Me and River Protection in China

Written by Areeya Tivasuradej

I came to China in September, 2010. The timing was perfect. As a recent graduate, China gave me the opportunity to apply what I learned in college, explore a whole new culture, learn a new language, and find what I really want to do with my degree in geography.

When I applied for the China Council’s scholarship, I had two goals in mind. One was to learn Chinese, as a language, a country, a culture, and a person. The other was to volunteer in an environmental NGO. I wanted to know what kind of sustainable development plan and environmental protection policy China had in mind as part of its rapid growing period. Two and a half months of adjusting and learning basic Chinese, I felt I was ready to fulfill my second goal.

I tried an environmental club on campus, but it wasn’t what I was looking for. I wanted to dig deeper into this sustainability realm. I wanted to know how an organization made changes in a bigger society, bigger than a campus wide activity. I contacted the United States’ consulate and they gave me an email address for Chengdu Urban Rivers Association (CURA).

After only one email, I knew CURA. This Chengdu-based NGO works to keep local rivers pollution free. Formed in 2005, this seven years young organization has become a worldly known environmental organization for its numerous accomplishments.

Although the word “urban” is in our name, our effort is not only strictly within the urban Chengdu environment but also cover the peripheral rural villages. One has to remember that everything in the environment interconnected. If the upstream river is dirty, the downstream will be too. So, CURA works with both rural villagers and urban dwellers to tighten their relationships in improving the quality of local rivers.

The main project we’re working on is to create a model for sustainable villages in which we can apply this model to any agricultural communities. We partnered up with Anlong Village, located 30 kilometers northwest of Chengdu city. We provide the funding and knowledge to assist farmers in their transformation to become organic and sustainable. The farmers put the ideas into action. The whole process is basically encouraging farmers to go back to the old ways of farming, the environmental-friendly one, with a little help from modern technology to increase efficiency. The result of all these? Concisely put, we’re limiting pollution to enter our soil, rivers, air, and ultimately our bodies.

But it’s not just organic farming we aim for, we want the whole lifestyle to be sustainable and low carbon. That’s why we developed a low waste sustainable living cycle that’s easy to adopt. It’s like a package deal for anyone. This green package include composting toilets, biogas generated cooking and heating facilities, water pollution filtering wetlands, toxic-free agriculture, and, of course, organic fertilizers.

We also established a community supported agriculture (CSA) program between urban Chengdunese and Anlong farmers to promote the village’s organic products and maintain a stable customer base for the farmers. Not only that the urban members get organic produce deliver to the city every week, Anlong villagers also welcome visitors to learn their nascent green farming practices, enjoy totally organic lunch, and rent a plot to grow DIY organic crops. But you’re most likely welcomed on weekends only, unless you arrange an appointment with local farmers in advance, because, nevertheless, they’re still farmers and farmers’ work hours are 24/7.

My role in the organization as a volunteer varies depending on the project. Mostly, I participate in green life promoting events and do some translations. It’s a good way to enhance my Chinese language proficiency and learn more about green NGOs here in China. I also get to be a Chinese organic farmer assistant once in a while when I visit Anlong Village on weekends. Although my involvement with CURA is only a side project, I feel more attached to the organization than my true academic purpose.

Fun activities I was involved with CURA include tree planting to celebrate arbor day, farmer’s market at Anlong, frog hunting to assess the village’s ecology condition, and wetland construction as part of a homemade grey water purification system.

In June 2011, CURA’s founder invited me to join a symposium with two volunteer organizations from Hong Kong and Thailand. The symposium turned out to be a great introduction to two incredible organizations: Partnership for Community Development (PCD) and Thai Volunteer Service (TVS). This symposium also gave me the opportunity to be one of TVS many ardent volunteers.

This three-day symposium was mostly held at Anlong Village. I showed up as a CURA volunteer to assist in the Chinese-Thai translation. The goal was to demonstrate the Anlong Ecological Model to PCD and TVS representatives and how young volunteers could contribute into such project. PCD and TVS shared their volunteers’ experiences in projects in rural development and sustainable agriculture. Both PCD and TVS are organizations that recruit youngsters to volunteer their time and knowledge to revolutionize rural areas into self-efficient communities. But the feedback from these exemplary volunteers were more than just how they and the villagers reformed, they learned to be part of a community and had the time to reflect what were really important to them. These things, I feel, are very essential in building a quality youth if we want our society to progress with no regrets.

Being a translator is a challenging job. Not only that you need to be somewhat fluent in the languages, you need to understand what the speaker wants to communicate and exempt personal inputs to avoid any lost in translations or altering the speaker’s message with your own ideas.

Volunteering gives me endless opportunities to meet like-minded individuals, learn and apply new knowledge as well as reflect my personal goals in life. It’s been seventeen months since I first touched China’s ground. My two goals before landing in Chengdu are accomplished. Nevertheless, there are still a giant room for me to fill with new challenges as a scholar and, indeed, as a volunteer.

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