Along with its distribution of microloans, ARDY invests considerable effort into education initiatives to improve the economic capacity of Yilong’s peasants. The organization is currently preparing to pilot a partnership with the “Yilong County Practical Techniques Training School” 仪陇县实用技术培训学校, a Jincheng-based education center that receives funding from the Chinese government to provide free training to local peasants on agricultural best-practices. Once again, its long history in the area and its close relationship with local residents would allow ARDY to serve as a platform for other development organizations to more effectively reach out to the community.
Last week, a number of ARDY staff accompanied the director of the school on a visit to the homes of several peasants near the ARDY branch office of Dingziqiao 丁字桥. The peasants had planted fruit trees on their property as part of a Chinese government reforestation initiative (In Chinese called “退耕还林”) that was launched 8-9 years ago. Farmers were supplied with tree saplings and are given a yearly subsidy to plant them and allow some of their land to grow as forest rather than to farm it. In some counties, peasants were supplied with more durable, non fruit-bearing trees. However, in recognition of the scarcity of tillable land in Yilong and the extreme poverty of the residents, Yilong peasants were supplied with fruit trees instead with the hope that the forestation project could still yield them some additional income. However, the saplings were distributed without adequate training for the proper care and use of the trees, most of which were not native to Yilong and thus outside the peasants’ own agricultural expertise.
The peasants that we visited had been supplied with pomelo trees. A pomelo is a large citrus, similar to a grapefruit, which is grown in some parts of Southern China and imported from Thailand but is not native to Yilong County. At one farm we visited, several dozen pomelo trees were interspersed throughout the family’s sweet potato field.
“I can see three major mistakes that have been made in the care for these trees,” the director of the education center said after examining the plants for only a few minutes. “You have allowed these trees to grow much too tall. These trees should only be allowed to grow as tall as a person, and then you must continually trim them to keep them at that height. Also, by not trimming them, you have allowed the trees to grow to close together, and they are now blocking one another’s sunlight.” Lastly, pointing to leaves ridden with holes, he explained that they had not adequately kept insects and other pests away from the trees. The director concluded that this peasant’s trees, which were 7-8 years old, and thus past the period in their lifespan in which they could bear fruit, could not be saved.
Beyond the simple lack of training, other obstacles have impeded the success of pomelo and other fruit trees distributed by the government initiative. While Yilong’s peasants are used to a set of traditional crops which yield a harvest within only a few months, many of the fruit trees that were distributed must be tended for two to three years before they even start to bear fruit. For the vast segment of the population here that faces a daily struggle to make ends meet, three years is a long time to wait for returns. “The peasants here have a limited amount of patience,” explained the director.
This policy demonstrates both the extreme potential and major shortcomings of environmental protection policy in China. With far more centralized control than most Western governments and a vast supply of resources at its disposal, the government has the ability to enact massive policy initiatives quickly. Though the government has only begun to prioritize environmental protection in the last decade, some of its initiatives have already yielded substantial results. The vegetation coverage on land too steep to cultivate in Yilong, which had reached a low point of 20%, has in the last decade doubled to 40%.
However, policies like the reforestation project are only effective if the full impact on the lives of local inhabitants are fully considered. In the case of the pomelo trees, “both sides were only thinking about the problem from their own perspective,” explained Gao Xiangjun. “The government thought only about how it could increase the tree cover in the western provinces, while peasants are, as always, concerned only with how to get their next meal.” In this case, the government did not fully contemplate the full cost of implementing the policy. Simply distributing the physical capital, in this case tree saplings, was inadequate without a commensurate investment of education to train peasants to care for the trees properly.