New law invigorates China's environmental NGOs

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China's new environment law encourages non-government organizations (NGOs) to file suit against environmental destruction, but enforcement and litigation costs remain grey areas.

The revised Environmental Protection Law adopted on Thursday takes effect on Jan. 1, 2015, and allows qualified NGOs to take legal action in environmental matters of public interest.

"It's heartening news for us," said Wen Yu, executive director of Green Hunan, an organization protecting water resources in the Xiangjiang River Basin in the central province of Hunan.

The group operates through education and public awareness but could soon make use of legal alternatives. When government or enterprises fail to protect the environment, NGOs should bring them to court, in the public interest. "Just telling people about environmental problems is not enough. They need legal remedies," Wen said.

Green Hunan is among over 300 NGOs empowered by the revised law. Environmental organizations registered with a civil affairs bureau at municipal level or above, which have been operating for at least five years, can initiate public interest litigation.

The new law imposes heavier punishment on polluters, but will it be enough to repair the damage done by decades of reckless development?

Legal basis

In China, environmental disputes are normally resolved through administrative means rather than in the courts. Court proceedings are usually bitter and long, according to Ma Yong of the All-China Federation on Environmental Protection, a government organization.

An environmental case requires professional knowledge and lots of time and money. It is very difficult for individuals, said Li Bo, formerly of Friends of Nature (FON).

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