Last week I had the privilege of attending a showing of Waking the Green Tiger: A Green Movement Rises in China, a documentary film about the environmental movement in China, focusing on protests surrounding the building of a dam on the Tiger Leaping Gorge, on the Upper Yangtze River in southwestern China.

The film tells the story of the movement through the eyes of activists, locals, journalists, and the former director of China’s Environmental Protection Agency, Qu Geping. Gary Marcuse, the director and producer of the film, did an outstanding job capturing both the future potential and the history of environmentalism in China, including archival footage from the reign of Chairman Mao.

Chairman Mao came to power with dramatic ideas for propelling development, convinced that man must conquer nature. Archival footage shows crowds of Chinese citizens being mobilized to bang pots, wave red banners, and make other forms of ruckus to force sparrows to fly all day. Fields where the birds might find refuge were laced with poisons, a trap leading to an agonizing death. The effort, however, would backfire: without sparrows to eat them, small insects thrived and destroyed millions of acres of crops, contributing to a decade-long famine and the deaths of tens of millions of people.

It wasn’t until 2004, with the passage of a new environmental law that allowed citizens to take part in government decisions, that China’s environmental movement really took hold. It was in this context that protests against the Tiger Leaping Gorge dam, and other dams along the Nu and Yangtze rivers, took place.

Shi Lihong, one of the environmental activists featured in the film, interviews people whose lives have been impacted by existing dams. Citizens evicted by one dam project on the Nu told Shi Lihong that the government had promised them they would receive compensation, and that their relocation would be temporary. Twenty years later, however, their homes, farmlands, and way of life remain submerged under water, the government compensation no longer covering their costs of food. Some resort to digging through trash piles for sustenance. Shi Lihong recorded these testimonies and showed them to villagers on the Tiger Leaping Gorge, strengthening their resolve to stop the planned dam.

In 2007, after a strong local and international campaign, construction of the dam at Tiger Leaping Gorge was cancelled. In the film, Qu Geping, the former chairman of China’s Environment & Resources Protection Committee, showed enthusiasm for the growing environmental movement in China, as well as for recent laws requiring environmental impact assessments, public participation, and protections for displaced persons.

Waking the Green Tiger captures the excitement of grassroots campaigners tirelessly fighting to protect human rights and the environment. It is a celebration of the movement’s progress in China, and a reminder of the importance of this work. However, there is still a long way to go to ensure human rights and environmental responsibility in China, and throughout Southeast Asia. In the past year we’ve written about the successful campaign to stop the Myitsone Dam in Burma, and the controversial Xayaburi Dam on the Mekong River, which is now on hold pending an independent impact assessment. Protests are also ongoing in Burma against the building of the Tamanthi dam, which could permanently displace an estimated 45,000 people and flood the habitats of several endangered species. The stakes are high, and the enthusiasm depicted in Waking the Green Tiger must be sustained, in China and beyond.