Turning over a new leaf: fighting poverty in China

The remote mountain community of Jidao, in south-west China, is bouncing back from the brink of destitution, as Mark Deasey discovered during a recent visit.

In the new globalized China, it might seem hard to imagine that there are villages where no foreigner has ever set foot, even in Guizhou province, which has long been synonymous with isolation and poverty. But Jidao natural village, more than five hours' drive through steep limestone mountains and dense pine forests from the provinicial capital of Guiyang, is one such village. It's here that the reality of 300 million Chinese still caught in deep poverty hits home.

The remote mountain community of Jidao, in south-west China, is bouncing back from the brink of destitution, as Mark Deasey discovered during a recent visit.

In the new globalized China, it might seem hard to imagine that there are villages where no foreigner has ever set foot, even in Guizhou province, which has long been synonymous with isolation and poverty.

But Jidao natural village, more than five hours' drive through steep limestone mountains and dense pine forests from the provinicial capital of Guiyang, is one such village. It's here that the reality of 300 million Chinese still caught in deep poverty hits home.

Nearly all the population are ethnic Miao - one of the most numerous of the several dozen minorities that tend to inhabit the most remote and inhospitable parts of south-west China.

The landscape is strikingly beautiful, but it's not a beauty you can eat. Patches of flat land are rare, and villages are built into steep slopes. For a long time, though, the inhabitants of the area were able to make a living from logging. It was small-scale and low-impact in terms of the total forest cover, but after the Yangtze River floods in 1998, a total ban was put in place to preserve the watersheds.

At the same time, the national government introduced its “Green for Grain” program whereby communities that lost their livelihoods by complying with the ban would get guaranteed staple food rations for a period while they found other ways to make a living. This worked as a safeguard against destitution; but for communities who'd relied solely on timber-cutting for generations, and had little arable land, there were few options available.

That's where Oxfam (Australia) came in. In collaboration with Oxfam Hong Kong and the county government, we began a project to ensure villagers could make a sustainable living from their immediate area, even with the access to timber gone. This involved improving the small-scale agriculture which was possible on the available land; increasing livestock raising on the surrounding pasture lands; and complementing this with support for better primary schooling and basic health care.

Our visit took place four years after project implementation had been completed and the last direct contributions from Oxfam had been made. With almost any community-based project, this can be the acid test -- to see whether the community structures we've supported have taken ownership and whether the people are motivated to keep the activities going.

On the basis of what we saw and heard, our work in Jidao passed the test. Pasturing cattle was one of the main ways of generating income that was introduced; it can be a risky strategy in a fragile mountain environment, but in the long distances we walked over the pasturelands, there was no indication of any erosion or land degradation; the measures the community had agreed to protect the environment had been carefully followed; and all families engaged in the enterprise were earning steady income.

On the small plots of arable land, rice and potatos yields have increased to the point where families' annual food shortages have significantly reduced.

Our support has extended to the village school, ensuring a common community fund for basic materials and amenities, which poor families would otherwise find beyond their means. By participating in the kind of community organizing these projects depend on, women and men learn new skills in numeracy, managing and negotiating.

This project did not contain all the answers to loss of livelihood of a remote Miao community; to environmental degradation; and to survival of very marginalized people in a fast-changing economy. But it was made clear by every villager we spoke with that it had been the crucial factor in allowing them to take control of their own situation and turn it around.

Mark Deasey is Oxfam Australia's East Asia Manager. He was among the first group of foreigners to visit Jidao.