Chinese Environmentalists Go to Court

Apparently, it's all part of President Xi Jinping’s grand environmental strategy.

The Green Peafowl is so rare in China that wild sightings of the birds, with their golden-green plumage and sweeping tail feathers, can make national headlines. The photogenic creatures had social media users riveted last year when environmentalists went to court to stop construction of a dam that threatened their last remaining habitat.


They won. A district judge in Yunnan, the southwestern province where the creatures reside, ordered the state-owned company running the project to halt construction. But it wasn’t just a case of activists triumphing over powerful corporate interests. The court challenge itself was, to some extent, state sanctioned - a part of President Xi Jinping’s grand environmental strategy.


Friends of Nature, the non-government organization that filed the lawsuit, was only able to do so because China passed a law in 2015 that allowed local NGOs to initiate so-called Environmental Public Interest Litigation. The reforms, which also include encouraging prosecutors to bring such cases, have helped draw attention to environmental issues and empowered local courts to push back against destructive industrial practices, reports Bloomberg Green.


“The court rulings are only one part of the impact,” said Zhang Na, who oversees the legal department at China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, an NGO that’s filed multiple EPIL cases. “There are also impacts that are unquantifiable, such as people’s environmental awareness and faith in the law.”


In that sense, the legal challenges are a useful tool. More than 3,500 petitions were heard by judges last year, compared with just 49 lawsuits filed in 2015. The government likes to stress how the cases give the public a stronger voice. “China’s courts will better protect people’s environmental rights through the public interest litigation,” Zhou Qiang, Chief Justice of the Supreme People's Court, said about the new law. The government hoped to “encourage the public to participate in environmental protection,” he said.