China farmers' choice: suicide or financial ruin

Corruption: A government program hatched in far-away Beijing drove impoverished farmers to take their own lives.

October 12, 2003|By Gady Epstein | Gady Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

YONGQUAN VILLAGE, China - In a place where peasants grow just enough food to get by, the mulberry saplings beginning to take root in the mountain slopes of this farming village have become an issue of life and death.

The saplings were planted to firm the ground and, ultimately, help curb the landslides and floods that have visited misery on farmers for centuries, from here to the Yangtze River. But the trees have disturbed the order of life so delicately balanced on this shifting soil.

In the span of just five days this summer in this village of about 1,000 people, three farmers attempted suicide, two of them successfully, becoming casualties of Beijing's reforestation program and of the local officials who brought it here.

The farmland-to-forest program looked to be a fair deal for farmers: It promised them modest grants of food and money for planting trees instead of crops on the steepest slopes, where farming is most difficult and the danger of erosion highest.

But in this village nearly 600 miles southwest of Beijing, high in the Qinling Mountains of Shaanxi Province, one of China's poorest, things didn't work out as planned.

Li Liwen, too hungry to pull all his crops from between the trees and too poor to pay a $65 fine, bought 18 cents worth of pesticide on credit so he could try poisoning himself to death. Li Xiang, a village official, drank enough pesticide to put an end to the financial and political pressures he endured because of the tree-planting program.

And Chen Yingfu, whom authorities might have tried to blame for the official's death, chose to hang himself from a full-grown oak tree.

The story of how an environmental program pushed three subsistence farmers to such desperate measures is, at its most intimate, a picture of the frailties in China's impoverished countryside, a glimpse of the hunger, guilt, greed and corruption in an isolated village.

It exposes the usually invisible human cost of reforms conceived by the central government far away in Beijing and imposed, sometimes brutally, by local authorities who retain almost absolute power in the countryside.

Yongquan is one of countless villages so far removed from the capital that the rules and intentions of China's leaders are hardly relevant to the rigors of daily life. The village is accessible only by foot - a hike up a mountain path from a dirt road that for its final stretch cannot be traversed by car. As a result, what matters is how local officials choose to apply those rules and intentions.

Promising meld

The reforestation program, as conceived in Beijing, seemed to meld a national agenda with a sensitivity to farmers' needs.

Five years ago, aware that the clear-cutting of forests had caused landslides and floods and destroyed natural habitats, then-Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji ordered that logging be curtailed in much of China. Zhu ordered a total ban in the upper reaches of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers, a huge area that includes the Qinling Mountains. In 1999, he approved the farmland-to-forest program, a putatively voluntary plan under which farmers would receive small grants of food and a little cash in exchange for planting trees.

It was an innovative idea, challenging the Chinese farmers' centuries-long practice of wringing crops out of every square inch of their soil. It also would test the often-brittle integrity of local officials, for the crops and money would pass through their hands before getting to villagers.

By any measure, some of the officials and farmers of Yongquan failed these tests. Conversations with the widows of the two dead farmers and with the surviving farmer and local authorities suggest that the mix of power and rural poverty turned a well-intentioned national initiative into a local tragedy.

The village planted trees on 120 acres, about half of all the available farmland. But it's unclear how voluntary the planting was or how well farmers understood the program.

Villagers, trying to scrape out a living, knowingly broke the rules.

Government officials, trying to make some extra money, let the farmers do so, so they could fine them later, villagers said.

The fines, roughly $25 to $75 and perhaps more per household, were onerous for subsistence farmers who earn little money and have little or no savings, raising only enough crops to feed themselves.

"Tragedies like our family's have been caused by government officials," said Chen's widow, Sun Zhufang, 25. The mother of a 3-year-old girl and 2-year-old boy stood just a few feet away from three government officials who were monitoring her conversation.

One of them, Chen Xiaokun, the Yongquan party secretary, said the episode was the fault not of the government but of circumstances.

"The key is that the environment and the geographical conditions of our place are not very good," said Chen, 40. "People are poor and the mountains are barren and the rivers are unforgiving, so that's the root cause for common people to do these kinds of things."

Deteriorating road

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