Guiyang Public Environmental Education Center (贵阳公众环境教育中心) – A Father’s Promise of “A Hometown of Green Hills and Clear Waters (绿水青山)” to His Daughter

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In an interview with PEL, the Director of Guiyang Public Environmental Education Center (GPEEC), Mr. Huang Chengde (黄成德), said that his dedication to environmental protection was rooted in a promise he had made to his dear daughter that when she grows up, their hometown, Guiyang City, will still have green hills and clear waters. According to Mr. Huang, protecting the environment is not for the pursuit of grandeur but, rather, for ourselves, our families, and our children and grandchildren.

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In 2010, Mr. Huang Chengde established Guiyang Public Environmental Education Center (GPEEC), the first grassroots environmental public interest organization registered with the Guiyang City Civil Affairs Bureau. Since then, GPEEC has established a 5-stakeholder-cooperative (五位一体) to promote public participation in local environmental and social governance which includes the government, courts, NGOs, companies, and members from the neighboring community.

[Author’s Note: This article is co-authored by Yu Zhuang and Huang Chengde. The authors would like to thank Gianna Petito for editing assistance.]

GPEEC’s unique integrated approach includes several advocacy steps: (1) attend government meetings by members of the local Chinese People’s Congress (CPC) and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) to submit proposals which highlight pollution concerns and recommended solutions; (2) expose pollution problems through news media outlets if they  remain unsolved; (3) request that the Procuratorate issue correction mandates to the polluting companies; and (4) file environmental public interest litigation (EPIL) as a last resort if pollution continues. Importantly, GPEEC’s profound knowledge of government administrative structure contributes to the success of this integrated approach. Whenever pollution concerns are detected, staff at GPEEC know exactly which government entity holds jurisdiction and how that agency will operate internally to address the problem.

GPEEC’s first project was to launch the “Guiyang Citizen Investigation of Water Environment” (饮水思源——贵阳水环境调查市民行动) which trained over 300 citizens on basic skills in water pollution investigation. Over almost half a year of citizen investigations, GPEEC collected comprehensive data on the hydrology and water quality of 98 rivers, streams, and creeks in Guiyang city. Using this citizen-collected information, GPEEC submitted river protection proposals to the Guiyang City government and helped the government implement a protection plan of 17 water-head areas.

Since this initial project, GPEEC has continued to recruit volunteers as citizen riverkeepers to monitor sections of the river with family and friends. The volunteers of GPEEC represent a diverse array of citizens including Guiyang City CPC members, Guiyang City CPPCC members, lawyers, government officials, news reporters, and environmental scientists and engineers. Moreover, GPEEC has an environmental protection expert team, which draws on the expertise of remediation and compliance professionals and university scholars. This team helps companies design and implement plans to comply with emission and effluent standards. Thus far, with the cooperation of local Environmental Protection Bureaus (EPB), GPEEC’s expert team has helped 15 companies design clean production plans and train their employees in environmental compliance management and operations.

GPEEC is one of the leading Chinese environmental NGOs spearheading the advancement of EPIL. In 2010, even before the new Environmental Protection Law was enacted to permit NGOs to bring civil environmental public interest litigation, GPEEC filed its first civil EPIL case in cooperation with All-China Environment Federation (ACEF) (中华环保联合会) – 贵阳市乌当区定扒造纸厂水污染环境公益诉讼案. Since 2010, the NGO has filed 15 EPIL cases, including 2 administrative EPIL cases. There are two characteristic features of an GPEEC EPIL case that tend to distinguish them from EPIL cases brought by other NGOs: (1) the remedies sought in most of GPEEC’s cases are not damage compensation, but rather injunction and remediation; and (2) most cases are resolved through negotiations and settlement.

Even though it remains unclear whether NGOs have standing to bring an administrative EPIL case to court, GPEEC has successfully brought two administrative EPIL cases against local government for nonfeasance or inaction (行政不作为). Both cases were accepted by local courts and concluded through settlement. In 2013, GPEEC brought a combined civil and administrative EPIL case – 贵州省扎佐林场污染环境公益诉讼案 against several local government entities. The civil EPIL claim was against a local county government (镇人民政府) for managing an illegal garbage dump site which was damaging state-owned forestland. The administrative EPIL claim was against a local ecological bureau (县生态局) (EPB and forestry bureau combined) and an urban and rural construction bureau (城乡建设局 – which is in charge of waste management) for nonfeasance, because both bureaus failed to protect the forest and stop the illegal dumping.  In 2015, GPEEC filed another nonfeasance administrative EPIL case – 黔南州龙里县工业园区外排污水跨区域行政环境公益诉讼案 – against an industrial park management agency in a neighboring government, which failed to manage effectively both industrial and domestic waste water leading to cross-jurisdictional water pollution of Guiyang City’s drinking water source.

Mr. Huang emphasized that for each EPIL case it takes on, GPEEC conducts a rigorous and comprehensive investigation to collect sufficient evidence. Indeed, “Rigorousness” (严谨)is the motto of GPEEC work. GPEEC staff divides their effort and time in preparing EPIL cases into three parts: (1) 30% on site investigation to collect a large amount of data; (2) 40% on expert analysis to develop remediation and restoration plans for after-trial enforcement; (3) 30% on litigation legal work. GPEEC utilizes its dedicated volunteer experts group for analyzing EPIL cases and developing technical remediation plans, that GPEEC then submits as a proposed solution to the court and defendant. After the court reviews and approves the plan, the defendant is expected to hire an independent third-party to implement the plan. GPEEC also secures authority to supervise and monitor the implementation and enforcement process of the court order or settlement agreement.

In addition to its EPIL work, GPEEC has adopted a “Non-Confrontational Environmental Governance Model” (非对抗环境社会治理) to cooperate with local governments through the government purchase of services like the “Third-Party Supervision” (第三方监督社会服务) and “Dual-Riverkeeper System” (双河长制). For example, in 2013, the Qingzhen (清镇市) Government contracted GPEEC’s services to supervise government agencies who oversaw environmental protection as well as the operations of all industrial and mining companies within its jurisdiction. In 2017, the Guiyang City Baiyun District (白云区) Government similarly decided to contract with the NGO to implement its “third-party-monitoring” system. This constitutes a milestone in China’s environmental protection as NGOs are increasingly invited to actively participate in environmental governance.

In 2016, GPEEC established a dual-riverkeeper cooperation model (双河长制) with the Guanshanhu District (观山湖区) government to engage both government officials and NGO riverkeepers in water protection. The dual-riverkeeper system is a new environmental management model that teams government with civilian riverkeepers, normalizing cross-sector collaboration and leading to comprehensive and integrated management, periodical patrol, joint law enforcement, and clear accountability. It effectively establishes a sustainable environmental protection and management model by drawing on the diverse strengths and capabilities of ordinary citizens, volunteers, NGOs, government, and media so that they cooperate with each other, supervise each other, and hold each other accountable.

Some people say that GPEEC is unique and difficult to replicate because of its leader and its invaluable connections to government and social resources. In response to this Mr. Huang stresses that while strategies may not always be replicable, successes can be. In closing Mr. Huang mused, “each local NGO knows best about how to protect its own hometown, which is exactly what GPEEC has done.”

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