Archive for the ‘Rural Development’ Category

Bringing Microfinance Technology to the Countryside

November 30, 2010

 

ARDY staff members check the new digital loan records against paper backup records

The ARDY office is all abuzz this month about an impending switch to a completely new software system to manage all of the organization’s microfinance data. A representative from a Sino-German microfinance consultant, based in Beijing, as well as from a Nepal-based software distributor, are both spending the month in Jincheng to oversee the switch and train the staff on the new system’s operation. The new software, called Microbanker, is a powerful example of international development collaboration. It was originally developed by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Asia division, in Bangkok, in collaboration with the German technology firm GTZ. Microbanker of Nepal, the nearest distributor, has successfully installed the software in 37 different countries.

 

The software has the potential to dramatically increase the efficiency of ARDY’s operations as well as make future expansion and modification of the model much faster and cheaper. While each of ARDY’s branches currently manages the data for its own set of loans entirely locally, making it impossible to access that data from the central branch or from other branches, the new system will connect each branch to an internal network to make all of the organization’s loan data accessible from anywhere.

So good so far, right? Of course, installing an entirely new software system on computers spread out throughout seven different remote towns in mountainous rural China is easier said than done. Observing this process of bringing state-of-the-art technology into rural China, and many tiny snags encountered along the way, has been an interesting experience.

The installation process is an interesting case study in international cooperation. The two Nepalese consultants learned fluent English from a young age, and need the Chinese consultant from Beijing, who speaks good English, to communicate with the ARDY staff. It has been gratifying to feel useful as a miscellaneous interpreter when the official translator is busy.

 

Mcgyvering a power strip

A couple of weeks ago I travelled with the outside consultants to the Yong Le branch and watched as they connected the branch’s computers into the new software network. Before long, the tiny concrete storefront was bristling with extra wires and Ethernet cables. Luckily, there was a clever local solution for organizing the wires; one of the loan officers disappeared and returned with a plain length of steel pipe, into which all of the wires were threaded. When the wire on the surge protector they were using proved too short to fit through the wire, the loan officer vanished again and returned with a longer wire, then proceeded to take the surge protector apart, strip the insulation of both ends of the new wire and put the surge protector back together with the new, longer wire.

 

Though all of the hardware was finally assembled around noon, when the consultants opened the program they were unable to raise a signal from the main server that they had installed at ARDY headquarters in Jincheng. “We usually don’t get internet around noon,” the Yongle loan officer explained. “It comes on again after about an hour, around 1pm. The same thing happens from 6-7pm.” None of them had any reason why this was the case.

 

Forrest Zheng, a consultant from Beijing, and Ajay Shrestha, a representative from a Nepal-based microfinance software distributor, hook up the new server at the ARDY branch in Fuxing

On the first day of installing the new software at the branch office in the town of Fuxing, the staff stayed up late, scrambling to finish the initial data migration before the next morning. “They’re turning the power off tomorrow morning,” a Fuxing loan officer told me, “we have to get all of the new data in before then.”

 

These types of obstacles are rarely predictable, and are the inevitable result of dealing with the idiosyncrasies of a rural setting like Yilong. Watching the installation process has been, for me, a powerful reminder that rural development is inherently an unpredictable and dynamic field.

 

Wokai Blog: Can Peasants Manage Their Own Microloans? Microfinance as Local Capacity Building

November 23, 2010

The Association for the Rural Development of Yilong County has established a proven and reliable system for effectively distributing and managing its own micro-loans to local peasants. In the last several years, however, ARDY has also demonstrated that distributing microfinance management responsibilities to peasants themselves can help to build local capacity and encourage a greater degree of financial independence in rural communities.

Since 2006 ARDY has been supporting the creation Rural Mutual Cooperative Associations (RMCA) in villages throughout Yilong, which support economic independence by fostering cooperation among village residents. Each RMCA operates a “village fund,” comprised of villager contributions matched by ARDY itself and by the local government, which it uses to distribute its own microloans to residents of the village. Similar to each ARDY loan branch, each village fund has three managers, which are chosen for three-year terms from among the village by democratic vote. These village funds then grant their own microfinance loans to residents of the village. Through allowing peasants to administer the lending process themselves, ARDY helps to slowly foster their own financial management skills and to increase their economic independence. All members of the village fund must undergo certain financial training sessions provided by ARDY, with village fund managers undergoing special additional training.

The members of each village fund meet to determine their own regulations and bylaws, which often vary slightly from ARDY’s official lending policies. Many of the village funds lend at 9% or 8% interest, less than the 10% rate at which ARDY itself lends, and some require only one repayment a month, while ARDY requires repayment every two weeks. The managers of each fund then receive loan applications themselves and do the follow-up research on each applicant’s character and economic background. Following their approval each applicant is brought to a vote before the full membership of the cooperative at their monthly meeting. The villagers are entirely responsible for the results of their own financial management. The profits garnered from interest collection each year are distributed among all of the shareholders, and in the event of a default the fund is responsible for diverting some of its profits to cover the lost funds.

While ARDY played a major role in establishing the funds and setting up the management structure, the goal is to create a system which the peasants themselves are personally and financially invested in, so they will take responsibility for its management. The villager’s own personal contribution to the fund helps to incentivize their continued participation in its management. In the meeting that establishes a village fund, villagers discuss and agree on which families are too poor to be able to support a 500RMB contribution. In the first few iterations of the project, the contributions of these especially poor families were completely covered by ARDY. However, it was discovered that peasants who had made no contribution were unlikely to show up to meetings and other activities related to the village fund; with none of their own money invested in the project, they had little motivation to spend the time to be involved in it. In the new village cooperatives being set up this year, even especially poor families are required to make a contribution of 200 RMB, so that they have some incentive to participate in the project and follow their money.

Communicating this concept of personal responsibility to village fund participants sometimes requires some patience. At a recent training session for managers of RMCAs in the town of Dingziqiao, one peasant manager complained to ARDY director Gao Xiangjun that the fund had distributed loans more quickly than expected and was running low on liquid reserves. Mrs. Gao replied that there was nothing she could do. Every time you have problems you come running to me! This is your village, and it’s your village’s money…this isn’t “Director Gao tells you how to solve your problems,” this is “you figure out how to solve your own problems.”

While this type of financial responsibility is a new experience for villagers, ARDY has found that, when left to their own devices, villagers generate their own creative solutions to the problems they face. In particular, the strong cohesion of each village community plays a major role in enforcing loan repayment. I learned about this principle during a visit a few weeks ago to the rural fund in the village of Chajiaping 察家坪, when I asked the rural fund managers how they would respond if a borrower failed to meet repayments. Late payments are followed up by a phone call to the borrower to remind and urge them to repay. If the borrower gave no response within two days, then the loan officers, along with several of the borrower’s neighbors, would descend on their house. “The money they borrow is the town’s money,” the manager explained to me, “it belongs to all of us.” This awareness creates a strong enough social pressure on the borrower that almost always is enough to convince them to find a way to repay. “If they failed to pay back the loan then they would still have to continue to live next to the people who had loaned them the money.”

Gao Xiangjun once related to me a story from the early days of one of the village funds, when the villagers encountered a particularly stubborn borrower. The village managers and several other neighbors arrived at the peasant’s home, only to be refused once again. The neighbors then informed the borrower that they would be staying at his home for dinner, and that they would continue to come over for dinner until the borrower re-payed his loan. The borrower made his installment payment the next day.

This system of mutually enforcing social pressure has resulted in an extremely high repayment rate for the village funds. The Chajiaping fund has only had one failed repayment in its four-year history, when a borrower got in a bad car accident while driving his supply of ducks to market in Chengdu.

In a community with little or no previous experience in personal financial management, the road to economic independence is a long and rocky one. However, by encouraging personal responsibility and providing guided instruction along the way, ARDY has taken significant steps in building the capacity of Sichuan’s peasants to manage their own money and fuel their own economic development.

 

Folk Myths of Rural Sichuan

November 14, 2010

I spent an afternoon a couple of weeks ago chatting with Luo Jia, the daughter of the family who sells baozi around the corner from the ARDY main office, which led to an interesting discussion of popular “superstitions.” She pointed up the street to a staircase leading down to a lower street, where a well-known witch lives.

A friend of Luo Jia’s from Chongqing married into a family from Yilong a couple of years ago. The previous year, the friend’s younger sister had been crushed to death by a family member’s truck. “They drove her to the doctor, but the truck was so slow, it took over two hours, she had bled out by the time they got her to the doctor.” The friend’s young son had seen the body as they were taking it to the doctor, and thereafter started having regular nightmares, which Luo Jia’s friend attempted to cure by going to visit the local witch. The witch took out a bowl of water and placed it on the table along with two candles. She lit the candles and soon after started to shake uncontrollably, declaring that the spirit of the slain sister had arrived. The witch then lit several pieces of the rough straw paper often used as offerings to ancestors (such as I had seen another friend burn to honor his grandparents) and allowed the ashes to fall into the bowl of water. The friend was then instructed to drink the bowl of water. “After she went home, the next day her son slept with no problem,” explained Luo Jia.

Despite this anecdotal example of the apparent effectiveness of witches, popular mythology is clearly on the edge of extinction in Yilong County. While a few elderly people still hawk fortune readings (算命) on the street at various local markets, only Yilong’s elderly still believe in them. Folk mythology has been under sustained attack in China since the early twentieth century, when peasant “superstition” came to be seen as one of the main factors behind China’s perceived economic backwardness. All of the young people with whom I have discussed the concept, including Luo Jia are disdainful of local superstition. Luo Jia laughed in resignation as she told me about her Gu Ma姑妈, or paternal aunt, who swears by the witch’s advice. “She’s so superstitious, she won’t do anything without consulting the witch first. If she gets sick, and we get her medicine, she’ll ask the witch before taking it. Whenever she has to buy something, or make any decision, she’ll ask the witch first.” And of course any trip to the witch has a consultation fee. Luo Jia shook her head, lamenting the amount of money that her aunt had thrown away on the witch. “She’s so kind-hearted, she’s easily scammed by people like that.” Luckily, regular visits result in a customer loyalty discount.

 

Who Wants to Start a Restaurant in Rural Sichuan?

November 2, 2010

Since revealing to many of my friends here that I’m leaving Sichuan in less than two weeks, I’ve received a rather surprising numbers of proposals from friends to go into business with them. My guess is that this isn’t particularly common among local residents, but a lot of the people I know here seem to be so taken with the potential profits to be had through working with a foreigner that they can’t help themselves. I’ve had offers to sell local alcohol in Beijing, to run a tour guide company at the Jiu Zhai Gou 九寨沟 national park in Sichuan, to sell printers in Chengdu. The most intense offer, though, came from the friend who faithful readers of the blog will remember as the rabbit farmer. I got a phone call from him a couple of days ago which began first with a lament from him about the quickness of my departure, following which he asked me if I was interested in finding work in China after I went back to the US. When I gave my usual ambivalent answer, he interrupted with an excited proposal that we partner up to open a 农家乐—a type of rural-themed restaurant that is quite common here and specializes in serving freshly-grown ingredients and traditional peasant foods.

He continued furthermore to say that a friend of his from the nearby village of Ri Xing 日兴, a cop –“our cops here aren’t like your cops there, they can still do other things on the side besides being cops”—who was thinking of going in with him on the restaurant, was having dinner with him the next day, and I should come. Never one to miss out on few sources of food, I took the bus to Ri Xing the next day, and soon found myself in a hotpot restaurant with my friend and an unknown cop in his early 30’s.

Before we started eating the cop explained that two more of his friends were coming, and it wasn’t until they showed up that I realized what was going on. As the two new friends sat down, our new cop friend introduced me: “and this is our American friend, he’s wants to invest in our restaurant.” Suddenly it was clear that I was the primary target of an investment pitch dinner. They spent most of the rest of the meal trying to convince me that if I invested, I’d be sure to get my investment (of which I think they wanted at least $10,000 US) back within a year. “All we have to do is put your face on the billboards and the advertisements, and people will flock from all around.” Which is probably true. I did my best to keep my responses as ambivalent as possible for the rest of the meal.

As we ate liberal amounts of two different types of baijiu (白酒—local booze) were passed around. Traditional business practice drinking rules stipulate that one has to toast and take a drink with every other person at the table at least once (if not more) in order to show your respect for them. This goes for everyone at the table, which results in a lot of drinking. The food eaten and the alcohol drunk, we were whisked back to Jincheng (the main city where I have been living) for Karaoke, where more beer accompanied the singing. Once again I was grateful to the Beatles for being famous enough to be offered on every single karaoke list in Asia.

I had thought that I had more or less kept up with my hosts in terms of drinking, but it was soon clear that I had not reached the expected level of drunkenness. By the time the we had paid for expired, most of my hosts had thrown up and were passed out on the couches in the karaoke room, giving me the chance to slip back to the ARDY office while they stumbled back to a friend’s car.

So if anyone’s interested in splitting stock in a restaurant in rural Sichuan, let me know.

Wokai Borrower Profile: Wang Xiaoming

October 26, 2010

Last weekend I visited the appliance store of Wokai borrower Wang Xiaoming 王小明 in the town of Saijin 赛金. Wang’s tiny shop was filled with the noise of an old Chinese war movie showing on one of his display televisions, and I had to shout over the noise of the gunfire to be heard. Wang took out his first loan from ARDY to help him open the store three years ago and has been taking out microloans since. Wang returned to his hometown to go into business after ten years of migrant work in Guangdong province. He spent two years on the floor in a shoe factory before progressing to the management level. In 2002 he came back to Yilong, but faced several years of disappointment before getting it right. “I opened a shop to sell pig feed, but that failed. I tried opening another shop, but that failed too.” He had some success selling pirated Dvd’s before deciding to move into the more lucrative appliance business.

Like many economic ventures in Yilong, a big portion of Wang’s business revolves around the Chinese New Year season, when migrant workers return home to see their families. He explained to me that he is able to sell a particularly large number of new TV’s at this time. Also, as one would expect, summer time brings an increased demand for air conditioning units; most of the new buildings being built in Yilong are going up with space for air conditioning units.

His latest business venture has brought Wang considerable success in the last few years. As the ARDY loan officer and I left his shop he pointed to a patch of land down the road, past the last building, which he had just acquired. He has already begun preparation to finance the construction of a new building, which will house his business on the ground floor and his family on the second floor. The whole construction project will cost him 30,000 RMB. I asked him how he thought his life would have been different if he had not had access to microloans. “I probably still would have developed in this same direction,” he replied, “but it would have been much harder.”

 

Fishing in a Tie

October 23, 2010

I spent yesterday learning how to fish with Yang Taigang, who is an old army buddy of one of the local volunteers at the Association for the Rural Development of Yilong County. As I learned how to thread a worm on a hook and cast a line, lessons which had been missing from my boyscout-less childhood, Yang told me about his life. He joined the paratroopers in 1993, in a period when there were few other economically viable options for someone from a family as poor as his. The military salary of less than 100 RMB a month was enough at least to relieve his parents of the economic burden of supporting himself. Today, after over a decade of economic growth in China, a Chinese soldier earns several hundred RMB a month. Jumping out of airplanes, he explained, is something one picks up quickly by necessity, but “the first time was scary. The first time my instructor just pushed me out of the plane.”

In 1999, after six years in the military, Yang left to seek work as a migrant laborer in Beijing. After two years of manual construction labor he was able to gain promotion into a construction management position. Much of the money that he saved by working in the city went to building a new house for his wife and children, which was recently completed. In 2008 he invested some of his own money in his own hot pot restaurant. Unfortunately, the restaurant failed to take off, and since closing it he has been back in Yilong since, planning his next business move. I was quite surprised when Yang showed up to our fishing trip this morning in a sport coat, a tie, and leather dress shoes. The land surrounding the lake where we fished was taken up mostly by rice paddies currently out of season, and after an afternoon of stomping around in the mid his leather dress shoes and dress pants were completely caked with dirt. When I asked him about his choice of attire, he replied, “my family was always poor growing up, we didn’t have much choice of what to wear.” Now, that he is able to afford to Yang always tries his best to look professional.

 

Our first catch of the day.

 

I should note, though, that not every peasant in Yilong shows up to the fishing pond dressed to the nines. When I told this story to the ARDY volunteer through whom I met Yang, he laughed. “Yang has always had peculiar dressing habits, even in the army,” he replied. In any case, the story seemed to me to be an interesting example of what China’s recent economic explosion meant for one individual. For Yang, looking the part is only the beginning. While his first private venture, the hot pot restaurant, failed, he has spent his time back home talking to neighbors and learning more about the different types of businesses currently being run in Yilong. He explained to me that in the China of his childhood, in the years before and the first years of the Open and Reform movement, one’s economic options were so limited that the amount of effort that one put into self-improvement was irrelevant. Now, in contemporary China, “if you work hard, if you struggle, then you can make a better life.”

While Yang landed around 20 small fish by himself, I was proud enough to manage to reel in 4 or 5. We took them back to his home that night, where his wife cleaned and gutted them, then boiled them with pork fat, pickled vegetables and chili peppers to make a delicious sour soup. I asked her if the time Yang spent as a migrant laborer, during which he could only return home once a year to spent Chinese New Year with the family, had been difficult on them. “That’s just the way it is,” she replied, resigned, “when he had time he would call home. It’s the same for most families around here.”\

 

De-scaling the fish

 

 

Sour fish and pickled vegetables soup 酸菜鱼汤. Unfortunately, I was called into the dining room to drink with the host as she was making the soup, and so I couldn't get the whole recipe.

 

Fish and the Challenges of Chinese Rural Market Reform

October 19, 2010

 

Fish for sale in a market outside the ARDY headquarters

This blog has frequently explored the challenges posed to development efforts in Yilong County by the lack of education and the cultural attitudes at work here. Last week, while attending a meeting of the rural cooperative in the village of Dengbao 灯包, I witnessed another fascinating example of how peasants and Yilong are unprepared for the shift to a market economy in the countryside.

 

A fish processing company had recently made a deal with the town for the right to fish in Dengbao’s nearby water reservoirs. Once the deal was made, however, the company inadvertently drove in with a heavy truck that ruined Dengbao’s dirt road and damaged the water pipes leading into the village, inciting protests from the villagers. The company, however, had been generous, paying the cost of the repairs, bringing in a bulldozer to level the road, and replacing the broken pipe. The damage repaired, the company returned again and set up nets in the reservoir. However, it was discovered soon after that several villagers had been periodically taking fish out of the nets.

 

Community leader Zheng Yuanming leads the meeting of Dengbao's rural cooperative

Zheng Yuanming郑元林, the manager of Dengbao’s rural cooperative, seemed slightly impatient as he started off the meeting. “They repaired the road, repaired the pipe, they even bought a new connecting piece for the pipe, and then when they came to fish, you stole from them,” he scolded. “Who is going to be willing to invest in our village after this?”

 

The ARDY volunteer who helped me to translate this meeting explained that taking the fish might not necessarily have been malicious. Rather, the villagers may not view taking the fish as stealing. An Yilong resident, the volunteer explained to me that his uncle also lived near a reservoir and would fish in it periodically. As Chinese families traditionally eat fish as part of their Chinese New Year celebration, his uncle would give a fish or two to each of the neighboring households as a gift each New Years. The fish were seen not so much as a private possession of his family, but rather a resource that the entire community shared. According to such an attitude, the idea that the fishing company could purchase the exclusive right to exploit a shared resource may not have had any meaning to the residents of Deng Bao, and they may not have realized that they were violating the terms of their agreement with the company.

This incident illustrates one of the major challenges that Yilong County faces in its quest for economic development. Rural communities do not necessarily view property in resources in the same way, which makes it difficult if not impossible for them to understand the rules by which property and resources are quantified and sold in a market economy. The Rural Association for the Development of Yilong County makes teaching peasants how to engage with the market one of its major priorities.

 

 

Microloans and Earthquake Recovery

October 15, 2010

Today I accompanied a representative from one of ARDY’s partner NGO’s to visit the homes of several rural borrowers, including Li Binfeng 李斌风and his family. At first glance, Li Binfeng does not look like what one would expect a typical pig farmer to look like. His tousled bleached hairdo would look less out of place on the street in Beijing, or in a punk rock band. The story of how he, his older brother, and their mother came to establish a new but thriving pig farm in the village of Da Yun 大运 this year is an inspirational one, and one in which microfinance plays a key role. “Our family has always raised animals,” Li explained to me as we stood beside one of the family’s larger pig pens, “I learned how to raise pigs and rabbits at a young age from my father.”

The family was running a large rabbit and pig farm, including over 1,000 rabbits, when the Wenchuan earthquake struck the region in 2008. The Li family’s homestead is up in the mountains and rests against a steep tree-covered slope. The earthquake shook loose rocks from the mountain top which rolled down the mountain and crushed the buildings housing the family’s pig pen and rabbit cages. The family lost most of their pigs, and all of their rabbits except one. Left with no capital to rebuild, Li and his older brother, who is married and has three children, left home to find migrant work in Guangdong. The family had taken out their first microloan from the then newly-established ARDY branch office in Da Yin 大寅 village the year before. While the two brothers did construction work and sent their earnings back home, their mother took out another microloan and slowly rebuilt the family’s pig farm.

 

Site of the the Li family's original pig pen was before it was destroyed by the earthquake. The spot has since been cleared and is used for farmland.

The two brothers just returned from Guangdong three months ago and began work on a new series of brick and concrete pig pens, which are currently about half completed. They took out another microloan and used their accumulated earnings to buy several dozen more pigs. The family is currently raising nearly fifty animals, and plans to make space for twice as many. As I spoke to the family today, with the foundation of their new enterprise already firmly set, they seemed quite confident about their farm’s future success. It is hard to imagine the heartbreak and period of incredible uncertainty that they must have experienced in the aftermath of the earthquake. Without a doubt, microloans played an important role in getting the Li’s back on their feet so quickly.

 

The Li brothers showed me around their pig farm and ran me through the basics of pig farming. When they buy piglets from the local market, they weigh only a dozen or so jin (1 斤 = 500g), and in around four months raise them to around 180 jin, which is the optimum weight to sell. I discovered today that the movie “Babe” had deceived me as to the size of pigs. Full-grown pigs are BIG, much bigger than I had expected. The Li family keeps around 8-10 pigs in each pen, and feed them three times a day. Larger-scale pig farms which can afford higher-quality feed only need to feed their animals twice a day.

Li explained to me that the strongest animals are all kept together in one pen, while the weaker pigs are kept in their own pen and given extra food to encourage faster growth. As we talked, one particularly lean pig hobbled down the walkway between the two rows of pens toward us. “This one is sick,” Li explained. They had given the ailing pig an injection of medicine and would keep him outside of the pens, apart from the other pigs, until after he had recovered.

Most of the pigs which the Li brothers bought upon returning to Da Yun will be big enough to sell around Chinese New Year, which means that they will get a higher price for them. Rather than sell to the local market, they will contact a meat processor in Chengdu, which will most likely send a truck to Yilong to transport the pigs for them.

 

Grapefruits and Obstacles to Sustainable Development

October 11, 2010

 

A peasant near Dingziqiao village with his ailing pomelo trees

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.

 

Examining ailing pomelo trees

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.

 

Pomelos for sale on a street corner in Jincheng

 

 

 

 

Chinese Social Transformation and the Rural Family

October 8, 2010

 

My friend's elderly aunt and uncle live alone with their grandchildren, a family arrangement common in rural Sichuan

 

When I went to visit the elderly aunts and uncles of an ARDY volunteer last week I was given a chance to witness firsthand the considerable impact that the last twenty years of uneven economic development in China has already had upon social and family structures in Yilong County. My friend’s second aunt and uncle, in their mid-seventies, live alone on their small farms with their high-school aged grandchildren. Their mother, my friend’s cousin, works in a factory in Chengdu, returning only once a year to spend Chinese New Year with her children and the rest of her family.

This demographic pattern is common throughout Yilong County. With opportunities for economic advancement at home scare, more and more residents of Yilong look either to Chengdu or to the booming metropolises of China’s coastal provinces. Today all but a very small number of young people leave Yilong to seek economic opportunity elsewhere. Those who were able to complete high school may get a service industry job in the city or, if their grades and the exam scores were good enough, get to attend college. Those without the prerequisite schooling will seek migrant labor jobs, often in a factory or in construction, in a larger city.

While the life of a mingong 民工, or Chinese migrant laborer, is exceedingly difficult, subjecting the worker to long, harsh journeys, poor conditions, and difficult work, it is nonetheless for many a better economic alternative than subsistence agriculture. I spoke to a man recently who grew up in Yilong County but now runs a construction firm in Shanxi Province that mostly employs mingong from Sichuan. He told me that manual labor on a road construction project earns 3000 RMB/month, which is enough to live frugally and still send money back home.

This sudden level of mobility is already challenging traditional family structures in Yilong. Many couples spend long periods of time apart because one or both of the parents travels abroad for work, returning only once a year to celebrate Chinese New Year with their families. Children are left behind in the village, often to be raised primarily by their grandparents. However, the advanced age and often precarious economic condition of the grandparents may prevent them from raising the children effectively, or for providing them with the tuition to start school on time. In a few more extreme cases, secretary general Gao Xiangjun explained in a meeting last week, the husband has been killed while working at a dangerous manual labor job outside the county, leaving the mother either to raise the children on her own or to abandon them.

This threat to the stability of nuclear family relationships is one of the effects of China’s rapid economic development which ARDY seeks to ameliorate. Microloans to start small enterprises or expand agricultural activities provide a profitable economic alternative to migrant labor. A large percentage of ARDY’s borrowers worked as migrant laborers for several years before receiving a loan, and as a result of the economic success they achieved with the help of a microloan are now able to stay at home with their families throughout the year.