Worldview: A green movement grows in rural China

Organic farming practices could help stem pollution.

China 2010

By Trudy Rubin

May 20, 2010

Appeared in The Philadelpia Inquirer

Gao Hai, a former Shanghai disc jockey who returned to Anlong village to grow - and cook - organic produce. (photo: Trudy Rubin)

ANLONG, China - This small village on the Zouma River - inside the municipal boundaries of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province - is the site of a fascinating effort to fight one of China's biggest problems: the dangerous levels of pollution in its rivers and streams.

"In the last 30 years, China's economic miracle has helped pull millions from poverty, but has put tremendous pressure on its ecosystems," said Ma Jun, whose 1999 book China's Water Crisis has been compared to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. "Sixty percent of our rivers are polluted," and "300 million rural residents have no clean drinking water."

China's leadership has recognized the problem and adopted new regulations on industrial and agricultural pollution. But that doesn't guarantee that all local officials - let alone polluters - will follow the rules.

That's why some government officials, hard-pressed to meet the new standards, may support Chinese nongovernmental organizations that work to clean up the environment. And that's how I came to be hurtling down a country road to look at a project run by the Chengdu Urban Rivers Association, or CURA, which works to convince the public of the need to save the rivers.

I have a special interest in this area. On my first trip to China, in 1986, I visited a village outside Chengdu shortly after communist communes had been disbanded, freeing peasants to farm on their own. Now the farmers are making the water problem worse.

"Half of our problem is agricultural pollution," said Tian Jun, CURA's energetic general secretary, who formerly worked for the government on projects to treat two terribly polluted rivers running through Chengdu. Despite progress, officials faced a continuing problem of runoff from chemical pesticide used by farmers living upstream from Chengdu.

So Tian left government and helped form CURA to try to strengthen environmental awareness in the rural communities living on waterways that feed the city's rivers. The group received support from Chengdu's mayor and about $14,000 in seed money contributed by local real estate developers who didn't want Chengdu's rivers to be smelly. (It now receives support from other individual donors, a Hong Kong NGO, and the local government.)

The group focused on Anlong and two adjacent villages, which form a collection of whitewashed bungalows - with concrete floors, tile roofs, modest furnishings, and indoor toilets - dispersed among trees and riverside farmland. Their goal: to end the farmers' "addiction" to chemical fertilizers and encourage organic farming. They also wanted to promote an alternative energy cycle in which farmers would use human and animal waste to produce methane gas for cooking (heating huge woks from below), as well as for fertilizer.

The going was rough: 100 families (out of 1,000 in a three-village cluster) are now using biogas, but only four of the 20 families who tried organic farming are still committed to it. The reason: Organic farming is more labor-intensive, and the land takes three to five years to recover from chemical fertilizers, meaning farmers' incomes drop in the short term.

But conversations with the organic farmers give insights into rural life and values. In the Gao family, daughter Qing Rong, who returned home after 10 years as a migrant factory worker, says her new work gives her "more dignity." She is reading a Chinese translation of Silent Spring.

Her brother, Gao Hai, a former disc jockey in Shanghai, cooked up an organic feast for journalists from the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies' International Reporting Project: several varieties of greens, celery with vegetarian "pork," potato puree, squash, long green beans, and luscious tea made with lemongrass and peppermint - all picked that day.

When asked whether she minded earning less, the Gaos' mother, Li Zhilan, responded: "We don't think about this. We think organic food is good for us to eat, good for the soil, and good for the people who eat what we grow."

And the Gaos' income is increasing: They deliver their organic produce directly to 150 families in the city, in a van labeled with huge Chinese characters that read: "No chemical fertilizers or pesticides, everything is healthy." If Chengdu starts a farmers' market or its trendy restaurants go organic, demand could increase.

Tian Jun hopes CURA can promote this model to other areas and develop a "river protection belt." Officials from other towns have already come to examine the project.

Anlong is a special case, helped by an energetic NGO, and it's not clear that it can be widely replicated. But CURA's experiment gives a glimpse of what happens when Chinese officials let local energies, and NGOs, flourish. And it's a reminder of how far China has come since my first visit, 24 years ago.

Trudy Rubin is the foreign affairs columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Rubin traveled to China on an IRP Gatekeepers trip organized by the International Reporting Project.