Water Heroes: Ma Jun – 2012 Goldman Environmental Prize Winner

Welcome back for another edition of Water Heroes.  This week I’ll be talking about Ma Jun who has just received the Goldman Environmental Prize for “bringing unprecedented environmental transparency and empowering Chinese citizens to demand justice”.  Ma is no stranger to the environment.  He has been an environmentalist in China for years, and is also a writer, environmental consultant, journalist, and is director of the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs, or the IPE.  Let’s take a look at some of the work he’s done over the years to help the Chinese people get clean water.

Ma got his start in environmentalism somewhat by accident in the 90’s.  At that time he was working as a researcher for the South China Morning Post and his work took him to places in China that he’d never been before.  He started seeing rivers running dry, surfaces of lakes and rivers covered with pollution, forests disappearing to make ways for dams, and other environmental atrocities.  Unlike most people he decided to do something about it instead of sitting by and watching his country be destroyed.  Ma started doing research into water challenges facing China and ended up writing a book called “China’s Water Crisis”.   His book is a comprehensive history of China’s water problems talking about everything from dams to pollution to inadequate river flow to flooding.   He has since then wrote a number of articles on China and its water problems and because of all of his work has inspired a large following.  Due to overwhelming requests for him to continue his work and do more he started the IPE which led to what some say is his biggest accomplishment yet.

After writing about water issues and talking to the public for a number of years Ma realized that in order for him to be successful he needed to get the public involved.  He also realized that in order to get the public involved they need to have a source of information.  With that in mind Ma and the IPE developed the China Water Pollution Map.  This is an amazing tool that shows the water quality of lakes and rivers in China, and if polluted, who’s polluting them.  Here’s the website if you’d like to check it out www.ipe.org.cn/en/pollution/index.aspx.  FYI…the website is mostly in Chinese, and using Chrome’s translator only takes care of some of it.  Either way, when you go on the website you can tell it’s useful.  One option is to look at all of the different provinces, and then when you scroll over them it pops up the available information, such as air and water quality reports that have been made.  You can also search by river basins.  Another very interesting tool is that it allows you to see all of the companies that are being monitored and then when you click on one of them you can see supervision records and any discharge records that they may have.  This is really important because not only does it allow the IPE to hold companies accountable, but it also lets the parent companies see what their suppliers are doing and monitor them.  And the only way for a company to get the records taken down is for them to hire an outside audit to prove the report wrong.  This function also allows the IPE to work with the government and show them where the pollution is happening and who’s doing it.  As far as I’ve can see this is the most important part of the map because it’s allows companies to be held accountable, and the IPE is definitely holding companies accountable.

You may have heard in the news recently that Apple has been getting in some hot water over the practices of some of its suppliers in China, and that is all because of Ma’s mapping tool.  The IPE learned about pollution coming out of a number of technology companies and so they wrote up a report showing who was working with these companies, how the companies were polluting, and called for action.  Out of the 29 companies that the IPE named, Apple was the only one that would not cooperate with them.  As Ma is not a man to lie down easily he launched what was called the “Poison Apple” campaign.  They released a follow up report focusing on Apple and calling them “stubbornly evasive”, and all of the sudden Apple wanted to talk.  After sitting down and looking at the information Apple admitted that there were problems and launched an outside audit.  Once the audit was complete and found numerous violations Apple started to force its suppliers to make some changes.  Ma went up against one of the biggest corporations in the world and got them to change what they were doing.  If that’s not success I don’t know what is.

More recently (this week) the IPE released a report calling out the textile industry in China.  I actually wrote an article on this report earlier this week, so I won’t go into great detail here, but you should take a look at that article (just scroll down a bit).  Basically the IPE knew that the textile industry is the biggest in China, and that there have been widespread allegation of pollution by these companies for years.  Just little things like turning entire rivers red by dumping dye into them.  So the IPE took it on themself to get things going in the right direction.  They studied the companies and their records, looking at violations and fines, and talking to the public that live around these factories.  In the end they sent out letters to 48 CEO’s of labels like GAP and Walmart asking for their help.  They asked them to basically police their suppliers and make sure they weren’t polluting, and if they were polluting then to put policy change in motion to stop it.  They also encouraged companies with factories that had polluted to let the public know what happened to cause the pollution and what they did to fix it.  Another thing the asked was for these companies to put into place a green supply chain policy and to try and get their suppliers to go above and beyond what was called of them by the law.  Now, if some unknown NGO called on huge multinational corporations to do this they would be laughed at, but as we saw with Apple, the IPE has some pull.  Some of the companies that were sent the letter responded, and some didn’t.  Some have even already started to make policy change.  When I read that it was a huge surprise to me.  Some corporations actually DO care (maybe?).  If you take a look at my article you can see what companies were sent letters, and how they responded, if at all.

Ma knows that in China the only way he can succeed is with the public’s support because if the public supports you it’s hard for you to be silenced.  The Chinese government is notorious for sweeping people like Ma under the rug, but he has said that the government gives him space to do his thing, but at the same time also letting him know when companies complain that he’s getting in their hair.  I guess if people are complaining you know that what you’re doing is working.  In the end it’s all about education.  Educating the public about what is happening to their water, educating the government about what corporations are doing to their country, and also educating corporations of what their suppliers are doing.  Ma says that there’s still a lot of work to be done, but that the IPE is taking China’s water quality in the right direction, and for that I say thank you sir!  Thanks for reading.

Water Heroes: Ma Jun – 2012 Goldman Environmental Prize Winner

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