Posts Tagged ‘Microfinance’

I’m Famous!

January 18, 2011

So I was interviewed a few weeks ago for an article in the People’s Daily about foreigners volunteering in China. I didn’t realize until today that the article had already been published in December, so here it is. I’m just a little miffed at them for picking the other guy for the picture. And for massacring my last name (“Komblun?” *sigh*). The corny title also is a quote from one of the other volunteers they interviewed: “Stories of Foreign Volunteers in China: ‘A Smile Bridges the Distance Between Me and China.'”

Here’s the parts about me, translated back to English from their rough translation of my initial interview responses:

…“I think the person who often benefits most from volunteer work is often the volunteer him/herself, who gets the chance to learn about a new environment, to learn from the people they meet, and to understand a society.” Evan Kornbluh, who graduated from Harvard in the spring of 2009, arrived in China this year.

He taught a year of history at Peking University before starting work this fall with the American microfinance organization Wokai’s rural partner organization, the Association for the Rural Development of Yilong County. He works with his colleagues to connect donors all over the world with Chinese microfinance borrowers, and to help these borrowers to escape poverty and eventually achieve self-reliance. Besides his daily work responsibilities, he traveled from village to village, recording everything he saw and heard. He wrote about his experiences on the Wokai website, so that American donors could better understand rural China.

More and more foreigners are coming to China to do volunteer work, and as they work alongside their Chinese counterparts they inevitably encounter obstacles relating to language, culture, and way of life.  “Sometimes because I was a foreigner, I felt that people treated me like a child, everytime I would go out I was bombarded with superfluous safety advice,” says Evan. Most of the time, however, foreign volunteers work happily alongside Chinese volunteers, leaving them eager for closer interaction with Chinese young people.

“My Chinese friends and my American friends are not that different from one another, they are familiar with global affairs and eager to learn about different peoples and cultures.” Evan has met many Chinese young people in the course of his volunteer activities, and he believes that “Chinese and Americans can work together and learn from one another as long as they are familiar with and respect one anothers’ cultural differences.”

It’s a fairly faithful translation of what I said, except for the error that I actually first arrived in China in 2009. Can’t argue with free publicity.

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The End of Microfinance’s Honeymoon

January 17, 2011

ARDY's Fu Xing branch office

I’m a couple of weeks late, I know, in commenting on article in the New York Times about the recent image issues that the microfinance industry has suffered. The article describes how major microfinance lenders, in particular in South Asia and in Latin America, have begun to come under greater public scrutiny, and even resistance, from the media and from political leaders. In the most extreme example of resistance, the government of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh has banned microloans altogether.

…as with other trumpeted development initiatives that have promised to lift hundreds of millions from poverty, microcredit has struggled to turn rhetoric into tangible success.

Done right, these loans have shown promise in allowing some borrowers to build sustainable livelihoods. But it has also become clear that the rapid growth of microcredit — in India some lending firms were growing at 60 percent to 100 percent a year — has made the loans much less effective.

Most borrowers do not appear to be climbing out of poverty, and a sizable minority is getting trapped in a spiral of debt, according to studies and analysts.

…even as the results for borrowers have been mixed, some lenders have minted profits that might make Wall Street bankers envious. For instance, investors in India’s largest microcredit firm, SKS Microfinance, sold shares last year for as much as 95 times what they paid for them a few years earlier.

The article confirms something that we probably should have known all along–that an organization isn’t necessarily doing good for a community just because it labels itself as “microfinance”–rather, effectiveness is inevitably going to vary by organization and each microfinance firm must be evaluated individually in order to determine its effectiveness. In my experience, the Association for the Rural Development of Yilong County is one of the better-run organizations, and its successes carry lessons for both implementing microfinance successfully, and for evaluating the reliability of other organizations.

In the last month of my time in Sichuan ARDY hired an outside software distributor from Nepal to help them install a new data management system–something I’ve blogged about previously here. The two men who came in from Kathmandu to oversee the installation process had been to China several times before to work with other microfinance firms in various parts of the country. When I asked them how ARDY compared to the other Chinese firms they had worked with though, they respondingly responded that ARDY was quite different. Many of the other organizations, it seemed, fell into the same pattern that the article describes as inspiring suspicion. They ran their operations strictly as a business, beholden primarily to the profit motive, and with little concern as to whether their borrowers were really being lifted out of poverty. ARDY, they said, was the only Chinese microfinance distributor they had seen which was really motivated by social goals, and which really worked to change peoples’ economic situations.

As I have discussed previously in this blog, one of ARDY’s really unique characteristics is its organic relationship with the local community. Gao Xiangjun and the other directors all grew up in this community, and have a strong sense of personal dedication to improve it. They know what local inhabitants need and are personally dedicated to providing them with the instructive and material support that they need. However, I was equally impressed by the shrewd business acuity which Gao and her colleagues display in their work. ARDY maintains an incredibly high repayment rate, and reinvests much of its profits from interest back into the organization, such that its lending pool increases each year. How can an organization combine both profit motive and social good?

I think one important element is the need to distinguish profit motive from profit as a performance indicator. ARDY seeks to help local farmers by creating sustainable local enterprises which borrowers will be able to manage and develop themselves. Traditional indicators of business performance, in particular profit, are the best way to determine if borrowers are in fact moving toward financial independence rather than simply accepting handouts. They should also inform the way in which potential microfinance entrepreneurs manage their new enterprises, and ensure that they can eventually turn a profit on their own.

However, in order for these more conventional business practices to be successfully integrated into a community which previously lacked them, they must be combined with an intimate understanding of the community and a willingness to work with borrowers to overcome the greater obstacles that inevitably arise from starting a business in a more extreme environment. When a borrower from ARDY fails to make a payment, a loan officer visits them at their home, and works with them to figure out a strategy for repaying the loan and, hopefully, salvaging their failed business endeavor. Without this sensitivity to local conditions, any organization that treats profit as its bottom line is inevitably going to leave some people behind. Instead, profit motive should inform socially motivated projects, allowing an organziation to meet its social goals within a competitive capitalist environment and with a more efficient use of resources.

How to Talk to Peasants

December 25, 2010

 

Gao Xiangjun speaks at a training session for community leaders

Perhaps the biggest challenges that I faced during my time in Sichuan was, of course, the language barrier. My Mandarin was good enough for most people here to understand what I said, and for me to communicate with very little difficulty with most people who had learned Mandarin at school, but I had great difficulty understanding the more rustic brand of Sichuanese 四川话 that most of the borrowers of the Association for the Rural Development of Yilong County spoke. However, it became clear to me by the end of my time in Sichuan that simple language skills were not the only thing standing between me and effective communication with Sichuanese peasants. Had I, miraculously, been some sort of brilliant linguistic scholar with a specialty in rustic dialects, I still wouldn’t have been qualified to help ARDY’s staff and leadership in their grassroots organization and mobilization efforts. This is because effective communication on this level also requires a fluency in the way that Yilong’s peasants see the world and the way that they express themselves, which goes beyond just grammar and pronunciation.

 

ARDY director Gao Xiangjun adopts a particular persona whenever she conducts meetings or training sessions for borrowers or for rural cooperative managers. She speaks slowly and deliberately and explains things in simple, concrete terms whenever possible (which is great for me, because it means I can understand more through the Sichuanese pronunciation). She jokes with them frequently, and allows them to joke back. At a meeting with the rural cooperative directors for the town of Dingziqiao, one peasant was particularly feisty, frequently making wisecracks and interrupting the session.  Gao responded to each wisecrack with “你个狗日的,” which is hard to directly translate into English but approximates some variation of “fuck you”—generally a pretty severe insult, but in context was taken as light-hearted, eliciting no more than another laugh from the audience.

“Do you think this way of speaking with them, half-joking, half-teaching, is natural?” She asked at a training session for ARDY staff, “I’ve developed this over ten years of working with and teaching the people here. As you teach them, you have to keep their interest and their trust, otherwise you lose them.”

 

Community leaders from the town of Le Xing celebrate the opening of a new ARDY branch

Effective communication also requires taking into account the customs of the community. In particular, it requires rather delicate management of the local alcohol culture. It is standard practice to eat both lunch and dinner with a healthy dose of baijiu 白酒, the fierce local hooch that, if you’re lucky, is only 110-120 proof. On many of the occasions that I’ve accompanied ARDY staff and volunteers on trips into the countryside, a morning’s worth of meetings and talking has ended with a big lunch and enough baijiu to bring on a sizable daytime buzz, frequently followed by a lazy afternoon of playing cards and chatting.

 

This habit poses a problem for Gao whenever she holds training sessions for peasants. After one morning meeting a couple of weeks ago, the group broke for lunch and went to a nice restaurant near the office. When asked if the party would be drinking alcohol, as is customary for the peasants, Gao refused, imploring that the group still had important work to do in the afternoon. However, the message didn’t pass quickly enough to the entire wait staff and several tables of peasants eagerly poured pitchers of alcohol before Gao could get a word in. She stood up in frustration, and politely but firmly told the peasants not to drink, an order which they, giggling, ignored. Gao stood in silence and contemplated the situation for a few minutes, before apparently deciding to concede lost territory and resolving to only scold the wait staff, “don’t bring any more alcohol! If you bring more we’re not paying for it.”

 

A training session for Yilong Peasants

At a training session the next day for staff only, she scolded the staff for drinking too much with the peasants. “You go out into the countryside to meet with them and to teach them, not to have fun and party with them.” She acknowledged that this is a delicate balancing act for ARDY staff, however. Social engagement is a necessary part of their work; they drink and play cards with borrowers to build mutual trust and respect.  Without a doubt booze plays an important part of social customs and cannot be completely erased. When ARDY opened a new branch office in the town of Le Xing several weeks ago, the opening meeting was followed by a big banquet for all of the community leaders and organization staff, in which ARDY provided the baijiu.

 

Correspondence with local stakeholders is thus a delicate balancing act. Fluency in local customs allows ARDY staff to build relationships with borrowers and community leaders. However, as Gao seeks to build local capacity she must also confront those elements of local culture which could undermine successful integration with China’s transforming economy.

 

Big Fish in a Poor Pond: Confronting Chinese Rural Poverty from a Position of Privilege

December 15, 2010

I’m famous! Check out this guest post just published on Akhila Kolisetty’s social justice blog, “Justice for All:”

Sorry, not really relevant, but this picture was too incredible not to share

The Making of a Rural Chinese Social Entrepreneur

December 14, 2010

 

Gao Xiangjun leading a peasant training session

It is hard to imagine the existence of the Association for the Rural Development of Yilong County without its secretary-general, Gao Xiangjun 高向军.  As one of the first social entrepreneurs in China, she has been navigating uncharted territory since the earliest days when such activities were even possible.  The success of the association up to this point is a testament to her persistence, creativity, and passion for helping her home province.

 

Mrs. Gao, a native of Yilong County, spent most of her career working as a government official. In 1992 she made her first entrepreneurial endeavor, opening a small grocery store to supplement her income as a local government official, which at that time did not exceed 50 RMB a month.

China first started accepting investments from foreign NGO’s in 1987, about a decade after the original start of the Open and Reform movement that spurred the development of a market economy and foreign trade.

Gao travelled to Beijing for the first time in 1995 on her own initiative in an attempt to raise money for a local development project. She spent her own savings to buy the train ticket, despite the high cost and no guarantee of success. Gao chuckled as she recounted the first time she entered the UNDP office to apply for funding. “I was so pretty at that time…I remember the first time I walked into that office, all of their eyes lit up!”  She secured 8 million RMB (about 1 million USD) in funding for development projects in the county. Out of this overall grant, 400,000 RMB was set aside for a pilot microfinance project, and it was out of this funding that ARDY was founded.

 

ARDY headquarters in Jincheng

In her first microfinance initiative Gao closely followed the original model laid out by Mohammed Yunus, the Nobel Prize-winning originator of microfinance. Loans were granted to groups of five borrowers, who were collectively held responsible for the payments of the group. In 2003, however, the program ran into serious problems. Borrowers took advantage of the group model to miss payments, and a lack of accurate, rigorous financial record keeping threatened to bankrupt the association. Gao directed a complete reassessment of the program to figure out the source of the failure. In 2004, the program was launched again with a new plan of operation.  Financial records were much more rigorous, and the system for evaluating loan candidates was overhauled.  The group model was also abandoned in favor of loans to individual families.

 

In 2008, the burgeoning success of the new model was threatened again when Gao contracted cancer.  She spent a year in Beijing, undergoing treatment at one of the best hospitals in the country. “Everything was so uncertain then, we didn’t know if she was going to recover or what would happen,” said Li Shibing 李世冰, the organization’s assistant director.  Her cancer is currently in remission, though Gao often only works half-days in the office as part of a continued rest regimen.

 

Gao visiting the home of a peasant near the town of Dingziqiao

Despite this challenge, the organization has experienced a period of uninterrupted growth since its lending and oversight practices were re-tooled six years ago.  It now works with a yearly lending pool of over 10 million RMB, and has reached more than 3,000 families in Yilong county. Adding in the roughly 2,000 households that have been incorporated into rural cooperatives throughout the county, ARDY reaches roughly 5000 families each year. The program has been so successful, in fact, that the Chinese government has begun using ARDY as a model for promoting both microfinance and grassroots organizing initiatives in other parts of the country.

 

“I have always been an enterprising person,” Gao mused as she told me the story of ARDY’s origins, “it’s because my family is originally from Shanxi, Shanxi people have enterprising personalities.” She was successful, she explained, because “I was always willing to expose myself to new things, to new ideas, to observe and learn from the success of others.  As a public official, one sees problems all of the time, but I was one of the few who knew how to look beyond my surroundings for solutions.”

In the main meeting room of the ARDY headquarters hangs a photograph of Gao smiling alongside Muhammed Yunus, taken at a conference in Bangladesh in 2002. The two of them first met when Gao travelled to Bangladesh to observe Grameen Bank, the first successful microfinance firm, in 1996.

 

Empowering Entrepreneurs through Microfinance

December 9, 2010

I paid a visit a couple of weeks ago to Zhang Rong, the hot pot entrepreneur and microfinance borrower whose photo has long graced the Wokai website. Mrs. Zhang operates her hot pot stand across the street from the ARDY branch office in the town of Yong Le, while her husband works up the street at the local power station. Her older son, who is 21 years old, works as a car mechanic in Chengdu, while younger son, 18, is currently a senior at Yongle High School.

Mrs. Zhang and her husband moved to Yongle from the countryside in 2001. When they first came here, Mrs. Zhang worked as a cook at the power station where her husband still works. In 2005 they started construction on the building which currently houses the hot pot shop on the ground floor and the family’s residence on the second floor. The concrete building was completed at a total cost of around 20,000 RMB and paid for in part by a micro loan from ARDY.

 

With her husband away at work all day Mrs. Zhang runs the entire shop by herself, even during the evening rush.

Mrs. Zhang’s stand is famous for its Ma La Tang 麻辣烫, a type of hot pot consisting of vegetables and some meat which is sold by the skewer (at 0.5 RMB apiece) and then boiled in a spicy broth. Mrs. Zhang makes her own broth from chili peppers, Sichuan peppers, and various other seasonings; I tried to get the exact recipe from her but was unsuccessful. Many people who sell food for a living here are protective of the secrets of their business, for fear of inspiring more competition.

 

In the years since first opening her own shop Mrs. Zhang’s business has increased significantly. In addition to the classic hot pot she now sells fried hot dogs on skewers for 1RMB each and bubble tea for 1 RMB a cup. The profit margin on all of her products is quite slim; the hot dogs cost her 0.8 RMB a piece to purchase, leaving her with only 0.2 RMB profit. She caters mainly to students from the three middle and high schools in the town, which swarm her stand during break time, especially after their evening classes end at 9pm.

On the Saturday afternoon during which I spoke with Mrs. Zhang, two regular customers, students at the local middle school, had just showed up for a snack before going shopping. The two girls lingered at the shop, sipping on bubble tea and munching on sausage skewers as they chatted with Mrs. Zhang before sitting down to a bowl of hot pot. Mrs. Zhang mothered over them, urging them to eat more vegetables.

With their own home and a stable business, the Zhang family has a fairly comfortable life in Yongle. Through their own relentless hard work was doubtlessly the most important factor, microfinance also played a role in helping them to become successful rural entrepreneurs.

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 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.”

 

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