From Conservation to Eco-Toilets to Organic Markets: The Evolution of a Chinese Environmental NGO

by Edwin Schmitt

The story of Wildgrass is one of organizational adaptation to the dynamism of present-day China’s politics and its rapidly changing social and environmental needs. After four years of working with the organization, I consider my role in Wildgrass as more of an “exchange” than an “engagement” because of our reciprocal relations. We’ve shared knowledge and influenced one another on multiple levels, providing me a unique perspective to view changes in the organization over time.

Wildgrass was established in 2007 when most of the organization’s members were recent college graduates – all of whom had ties to and experience working with older environmental NGOs that had sprung up in Sichuan Province since the late 1990s. Because of the China’s political climate, most Chinese NGOs do not have the freedom and separation from government that we tend to associate with civil society in the West. For instance, Wildgrass itself is technically registered as a unit of the Sichuan Provincial Bureau of Agriculture. Yet such a relationship has not necessarily impaired Wildgrass from fulfilling its goals and creating successful projects.

From its inception, Wildgrass focused its efforts on collaborating with communities to increase environmental awareness via the dissemination of information, either through the media or educational programs. In 2007, Wildgrass worked with local farmers who lived near the famous wildlife preserves of Wolong and Bifengxia, or the UNESCO Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries. Many of Wildgrass’ early projects were partnerships with the World Wildlife Federation’s China Branch. In contrast to the WWF’s implementation of conservation biology programs, Wildgrass took a different approach to local conservation by engaging directly with the knowledge and practices of rural villagers. In this sense, the organization has always drawn on anthropological approaches, which made it easy for us to establish a collaborative relationship.

While Wildgrass was promoting conservation activities in the 2000s, local villagers were becoming more integrated into the Sichuanese economy, primarily as migrant laborers, and were eager to upgrade their lifestyle. One major change was the construction of what people considered to be more sanitary household toilet facilities.

Typical toilet in rural Sichuan

The typical rural bathroom in the mountains of Sichuan is a pit in the ground, placed slightly uphill from a pig sty.  Logs are spaced out ever so slightly above the pit, and a small outhouse-like structure is built around the logs, which (trust me) is difficult for an outsider to use without feeling a bit of “vertigo.” Waste from the latrine flows to the pig sty, where it is consumed by the pigs or flushed out into a nearby field along with the waste produced by the swine. Seen by villagers as a low-tech and unsanitary means of dealing with human waste, this more traditional waste management system is being replaced by “modern” outhouses that include running water and the squat toilets found in the urban centers of Sichuan. Yet, most villages are not equipped with sewage or treatment systems, so waste from these newer outhouses is typically flushed into the nearest stream.

Despite its severity, this source of water pollution is not the one which most concerned us at Wildgrass. With the gradual disappearance of the latrine-pigsty collection of nightsoil, farmers needed to find additional means of fertilizing their fields. With slight improvements in the local transportation system and extra capital from their salary as migrant laborers, some farmers began to purchase chemical fertilizers. Like much of China’s scarce fresh water supply, the water in rural Sichuan is increasingly polluted due to agricultural runoff. Addressing this problem through official regulation was unrealistic given the difficulty in identifying the source of such water pollution. Instead, Wildgrass encouraged households to continue using the nightsoil fertilization technique without sacrificing their desire for improved sanitation at home.

Enter the waterless ecological toilet, which we began to promote in rural villages in 2008. The eco-toilet helps separate urine from feces and collects the waste material in a sealed compartment underneath the toilet to be cleaned out and used as nightsoil in agricultural fields.[i]  Many of our initial attempts to promote the eco-toilet concept were limited to demonstration projects in villages. Only a handful of residents were interested because the eco-toilet still didn’t conform to their concept of a “modern” toilet.

In May 2008, the Wenchuan Earthquake struck Sichuan Province and devastated homes in many communities where Wildgrass was working. Immediately the organization focused its efforts on making sure that residents of these communities were safe and able to access to food, blankets and shelter.[ii]  I was introduced to Wildgrass while working in Sichuan in early 2009.  The organization was eager to continue promoting eco-toilets in rural mountain communities, particularly since there was a great need for them after the earthquake. Over a period of some five months, we supervised the construction of 400 eco-toilets in eleven different villages around the Province. Wildgrass provided the basic design of the toilet, while each household helped with construction and adapted it to fit their home. One family even decided to put their eco-toilet on the second floor.

A villager’s brand new eco-toilet!

Our collaboration on this project made us realize how much we had in common.  My academic background in anthropology and their hands-on experience in promoting environmental conservation led to a very similar outlook: the only way the project would succeed was by patiently working with our mountain communities. We first needed to clearly inform the residents about the toilets and then allow those who wanted to participate in the project to approach us directly. This strategy ensured their engagement and that villagers would maintain the toilets after we left. Thus, perhaps even more important than the toilets themselves was an educational component that taught local children how the toilet worked and why the use of nightsoil for agricultural purposes was healthier than using chemical fertilizers.

Two things happened directly after this project was completed that made the organization change its course once again. First, China Central Television discovered the eco-toilet project. CCTV awarded Wildgrass a large prize and offered them the opportunity to get their message out to a national audience. This was followed by an invitation from the U.S. State Department to take part in a tour of American NGOs. About a year later, I was also asked by Wildgrass to help interact with a U.S.delegation as they toured through Sichuan.

Second, the eco-toilet project thrust the organization into the Chinese organic farming network, which was growing on the heels of contaminated food scandals, such as the infamous poisoned baby formula. These events renewed our commitment to promoting environmental awareness via education and the media. Over the past two years, for example, Wildgrass has been working on a documentary about rural food systems and the dangers they face. As this closely aligns with my own anthropological research on adaptive agricultural strategies in culturally diverse mountain communities, we’ve also been considering conducting in-depth ethnographic fieldwork to compliment the documentary. Meanwhile, Wildgrass has also begun to take its cues more directly from the communities with whom it is engaged – building their insights into its approach to agricultural problem-solving. The major concern of farming communities is how to generate income while continuing to live in the countryside.  For the past three years, Wildgrass has been working to help rural communities connect with markets in urban centers, where there is a demand for high-quality organically grown food.

Working with locals to husk corn and planning construction of a new eco-toilet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Certainly each of these projects has had its ups and downs. For instance, a close friend of mine coincidentally was working on her M.A. research in one of the villages where we constructed about 100 eco-toilets. She discovered that for a household of three, the toilets were quite effective, but for larger families, the composting compartment might fill up in a few weeks and thus prevent waste from properly composting before being used as nightsoil. Additionally, a lack of dependable transportation has plagued the organic food network. While markets do exist in the city, the wholesale purchasers are unwilling to hire trucks to pick up the produce. This has placed the burden of transportation costs, which are quite high, on villagers and undermined the project’s sustainability.

These challenges aside, I believe that the story of Wildgrass provides an important window into the world of Chinese civil society. On one hand, Wildgrass is committed both to helping communities manage their needs as they become more integrated with the Chinese market and to informing them about the environmentally friendly options that are available to satisfy those needs. On the other hand, without a traditional mission statement, Wildgrass has developed the flexibility to engage with social and environmental issues as they arise in China– issues which seem to change almost literally with the seasons.  In this regard, Wildgrass is not necessarily unique. Similar to other Chinese ENGOs, Wildgrass remains beholden both to the political whims of Chinese governance and also to domestic and international financial sources. These factors make for an excellent opportunity to examine how grassroots organizations in China operate as an adaptive form of civil society that may not be commonly found in other parts of the world. In many ways I feel I’ve learned as much, if not more, from the organization as they have from me.

Edwin Schmitt is a Doctoral Student in the Department of Anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.  His past research interests included commodification of agriculture, ethnic tourism and hydropower development in Southwest China. His dissertation research is focused on examining the linkages between the ritual and agricultural systems of three different ethnic groups living in rural Sichuan Province and their adaptation to ecological, social and political change.


[i] For more information on a high-tech waterless toilet system used in arid, but urban, northern China see this PRI Report.

[ii] This was common for the bulk of the established Sichuanese NGOs and many became temporarily integrated into a larger consortium of NGOs centered on the Chengdu Urban Rivers Association, one of the oldest and most established local NGOs at that time.

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