a university campus, law professor Wang Canfa has gained fame for the legal battles he was waged for thousands of pollution victims across China.

"I feel I have the legal knowledge and should provide help for the underprivileged as best I can," said the diminutive academic at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing.

"This is also my ideal as a law scholar: to seek justice."

The 49-year-old runs the only non-government organisation in China that provides legal help to victims of widespread pollution -- many of whom are poor farmers whose livelihoods have been blighted by industrial waste.

China's impressive economic growth during the past two decades has created unprecedented wealth but has also exacted a monstrously heavy price on the nation's environment.

Those people who suffer the consequences tend to be at the bottom of the social spectrum and Wang, who grew up in rural China, feels a strong sense of empathy for them.

"I understand their helplessness. I know the difficulties they face and their need for help," he said.

Wang was born in 1958, the year that Mao Zedong launched the "Great Leap Forward" movement that resulted in about 30 million people starving to death, and he has painful memories of going hungry as a child.

"There was simply no food around. Once I told my mother I was hungry and she just broke down in tears," said Wang, showing the deep ridges in his fingernails which are the result of malnutrition.

Wang said he felt compelled to reach out to the helpless pollution victims since most of them had little money and few resources to help themselves.

"As a scholar, you have no power, no funding, the only thing you have is the knowledge of environmental law. So how do you make an impact?" he said.

Wang said the idea of setting up a help centre came after he read a press report in 1995 about a duck farmer whose business was ruined by industrial discharge.

The farmer had been denied justice because the local government was protecting a polluting brewery.

-- Protests over environmental issues becoming more common --

Wang contacted the farmer and, after bringing the case to court, the farmer eventually received 40,000 yuan (5,300 dollars) in compensation, not enough to cover his losses but something at least.

"If the victims have no professional help, they wouldn't have got any compensation at all," Wang said.

Nine years on, despite receiving no government or industry funding, the Centre for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims has received more than 10,000 phone calls from people asking for help. He has advised many of them, and fought over 100 court cases.

Its work has won Wang international acclaim, with Time magazine among those to have honoured him, this year naming him one of its "Heroes of the Environment".

The centre also now receives funding from several international foundations, but it still faces a plethora of daily challenges and loses as many cases as it wins.

In most pollution disputes in China, local government tends to side with business, Wang said, because it cannot afford to lose investment.

In fact, fewer than 10 percent of China's environmental cases ever make their way to court because local judiciaries tend to simply refuse to hear those cases, Wang said.

Even for the cases which are heard, it is quite common for courts to consult local governments, which put pressure on judges to avoid paying out compensation to victims.

"We feel very helpless. There are legal channels but they won't let you use them. It's a very sad situation," he said.

Protests over environmental issues are becoming more common across China, with local residents often resorting to violent protests when they feel justice has been denied.

"We feel very angry about those cases where we should have won but didn't due to (government) intervention and the lack of justice," Wang said.

But unlike some activists who suffer harassment and intimidation, Wang said he and his volunteers managed to steer clear of controversy most of the time by maintaining low key tactics and strictly following legal procedures.

Wang remains optimistic because he has in recent years sensed a rise in public awareness about environmental health.

"People now realise that pollution is not normal -- 10 years ago they wouldn't have thought that," he said.

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China reports progress on cutting pollution, but not enough
Beijing (AFP) Nov 29, 2007
China said Thursday it was making progress in its efforts to improve the nation's energy efficiency and cut pollution emissions, but acknowledged that not enough was being done.

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