Posted on January 10, 2018 by Robert Percival

The initial email, quickly skimmed, had hallmarks of spam – words like “royal palace” and “100,000 Euros”.  But the attached letter of invitation contained wonderful news.  The Dutch royal family’s Prince Claus Fund had selected Chinese environmentalist Ma Jun to receive its top award. They wanted me to prepare a tribute to him for inclusion in the official awards book and to be their guest at the presentation at the Royal Palace in Amsterdam.

I first met Ma Jun after I gave a talk in Beijing in 2009.  Astonishingly, he asked me to autograph the fourth edition of my casebook Environmental Regulation: Law, Science & Policy. When I asked why, he declared that “page 438 changed my life.”  That was the portion of the book where material on the U.S.’s Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) began. Ma Jun was so impressed by the EPCRA’s Toxics Release Inventory that he vowed to create a website providing the Chinese public with similar information.  But he did not stop there.  He created apps that enabled the public to use their cellphones to access real time information on air and water quality in more than one hundred Chinese cities. 

In a country that at the time lacked express legal authorization for citizen suits, Ma Jun grasped the power of information to mobilize public demand for environmental protection.  He founded an NGO called the Institute for Environmental and Public Affairs (IPE) that quickly became a major force in China’s environmental movement.  Working with a coalition of NGOs, Ma Jun launched audits of the Chinese supply chains of major multinational electronics companies to assess their compliance with environmental and labor laws.  The results of these audits helped convince Apple to agree to regular, independent audits of it Chinese suppliers, the results of which now are presented annually in the company’s Supplier Responsibility Reports.

Another brilliant project that Ma Jun pursued jointly with NRDC’S Beijing Office was to publish annual ratings of China’s 120 largest cities reflecting how well local governments comply with requests for environmental information under China’s Open Information Law. This Pollution Information Transparency Index (PITI) has become a powerful tool for encouraging compliance with the law.  IPE and NRDC frequently hear from local officials in China who want to improve their ratings, much as U.S. universities scramble to increase their annual standings in the U.S. News rankings.

The Prince Claus Fund, named for the late husband of former Queen Beatrix, is funded in part through the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It also made awards to other social and cultural innovators. These included Brazilian filmmaker Vincent Carelli, a champion of indigenous tribes, scientist Brigitte Baptiste, who is working to protect post-conflict areas in Colombia, Burkino Faso architect Diébédo Francis Kéré, who designs green buildings for African villages, Khadija Al-Salami, who champions women’s rights in Yemen, and Indian artist Amar Kanwar. It was inspiring to get to meet these heroes during the ceremony at the Royal Palace and to learn more about their work helping to build a better world in all corners of the planet. 

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