2012 Student-Faculty Fellows Program Report: Green Mountain College
Environmental Memory at the Edge of Empire
Mentor: Professor Mark Dailey
Students: Jessica McClusky, Alison Putnam, Jena Stevens, Simon Winchell-Manning, Charlotte Wright
Our group spent a month visiting several village sites in the subtropical hilly interior of China’s Southeastern Fujian Province to conduct field-based ethnographic research on how the relationship between humans and the environment is changing within rural areas as China rapidly modernizes. Our chief focus was to explore the theme of “threatened traditions” and “threatened diversities” within the region. We are currently analyzing a vast amount of data secured during our research process, but at this point it is safe to say that in general we found that there are no easy conclusions to be drawn – some traditional practices are disappearing, some are enduring, and some are being modified and reinvented. Nonetheless, it is clear that the greater political and infrastructural ease of rural-to-urban labor migration has changed village life by adding new income streams to villages, increasing heat and electrical options that replace wood (thereby decreasing pressure on forests), and increasing the proportion of cash cropping in agriculture. Moreover, less rural labor but increased remittances have ecological effects as well, as more farmers are switching to synthetic fertilizers, and sometimes decreasing the number of seasonal crops. Ecological effects are felt in aquatic systems, where local people uniformly report disappearance of small vertebrates such as eels, frogs and loaches in wet rice paddies, and in forests, where protectionist laws and an increasing withdrawal from wild resource procurement has generally led to returning forest cover. Our data on rural animal populations is more variable, with different research sites giving different estimates regarding wild pig, deer, goat, monkey, and rabbit populations. There is a notable increase in the rise of both scientific and market discourse being used to frame discussion about natural resources suggesting a more centralized and non-local perception of the environment. The project has been a joint endeavor which will lead to the production of a joint publication of our findings and several conference presentations.
Working with a diversity of people, from aging rural farmers to hip city dwellers, confirmed that there are a range of diverse interests, values, and needs in China’s growing population. Isolation is antithetical to the human species and thwarts our evolutionary potential. Our study has shown that knowledge about the environment is being transferred in new ways in China. For instance, although in many cases the elderly members in our villages still transfer their understanding of nature and agriculture to their children, in one rural village we visited, farm laborers were being brought in and taught farming skills because younger members of the village had migrated to cities to work and were no longer interested in farming. At the same time, this trans-generational exchange of knowledge also occurs when the rural youth return to visit the farm newly informed about more modern concepts of the environment and its fragility.
The research of our group focused upon the ways rapid changes in Chinese culture, such as industrialization and economic/social liberalization, have impacted the ways in which villagers interact with their environment. It is clear that as families come to rely more on their relatives sending remittances from city jobs, their dependence on subsistence agriculture decreases. In short, commercial (cash crop) agriculture occupies the niche once held by subsistence farming. Moreover, the change in land use patterns have led to a renewal in the vitality of the local forests and mountains, but at the same time, the increased reliance on herbicides and pesticides is damaging biological life in fields and rice paddies. As products and people leave the villages, goods produced outside of the village are more widely available.
Our research looked specifically at the effects of outmigration and deruralizaton on small villages in the Chinese countryside of Southeast China. We are now beginning the long process of coding and looking for general trends in the vast amount of data we have collected. Some of the topics that will be further explored include the increase in cash cropping (tobacco, tea, bamboo, fruits, etc.), farm ecology and species changes, outmigration, the transformation of forested areas, the possible growth of illegal hunting, and the growth of understanding about modern agricultural practices and environmental concerns.
Much of the data we gathered while conducting research in rural South China fit our general expectations and underlying assumptions. For instance, subjects in every village spoke of significant migration to the cities and changing population dynamics, while in many villages the remitted wages of urban family laborers had a significant impact on the lives of those remaining behind. Increased access to markets caused by road construction, the increased number of vehicles, and the willingness of villagers to travel to cities has led some farmers to grow cash crops such as tobacco. Many villagers suggested that illicit hunting and the sale of wild game was widespread, and, among older villagers, the gathering of certain wild and semi-wild herbs and other plants was quite profitable. Interestingly, several farmers, although producing cash crops for the marketplace, announced that they were growing vegetables, grains and other foods for their own consumption in order to enjoy the benefits of eating “green food.”
Our research focused upon the impact of outmigration and industrialization on rural village life in Southeast China. It is clear that for some the financial remittances provided by children and relatives working in the cities have made their lives much less arduous. For example, an elderly woman in one village no longer personally works in her fields, but rather rents her plots to other villagers because the monies provided from these rentals and her son are sufficient to meet her needs. New construction, funded by remittances, is also evident in rural China. The modernization of agriculture with its heavy use of chemicals has adversely impacted the flora and fauna, but at the same time, we discovered a large government-funded project in the region committed to reducing erosion through reforestation.