It’s a 4,000 year old site and is the only one still in use today.
We had reached the banks of the river. The air cooled dramatically as we walked underneath the shade of bamboo thicker than my arm. The dirt path had more people along it as cars and mopeds sped by dispersing our little group every now and then. An older man with a scale sold some green plums to a few of those in our group. He was sitting at a nearly unnoticeable intersection in the road. A small path that was overgrown with bamboo and other native plants hid what I assumed was his home. It was a small wooden home. The tile roof with the upraised corners one sees almost only in China.
There was a tea stand on the clay beach of the river. Some small children splashed around in the cool water. We stopped right near the tea stand and I almost stepped into part of the constructed wetlands. They seemed as though a child had tried building sand castles moats to trap the little streams that flowed out of the forest and farms into the river. There were native algae, lily pads, river reed, and other plants that filtered out the runoff before it drained into the river. It was a simple and small design and possibly one of the more important ones when it came to affecting the city of Chengdu southeast of Anlong. The native water plants would remove chemicals that washed out of the farms’ showers and kitchens. Not all of this water was filtered to simply go back to the river. Much of it can be used to water crops and vegetables.
Behind the locals sitting on the beach drinking tea, there was a gray building with two concrete cylinders sticking out several inches out of the ground. One of them had a thin pipe running from it towards the building. Ming explained that this was a biogas digester where plant and animal waste fermented to create natural fertilizer and a biogas that provided a fuel for cooking. It had been a while since we were at the Zhao’s house and several students began asking where the restroom was. Ming pointed at the building and explained that it was right there. Before he let anyone use he pointed at a large sign that illustrated how to use it. The toilet was in the ground like most of those in China, except it was altered so that liquid and solid waste went into two different holes. One of the more attentive boys in the group asked a question that most of us probably were thinking.
“Why do you collect both with separate devices, the biogas container and the composting toilet?”
“You don’t want to mix animal and human feces because humans have very different bacterial cultures which interfere with the biogas fermenting process.” Ming responded. “Any more questions?” Most of the students asked to now use the restroom. Ming nodded and smiled.
For the rest of the afternoon we all swam in the river, which while gray from the soil felt clean and shockingly refreshing. The students all disrobed into their undergarments and were like children again laughing as they pushed and splashed each other. Some of the locals even joined us and sat down to converse with the group.
After we warmed up with some hot tea and dried off we walked over to see more of the wetland terraces that cleaned and filtered the water. These ones were much larger, with concrete sides that layered into a half pyramid. Each layer had different foliage and the students climbed up on them to take pictures and get a better view. Ming said this was one of the constructed wetlands used for directly watering some of the traditional vegetable farms that we were about to see.
We ambled through wood and stone supported paths surrounded by eggplants, beans, rice, and leafy vegetables. This was an example of traditional farming. Different crops attract pests that eat the plants, but other crops attract predator bugs that keep the pest population in a natural balance without pesticides. Still, all around the vegetables seemed full and healthy.
Underneath a square thatch gazebo we learned that even when artificial fertilizers and pesticides stop being used the soil and plants are still addicted to the chemicals. So over time, the farmers would slowly stop using these chemicals in planned sections of the farm, one sizeable patch at a time. In this way not all the plants and soil go into shock and over time the whole acre is weaned off this dependency and the soil becomes naturally fertile again. Just as the soil and plants take time to recover, so do some of the benefits take time to return to the farmers. I learned as surely did the high school students, that there is a loss in profit as the yields decrease in the short run because the crops were particularly vulnerable at the beginning of the transition period. So many farmers dropped out at first because they could not bring in sufficient income, but some stuck with it and soon began to receive increased revenues and crop yields over time.
Ming confided in us that he truly believed this was a sustainable model, environmentally, economically, and socially. Anlong’s attitude and dedication to the environment, if spread elsewhere in China and the world, would be one of the best steps to improve living conditions and living in the future. Parker, their group leader suddenly spoke up and asked if there was any name card that Ming could hand out. He did and most of the students seemed grateful and that they had learned something on this tour. Even more hopeful was that some, just like the girl on the bus, would begin to see how interdependent their own actions and their environment are. As we left the thatch gazebo for dinner, the sun began to set behind the trees and shadows deepened in the waters of the rice fields.
The tile pavement clicked as I ran down the alleyway to the office. I tried taking a shortcut rather than taking the main roads. Ming and probably some pedestrians gave me a look as this 95kg American hopped stairs and dodged pedestrians.
“What happened?” Ming smiled. I must have been a few minutes late. Thankfully, he planned for us to meet forty minutes before we would meet the rest of the group for that day. From the office we took a bus down to the ‘Mansion of the Prime Minister.’ Ming said it was the former mansion of a famous advisor to one of the ancient warlords, during the Era of the Three Kingdoms. It was now a tourist spot.
The group we were to lead on tour was a dozen or so high school students, mostly from the U.S.A. Ming and I talked to their group supervisor, Parker, while waiting for the last of the high school students to finish in the bathrooms. Parker said they all went for Sichuan hotpot last night and some might take longer in the restrooms. I went over to fill my water bottle from a cooler and watched the group of students. Some were huddled in a group talking excitedly about something and others stood by awkwardly while many had their smart phones out.
Once everyone had re-grouped in the lobby we clambered into a large van and began the hour-long drive to Anlong Village. When I wasn’t looking out at the massive industrial buildings or the stream of green taxis I talked to one of the girls sitting behind me about going to college.
“I just graduated high school and will be going a school in California, I’m considering doing Environmental science.”
“That’s a pretty hard, but a good major.” I told her, myself being an Environmental studies major.
“Yeah, that’s what I’ve heard. After seeing some of the pollution in the cities here in China and elsewhere, I feel something needs to be done.”
We talked more about how much Chinese she knows and when she was last in China. I also answered some questions about what I am doing here at CURA and what the organization itself does. Though, it was still early in the morning for most of us and even Ming was closing his eyes. Soon most of us in the van had fallen asleep to suddenly find ourselves outside of the Ecological center in Anlong Village.
After some difficult and yet relaxing yoga led by a local villager, we all went into the next room to check out some of the traditional Chinese farming equipment of Anlong. Ming pointed to a giant stone wheel, explaining it was a replica of an old water mill stone. We all stood and pondered for a moment at all the other equipment in the room. There was pottery, a wooden wheelbarrow, mallets, grain thrashers, and an artistic mural of the village illustrating how many of these tools were used by the farmers. It was black and white and resonated with nostalgia. Most of the students were looking over it with intrigue while others lightly touched some of the wooden tools.
We recollected outside. There were birds somewhere fluttering around in some nearby trees. Insects hummed under the shady brush, harmonious with the steamy air beating in the sun. The students now appeared more awake and alert. No more updating statuses on their phones. Ms. Xia, the yoga instructor stood in the doorway smiling. She was originally from the city and had only moved out here later in her life, when she married the ecological farmer Wang Cheng. She seemed to understand the energy that the students felt from the natural environment.
Next was lunch at the Zhao family home. As part of the tour the students were served ecological meat, vegetables, and rice – all chemical free. The same girl that had talked to me in the van was talking excitedly to her peers about how good the food tasted. Those around the table nodded or murmured with full mouths. Once finished up and full, we helped carry the plates and uneaten food into kitchen, then stood in the courtyard for a picture with the family.
The house was on the edge of a road with wide ditches on both sides. The gray silt earth was full of water and so irrigation was needed. All of the surrounding land was being used to grow some plant or crop. Students stopped along as we walked through, snapping pictures of corn stalks, rows of rice, trees to be sold, fruit groves, and even some unknown purple plants. The landscape was clear of tall buildings, few homes, and save for the shimmering asphalt road, it was green. A lone motorist roared by in the silent heat. A few students were walking alongside Ming, listening to him explain how the Anlong Village project had gotten the attention of the local government who had recently decided to pave new roads into the village. This simple change, which allowed for easier transportation throughout the village, might actually be affecting the balance of some of the wildlife. In other areas of the world, it has been observed that certain caterpillars and other bugs that used to be able to easily cross the dirt paths were now being fried to death from the heat-retaining roads.
The group stopped at a convenience store for ice cream near the entrance of a government built centralized-living neighborhood. Ming stood on a bench to explain that this neighborhood was built, just as many of the roads, by the government in an attempt to ‘modernize’ the countryside. This new neighborhood was built with modern infrastructure, but this meant that the traditional self-sustaining cycle in the Chinese village would no longer be in place. For example, garbage and sewage from this neighborhood were rerouted out of Anlong to somewhere else, where they may cause pollution and not be treated locally in an ecological manner by green systems already present in the village. This reminds me of America’s urban sprawl problem and I wondered if China’s Go-West Policy of mimicking western socio-economic culture could be blamed for this. Another concern similar, to the American urban sprawl is whether the people that move into these homes will actually partake in the community and environment of Anlong as they commute to work elsewhere.
Incidentally a woman with her baby boy noticed our group outside of their tiny neighborhood and invited us inside to see her home. Once inside, one could see that Ming’s concerns were justified. Their home was full of new electronics, a large HD TV screen, fancy decorative lights, and an audio system. It didn’t seem as though this family would be spending too much time outside with the agricultural community. I could see something like a reverse culture shock on the students faces. I myself didn’t expect to find such modernity and consumerism in what was supposed to be an ecological rural village. On our way out the students snapped some pictures of the family and the surrounding homes.
It was a sweaty trek to the riverside where most of the actual ecological infrastructure was used. On the way we saw that not all of the farmers had joined the ecological band wagon in liu of making better money. Recently, many farmers had rented their land to companies, which in turn converted some of their land to tree farming as they could make a large portion of money from each tree even if it meant waiting several years. We took pictures of some trees that had feeding tubes penetrating their trunks as companies force fed chemical fertilizers to expedite their growth in trees and profits. It was quite odd to see plant food packets taped to the trunks with long-straw dangling from their sides like plastic vines.
Near the bridge was a small shrine to the earth god. There were little flowers and other plants set around the square stone column in reverence and gratitude for the crops and plenty. Ming told us another local legend of how rice first came to mainland China. Legend has it that a dog in Hainan that was hot from running through the rice fields decided to cool off by swimming to mainland China. Some of the rice stuck in his fur and fell off as the dog walked around China and so the dog is the living being in the household that was given the first serving of rice every new harvest.
I was introduced to everyone in the office the next Friday morning after eating some fried bread and dumplings with hot soy milk. After getting a tour of the office and lunch, Ming collected some reading material for me to catch up on the latest updates in CURA and to more fully understand the Anlong Village project and mission. Chengdu Urban River’s Association has been trying to connect the urbanites and Ecological farmers north of the city and build economic and environmental sustainability between them.
Before arriving in China I had learned the basics of CURA, which was to address the water pollution problems of the City’s rivers and waterways. In 1992, the local government began the Fu Nan River Project, which aimed to increase the flow of the rivers and remove or prevent the waste and pollution that enters the rivers. To do this they reconstructed the water ways with brick walls, small dams, and moved factories and waste outlets into the river. Ten years later the waters remained polluted and more research was done to discover the 60% of the river’s pollution came from agricultural non-point sources upstream.
Many farmers must now use pesticides and fertilizers to make up for the loss labor that has moved to the industrial and factory jobs in the city. The local government project came to an end but Tian Jun, a former government leader in the project stepped down from her position in government to establish CURA in trying to address the continued city river pollution.
Since then, CURA has worked with one of the larger villages, Anlong, north of Chengdu to help develop sustainable agriculture that does not require chemicals. To do this the farmers need to find a way to replace these chemicals. This came in the form of Bio-Gas digesters, urine diverting toilets (a Swedish invention), and man-made wetlands. These constructed wetlands filter “gray” water through terraces of native aquatic vegetation so that clean water returns to the river. The Bio-Gas digester is a collector for animal and plant waste which ferments a gas that is collected as a substitute energy source for fossil fuels and other unsustainable fuel sources. The animal and plant waste also becomes compost for replacing chemical fertilizers. Solid human waste collected from the urine diverting toilets is kept in a composting container so that human waste sterilizes over time to be eventually used as additional compost to fertilize plants.
These are some of the newly developed infrastructure that makes living more affordable and green for farmers of Anlong village. Though, a return to some of the more traditional ways of farming are also important for raising enough crops to make a living. Seasonal rotations of fields and growing different crops alongside one another allows for soils to replenish over the year. The loss in yields when switching from factory produced chemical fertilizers to natural methods is substantial the first year, but over the years a return in the natural investment pays off for everyone. So CURA aslo has a Community Supported Agricultural model that helps farmers connect with urban consumers looking for chemical free produce and food. The food produced in Anlong is not technically organic as the process to be certified organic is convoluted, expensive, and must be approved and regulated by the Communist Party. So by cutting out this middle man, the farmers can sell ecological produce for only twice the price of non-ecological produce and consumers win because Certified Organic produce is much more expensive than what Anlong farmers charge for theirs.
As much of the infrastructure is completed, the staff here wish to further promote this sustainable model, by further connecting the farmers to consumers, but also to raise awareness of the alternative ways people can be sustainable here in China. Tours to Chengdu residents, and even foreigners, are given in hopes that this model will be encouraged in other villages and that urbanites have a better appreciation of the hard and collective work needed to be care for the environment and people in it. Next week, I will explain more about my own job here at CURA for the two months and how it relates to the model and mission of Anlong and CURA.
Arriving in China happened fast, as I slept the whole plane ride to avoid jetlag. Getting around Beijing airport was probably the hardest part of the trip there. I didn’t know the language and and twice I was pointed to the wrong terminal. Thankfully the layover was two hours. I eventually found the bus that would take me out to the plane on the landing and settled in my seat. The sky was gray from air pollution, but if you looked straight up in the sky there was a brown-orange outline of clouds in the haze that reminded me of some sci-fi movie of mars.
Once the plane got outside of Beijing everything cleared up and green mountains with yellow clay cliffs reached up into the clouds. Farmlands laid out like patchwork and rivers were gray winding roads, sometimes cutting canyons and valleys in the hills. After being served cold pork and microwaved chicken from a TV-dinneresque carton, I fell asleep.
My throat was closed with thirst as I hauled my carry on out of the overhead and walked down the stairs onto the runway. I stopped at a water fountain for what would be my unknowingly last cold drink from the tap. My host, Ming, texted me that he would be a bit late. I passed the minutes by looking around and trying to make sense of the bright neon signs advertising soda, snacks, cell phones, and other unknown services or products in Chinese.
Ming came up from behind and after formally shaking hands and asking and answering about the flight, we went out to hail a lime green taxi. There were no seatbelts and so I instinctively held on the door handle (not the latch) as we sped along one of Chengdu’s raised ring roads. The city was much larger that I expected and there were high rises like those in Tampa, but not New York, spread out with lights of every color flashing up, down, and around the surface of the buildings. After twenty minutes we arrived at the edge of city and walked through the peppered marble gates of Southwest Jiatong University where I’d be staying the next seven weeks.