Late last month, as dusk fell on Maji, a proposed dam site, the sound of explosions echoed through the valley as workers, toiling around the clock, blasted test holes deep into canyon walls.
Li Jiawang, 33, a laborer, said engineers were still trying to determine whether the rock was strong enough to support a dam about 70m high.
Huadian did not respond to interview requests, nor did the Ministry of Water Resources. However, word that the project is moving forward has already drawn large numbers of outsiders, threatening to upend the delicate patchwork of ethnic populations.
Hong Feng, 45, a migrant from Hunan Province who recently opened up a roadside shop near Maji, said that most of his customers were dam workers from other parts of China.
“We’re here to make our fortune and then we’ll leave,” he said.
Most of the estimated 60,000 people who are likely to be displaced from the flooded, fertile lowlands do not have that option. They are largely subsistence farmers and with nearly every level patch of land spoken for, many will be relocated to dense housing complexes like the one in New Xiaoshaba, a 124-unit project begun before the dam project was suspended.
“We used to grow so many watermelons we couldn’t eat them all, but now we have to buy everything,” said Li Tian, 25, a member of the Lisu ethnic group whose family was evicted from their land and who now works part-time in a walnut processing plant.
While local leaders have been tight-lipped about relocation plans, they have worked hard in recent years to cast the project as a gift that will alleviate poverty in one of China’s poorest regions.
However, Yu Shangping, 26, a farmer in Chala, a picturesque jumble of wooden houses hard by the Nu, objects to the notion that he and his neighbors are impoverished, saying the land and the river provide for nearly all their needs.
“We’ve worked hard to build this place, but when the government wants to construct a dam, there’s nothing you can do about it,” he said.