In the winter of 08/09 I had the chance to visit one of the project sites that the charity I work for had been involved with. The place we were visiting was about 3 hours from Lanzhou in rural Gansu province. It was so cold that day that it actually ruined the mp3 player that I had in my coat pocket.
When we arrived in the town I noticed the man looking across the fields and took this picture.
It turned out that he was one of the villagers that had benefited from the projects, and so we ended up having a chance to get to see his home. It was simple, but far better than many of the ones I had seen in Guangxi province. It was a two-story cement and brick building with a decent sized cement yard that had a few goats in a barn-like structure in back.
This village had been selected mostly for reforestation projects, since this area was prone to dust storms and mudslides. The project consisted not only of hiring farmers to plant trees, but also built solar stoves and bio-gas systems. These second to projects nearly eliminated the villagers need for wood, and ensured that the new trees would not be chopped down again (for more on these kinds of projects read “The Paradox of Development”).
In this area we also visited another small town that was “famous” for growing potatoes. It was much worse off than the first one we visited, and the houses here were mud and stick structures of the sort that make foreigners nervous. It was bitterly cold indoors and out here since few of the buildings were well enough insulated to bother heating. There we had a chance to talk with more of the villagers; there were many old people and children, but few in between.
Around Longzhou, where I did most of my exploring, the farmers’ lives didn’t seem much better. The main crop had switched from rice production to growing sugar cane about 5 years before I arrived. For the most part, sugar cane seemed to grow fairly easily, because I rarely saw farmers tending their fields outside of planting and harvesting. Much more attention went into their smaller plots that they set aside for vegetables for their families.
The homes of farmers here were also of simple construction. Brick was the most common for farmers who didn’t have family members working in factories. You could always tell which family had sent members away, because there were always new cement homes being built.
From my experience, it seems like there is no such thing as a rich farmer in China. The only opportunity is to send family members to the city (which was much easier to do from Guangxi than Gansu).
Tomorrow we’ll be looking at the policies that keep farmers poor.
Stunning photos, Tom. I’m sure you’ll talk more in depth about this tomorrow, but it seems as if the government has conflicting views of the peasants. On the one hand, they were the backbone of the revolution and continue to produce much needed food and construct buildings for the middle and upper classes of Chinese society. On the other hand, they can’t purchase very much food apart from what they grow and they certainly can’t live in the buildings they build for others as migrant workers because if they could, they wouldn’t be farmers or migrant workers anymore.
Thanks for this great post – the story of China’s urbanization and what that means for those being swept along by this process is very interesting. Can China do it better than it’s been done in the past – including in the U.S.? It’s always disruptive and usually, many people get crushed in the process.
My wife’s family is from a farming town in the US, commercial farming doesn’t seem to be the answer, and neither do these small plots. I think the biggest block to equitable standards of living is that city people expect food to be cheap, we don’t want to spend much of our income on it. Not sure how many people a farm would have to feed before the farmer could afford an equal standard of living.
I remember as a child hearing my mother telling my brothers and myself about how hard life was on a farm. She grew up on a farm in Colorado, so she knew first hand. I was sure that farm life was not for me, but one of my brothers went out to live with our cousins in Colorado to work on the farm and really loved it.
Still I understand the dilemma of small farms vs. big farms. We have all heard of the abuses of animals on large farms, and the use of pesticides, hormones, Genetically modified seeds, and so on, all of them make one wonder about the food we buy in our markets.
Even food that is advertised as being grown humanely without pesticides etc. is still a gamble, since we all know how easy it is to lie and cheat to make a buck.
I guess, as in so much of life, there are no easy answers.
Thanks for your wonderful blog on China. It’s good to get a different perspective that shows how things are on the bottom too.