Wednesday, April 30, 2008

To save rivers, help farmers

Alternet, via Christian Science Monitor: 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. 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.

…. 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.

…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…..

…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.

…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….

Jingjiang River and Anshun Peaceful and Fluent Bridge in Chengdu, China. Taken by "BenBen," Wikimedia Commons, under Creative Commons Attribution 1.0 License

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