The Miracle of Blue Skies - In search of the human dimension in China
The Miracle of Blue Skies - In search of the human dimension in China
Chee Yoke Ling, points out that people who, like her, live in a city like Beijing, with its twenty million inhabitants, have a lot to complain about: the blanket of smog that is always hanging over the city, fuelled by traffic emissions. The bicyclists who once filled the streets of Chinese cities have had to make way for the massive streams of cars purchased by the growing middle class. Meanwhile, old neighbourhoods fall prey to relentless demolition and bulldozers, making place for even more of the same apartment and office buildings.
Yoke Ling was born in Malaysia and is not the complaining type. She prefers to look at what remains and what may come. "The city still has authentic neighbourhoods and communities. In three minutes' time, you can walk from a six-lane highway to the old city, with its small streets and houses arranged around a courtyard. There, it is quiet and you can still hear the birds."
Not all is lost, is what she means. And because ancient China still exists, it could become part of a new, more sustainable China. "I hope that bicycles will once again dominate the streets of Beijing, combined with an efficient and sustainable public transport system, with buses and metros that operate on green electricity. And, of course, I long for the great miracle of finally seeing clear, blue skies again, day after day."
Yoke Ling's dream does not stop at Beijing's gates. The human dimension, she observes, demands much more attention in China. The restless migration of millions of Chinese in search of employment and higher wages has caused an explosion of urban sprawl, while the countryside is becoming less sparsely populated. The elderly have stayed behind and often take care of the grandchildren while the parents work in the cities. This has to change, Yoke Ling insists. With well-targeted policies it must be possible to breathe new life into rural communities so that future generations can once again grow up being raised by both parents and that the youth no longer has to flee the countryside to find a job in the city.
Nowhere in the world is the contrast between city and countryside greater than in China. The country has made an enormous effort to produce sufficient amounts of food to feed the rapidly growing population. The famines of the past have been practically forgotten. But while agrarian production has expanded immensely, rural incomes have remained far below those of the urban Chinese. Large parts of the country remain impoverished. Social cohesion has come under increased pressure, not only in the peasant villages but also in the metropolises. Meanwhile, the sprawling cities and factories take up increasingly more valuable farmland.
"Restoring the balance between what is urban and non-urban", says Yoke Ling, "is essential for the future well-being of the Chinese." This means that the sharp distinctions between the city and the countryside need to be minimised. The two should be complementary and not in an adversarial relationship. There is a need for smaller cities and a revitalised countryside. "Today, every small peasant dreams of sending his or her children to the city to study. But if there were sufficient facilities and local services, this would no longer be necessary. I hope I'll have a chance to see a migration reversal out of the cities with people returning to the countryside and once again getting in touch with nature and the land."
Rural impoverishment is partly due to the deficient agrarian knowledge of the average Chinese farmer and the tiny plots of land millions of farmers rely on to feed their families. There is a lack of modern agricultural educational opportunities. Meanwhile, the larger producers have become addicted to intensive agricultural practices, which increase water and soil contamination. As usual, the planners have turned to a technological approach, which means giving an important role to genetically modified crops.
Yoke Ling has, both at home and abroad, always actively resisted unbridled technological interventions such as genetic manipulation, which she believes seriously threatens China's biological safety. She believes that Chinese planners should be seeking a new, more ecological strategy. The first signs of change are already visible. "I work with Chinese partners who regularly visit the countryside and the indigenous communities, where there are the early signs of a revitalisation of local life. There is more hope that the young will eventually return, armed with the knowledge they acquired in the city, which they can combine with traditional knowledge. They can thus benefit from the combination of the best of both worlds and continue to stay in touch with the land."
Ling believes that some of the key elements of the new approach are respect for nature, a revaluation of traditional knowledge, the use of local materials, appropriate modern technology and people-centred management. "Many solutions are already available. We know what ecologically intelligent agriculture on the community level looks like, what a sensible diet looks like, how we can increase the farmers' productivity without polluting the ground and the water supply. The important thing now is to convert this into policies. The knowledge is there. What we need to do is apply it."
Yoke Ling sees parallels with movements in other parts of the world, from the Occupy movement in the West that started in New York to the revaluation of indigenous knowledge and ways of life in Latin America. "People eventually get tired of a lifestyle that merely focuses on more consumption. Things are brewing. People are thinking actively about 'urban reorienting'. And the core element that traverses all these initiatives is that people have to regain control of their own surroundings. Because this makes them happier: spending more time in their community, participating in a joint venture such as a city garden, and feeling part of social and cultural life. Millions of people have lost the feeling of belonging somewhere. This has to change." She denies that behind many alternatives there's a desire to return to the good old times, when life was still clear and simple. "It is precisely about the combination, the clever use of what is old and what is new."
Constraining the Metropolises
The official development model is increasingly a subject of discussion in China, says Yoke Ling. For a long time, the starting point has been that people should better move to the city where, simply put, one finds the best services but this idea has come under increased criticism. Increasingly, there are arguments for decentralisation, for rural development and for limiting the sprawl of the metropolises. Yoke Ling: "Urban traffic and pollution make life increasingly miserable in many cities. People live in apartments that are just too small. On weekends and holidays everyone flees the city, which in turn leads to huge traffic flows. This is not the kind of life we want to lead. That is why we need people who have the political courage, with support from the public, to say: 'We're going to do this differently'."
In the countryside, social protests against pollution and impoverishment are not unusual, and these signs can no longer be ignored. The Chinese government has announced various measures to improve the living standard in rural areas. Modernising agriculture is a core element of these plans and the provision of social services in rural areas are priorities on the agenda. A positive development, says Yoke Ling: "The current 5-year development plan signals a conscious attempt to seek a better balance among the environment, social and economic dimensions."
Changes often occur rapidly in China; take, for example, the explosive rise of organic agriculture. Until some years ago, there was no demand for organic food products at all. But after a number of large-scale food scandals, things began to change. The urban nouveau riche began demanding more reliable foods, followed by the increasingly aware young people. Yoke Ling: "People are increasingly willing to pay slightly more for sustainably produced food. And this goes hand in hand with the revaluation of farming." Meanwhile, China has climbed among the world's top countries in area of farmland devoted to organic farming. At the same time, however, China uses more fertilisers and pesticides than any other country. A similar contradiction can be observed in the energy sector: China is not only the world's largest coal consumer, but for some years now it has also been the main investor in wind and solar energy. China is full of these kinds of contradictions, observes Yoke Ling. But she, being the eternal optimist, believes the glass is half full with rapid changes exemplifying the tremendous dynamic quality of contemporary Chinese society.
Yoke Ling has been concerned with living in harmony with nature ever since her student days. "As students in a developing country - in my case Malaysia - at the time we were very interested in the debate surrounding the Club of Rome's limits to growth. We wanted to learn from the West and avoid the mistakes made there." It was a time of optimism, she recalls. "We believed that - with the aid of the United Nations, NGOs and campaigns, and by relying on our own strengths - we could change the world, make it more sustainable." But the next twenty years saw that ideal pretty much disappear. Instead of cooperating, profit-driven competition increased. But with a view to the Rio+20 conference, Yoke Ling once again sees some hopeful developments. "I still dream of social equality, justice, and living in harmony with nature, and of a lifestyle that fits this vision. To see that more and more young people are struggling for sustainability and for a different way of life is an enormous source of inspiration to me."
Read more about this subject
Publication / 14 January 2019
Publication / 14 January 2019
News / 11 January 2019
Clive Chibule from Zambia won the Gender Just Climate Solutions Award at the climate conference in Katowice, Poland. His project "Community strategies for climate-resilient livelihoods" aims at training rural women on leadership and climate resilience. A very important project, as Zambia is already feeling the effects of climate change, and rural women are affected most.
News / 14 December 2018
During the 24th Conference of the Parties (COP24) of the UNFCCC taking place in Katowice, Both ENDS partner Raju Pandit Chettri – director of Prakriti Resources Centre in Nepal - was one of the selected Southern leaders to meet with the Dutch Minister of Development Cooperation and Foreign Trade, Sigrid Kaag. We asked Raju about his expectations, messages, Kaag's responses and his experiences of the meeting.
External link / 10 December 2018
An Open Letter to States and Development Financiers on the need to ensure that development interventions support the realization of human rights, safeguard human rights defenders and guarantee meaningful public participation
Publication / 10 December 2018
News / 1 December 2018
On Thursday, November 29, seven suspects of the murder of Berta Cáceres (in March 2016) were found guilty. Members of the indigenous human rights organisation COPINH, of which Cáceres was the leader, and close relatives of Cáceres herself see the ruling as the first step towards justice for her murder and the recognition that the company DESA is co-responsible for this. They also point out, however, that the process was permeated with corruption, intimidation and other abuses from the very beginning, and that the masterminds behind the murder are still walking around freely.
News / 23 November 2018
Today, the Right Livelihood Awards 2018 will be presented in Stockholm. One of the four people who will receive the prize this year is Yacouba Sawadogo, 'the man who stopped the desert'. Yacouba, a farmer from Yatenga, Burkina Faso, is one of the founders of so-called 'Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration' with which degenerated and dry areas are becoming green and fertile again. According to Both ENDS, Yacouba's award is very well-deserved!
News / 23 November 2018
The production of palm oil is often accompanied by deforestation, environmental destruction and land grabbing. Local communities and activists who stand up against these problems are often threatened. Now the RSPO has taken significant steps in recent months to tackle these issues.
News / 16 November 2018
Silence can sometimes say more than a thousand words. When colleagues from our partner organisations tell us their stories,* our reaction is often silence; a dejected silence.
News / 15 November 2018
On Wednesday, November 14, Dutch Newspaper De Volkskrant published a joint op-ed by Both ENDS, Hivos, Greenpeace Netherlands and Witness about the deforestation in the Amazon region which is still going on rapidly, having disastrous consequences for the indigenous people who live in the area, for biodiversity and for the climate. The Netherlands is one of the largest buyers of Brazilian agricultural products such as soy and beef, and should ensure that deforestation, land grabbing and human rights violations do not occur in these production chains. Unfortunately, this is not at all the case yet.
News / 8 November 2018
Every 10 years, the mandate and activities of 'Export Development Canada' (EDC), the Canadian export credit agency, are reviewed. Since the last review took place in 2008, another review is currently underway. Both ENDS and a couple of other CSOs working from a number of countries made a joint submission as formal input to the legislative review. We did this especially in light of the Canadian governments' ambition to show leadership on climate change and to prioritise climate change action and clean economic growth.
Publication / 7 November 2018
News / 26 October 2018
The sixth High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was held at the UN Headquarters in New York in July 2018. The HLPF provides an opportunity to review global progress towards achieving the SDGs and for countries to present their own Voluntary National Reviews of the implementation of the SDGs. At this year's HLPF, SDG 15, known as the 'Life on Land'-goal, was under review.
Blog / 16 October 2018
A photoblog by Marjolein van Rijn
In 2016, the state forest around the community of Kasepuhan Karang, in Java, Indonesia, was transformed into customary lands. With these newly acquired land tenure rights, the community has started initiatives to use their land in a sustainable and inclusive way. What this means for the community in terms of livelihoods and food security, became clear during a field visit at the start of the Global Land Forum 2018.
News / 15 October 2018
Last September, approximately 30 women and men from community based organizations of Honduras and El Salvador learned the tool of analog forestry which uses natural forests as guides to create ecologically stable and socio-economically productive landscapes.
News / 7 October 2018
We are very proud that our director Daniëlle Hirsch has been included again in the ‘Sustainable 100’ (an annual ranking list published by Dutch newspaper Trouw), and has gone up more than 40 spots compared to last year! Danielle was included in the list because of the many things she does with her organisation as a whole, but she got the higher ranking for the way she combines her criticism of the destructive role of the Netherlands as a trading nation and large cause of CO2 emissions in the world (often supported by the Dutch government), with a constructive attitude when it comes to finding alternatives and solutions.
Blog / 5 October 2018
By Marjolein van Rijn
From the first moment I arrive in Surabaya, I enter the rollercoaster called ECOTON. I'm visiting them to get to know the work of this long-time Both ENDS partner, and have only three days for this. But ECOTON does a lot, and all of it at the same time. Tirelessly, they work on the protection of the Brantas River.
Blog / 28 September 2018
By Burghard Ilge and Sander Hehanussa
In 2001 Tanzania and the Netherlands signed a treaty only known to a few; a so-called Bilateral Investment Treaty aimed "to extend and intensify the economic relations between them and to stimulate the flow of capital and technology and the economic development of the Contracting Parties". But signing the treaty was in fact mainly a symbolic act which since then has had little if any effect in this respect. In fact, a report by the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis found that BITs have no positive effect on investment in low and lower middle income countries located in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa, including Tanzania.
News / 28 September 2018
We congratulate Joan Carling, member of the permanent commission on indigenous peoples of the UN, for having received the Lifetime Achievement Award as 'Champion of the Earth' by the UN Environment! This is the UN's highest environmental honor, given to six of the world's most outstanding environmental change makers once a year.