Three Gorges Probe

Study casts light on hidden problems of resettlement

Kelly Haggart

March 1, 2002

Chinese Academy of Sciences researchers who tracked farmers affected by the Three Gorges resettlement say that most of those migrants are significantly less well off than they were before.


Chinese Academy of Sciences researchers who tracked a small number of farmers affected by the Three Gorges resettlement say that most of those migrants, as well as households they monitored in the host community, are significantly less well off than they were before.

After the resettlement, both newcomers and existing residents had only half as much land as they had before. Farmers in the host community, who had to give up some of their land to the migrants, ended up with half as much as their new neighbours were allotted. While migrants are promised a certain amount of land under the resettlement rules, no such guarantees protect the holdings of people already living in the areas into which migrants are being moved.

With the amount of farmland available per person declining dramatically after the influx, the resettlement site was unable to provide new work for all those squeezed off the land. Almost all the households monitored in the study suffered an increase in unemployment and a sharp decline in income.

The findings of the study, published here for the first time, describe intense competition for farmland and job opportunities, and raise the prospect of social instability. “It can be anticipated that a large jobless army is likely to harm the local economy and trigger unrest in the Three Gorges area,” the researchers write.

The researchers say the basic needs of migrants and local people are being met – they have enough food to eat and clothes to wear – but that they will be hard-pressed to attain the higher standard of living the authorities have promised people being uprooted because of the dam.

“Thus it can be expected that the gap between the reservoir area and the rest of the country in terms of economic growth and social development will grow wider at an alarming rate,” they conclude. “Without a doubt there will be a great deal of work to be done to promote sustainable development and maintain social stability in the reservoir area.”

The study is notable because it contains some of the first empirical data to emerge on the resettlement operation. One Chinese geographer specializing in Three Gorges resettlement who has reviewed the research findings said they cast light on “a hidden problem of resettlement: the impact on host communities’ income and land holdings. There is little awareness in China of this issue, which has long been ignored.”

The researchers tracked the fortunes of 11 households containing 44 people who were moved in 1998 from Tailong to Changling, less than 20 km away. Both towns are in Wuqiao, a district of Wanxian city located 300 km from the dam. The academics studied the migrant households for two years (1999 and 2000), focusing on the experiences of the 31 people of working age in the group. They also monitored 20 households in the host community for four years, from 1997 to 2000.

Acknowledging that their sample is small, they say much more research is needed to obtain a more complete picture of the consequences of the resettlement. In the meantime, they clearly hope their work will be regarded as a constructive contribution: “Some lessons should be learned, to avoid repeating similar problems in the future and to reduce the negative effects of resettlement on the host population and the reservoir environment,” they write.

Officially, 1.2 million people will be moved to make way for the dam, though critics of the project regard that as a conservative estimate and predict the final figure will be closer to two million.

The Three Gorges reservoir area, with 19.5 million people living in an area of just 57,200 sq km, was relatively poor by national standards even before the large-scale displacement of people began. Per capita annual income in the area is 1,700 yuan RMB (US$205) compared with a national figure of 2,162 yuan RMB (US$260). Arable land is at a premium because so much of the mountainous region is arid and steep.

More than 40 per cent of the Three Gorges migrants are rural residents engaged in traditional farming activities. The migrants in this study had a per capita average of 0.08 hectares of farmland in their original location. Like all farmers displaced by the dam, the central government guaranteed them 0.04 hectares after resettlement. But to make this possible, people in the host community had to give up some of their own holdings, in a place where pressure on land was already intense.

The per capita land holdings of the host-community residents monitored in the Changling study declined from 0.04 hectares in 1992, to 0.03 in 1998, and to 0.02 hectares in 2000. Urbanization was putting a squeeze on land in Changling even before the arrival of people displaced by the dam. Host-community farmers went from having one-half the national average of land in 1992, to having just one-quarter of that average amount in 2000.

In addition to having more land at their disposal in their original homes in Tailong, farmers had taken advantage of the diverse natural resources and income opportunities there. They earned an important part of their income from growing oranges, fishing on the Yangtze River and raising livestock. But after their move to Changling, they suddenly had no orange orchards, no river nearby, and less land on which to grow the grain they needed to feed animals.

The move entailed a radical dismantling of their household economy, which apparently has yet to be put back together in the new location. The average per capita incomes of the 11 households slid from 3,431 yuan RMB (US$415) in 1999 to 2,450 yuan RMB (US$295) the following year – a decline of 29 per cent. The averages conceal some real disaster stories: One of the households in the study suffered an income collapse of 69 per cent after resettlement. The households that fared best included people who were able to find work in the construction industry.

The overall employment rate in the 11 migrant households was calculated at 76 per cent before displacement, declining to 55 per cent afterward. Women, who were more likely than men to be engaged in traditional farm work, suffered disproportionately: Their employment rate fell from 82 per cent in Tailong to 52 per cent after their move to Changling. The host population in the study also suffered, with their employment rate sliding from 86 per cent in 1997 to 65 per cent in 2000.

The resettlement of rural people displaced by the Three Gorges dam has mainly occurred in three ways: People have been moved to nearby areas; they have been moved in groups to distant areas; or they have been encouraged to relocate on their own initiative, perhaps moving to live near or with family or friends.

Despite a 1999 policy shift in favour of moving Three Gorges migrants to distant parts of the country, in practice most are still being resettled in the reservoir area, the researchers say. They note a clear advantage to this, in that the migrants encounter no significant differences in language or lifestyle in their new homes. However, they also observe that cramming more people into an already crowded area has serious implications both for migrant and host communities, as well as for the local environment.

The migrants in this study had an average of 6.5 years of schooling, and one of the painful aspects of resettlement the researchers highlight is the difficulty these farmers face in abruptly shifting to other work – in an increasingly competitive, market-oriented economy – when local employment and retraining opportunities are scarce.

The researchers see little scope for expanding non-agricultural industries in the area, and suggest that government schemes might be started to help train and relocate some of the unemployed workers to other parts of the country. And they propose that people still engaged in farming could be helped to shift away from growing traditional products such as grains and oranges toward producing “higher value-added” vegetables and flowers that could sell well in the nearby city of Wanxian.

A translation of the full study is now available in the Three Gorges Probe Reports section. See “Three Gorges rural resettlement and its impact on the host population and the environment


Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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