2012 Goldman Environmental Prize winner Ma Jun enlists ordinary
Chinese to help clean up China's pollution.
In a country so vast and so foully polluted as China, it is hard
to know where to start cleaning it up.
Ma Jun decided to start with people: properly informed people.
And that strategy has turned his small nonprofit organization into
China's most respected - and feared - public watchdog, which has
brought some of the world's biggest companies to heel.
"The real No. 1 barrier to environmental protection in China is
not lack of money or technology," says Mr. Ma, one of the country's
best-known environmental activists. "It is lack of motivation. We
need the public to provide that motivation. But they must be
informed before they can participate in any meaningful way."
Weakly enforced environmental laws
Ma developed his environmental chops on the ground, exploring -
and sniffing - China's grossly degraded and polluted waterways as he
researched a book, "China's Water Crisis," that revealed for the
first time just how grave the situation is.
But it was in the more rarefied atmosphere of Yale University in
New Haven, Conn., where he spent a year as a visiting world fellow,
that he hit on a way of doing something about it.
In America and Europe, he learned, polluters had been forced to
clean up their act by governments that passed and enforced laws, and
by individuals who took persistent violators to court.
Neither of those routes was going to work in China, he realized.
"We have the laws and regulations, but enforcement remains very
weak," he says. "Environmental agencies in China are hamstrung by
local officials who put economic growth ahead of environmental
protection; even the courts are beholden to local officials, and
they are not open to environmental litigation.
"So we can't go that way," he concluded.
Instead, he thought, the key was transparency. If enough people
knew who was spewing what into China's rivers they might be able to
put sufficient pressure on the polluters to shame them into better
'Information is key' to making an impact
"Ma understood that information is key," says Isabel Hilton,
founder of ChinaDialogue, a website focused on Chinese environmental
issues. "He saw that protest without information tends to make
noise, not impact."
Back home, Ma set up a small nonprofit group, the Institute of
Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), and began combing public
records to compile an online database of companies reprimanded for
Those records have been swelled by a 2008 law that compelled
local authorities to disclose pollution information; they do not all
obey that law by any means, but more and more of them are releasing
data that feeds IPE's user-friendly, easily searchable website, Ma
Today the site contains details of 96,000 violations.
Though local and multinational corporations are featured on IPE's
"name and shame" list of violators, it was foreign firms, such as
Panasonic, that reacted fastest, Ma recalls. They came to him to ask
how they could get themselves out of the critical public eye.
"They have much bigger and more valuable brands, and they are
more sensitive to public pressure," Ma points out. That made them
more willing to pay for the changes in the way they disposed of
their waste - verified by an independent environmental auditor -
that were needed for them to get off the list.
Using the buying power of consumers
"He has worked out a subtle and effective engagement with
polluters," Ms. Hilton says. "It's a very constructive engagement."
Chinese firms, though, were mostly unmoved. How could Ma find
their pressure points?
He turned to consumers, leading a group of 41 nongovernmental
organizations in the Green Choice Alliance that campaigned for
shoppers to "pay attention to companies' environmental performance,
and use their buying power to change it. …