02/12/2015, 00.00
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China's first lawsuit for environmental damage goes to court

A lawsuit has been filed in Fujian against four mining executives accused of clearing a mountaintop to extract granite. Amended anti-pollution legislation now allows NGOs to file complaints in favour of the environment. Activists are satisfied but several problems remain, first of all, how to determine which complaints can be accepted and which should be rejected.

Beijing (AsiaNews) - A court in Fujian, a province in southern China, is prepared to hear a case against four Chinese mining executives accused of destroying a stretch of forest.

This is shaping up to be a major test case for China's strengthened environmental law and an indicator of the ability of environmental groups to make companies more accountable for their actions. At the same time, environmental activists, who acted within a new environmental law, have sparked a public debate.

The company in question has been accused of clearing hectares of forest to extract granite, and its trial is considered a test case because of the new anti-pollution regulations, much touted by the authorities.

Under the 2013 environmental protection legislation, the government can impose the death penalty in the most serious cases. However, in its original version, only the All-China Environment Federation, a body controlled by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, could file complaints.

Following amendments that came into effect on 1 January 2015, upheld by the Constitutional Court, such a restriction was removed, allowing environmentalists to sue polluters. In the Fujian case, two NGOs, the Friends of Nature and the Fujian Green Home, are the plaintiffs.

According to some analysts, this is due to the fact that since June 2013 (when the new law came into effect), no environmental investigations have been undertaken. Hence, worried by growing environmental protests, the government was forced to be more forthcoming.

Liu Xiang, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said he expected the Hulu Mountain lawsuit to be heard. The case involves miners who had the mountaintop cleared to extract granite without a license and without consideration for any impact on the environment or farmland.

The plaintiffs, who sued the executives under amendments to the environmental protection law that took effect on 1 January, are demanding they fund restoration of the forest to its natural state.

Three of the mining executives were jailed last year for between 14 and 18 months after being convicted of illegally occupying agricultural land. Little is known of the fourth.

The All-China Environment Federation has welcomed the investigation. "We have a good starting point now. I can use (this law) as a tool to exercise my right of oversight," said Ma Yong, Federation's deputy director.

However, not everyone shares such optimism. "The fundamental problem is how to make the courts stop being selective about what cases they accept," said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a NGO. "In terms of using the judiciary to solve China's environmental problems, we still have a long way to go."

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