In late September, I ended up accompanying a group of students from Lancaster University to China again. You can get a flavour of what we saw and did in this video – including the wonderful demonstration of traditional dancing laid on in the second village we visited.
We were heading to Nanning in Guangxi province to see food and farming systems there that aim to help build resilience and improve living standards for small farmers. Passing through the huge and prosperous city of Gungzhou (formerly Canton) gave us a glimpse of the dynamic growth happening in China – where they seem to build high-rise buildings faster than you can grow some crops.
Nanning is a much smaller city, but still with several million people, further west. Yet here too are new high rises, often illuminated at night. The old city food markets still thrive although supermarkets are also growing, both of foreign and local origin. And the usual fast food brands seen in Europe and the USA also populate the downtown shopping centres. For me our worst, and most expensive meal was in one of these, while our best meals were in Chinese restaurants, in particular the one we ate in one the first night. That was set up by some of the students who had worked in the villages we visited during the week – to build links between the rural and urban and provide a market for the organic crops being grown.
It was my second visit to Guzhai village of Mashan town, where the local farmers produce organic vegetables, raise pigs and use their waste to produce biogas. They also work with the Guangxi Maize Research Institute on a participatory plant breeding programme that has so far delivered six new maize varieties. Here, they favour a waxy maize and large containers of freshly cooked cobs were brought out for us to sample when we arrived.
I first came to this village last year with Dr Yiching Song and her colleagues. Yiching is Senior Research Fellow , Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy, Chinese Academy of Sciences and head their Participatory Action Research Programme. She has been leading work on Supporting Farmers’ Organization and Rural Innovation Process in China and in which these villages are involved. Some of this work is written up in more detail in Seeds and Synergies: Innovating Rural Development in China (Practical Action, 2010) click to read
Apart from the impact on their farming, the female leader of the farmers’ organisation that had grown up from the project, which largely consists of women in the village, a key benefit has been the sense of empowerment it has given them.
In the second village we visited, where they have also been working with the agricultural extension office, the local famers have been experimenting with and adopted a new – but in reality quite old – approached to rice production. Instead of using fertilisers and pesticides in the rice paddies they are using ducks – in a rice–duck system. They feed the ducks, which live in the paddies, and the ducks both fertilise them and eat insects that otherwise damage the rice. The ducks are taken from the field at key points when they might eat the rice and are either sold or eaten.
Each farmer cleans and bags their own rice production but the villagers have developed a brand for this kind of rice production from the village. Each bag is labelled with the generic brand on the front and has the farmers name on the back. We both ate the rice and saw it for sale in the organic restaurant we ate at in Nanning. The farmers get a premium for the rice and so greater incomes. The feed for the ducks comes out about the same as the costs of fertiliser and pesticides, says the head of the farmers association – again headed by a women.
One young man who joins us on the tour is an exception. He worked for a couple of years in the city, he says, but did not like that and came back. Now he grows mulberries for silk worm production and rent land of a number of others. He now has 27 mu (1ha=15mu) which produce a good income for him.
These developments have also been supported by the Hong Kong based NGO Partner of Community Development and Chinese based NGO Farmer’s Friend. These and other villages in three province in SW China are part of a new EU financed 5 Year project on strengthening small farmer resilience in the face of climate change (SIFOR). Yiching leads the the group from China, with other partners in Peru, Kenya, and India, along with the UK-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) which coordinates the project.