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To save rivers, she helps farmers

Chinese environmental activist Tian Jun found that in order to clean up Chengdu's rivers, she needed to look upstream.

(Page 2 of 2)

Three years ago, Tian began to visit farmers in the surrounding countryside. Her purpose was to gather information. “I knew nothing would change if I just said, ‘Do this.’ I had to figure out what they needed, so we could work together.”

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Gao’s situation was typical. His family is Buddhist, so he tries to respect natural balance. “I would rather not put all those chemicals in the ground,” he says, “but I must make a living somehow.” He also had a more worldly complaint: He knew he was being overcharged by the fertilizer vendor, who sold him adulterated goods, and by the businessman who bought his crops to sell to supermarkets at high margins.
“But what choice did I have?” Gao wondered. Many farmers had similar frustrations.

Tian designed a program to address many concerns at once, with financial support from city ministries and the World Wildlife Fund China. The farmers needed some kind of fertilizer to keep their yields relatively high, so she equipped them to make their own. They also needed a way to reach customers, so she connected them directly with a small network of health-conscious consumers in Chengdu. They needed information and support, which her group provides on its regular visits.
This time, Tian asks, “Is there anything else you need?”

“Not now,” Gao replies. “I’ll let you know if I find any problems.”
“Please do, Uncle Gao.” (They are not related, but everyone calls him “Uncle Gao.”)
Tian hopes to eventually expand the program, with further financial support from the government and international nongovernmental organizations.
Better methods help certification

This is not the only sustainable-agriculture project in China. Outside Beijing, a husband and wife in 2002 started their own organic farm, “Lovely Green Cow,” and sell produce directly to a health-conscious Beijing restaurant. In Yunnan Province, a Chinese nonprofit, Global Environmental Institute, operates a similar biofertilizer program. The central environment ministry has also established its own Organic Food Development Center.

Observers wonder to what extent such programs can grow, and how they may one day affect consumers in China and abroad. According to the World Trade Organization, China is the world’s largest food exporter.
“The Chinese government understands it needs to shift to higher-value and safer goods,” says Linden Ellis of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. However, she adds, there is often a gap between intentions and implementation.

“China has trouble with myriad health and safety certifications, and food safety and organics are a subset of that,” says Mike Taylor, a professor at the School of Public Health and Health Services at George Washington Uni­versity in Washington.

However, he thinks the situation can be improved if new incentives are introduced. For example, he believes the US Food and Drug Administration should enact “more stringent requirements on importers to work directly with their suppliers to ensure product safety.”

In a country where regulatory enforcement is weak, the crux of Tian’s philosophy is finding common interests. She is starting small, but her philosophy is scalable.

For his part, Gao hopes to one day open an organic and Buddhist restaurant for villagers and day-trippers from Chengdu. “So many people leave the countryside for the city,” he says. “There should be ways to bring people back to the countryside.”

Tian smiled. She knew he was talking about someone in particular. His son left the village to find work many years ago, but says he may return home if business is good.