By Yang Chu
I looked around, and through the grey fog of cigarette smoke I could just make out an outline of the man who was talking at me in a gruff voice with a dialogue of Chinese I couldn’t understand. He gestured animatedly, not noticing in his excitement that I was nodding without comprehension. The smoke swirled around him like incense. A few feet away another man was also talking at me, giving his version of whatever story was in the works, talking over and under the first man in that same incomprehensible dialogue. I didn’t know who to pay attention to so I bobbed my head at each in turn, to keep them talking. A dirty lightbulb hung between us, slightly above our heads, illuminating the dirt walls and the dirt floor. I was in a dirt house on the side of a dirt mountain in the frozen winter of a small village in China’s Gansu Province. Outside was the kind of primordial silent black that only still exists in places where people continue to wake and sleep with the sun. I should have been a bit scared, freshly plucked as I was from my apartment in downtown San Francisco, now wading through the developing world with my developed-world ways and thoughts and expectations of what life should be; but Zhaozhong was with me, so was Liping and Chenyang, and sandwiched between my Green Camel Bell friends I felt safe enough to enjoy the delicious strangeness of the situation.Zhaozhong translated – the two men were talking about sunflower seeds and potatoes. For a long time their village survived on the water of a nearby creek, until one day the land upstream was found to be prime territory for potato farming. Capital poured in and a veritable potato heaven was established, with plenty of starch factories to make sure the rest of the world profits from the potato bounty. All the starchmaking created byproducts, but no matter, that was easily disposed of in the creek, let the downstream village worry about it. The village soon found they couldn’t irrigate their crops; their teeth grew yellow and cragged the more water they drank; they collected rain water to avoid using the polluted creek, and that worked for awhile, but then the droughts came; A drought every year for the past five years, each worse than the last, the climate was changing and the water was leaving and the village was wilting. Green Camel Bell is doing what it can: in this particular village it is helping to move the local agriculture toward sunflowers, a hardier plant requiring less irrigation work, so at least the villagers can earn a living. Green Camel Bell is also prospecting for water purification methods for use throughout Gansu. Last year an Australian institution heard of Green Camel Bell’s work and donated a batch of household water purifiers which was dispatched to local schools and families in high-need areas. To supplement reaction with prevention, Green Camel Bell serves as the region’s major watchdog NGO and engages in water pollution mapping, acting as a bridge of communication between polluting enterprises and the local communities they effect.
As I digested what I was witnessing, an entire nation and world’s struggles with resource scarcity and socioeconomic inequality being played out before my eyes in that little dirt house, Zhaozhong spoke again: things are changing so fast and so thoroughly – he reflected – the climate and the water, the forces so large, so strong, and there are villagers clinging to the periphery, all there is to do is adapt, adapt, change with the change, adapt. He spoke quietly, not with anger but with peace, and at once I saw the power of Green Camel Bell, the humble faith in the worth and ability and transformative power of the common person facing social metamorphosis. In China’s provinces, where big industry provides millions of struggling people with a livelihood, it is not about fighting the good fight, it can’t be about battling it out for ideals, the only way forward is to learn how to coexist without dealing each other harm. The potato farmers upstream aren’t to blame for growing potatoes, but for dumping their byproducts downstream. The factories of China aren’t to blame for producing, but for polluting. Too often this small difference is overlooked with tragic results – one side gets angry, the other side gets defensive, walls go up, both sides stop listening, and a bad situation is never allowed to get better. Green Camel Bell does it differently – they provide pollution victims with education and tools for self protection, and they provide polluting enterprises with guidance on how to improve operations and be removed from the national water pollution map. A chance for reflection and redemption, a platform for openness and communication, an appeal to logic and an attitude of tolerance that rings clearly out across China’s western frontier, like a camel’s bell across a parched desert. Fresh sunflower seeds crackled happily on top of the coal-burning furnace, the smoke continued to swirl as the men continued to talk, and when the tea kettle whistled I politely declined the offer of hot water.