Before detailing my new rural farming adventures (I’ve scheduled my first one for the National Day holiday week of October 1-7) , I’m going to try to provide a better context on what I’m doing and why through my 2010 rural farm visits.
Technically, these began in July when I spent three weeks volunteering with an environmental NGO, Global Village of Beijing (GVB) on a rural mountaintop outside Chengdu in Sichuan province.
As I was reviewing my field notes from GVB, I remembered that I left there feeling I did not have a clear picture of all the contributions the NGO had made to the local community, and I would mostly attribute this to my insufficient language skills.
Nevertheless, I can say that the NGO gives 49% of their yearly profits to be split among residents in the village. I heard that they played a role in helping families rebuild their homes after the 2008 earthquake that destroyed much of the village, and that the new homes were designed to withstand another earthquake while integrating more local, sustainable materials and designs. I also heard from a university student who was visiting the NGO that after the earthquake hit a lot of people had to leave their houses and lost their means of livelihood– many of them were living in temporary housing at the base of the mountain where the government had relocated them because these residents couldn’t afford to build new houses up on the mountain. He said these people (I believe he was referring to the people that rebuilt their homes on the mountain) now only make money from one crop, so he and his classmates were designing a social enterprise for the community members to take over.
I later asked another volunteer why some people on the mountain were able to get new houses while others could not, and he said some families were relatively wealthy because of huanglian, a medicinal crop that can be harvested for about 20,000 RMB ($3,268) per acre. These people were able to build new houses that cost around 150,000 ($24,515) RMB. Meanwhile, the people that were relocated down the mountain and living in temporary government housing were those that couldn’t afford to rebuild their houses.
At the time of my visit GVB had finished with development and had moved on to hosting trainings and tours to the village to promote environmental protection and sustainable rural development more broadly across China, particularly to university students and other NGOs. The woman that started the NGO, Liao Xiao-yi, has received international accolades as an environmental activist, no easy feat in a country that does not encourage activism.
Through another volunteer I also learned that in China the government sucks up a lot of money intended for NGOs and grassroots organizations because the large foundations like the Red Cross are required to pass all their donations through the government, and without oversight no one really knows what happens to the money– it doesn’t go to the small organizations.
At one point, I heard from another volunteer at GVB that the NGO did not have a good relationship with the local government because it had helped to close down a local mine that some of the local officials used to work for. If true (I did not confirm with a third party), this reflects an important concept in China: power and policy are not exerted and enforced in a simple top-down chain of command. Rather, they are more cyclical and also depend on informal connections (I’ll give more examples of this later). I am guessing that the NGO’s national recognition, and especially Liao Xiao-yi’s connections (I mentioned before that she was the Green Ambassador to the 2008 Olympics) may have provided some leverage over the local government that perhaps enabled them to close the mine despite local official disapproval.
One day, one of our chores was to squeeze the juice out of pickled cabbage and then lay it out to dry. We began this by squeezing out the cabbage by hand (which was going to take all day) until one clever staff member realized that we could put it in the washing machine on the spin cycle.
Another task for the volunteers was to teach the local kids a song in English about recycling so they could perform it during community-wide presentations that were held when groups of tourists came to visit:
There is metal
There is glass
There is paper
There is plastic
We pick up the trash
And throw it away
In the trashcan
After one presentation, Liao Xiao-yi became quite upset with the volunteers (there were about five of us), and said that we should be using our afternoon ‘summer camp’ to prepare the kids for these performances, and that from then on that was how the summer camp needed to be utilized (we had also been using it to play games and teach English/culture lessons). She said that the year before there was only one person running the camp and the performances were still so much better. So we had a pow-wow and one of the volunteers came up with an alternative and more challenging song to teach them, here’s an excerpt:
The forest is a habitat
A very special habitat
It’s where a bear can scratch it’s back
It keeps the ground from rolling back
Renews the oxygen, in fact
The forest is a habitat that we depend on.
However, the next morning Liao Xiao-yi became upset with us again, saying that we shouldn’t change the song because there wasn’t enough time to teach a new one. A few of the volunteers, including myself, were relegated to weeding the fields while the others went back to teaching the kids the recycling song.
It was in the fields that I met Peng, the manager of the NGO’s crops. While we weeded, I asked him questions about rural land-use, like how the land lease and land exchange system works in China. I was especially curious about a 2008 policy that would allow farmers to directly transfer their land-use rights between each other, rather than having to go through local officials. I had heard the officials were notorious for buying land-use rights from farmers for cheap and then selling the rights at auction for a large profit.
He said that farmers can transfer the land leases themselves, but most farmers would rather hang onto their land so they can go back to it. There is often a set market value for land decided by the government, but at auction the land will be sold for much more than that value.
I asked what would be the reason a person would decide to transfer their land-use rights or keep them, and he said that if a family doesn’t need the land to subsist they would sell their land-use rights, but if the family needs the land to make a living they will hold onto their rights. He later told me that the land the NGO has now used to belong to a group of farmers from the mountain, but GVB now just pays a yearly amount to these farmers to use it instead.
While working alongside Peng, I learned that his village was decimated during the earthquake, and in the aftermath when many of the men were hired on reconstruction projects outside the village, Peng paid a woman from a neighboring village to come and train the women in his village in the art of a making traditional embroidered handicrafts. He paid all of the women’s salaries, and then bought everything they produced and took the products to Beijing to try and sell. But in the end he was unable to afford the rent of the shop in Beijing, and returned to Sichuan to work at GVB without having recovered much of his investment.
Peng was already planning on going back to visit his parents later that week, and after becoming friends we made plans to go back together so he could show me his village first-hand and give me some of his surplus products to take back and try to sell in the US.
That’s all for now– I’ll detail my Aba adventure in my next post!