China Environmental News Digest

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Thursday, October 12, 2006

Farmer: If I can be green, anyone can

UPDATED: 08:30, October 11, 2006, China Daily Via people`s Daily online

When Chen Faqing says he is selling his Audi out of concern for the environment, he has far greater aims than just cutting one gas-guzzler out of the system.

The farmer-turned factory owner and environmental activist is selling up to fund his latest green venture a website dedicated to bringing China's illegal polluters to book.

The site, www.nmcfq.com, was launched in June, and last month the 40-year-old was nominated as "a civilian hero" in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, for his environmental protection work in that part of East China.

As well as setting up the website, Chen has taken environmental cases to court even though he has faced intimidation and two arson attacks on his home which he says were intended to scare him off.

Moreover, Chen also put up his own money to fund advertising campaigns to raise awareness of environmental protection, paying out more than 470,000 yuan (US$58,750) in the past two years.

All the advertisements have a simple message: Treating the environment well is the same as treating yourself well.

All the advertisements carry Chen's name and proudly proclaim his status as farmer, a badge of honour he clings to.

"A lot of people in the city seem to think people from the countryside are peasants only able to take responsibility for farming," he said.

"I just want people to know that if I as a farmer a position many Chinese believe to be the lowest level in society have a sense of responsibility for environmental protection, so should they.

"More importantly, if even we farmers are paying attention to the problem, the government certainly has no excuse to ignore pollution."

Living in Renhe County in Yuhang District, 25 minutes' drive from Hangzhou, Chen became successful through poultry farming and a business buying and selling canal barges.

In 2001, he co-invested in a factory in the village, and sublet the premises, securing him a stable income of more than 100,000 yuan (US$12,500) per year.

There is no doubt Chen is in a position to sit back and enjoy a comfortable life, but he says dust pollution from a quarry near his village made him take up environmentalism.

He could not live happily and healthily, he says, when the whole village was enveloped in choking dust.

Chen's county is home to more than 10 stone quarries, some less than 2.5 kilometres from his house.

"The pollution was around when I was little," said Chen, who added that there had been quarries in the area for 100 years.

When he was young, he said, the situation was not too bad but then stone extraction became more heavily industrialized and demand grew. By the late 1980s dust had become a major blight on villagers' lives.

Private quarries operated for more than 20 hours each day to maximize output and the resulting dust and noise had a profound effect on people.

"We couldn't dry our clothes outside and could only rarely open the windows of our homes; dust gathered absolutely everywhere," Chen said.

More than 100 mine workers have been diagnosed with lung diseases caused by the pollution. Because quarry workers often changed jobs, it has been very difficult for anyone to hold quarry owners to account and demand compensation, Chen explained. At first Chen complained to county officials but, angered by their indifference, the farmer, who was only educated as far as junior middle school, started to teach himself environmental law.

At first he wanted to take all the quarry owners to court but realized it would be a long, drawn out, expensive and likely fruitless exercise, with possible fines too small to act as a real deterrent.

Instead he moved his attention to the top of the chain, suing the Yuhang District Environmental Bureau (YDEB) in June 2002, accusing it of not fulfilling its legal responsibilities.

"I constantly complained to the bureau, but they just asked why I could not keep quiet like everyone else. Because the pollution had existed for more than 20 years, I was supposed to get used to it rather than complain to try and make things better," he remembered.

"Although the bureau went through the motions of making sure regulations were followed, enforcement was weak the quarries continued to pollute," he said.

Although he bought a camera to record photographic evidence, eventually Chen lost the case, but he still believes his action made a difference.

"After the case, the bureau and local government made real changes to clean things up. All the quarries were ordered to install water sprinklers to reduce dust. As a result, the environment has got much better, and I am happy about that," he said.

In December 2003, Chen filed a lawsuit against the Zhejiang government and Zhejiang environmental bureau, requiring them to prevent pollution in the Dongtiao Creek headwaters protection area which supplies water to over 800,000 residents in Chen's home county, and to carry out measures to improve water quality.

Again, he lost the case.

But Chen doesn't for a minute regret his actions; he believes his efforts have at least been noticed by environmental protection departments. And that is all he wants.

Chen subscribed to the newspaper China Environment News, after the lawsuit.

What astonished him was the worsening pollution across the country. However, it is impossible for an individual to prevent the situation getting worse by taking all enterprises to court.

Chen realized the key point was to raise awareness among the public and businesses and he thought about making public advertisements about environmental protection.

However, as he knew nothing about TV advertisements, Chen prepared 20,000 yuan (US$2,500) and paid a visit to the Hangzhou TV Station Comprehensive Channel in May 2004.

Staff were surprised to hear he wanted to use his own cash to make a public advertisement, usually made using State funds.

Touched by his sincerity, the channel director accepted his request and arranged 10-second advertisements every hour for a week, for 10,000 yuan (US$1,250) in total.

Chen's eyes were glued to the TV screen all week; no one enjoyed the advertisements more than he did.

"It didn't worry me to see my fortune go in a few seconds. In effect, they only charged half the amount I had prepared to spend, so in other words, I got an extra 10,000 yuan," Chen said with a smile.

Later, he left for Beijing to look for national media to do advertisements. He chose the People's Daily as he believed the majority of its readers are officials. Chen has spent 170,000 yuan (US$21,250) posting four advertisements in the paper over the past two years.

Furthermore, last May he told the Chinese Environmental Cultural Promotion Association to make 32 billboards for a few provincial capital cities, costing 250,000 yuan (US$31,250).

But he said he does not have as much money as people think.

"If I have more money, I will do more public advertisements, for sure," he said.

He pointed out that some cities have put a lot of effort into environmental protection, but the high costs involved sometimes mean their economic development is not as good as in other cities where polluting enterprises do little to help the environment and in fact are the pillar of the local economy.

This can lead to a vicious circle, whereby cities put the economy first without considering environmental protection.

"This is a matter for the whole country rather than a particular city," said Chen.

"Either humans eliminate pollution, or pollution kills human beings. The environmental protection issue is very pressing right now," he added.

Chen launched his own environmental website on June 5, 2005, the World Environment Day.

After receiving calls from around the country, Chen, along with his assistant Chen Zhenlin, wrote some of the complaints on his website, and then submitted them to relevant governmental departments.

The number of complaints has reached 47, but only 8 of them have got feedback in Zhejiang Province, while nothing has been heard from other provinces.

"An environmental department has a responsibility to receive complaints and provide feedback within a certain period. But because of the bureaucratic style of work, it is so difficult to fully rectify a situation," he sighed.

Chen criticized singers or film stars who have become environmental ambassadors in a few cities, but have done little except perform a few times. None of them have done anything related to environmental protection, he said.

"We should make real progress rather than be busy seeking so- called environmental ambassadors," he suggested.

Chen never tells his wife what he is doing, as he doesn't want her to worry too much.

His house was set on fire once in 2003 and the year after.

With the help of neighbours, his foster mother, who lived upstairs, escaped from one of the fires. Since then, she has moved her bedroom to the ground floor in order to escape easily in case it happens again.

Chen said he had good days and bad days. "Sometimes I feel depressed as it seems there is no end to this work for which I should not really be responsible. But I just cannot ignore it. Generally, I enjoy what I do, and that's enough," he added.

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