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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.

By Christina LarsonContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / April 30, 2008

Growing greener: Gao Shengdian, in China's Sichuan Province, gives a tour of the plots he's converting to organic farming.

Christina Larson

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Chengdu, China

Tian Jun remembers when she could still drink the water from the rivers. But that was long ago, before industrial and agricultural pollution turned the water a fetid brown.

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Now, she is working to turn things around.

Ms. Tian is a Chinese environmentalist from Chengdu, the capital of western Sichuan Province. She lives in a small apartment in a city of 10 million people.

But she also makes regular trips to the surrounding countryside. One sunny spring afternoon, Tian toured the family farm of Gao Shengdian, a longtime farmer who, together with his wife, grows wheat, rice, corn, and 10 kinds of vegetables.

Like most farmers in China, Mr. Gao once used large quantities of chemical fertilizer. He purchased this fertilizer from the wheelbarrow of an unlicensed local vendor and he believes it was often impure, even toxic.

Now Gao points proudly to a series of tidy tomato plots. They are labeled with new signs that read, in neatly written Chinese characters, "Green vegetable farmland." He is converting these plots to organic farming, a three-year process. For Tian and other residents downstream, this means less agricultural pollution in their water supply.

This farm is one of a dozen now enrolled in a sustainable-­agriculture program that Tian helped launch three years ago. An environmental group that she heads splits the cost of equipment to produce "biofertilizer" from compost and manure on the farms, provides tips on what crops grow best, and connects farmers with nearby urban consumers who want organically grown produce.

Many more families have requested to join the program. Gao says his neighbors are jealous.

But Tian is growing the initiative slowly, taking time to perfect the model. "When I think about how to make a project sustainable, I don't just think about the land," she says. "The human relationships must be sustainable, too. We need to figure out how to make everyone's interests meet."

Tian didn't set out to save the countryside. She first embarked to clean up the city. But, as she found, those two goals are intertwined.

Her hometown of Chengdu is an ancient city at the convergence of the Fu and Nan rivers in southwest China. Like many Chinese cities, it began to grow rapidly in the 1970s. Factories began to dump wastewater into the rivers. Several thousand food vendors and small shopkeepers did the same. Sewage pipes led directly into urban canals.

At the time, Tian was working as a journalist. There was little precedent for environmental cleanup in China, but through her work she learned about international discussions on the environment, including the 1992 United Nations' "Earth Summit" in Rio de Janeiro, which made "sustainable development" a global buzzword.

In the early 1990s, Tian began to lobby the city government to clean up the rivers. She helped convince local authorities that a cleaner environment would improve the city's image with foreign investors and tourists, and they hired her to establish a fledgling conservation office. In the next decade, she says the city spent about 10 billion yuan ($1.4 billion), on river cleanup.

Today many factories have moved outside Chengdu city limits. Local air and water quality have improved. The rivers are no longer brown. The United Nations Environment Program in 2000 recognized Chengdu at a conference on “Learning From Best Practices.” The city has even built parkland and planted cherry trees along sections of the rivers.
Tian worries about the potential for backsliding if public attention doesn’t remain focused on these issues. In 2003, she founded an environmental nonprofit, Chengdu Urban Rivers Association and began to work with local university students on a “Get More Green” outreach campaign. “If we don’t have good environmental education after we improve the rivers,” she says, “our progress could disappear.”

Fertilizer overuse hurts rivers
Recently, Tian has turned her attention to another problem. Tests revealed that 60 percent of the remaining pollution in the rivers, which are still not fit for drinking or swimming, comes from the heavy usage of fertilizers and pesticides on farmland upstream.