Arrival of Industry Brings Suffering to Countryside Modernization in China has created a host of problems for farmers -- among them, the loss of farmland to industry and the onset of industrial pollution. The plight of one village illustrates the difficulties.

Arrival of Industry Brings Suffering to Countryside

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

All this week, we've been looking at some of the issues affecting the lives of the 800 million people who live in China's rural areas. They are more than two thirds of China's population, but they've mostly been left out of China's economic boom. Beyond that, some of the country's farmers have lost their land to industry and industrial pollution.

NPR's Louisa Lim reports on the farmers of one village in coastal China who say a chemical plant built in the 1990s has ruined their land.

LOUISA LIM, reporting:

Geese squawk as they swim around a murky pond halfway up a wooded hillside. But listen carefully and there's a background hum. It's a reminder of the ever present interloper in this rural scene. A massive chemical factory overshadows the once tranquil village of Xiping in Fujian province.

Farmer Song Lingui picks his way along the muddy path beside the factory. A small, careful man, he's walking past the land he used to farm. Four years ago, it was taken away by the local government and sold on to the chemical plant. He was given some compensation but not, he says, enough. He shakes his head ruefully as he remembers how fertile his fields used to be.

Mr. SONG LINGUI (Farmer, China): (Through translator) Our land was so good. We could grow crops on it throughout the year. But they took away our best land, leaving us nowhere to farm. In the past, we could live off our land, but now, that's impossible.

LIM: An acrid smell hangs in the air reminiscent of bleach. The Rongping chemical plant is Asia's biggest manufacturer of chlorate, a substance used in matches, bleach and disinfectant. Its waste products include chromium 6, which can cause cancer.

Mr. LINGUI: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: Mr. Song points out heaps of chemical waste, streaked red and green, simply dumped on the hillside behind the plant. Here, the environmental damage is clear. The trees are brown and dying. They almost look as if they've been scorched. And the bamboo, which was once a source of income, no longer grows.

The countryside is dying and Mr. Song says the villagers are suffering, too.

Mr. LINGUI: (Through translator) Your skin itches and your eyes, too. The strong odor makes your eyes water and everything is blurred. When the wind blows in our direction, we throw up.

LIM: Spurred on by its misfortune, this quiet village has become a trailblazer in resistance. 1721 residents filed a case against the plant for polluting the environment, the largest class action lawsuit of its kind in China.

Last year, a Chinese court ruled against the factory, ordering it to pay almost $30,000 in damages, far less than the villagers sought. The villagers say they've received nothing so far and meanwhile, people keep getting sick.

Farmer Song leads the way to a darkened room off the main street. Inside, 65-year-old Joe Dong Xiang(ph) lies on a hard wooden bed, groaning in pain. She's emaciated and shivering, even though she's covered by a thick blanket.

Ms. JOE DONG XIANG (Chinese resident): (Through translator) I wasn't like this before. My health was okay and I could work the fields. This is what the chemical factory has done to me.

LIM: Her story is echoed by other villagers. According to the local doctor, about 30 residents have died of cancer in the last seven years, a much higher rate than previously. And Mrs. Joe, who's in the late stages of lung cancer, realizes she hasn't much time left.

Mrs. JOE: (Through translator) If I start moving, I throw up. Staying still makes it a bit better. If I move, it's no good. The chemical factory is killing me.

LIM: For its part, the chemical factory has told NPR it started to pay out damages for land pollution. And it denies any link to the cancer cases in the village. In a phone interview, spokesman Lin Xi Chin(ph) said the waste dump behind the plant dates back to the early '90s and is being cleaned up gradually.

Mr. Lin also maintains the factory is helping alleviate poverty in the area. And farmer Song agrees. It's all about money. It's just that the villagers who lost their land aren't benefiting.

Mr. LINGUI: (Through translator) That factory makes a lot of money. The local government gets a lot of tax revenue from it, so when it comes to our problems, they just push us aside. Nobody cares about us farmers.

(Soundbite of children singing)

LIM: A few hundred yards from the factory, children's voices ring out from the local school. Open windows allow the cool breeze to blow gently into the classroom. It's a chilling reminder that if China's environmental problems aren't taken seriously, the cost of inaction will be paid by the next generation.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Xiping Village in Fujian Province, China.

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