We should turn your title on its head and talk about “cultural development” and “economic preservation.” Culture
is a living organism; as soon as it stops evolving, it dies. Furthermore, there is a sense of patriarchy and cultural
imperialism involved in the idea of cultural preservation. We only care about “saving” minority cultures if they
are “cute” [ ke ai ]. No one talks about preserving Taliban culture or even Basque culture in Europe because these
are powerful groups with distasteful political agendas. Cultural preservation in China requires us to view minority
groups as vulnerable and cute, like children.
We might add to this critical observation the fact that in places like Yunnan the struggle to
“save minority cultures” also hinges on a view of minority people as bastions of unalloyed
tradition, when the truth is much more complicated. It would be a mistake to look to the
people who live there as untouched strongholds of minority culture, unsullied by nation-
al or global forces of economic development. The social, economic, and cultural changes
faced by Nu River villagers today—agricultural marketization, increasing participation in
wage labor, and likely displacement and resettlement to make way for dams—in fact rep-
resent the extension of a long trend involving such dynamic forces from outside the region.
Over the past century and a half of documented history alone, Nu River residents have seen
waves of religious proselytizing, ethnic and linguistic fluidity between the myriad minorit-
ies in the gorge, and the integration into the Chinese nation-state of people who had previ-
ously given little consideration to national politics.
Special consideration of vulnerable populations should undoubtedly be part of the cal-
culus of building dams on the Nu River. But from a strictly pragmatic standpoint, fore-
grounding the issue of “culture” in the debates about the future of the Nu River is a tactic
with alowprobability ofsuccess. Although this argument may soundpeculiar foracultural
anthropologist to make, I suggest in subsequent chapters that the more general concept of
“rights,” of which cultural rights constitute just one subset, should be the principal concern.
PRELUDE TO CONFLICT
One of the most conspicuous signs of development in the Nu River Gorge, in addition to
ubiquitous and near-constant road construction, is the installation of small-scale “diversion
hydropower projects,” at least twenty-seven of which have been completed from Liuku in
the south to Gongshan in the north, a distance of about 300 river kilometers. Their design
is ingenious, yet relatively simple: water is diverted from the main stream of the river via a
cement canal or galvanized pipe, channeled along the mountainside for several kilometers
on a very slight slope, then dropped hundreds of meters through turbines at a power station
on the river before rejoining the mainstream.
These diversion projects are much less capital intensive than dams, which makes them
an increasingly attractive electricity-generating strategy throughout the developing world
(Yuksel 2007). In Yunnan, such small-scale hydropower stations tend to be owned and