What I did on June 4th

By Bryan • china, shanghai • 5 Jun 2009

I actually have a white shirt and seriously considered putting it on this morning, not because of the significance, but because it is one of the only clean shirts I have at the moment.  I had halfway buttoned up before I realized that it was June 4th and it might not be a good idea to wear it considering what I had planned today. Although I do think a white shirt in a blazing hot country is slightly too subtle if one is looking to make point.

I suppose today was quite special in the sense that while parts of the international world (especially the international media) and sections of Chinese society were submerging themselves in reflection, denial, apathy, anger over those events 20 years ago, I found myself surrounded by rather inspiring activities.  A stark contrast.

Despite being an urban planning student of the land-use persuasion, with limited Mandarin skills and really (honestly) not much to contribute, I was kindly invited to attend (as a guest) a rural community workshop on organic farming and water-resource protection on the shores of Dian Shan Lake.

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The Huangpu River is Shanghai’s main source of drinking water and flows directly out of Dian Shan Lake to the west.  While industrial pollutants are a concern for water quality, there is also significant agricultural activity in the periphery of Shanghai, especially around Dian Shan Lake.  Pesticides, fertilizers, livestock all pose the usual threats to water quality.

Further compounding issues is the geographic reality of Dian Shan Lake.  It straddles three jurisdictions with Shanghai to the East, Jiangsu province to the North and West and Zhejiang province to the south.  Naturally, the three regions share different management goals for this watershed.  Apparently one province even goes as far as fencing off it’s portion to prevent fish loss to the other provinces.

Agriculture appears to be a mixture of vegetables, rice, fruit and wheat and is quite water intensive.  Income and living conditions are obviously considerably lower in the agricultural periphery of Shanghai, yet the area is in much better conditions with far less poverty than other rural areas of China I’ve visited.

The workshop brought together academics from several Shanghai universities including Jiao Tong and Fudan and locals involved in the surrounding farming industries.  It aimed to probe opinions regarding plans for organic farming efforts, specifically regarding an initiative called 1+1.

1+1 is a program designed (with support of WWFChina) to pair one rural Shanghai farming family with one urban Shanghai family.  The famers would provide the urban family with organic vegetables in exchange for a earning higher prices for their product.  The urban family would receive their produce several times a month or would be able to travel to the farm to pick/collect it themselves.  Produce would be grown using organic methods without relying upon pesticides and herbicides. 

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The workshop began with several presentations regarding the importance of the Dian Shan area to the greater Shanghai region, especially in terms of water quality

The workshop began with a introduction to the importance of the Huangpu river to the entire Shanghai regions, the challenge of climate change and potable water loss and the role of organic farming in this puzzle.  It then moved into several case studies of other aquatic areas in China and foreign countries that had successfully implemented organic farming schemes to reduce water pollution and produce better crops.  A central theme was that you cannot rely upon the government to completely solve these problems for you.

At times I felt the presentations to be far too technical and academic…glancing around the room I could see that some of the older farmers were having difficulty grasping some of the initial regional water issues.  One of the difficulties I’ve read about dealing in rural areas of China was (at times) conveying the importance and connectivity of the issues at hand.  Simply, connecting the dotes and localizing the issue.  A lot of the farmers, it is lamented, just don’t have the education required to be really understand the concepts.  I didn’t really think that was possible, given the simplicity of some of the reasons, but one could tell that a lot of these guys just didn’t grasp the presentation completely.  Classic example that anyone who has given presentations is sure to know – keep it simple, really simple.

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The concerns raised among the farmers were interesting.  Obvious concerns rested with the availability and sustainability of the market for organic goods, especially the reliance upon one urban family. WWF was working with Carrefour to provide organic produce in Shanghai Carrefour stores, but I don’t think any of these farmers had ever been to a Carrefour.

Probably the largest issue raised by the farmers was the government agricultural subsidy.  Apparently, given that they are subsistence farmers, they receive a subsidy from the government to continue farming in an effort to encourage the production of food, when otherwise the land would be sold for other uses or left to fallow as other work options were pursued.

If the farms are used for commercial purposes, the famers would no longer receive what is supposedly a relatively large subsidy.  

I think that the farmers were quite interested in the prospects of the proposal, but there remained quite a lot of scepticism regarding market availability, organic farming (especially in regards to insect pests) and the loss of their agricultural subsidy.

Nevertheless, I was sitting there observing somewhat of a ‘town meeting’ in China discussing community futures…without any formal government involvement (aside from initial approval). 

Small steps. But good steps.

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4 Responses

  1. david

    hehe:) just don’t believe you are involved this kind of ” crappy” workshop….I am not denying the so-called “1+1” program is good idea, I just think it is a little bit naive…

    BTW, I have been that lake once…

    • I was only there on the invitation of my supervising professor at Fudan University. Observational only. That’s the great thing about being in Urban Planning, almost everything is relevant in some way to the profession :-)

      It is an idealistic program for sure, dependent largely on the willingness of Shanghai urban families to pay more for produce and on the creation of sustainable markets. This was their first ‘workshop’ to introduce the idea to this community.

      Dr. Ren is involved with quite a few wetland restoration projects in the area as well, with a successful one being at the nearby Dalian Lake.

      What were you doing out at Dian Shan? It is actually quite nice there.

  2. david

    wow! cool. I also like to join in this kinda ” observational ” workshop. you needn’t prepare too much just bring you ear there and enjoy!

    thanks for your aviation map offered. I just know the exact location where Dian shan lake is. I was there for some pollution dispute between Jiangsu province and Shanghai City… kinda public errand. yeah, good place for fishing….

    • Yeah, it was quite interesting. Some people from WWFChina were there as well as they are interested in helping Carrefor seek out suppliers of organic produce. One of the PHd students from Fudan was talking about the disputes between Jiangsu, Shanghai and Zhejiang over Dianshan Lake, especially regarding fish stocks.. I would like to hear more about your public errand!

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