This report is based on an article published by the official WeChat account of Friends of Nature (自然之友) on the 3rd of August 2020. Beijing-based Friends of Nature is perhaps China’s most well-known local environmental nonprofit.
The first environmental public interest litigation brought to court in China, the Qujing Chromium Slag Pollution case, finally came to an end on the 3rd of August. The case was first accepted by the Intermediate People’s Court of the city of Qujing (Yunnan Province) on the 19th of October 2011. After nearly ten years of obtaining evidence, drafting files and mediating, the defendant has finally agreed to continue carrying out work to help recover the local ecosystem and pay for any costs associated with the recovery programme, as well as any costs the plaintiff may have incurred through the litigation procedures and engaging in assessments of the polluted land. The latter alone will cost the defendant 3.08 million RMB ($442,675), while the costs for the recovery of the ecosystem are expected to be astronomical.
The past ten years have been extraordinarily tough for those involved. The defendants, Friends of Nature, the Chongqing Green Union of Volunteers, and the City of Qujing’s Ministry of Ecosystem Protection sued Yunnan Luliang Chemical Industrial Co., Ltd., for the 12 tons of chromium slag abandoned by the company, which polluted more than 1,8992.06 m² of arable land as well as the Nanpan River next to it. The polluted land and water enormously affected the livelihood and safety of the people living in the nearby villages. For instance the oldest son of Mr. Wu Shuliang, one of the villagers whose land and water were polluted by the industrial waste, suffered from leukemia because he used to swim in the polluted water every day, and he died in 2011.
The significance of this case is due to its close relation with public interest litigations. Compared to cases involving private interests, public interest litigations have a greater focus and impact on the public and common good. At the time this case first went to court, no environmental NGO had successfully appealed to the courts for cases related to the pubic interest and won them, neither were there any laws relevant to public interest litigations within Chinese legislations. Therefore, a milestone was needed to push public interest litigations to the forefront of legislation. When the case was first accepted by the courts, the director and staff of Friends of Nature (自然之友) and the organisation’s lawyers were excited to commence this journey, for they expected the case to end soon and become the milestone needed to reform the law. Media and journalists flocked to report on the case, interviewing the parties involved and giving positive predictions.
What they did not expect was that the case would last for nine years. After various rounds of failed mediations, the media and public gradually lost their interest after the initial bout of enthusiasm. The first hearing lasted for ten hours, and just when an agreement had nearly been reached, the defendant decided not sign the paper. A month later, the court summoned the defendant to sign the paper and again faced rejection. The reason given by the defendant was that the plaintiff lacked the evidence to prove that the land and river had truly been polluted by the chromium slag. The plaintiff was then requested to provide a pollution assessment report issued by a licensed third party. The whole process would inevitably cost a huge amount of money, which was not affordable for a nonprofit like Friends of Nature.
In the end, the assessment of the land was carried out with money raised by Friends of Nature through various fundraising events. The four lawyers serving the case also had to travel back and forth from Beijing to Yunnan in order to obtain samples of the land. Even during this process they were hindered by the Liuliang company. The company once called the police and claimed the lawyers were thieves. But Friends of Nature never gave up over nine years, and neither did the four lawyers. Ms. Yang Yang, one of the lawyers, was determined to obtain solid evidence against the company all the way through. She visited Mr. Shuliang’s family several times to find both samples and testimonies of their deceased son. When the final judgement was given, Ms. Yang visited the family again with a sense of relief. “If I had any personal emotional engagement in this case, that was Mr Wu’s land. I know I had to figure out the truth regarding this piece of land”, stated Ms Yang.
Even before the final ruling, the Qujing Chromium Slag Pollution case had certainly borne out its mission of putting public interest litigations under the spotlight and giving non-governmental organisations a voice to appeal for the public interest. In 2012, public interest litigations were included in the Civil Procedure Law of the PRC. Three years later, public interest litigations by environmental organizations were included in the amended Environmental Protection Law. This litigation by a civil society organisation drove the publication of a series of laws and regulations related to environmental protection and enabled organisations such as Friends of Nature to take legal action against individuals or organisations whose activities bring harm to the public interest. Since then, Friends of Nature has brought 46 cases to court related to environmental disputes. It is estimated by the Supreme People’s Court that by 2019, 179 public interest litigations had been initiated by non-governmental organisations.