Chinese Women Speak Up to Protect Their River

May 8, 2017

“I learned that ecological agriculture is very valuable to our community… I often told my fellow women that…we should focus on one single thing—making the eco-farm work.” – Hu Xuemei

Originally from Linshi Village, a small rural community in the northwest outskirts of Chengdu, Sichuan Province, Ms. Hu Xuemei had ventured out to central Chengdu. Like millions of other internal migrants in China, she had moved from the rural countryside to one of China’s urban centers, where wages are higher and her children would have better opportunities.

“I tried to make money with my husband in the city in the very beginning. When our parents grew feeble and our children grew old, I decided to come back home and take care of my family,” said Hu.

She began taking care of her parents and farming the land, and despite being naturally shy and having a limited education, started thinking about how she might be able to get more involved in her community.

“And that’s when I learned about the Chengdu Urban River Association (CURA), who had come to our village to promote an ecovillage lifestyle.” An ecovillage is a village in which human activities such as farming, construction, and waste disposal are carried out sustainably, with an emphasis on minimizing environmental degradation.

Like most local farmers, Hu had been using modern farming methods, including the application of pesticides and herbicides, which can seep into the local rivers and streams as non-point source pollution.

CURA had discovered that ecovillage principles could help reduce the pollution of Chengdu’s local rivers, many of which run through farming villages before reaching the city center. It had helped transform the nearby village of Anlong into an ecovillage and was now looking to recruit the women of Linshi as leaders in a new ecovillage transformation effort.

Inspired by CURA’s message, Hu decided to join the effort, enrolling in a CURA-led project to educate the women of Linshi Village about the value, to both the local water quality and food safety, of adopting ecovillage practices. Under CURA’s guidance, which included mentoring and thematic workshops, she started to employ organic farming methods on her land.

But there were obstacles. Without pesticides, her crops were more vulnerable to insects. Without herbicides, she joked about what seemed like a losing effort to plant crops among the weeds. Some neighbors made fun of her, but Hu tried to help them understand that the runoff from the chemical-aided farming was polluting the river that they all counted on for their livelihoods.

“Through studying and training, I learned that organic agriculture is very valuable to our community. I often told the other village women that we should focus on one single thing—making the ecovillage work,” said Hu.

With the support of her family and training from CURA, Hu continued advocating for environmentally-conscious farming, gradually earning the admiration of others in her community. Her fellow villagers elected her to lead their local Water Patrol Group, which Hu herself had helped to establish, that was now organizing women volunteers to patrol the local waterways for refuse and other contaminants.

Local officials took note. In March, the local chapter of China’s Women’s Federation, an quasi-governmental association that supports women’s empowerment, invited Hu and the Water Patrol Group to a Women’s Day celebration, where they publicly awarded them with official flags, caps, and vests in recognition of their public service, a high honor in rural China.

In April, Sichuan Radio and Television News invited Hu to appear on a daily public radio show titled Nightalk that focuses on Chengdu community affairs. Airing throughout Chengdu on FM98.1 at the primetime hour of 7pm, Hu discussed her role in establishing the Water Patrol Group and the importance of organic farming in protecting local water resources.

“My work is not great at all. All I did is one single thing— protect the community’s environment by not using pesticides, herbicides, or other chemical pollutants.” said Hu. “You can do that, too. It’s good for me, my family, my community and everyone living along the river.”

Eurasia Foundation’s China Women’s Program fosters local civic participation among rural women in Western China by helping them become leaders in local environmental protection efforts. In 2016, the China Program partnered with CURA on a year-long project to inspire the women of Linshi Village in northwest Chengdu to take leadership roles in local environmental protection efforts.