The first thing villagers noticed was the mud. Silt gradually thickened the waters of the Chaoshui River, they recalled, and before long fouled the rice paddies that provide them a meager but dependable living here in the rugged hills of central China.

By the beginning of this year, the fish had disappeared and the once-pristine water turned black. Women could no longer do the family laundry along the banks. Then, as the weather warmed this spring, the villagers said, children started coming down with skin rashes after taking a dip.

The reason their river was going bad, the villagers were told, was that scores of mines containing an industrial metal known as molybdenum had started operating in the hills upstream, sending waste down the river. Repeatedly, the villagers complained to county authorities, demanding that the mines be shut down or brought under control. But with mineral prices shooting up, the lure of profits was too much to resist. Thousands of small-scale miners -- some with permits, others sneaking in to work at night -- kept raking the mountainsides for ore and flushing what they did not need into the Chaoshui.

In May, the enraged villagers gave up on the government and decided to organize a raid on the mines. Over several frenzied hours, the wiry villagers used farm tools and their bare hands to destroy more than 200 mining sites, defying a local policeman who tried to rein in their fury.

What was remarkable about the raid was that the village Communist Party secretary and elected village chief declined to intervene, revealing a crack in the iron discipline traditionally enforced by government security organs and the party apparatus.

In the nearby village of Guideng, just three weeks earlier, another mob tore down mining facilities, in this case a pollution-spewing refinery for another metal, vanadium. They also reported passive complicity on the part of the Communist Party secretary and elected leader. And now a group of irate village leaders in this remote region have gone a step further, moving from passive complicity to active support of the peasant cause.

In a rare act of open defiance, the village leaders have joined forces against the central government in an unauthorized organization. They have threatened to resign en masse if authorities fail to take swift action. Unless something is done soon, the leaders said in a protest letter to Premier Wen Jiabao, more peasant violence will follow.

"If the central government cannot solve the problem, we will wait for a little while, and if they still have not solved the problem, we will destroy more of the factories," declared Hua Ruiqi, 55, elected leader of Aimen village.

The two eruptions of peasant violence in the hills near here offer a glimpse of a much larger wave of popular unrest. Thousands of protests break out every year in China's cities and villages, even though such demonstrations are prohibited. The protests have become a major concern for President Hu Jintao's government, which is anxious to prevent them from spreading and undermining stability and, ultimately, the Communist Party's hold on power.

The village party chiefs and elected leaders here have not played their assigned role of enforcing government authority because of a shared outrage that the county and provincial officials charged with protecting the environment have not protected the rivers, peasants said. After one trashing spree, officials from a nearby town even bought lunch for the hungry peasants.

The party chiefs "don't dare" oppose the peasants, said Su Changshen, a 60-year-old farmer who helped tear down a vanadium refining operation that spewed poisonous dust over his village. "This is a farmer's rebellion."

The Price of Growth

These dramatic hills, gashed by deep gorges through which rivers rush down toward the mighty Yangtze, seem like an unlikely site for conflict. About 750 miles southwest of Shanghai, the jagged slopes here have long attracted Chinese rafters and other tourists drawn by natural beauty.

But mining has changed things drastically in the last few years. With China consuming steel at a breakneck pace, the price of minerals has soared. The magnesium, molybdenum and vanadium buried here have sparked the equivalent of a gold rush, bringing economic growth but also pollution. Scores of upstream mining operations send foul waste flowing untreated into the rivers, sullying downstream waters that peasant villages have relied on since ancestral times for drinking, irrigation, fishing and bathing.

The region's main stream, the Qingshui, whose name means "clear water," has in the last three years turned from limpid to oily black. Yellowish foam was seen floating on the surface where the river snakes down from the hills. Local authorities, who test the waters annually, reported the Qingshui contains unhealthy levels of magnesium and chromium.

Hua, the village leader, complained that local officials "only focus on economic growth, not on the quality of people's lives." With a knotted brow and blazing black eyes that make him look permanently angry, Hua is an unusual champion for a challenge to the government. He is a former delegate to the regional People's Congress and People's Political Consultative Conference, the Communist Party's main representative bodies. Beside a little statue of Buddha in his living room, he keeps a photo of Mao Zedong, and he quotes the Communist icon to explain where he finds his support: "All power comes from the people."

Now Hua is defying the party. He has recruited more than 30 other village leaders into an association, prohibited because it has not received approval from the Communist Party. They have named it the Leading Group of 100,000 People Living Along the Qingshui River Protecting Our People's River. Using cell phones, he said, the leaders have kept in touch across county and provincial lines in this area -- called the Golden Triangle because of its precious metals -- where Guizhou, Sichuan and Hunan provinces come together.

Hua said the village leaders formed the group because they had lost faith in the ability and willingness of county and provincial authorities to rein in the highly profitable mining operations. "We appealed to the authorities many times, but we never got a solution," he said.

Hua and about 40 other village leaders lodged their first complaints in 2002, saying the river was turning black and people were getting sick. But Hua recalled that the county leadership was so eager to work with businesses, including miners, to promote economic development that the villagers' pollution concerns were not taken seriously.

Then, as the pollution steadily worsened, about 60 village leaders again went to complain Nov. 9. They demanded to see the county leader, Wan Qingfeng. Wan refused to see them, Hua said, but the director of the local Environmental Protection Administration came out to talk. He conceded the problem was serious but cautioned it would take time to solve.

Frustrated, the village chiefs took up position on the grass in front of county headquarters, refusing to leave. Some called for a 100,000-strong demonstration, which would amount to mobilization of all villagers along the Qingshui. Others urged a joint expedition to destroy the mining operations. But Hua said he counseled patience.

At that point, Ma Jianfeng, the deputy county leader for industrial production, agreed to meet with a few of the angry village chiefs, Hua said. As a result of those talks, six village leaders and several county officials drove off at 9 a.m. the next day to inspect some magnesium mining sites. Of five they visited, Hua said, four were found to be discharging unacceptable levels of waste into the river.

But the county officials said the mines could not be closed without a hearing. In addition, Hua said, they informed village leaders that the county government had given the mining companies a Dec. 31 deadline for cleaning up their operations. In earlier contacts, Hua recalled, the village chiefs had been told of a Sept. 30 deadline, which appeared to have been forgotten.

"We got very angry," he said. "We said, 'It's obvious you are protecting the interests of these businesses and you pay no attention to the interests of the people living along the river. We can't stand this anymore. If you don't close the mining sites today, we are going to destroy them.' "

Suddenly, the county officials changed their minds, and ordered the four offending factories closed, Hua said. But in an effort to show the agitated peasant leaders that the pollution came from elsewhere, they drove upstream to a neighboring county where several factories polluted the waters before they even got to Huayuan.

Wan, the Huayuan county leader, said in a telephone interview that such overlapping jurisdictions have been an obstacle to enforcing antipollution standards. Huayuan has instituted strict rules, he added, forcing mines to comply with antipollution standards by the end of this year. Vanadium factories are banned altogether, he said, and county officials have ordered about 20 blown up.

But Hua and his friends, who have heard such promises before, have almost given up hope. They have stopped petitioning the region's county governments, he said, and now hope their resignation threat will draw the attention of Premier Wen. New elections may come along before anyone actually resigns, Hua acknowledged, and the peasant violence that erupted this spring was not carried out on orders from the Leading Group. But the organization has taken shape, with Hua at the helm, and has resolved to move the struggle to a new front.

A Mysterious Sediment

The 4,000 residents of Guideng village have built their simple homes on a hillside sloping lazily toward the Qingshui River. The river passes through Sichuan and Hunan provinces, including Hunan's Huayuan county, carrying its filth along without regard to jurisdictions.

About 3,000 feet away from Guideng, just above the river on a steep hillside, three vanadium refining factories rose up and started operations at the beginning of April. Their waste, which falls down the hillside in a series of connected basins, ended up in the river upstream from Huayuan.

Villagers said the river-bound runoff was not what got them riled. Rather, it was that the three factories, each with a row of 14 smelting ovens and a brick chimney, sent up a powdery sediment along with their smoke. Villagers said their eyes hurt and their lungs got congested. The sediment, which settled over the farmers' rice paddies and corn plants, turned into a yellow coating when it rained, they complained.

About 100 villagers, upset because chest congestion forced several dozen middle school students to miss classes, marched on the factory soon after it opened. The peasants said the owner, Yang Changjun, promised to pay for any damage to their crops, but reassured them that the smoke and sediment were not harmful.

Doubting his word, the villagers sought out local township officials, who also said the powder was not dangerous. When the villagers protested that people were getting sick, "they didn't pay any attention," recalled Su, the village elder, who has a gray brush cut and a jolly, round face.

At about the same time, Su said, the factory owner hired 10 young men from nearby villages as guards. For extra insurance, he named Chen Shuhua, party secretary of nearby Nong Tang village, as deputy general manager.

About 100 villagers visited the factories a second time on April 19, making threats over the sediment and trading insults with the guards. By then, it was becoming clear something would have to be done. Talk of a raid began.

"I am not going to oppose you if you destroy these factories, but I won't support you, either," the villagers quoted their village head, Liu Qian, as saying during the discussions. Liu declined to be interviewed.

Three days later, at 10 a.m., an estimated 600 farmers from Guideng and neighboring villages joined forces and attacked the factories. Yang, the owner, and his guards hid in their offices, the farmers said, while the farmers picked up whatever tools they could find and tore the refineries apart.

Anger Boils Over

In nearby Xiachaoshui, villagers seethed over the wildcat molybdenum mining operations on the upstream hillsides. The water used to flush out valuable ore, they found out, entered the porous, rocky terrain and seeped into streams that feed the Chaoshui, making the cherished waterway a channel of mud and poisonous chemicals.

Repeated complaints to government officials brought no response, villagers complained. "One month passed, two months passed, half a year passed, and still they did nothing," said Yao Mude, 38. The villagers planned an assault. One of the organizers was Long Tianbao, a former village party secretary and village council member. Another was the town accountant. The current party secretary and council leader stood aside, villagers said.

One villager, who identified himself only by his surname, Yao, said the crowd amounted to about half the village's 1,000 residents by the time it got moving at 10 a.m. on May 9. Nearby villages joined in as people moved toward the mountainside.

The villagers, now amounting to nearly 1,000, rushed into the mining sites shortly before noon, using hammers and shovels to tear down tarpaulin shelters and smash the washing and sifting equipment used to separate molybdenum from the dirt.

As they attacked about 200 mining sites spread over two hillsides, the police chief from the nearby town of Minle, Shi Xiabin, showed up, shouting for them to stop. Yao recalled that he shouted back, "We are helping you guys solve a big problem."

By midafternoon, the destruction stopped, although hundreds of other sites still dotted neighboring hillsides. Tired and still angry, the farmers moved on to Minle, hoping that now their complaints would be taken more seriously.

The farmers told two deputy mayors that more sites would be destroyed unless the mining operations were shut down within a week, Yao recalled. The officials responded by calling the farmers examples of "Three Nothing-Left," an insulting reference to Japanese soldiers during World War II whose policy, Chinese say, was "kill until nothing is left, burn until nothing is left and loot until nothing is left."

By the end of a long shouting match, however, the officials said they understood the farmers' anger. As a sign of solidarity, they offered to use the town anti-poverty fund to finance a late lunch. The farmers, hungry after a long day of trashing the mining operations, readily agreed. They dispersed to several restaurants, they said, where about 500 in all sat down to eat on town hall's tab.

Researcher Jin Ling contributed to this report.

Hua Ruiqi, 55, complains that the Qingshui River, whose name means "clear water," has turned black because of pollution from mining operations.

A villager in Xiachaoshui, who identified himself only by his surname, Yao, explains the assault on hillside mining sites.