tion and development, and about the obligations of government agencies to protect vulner-
able individuals and communities—remain unresolved.
A TALE OF TWO WATERSHEDS
Subsequent chapters of this topic provide detailed case studies of two watersheds in Yun-
nan Province where intensive hydropower development is under way: the Lancang River
and the Nu River. These case studies provide a ground-level examination of the cultur-
al, ecological, and economic impacts of hydropower development for local communities.
I wish to provide just enough information here so that readers will have some context for
understanding these two watersheds and their role in the narrative of this topic.
In one sense, the choice of these two river basins for detailed analysis is somewhat ar-
bitrary; I could just have easily have chosen to concentrate on development schemes on the
next major watershed to the east, the Jinsha, or on the Dadu or the Yalong or on a host of
other rivers where dams can be seen rising, a ton of concrete at a time, over canyon walls. 9
In another sense, however, the Lancang and the Nu are natural choices for a study of this
sort, for several reasons. First, key government policies, including the Twelfth Five-Year
Plan for Economic Development (2011-2015), single out the southwest region as a major
base ( jidi ) of hydropower development, and these two rivers offer a glimpse into two very
different stages of development. The Lancang has seen fairly rapid hydropower develop-
ment, whereas the dam projects on the Nu are proceeding more slowly and with signific-
ant international and domestic contestation. Second, as I have already suggested, these two
cases involve particularly high stakes for biological diversity, cultural heritage, and even
international relations with downstream countries. Finally, and perhaps most significantly,
my involvement since 2006 with a large, interdisciplinary project designed to understand
and model the potential impacts of dams has inspired much of my interest in this topic, and
these two watersheds have been the focus of that effort from the beginning.
These two rivers traverse an area of truly remarkable biological and cultural diversity,
from the glacier-covered peaks of Khawa Karpo, which towers 6,740 meters above the pro-
vincial boundary between the Tibet Autonomous Region and Yunnan, to the subtropical
rice terraces and rubber plantations of Xishuangbanna, which abuts Laos and Myanmar.
The cultural practices and livelihood strategies of the people who live here and who identi-
fy with more than a dozen minzu are also tremendously diverse. The landscape itself is
freighted with epistemological significance: to the people who live here it is a working
landscape with cultural and even spiritual significance; to Han Chinese and foreign visitors
it is the mythical and exotic Shangri-La; and to Western scientists and conservation groups
it is a biodiversity hot spot renowned for its flora and fauna and in need of protection. Since
the late nineteenth century, Western naturalists, missionaries, and explorers—sometimes