Mar. 23, 2023
China Environmental NGOs in Paris (IV)

The Rhone at the foot of the Alps

Source: Green Earth Volunteers
Author: Wang Yongchen

On October 27, 2011, the group of Chinese environmental NGOs went from Paris to Lyon by train. For the first stop, we are going to visit Lyon’s Environmental Protection Agency, where we will learn how the vertical management structure of the French Environmental Protection Ministry works; after that we will visit a civil environmental protection organization. This organization’s current work, protecting their home river the Rhone, is similar to what we at Green Earth Volunteers do. 

Bank of River Rhone in Lyon

The Square of Lyon

In the commercial street of Lyon

Lyon's mother river

Lyon's river is wide and undulating

At the EPA in Lyon, we listened attentively to how big the scope of their own jurisdiction is within the larger administration. When we visited Lyon's civil environment protection organization, Rhone Green Home, we had a taste of how their civil environment protection education and work operate. They are trying to find a reason for a clear river existing in a large metropolis.

Environmental education

Regarding how central government's policies operate locally, Mr. Schneider , who is in charge of the Rhone and Alps region in Lyon explained the following to us.

Under the French central government, there are 20 regions, 100 provinces and 37,000 cities and towns. In the region of Rhone and Alps, there are 8 provinces, with 60 million people, taking up 10% of the whole French population.

There are a total of 700 people working at the EPA in the region of Rhone and Alps. Their basic work is collecting all kinds of information, supplying it to the public, cooperating and operating and building cooperative relationships with third parties.

What do local EPAs coordinate? The EPAs need to coordinate the countries, places, enterprises,
associations and labor unions which were included in the Grenelle Environment agreement formulated in 2007, while also being directly controlled by the state. The national government supervises the local. The administrative courts handle any problems that arise.  Non-governmental organizations can also appeal to the administrative court. Five-party governance is completely based on democratic decisions.

Mr. Schneider explained to us the measures they take to coordinate with these parties.

First, there is public debate. The public debate committee is an independent organization. Major projects need to have a public debate. Projects that involve more than 150 million euros are called major projects (the Chinese Environmental Impact Assessment Law stipulates that projects costing more than 200 million RMB need a state hearing. Since the formal implementation of this law in September 2003, only one hearing has been conducted, this being the reconstruction of the lakebed in the Old Summer Palace in Beijing. Each construction project that reaches the amount above needs to apply to the government to hold a debate with several groups of specialists. After receiving the application, a special council will be set up responsible for this debate.
People working in such a council should not have any connections with the project. They should also have various backgrounds. If senior members put forward my name to participate in the council, then the committee will review their qualifications according to standards set by the proprietors' material, oftentimes participants volunteer to participate. Sometimes a special website is set up for an online debate. Another method is sending a questionnaire to residents, lasting four to six months. After the debate, the council needs to make a summary of the public opinion. Afterwards, the project owners have three months to consider whether to carry out the project. Public debate takes a long time and this is the reason why the European GDP rises so slowly.

Secondly, there is public inquiry. The French government has a regulation that if a new project is about to be undertaken, it is necessary to consult the public. Public inquiry is divided into two types:

When a public inquiry is needed, the first thing to do is to find someone responsible for this undertaking. A willing citizen is appointed and supervised by the court, their responsibility is to guarantee all proceedings follow the law.

The person responsible for the inquiry needs to summarize the public's opinions. Based on the suggestions proposed, related government organs will then make decisions. Most of the time, objections are raised, the project then will be given up or re-examined, after re-examination, public inquiry is still necessary like before.

Now there are thousands of public inquiries each year in France. The level of participation depends on the sensitivity of the project. For example, in the summer of 2011, a stadium was about to be constructed in Lyon, and many people participated in the inquiry.

It is necessary to follow up on project implementation, mainly to see if the project's promises have been fulfilled. The method of follow-up varies and the follow-up is usually organized by the local government. In France, these follow-ups also have laws to abide by.

After the project is finished, an assessment is undertaken which not only looks at the environmental impact, but also at the economic impact of the project.
Mr. Schneider says, in France, public interests are above personal interests. The person who suffers damages is protected, not compensated. Everybody would rather see a new chemical plant in someone else's backyard, not in their own. There must be arbitration that considers the public interest.
In our Q & A session, the following questions came up: How to deal with households that resist eviction? What about historical sites? In France, because of legal proceedings, those matters will be decided on by a judge. There are heritage protection laws, which protect an area of 500 meters from the monument. Pollution and illegal discharge certainly exist, but are rare because of police surveillance.

Rhone Green Home in Lyon was set up 15 years ago. There are now 31 small associations under it, 400 individual members, of which 15 are paid employees and the rest volunteers. Its mission is to protect nature, including the Rhone and biological diversity in the Alps.  Furthermore, this association also aims to protect ancient buildings.
Their environment protection is divided in the following branches: environmental education, animal and plant research, the environment and health, introductory classes about the environment for primary and secondary school.
One method is hiking, finding insects, counting their numbers, picking up and separating litter and monitoring water pollution. They also use media to assist their promotion, they have a website, newsletters and organize relevant exhibitions.

Rhone Green Home is also engaged in several public policies, especially those regarding the study and promotion of biological diversity. In 2010 it led to a new agreement: no longer can people use public funds for activities that lead to the deterioration of biological diversity. They work together with many local government departments hoping to influence policy-making.

Funding of the Rhone Green Home is public money. Agreements made with local governments, regional councils, community councils, or even smaller departments, usually involve a three-year project. The operation costs of these projects are provided by the local governments.

A member of the Rhone Green House staff said that nowadays the Rhone has been changed a lot by mankind and no longer is a wild river. There are still many dams, also some channels, so it can not be restored to a natural river. Protecting the surrounding forest is the organization's main work now. In the locality, there are many publicity activities, river protection agreements and education directed at the public.

In Lyon, civil environmental protection organizations also participate in the monitoring of nuclear power plants and dams. In France, water is graded. It is forbidden to build dams in places with fish or sensitive water. Chemical plants are also under strict surveillance. Pollution caused by deposition in the riverbed over a long time is now being dealt with in stages.

Of course, people in Lyon are not perfect either. Civil environmental protection organizations require strict supervision from the local government to avoid shirking of responsibilities. In addition, they have regular meetings with the environmental protection bureau, presenting problems so the bureau can respond.

After the visit to the environmental NGOs in Lyon

Translation group: Laurens Bistervels, May Yunna, Susan Li, and Yang Xiaoyuan