Posts Tagged ‘Rural Development’

One Chinese Peasant’s Story of Personal Development, pt. 2

February 26, 2011

Last week I wrote about a friend of mine in Yilong, Yang Taigang, whose search for a new job and source of income fascinated me. I was struck by the way he talked about his own “development” (fazhan 发展), his search for career advancement in a rural environment that provided few economic opportunities.

On subsequent visits to Yang, his development remained a major topic of discussion. He seemed in particular to take meeting me as a tremendous opportunity and peppered me with endless potential cooperative business ventures. He proposed that we open up a Chinese hot pot restaurant in the US; that we export baijiu alcohol or some other Chinese product to the US together; that I could serve as translator for a tour company based at Jiuzhaigou national park. Here, it appeared to me, was a would-be rural Chinese entrepreneur if there ever was one. As I rode along with him on his motorcycle, he frequently stopped to greet people and to schmooze. He seemed to be friendly with everyone we encountered along the road, and went out of his way to pull over and introduce me to them—which was nice, but which made me feel a little bit like a trophy, as if his social capital was increased by his prominent visibility with a foreigner.

The last time I saw Yang left me with a still different impression which puzzled me even more. He had informed me on our first meeting that he had a friend who ran an alcohol distillery and, still thirsting for the blog scoop that had propelled our first meeting, I convinced him to take me to visit it during my last week in Sichuan. When he showed up on his motorcycle that last time to meet me, it was without the usual big grin and friendly greeting that had accompanied our other meetings. Before he would drive me to the distillery he insisted that I come back to his house first; his Internet connection had mysteriously stopped working and he wanted me to attempt to fix it. He was preoccupied, even glum, as he drove me home, failing to make small talk or pitch business schemes as usual.


This home belonged to another ARDY volunteer, but it is similar to the house built by Yang Taigang and most families who had earned enough money through migrant work to build one

Yang’s many years of migrant labor had earned enough money to build a concrete, two-story abode of the type that has become ubiquitous in rural China today. Though the bare concrete walls are rather sparse and cold, the structure is roomy and has all of the modern utilities: electricity, gas, Internet (a personal Internet connection is, I believe, still somewhat of an impressive luxury). His wife’s parents occupied the concrete house next door. Yang dropped me on the second floor with his basic Lenovo laptop and then rushed out to meet a friend, with whom he said he was considering starting a small trucking company. Unfortunately, my limited technical expertise was even more curtailed by the Chinese version of Windows. After fiddling around in the network settings for a few minutes, I returned to the ground floor and chatted with his wife while we waited for Yang to return. Yang’s wife had a hard day of farm work ahead of her; it was the end of the fall harvest season, and time for the family’s patch of sweet potatoes to be picked. Suddenly painfully aware of my own frivolous plans for the day, I apologized for whisking her husband away to accompany me. “It doesn’t matter,” she said as she strapped the basket to her back which would hold the sweet potatoes, “He never helps me anyway. I do all of the farm work, I harvest the crops, I tend the pigs, I do everything all by myself, and he never helps. He’s always off trying some new scheme, or looking for a different job.”



Yang's wife cleaning fish

I really didn’t know what to make of this; I certainly had never been privy to Chinese marital troubles before. She chuckled good-naturedly as she complained, though, as if this was something that she had long resigned herself to. “Whenever I need him for help on the farm, he always rushes off somewhere else. Last week he went off to a birthday party for an old army buddy in the county capital. He drank too much and then crashed his motorcycle.” It wasn’t until he returned from his “meeting” that I saw the evidence of this crash, which I had somehow missed at our first meeting that morning. Yang’s right cheek was scraped up and swollen, and he was missing several front teeth. Had he first greeted me with his customary big smile, it would have been obvious.


As he drove me back from the distillery, we returned again to his favorite topic. “I can’t just stay around here for the rest of my life, I have to get out, I have to find a way to develop myself outside of my hometown if I’m going to make a living and raise my family.” Though he had already worked for years to provide his family with a home, the pressure to keep supporting them was no less acute. The pressure he felt served, sometimes, to drive him further away from his family, to the chagrin of at least his wife. As I learned that day, furthermore, Yang’s relentless pursuit of his own and his family’s “development” wasn’t without a reckless streak.




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.

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.


What does the future hold for rural China’s small-scale family agriculture?

December 21, 2010


A small family plot

A few weeks ago I posted an entry about the Association for the Rural Development of Yilong County’s efforts to organize rural cooperatives in Yilong, and argued that the “problem of scale” is one of the main challenges facing Yilong’s farmers.  Most families occupy the small parcels of land which were redistributed to them after Deng Xiaoping’s reforms broke up the collective farming system in the late 1970’s, amounting to about 2-3 mu 亩, or 1/5 of a hectare, each. While this provides enough land to meet many of the family’s own immediate nourishment needs, it leaves little room for families to produce a surplus that they would be able to sell effectively on the market. Furthermore, each family is traditionally responsible for all of the input costs for their own production, such as their own seeds, fertilizer, and pesticide. The need to meet each of these costs individually means that the marginal profit that each family is able to gain from the sale of surplus agricultural goods is quite small, and the additional costs associated with bringing the products to market—such as transportation—often make commercial farming not cost-effective.


Having studied Chinese history in college, my discussion with Gao Xiangjun about the reasoning behind the Rural Mutual Cooperatives made me first think of the historic roots of economic dilemmas that Yilong’s peasants face. After all, the United States had also once been a nation of small-scale farmers. What had happened in the United States that could not happen in China?

Over the course of the late 19th and 20th century, many small-scale American farmers sold their lands and sought urban jobs, leading to the rapid expansion of a small number of farms that were able to manage agricultural production on a large, industrialized scale. However, a number of social and political barriers in China prevent agricultural consolidation in the same way. First of all, under the Chinese government’s current legal property regime, all land is technically owned by the state, while current occupiers of land can only buy and sell long-term leases of the land’s use. This makes buying and selling land for the purpose of consolidation more difficult.

In addition, while a large number of Yilong’s peasants travel to cities annually to find work, a number of barriers make it incredibly difficult for them to move there permanently. Probably the most insurmountable of these barriers is the Chinese hukou system of residency permits, which the government instituted in part to prevent a massive rural exodus that would strain urban infrastructure. Without owning an urban residency permit, which is incredibly difficult or incredibly expensive for non-natives of Chinese cities, it is impossible to get access to urban government services such as health care and education.

Moreover, my experience in Sichuan has taught me not to underestimate the power of Chinese family ties as a guiding social force here. While I have met many people in Yilong who spent many years working outside of Sichuan, often hopping from one Chinese urban center to another in search of work, they all eventually moved back home in order to be close to family. Many people in Yilong are quite confused when I explain to them that my family, not atypically of American middle class families, is quite spread out. My parents live in one city, their siblings with their families and children in different cities, my grandparents in another city entirely. Most of the families whom I have met in Yilong have occupied the same several mu of land for several hundred years and uncounted generations. The idea of permanent dislocation from their ancestral homeland seems for many families to be out of the question.

These barriers to agricultural consolidation raise some interesting questions for the future of economic development in China. Without major overhauls to some of the fundamental underpinnings of the current social and political system, it will be impossible for rural areas in China to follow the same pattern of rural to urban migration and consolidation of farms which worked for the United States and so much of Europe. Only on such large-scale farms does the adoption of more sophisticated farming equipment and chemical fertilizers and pesticides become economically feasible, and thus make possible the huge increases in agricultural productivity which American and European farms experienced during the twentieth century. Can the region continue to grow economically without an increase in agricultural productivity?



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.”


Smoking and Social Etiquette in Rural Sichuan

October 24, 2010


Photo credit to ARDY volunteer Zhang Yuqing, who has a nicer camera than I do

Anyone traveler who is particularly sensitive to tobacco smoke would not do well in rural Sichuan. An incredibly high percentage of men in Yilong County smoke, though as in urban China smoking is less common among women and among younger people. While public buses here are smoke-free, there don’t seem to be any other restrictions. Anywhere else that one goes in Yilong one can expect to encounter smokers. Whenever the Association for the Rural Development of Yilong County runs a training session for local peasants at its headquarters in Jincheng, a thin haze envelops the room within the first hour of the session. While most people smoke cigarettes, a number of the older male peasants prefer a locally-grown tobacco leaf, which they roll into loose cigars themselves and usually smoke from the end of a thin metal pipe (see above picture).


There are a series of small rituals that the smokers of Yilong County engage in with one another that I have found interesting to watch. Whenever a smoker meets someone new, it is customary to offer them a cigarette. If one smoker joins a group of already gathered people, they will offer one to everyone in the group. There is no pressure for non-smokers to join in, however, and a single polite refusal is usually accepted. From then on, whenever one of the smokers in the group takes out a cigarette for himself he will again offer one to everyone in the group. This often leads to additional cigarettes being forced upon someone who already has a lit cigarette in his hand, which if the giver is insistent will result in a cigarette being placed “on deck” behind the receiver’s ear.


Local leaf for sale on market day in the town of Saijin 赛金

While smoking is currently an omnipresent fact of life in rural China, there are a few hints that the environment is beginning to change. In various town markets I have walked past a salesman hawking stop smoking aids to a small crowd of onlookers. The Chinese media has also reported that the government will pass a universal ban on smoking in public places at the beginning of next year However, opinions remain mixed as to how quickly or effectively the government will be able to alter such a deeply ingrained habit in rural China.



Hawking a local stop-smoking aid. The product looks like a cigarette, but uses Chinese herbs to supposedly help reduce the user's dependence on tobacco. I am unable to comment on the products effectiveness, as were the volunteers at ARDY whom I asked about it.



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.


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