The environment has become one of the main issues today. It was the main topic at the G8 summit this year. And the UN conference on climate change in Bali re-enforces its importance.
In China, environmental protection and the conservation of energy and other resources are of paramount importance. It indicates how civilized a country really is.
Since joining the World Trade Organization (TWO), China has come to be labeled "the world's factory" and "the world's market" as its economy serves as a new growth engine for the world economy. For the Chinese government, therefore, finding a solution that will save the environment without sacrificing economic growth is not just China's own business but also a significant undertaking closely watched by the rest of the world.
As one of the largest agrarian nations in the world, about 70 percent of China's population live in the rural areas. The rural environment, however, is far from being perfect.
Only 17 percent of the rural areas are covered by forests. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that China's geographical features put its land security under increasing threat from drought, flooding and desertification, while pollution of rivers, lakes and territorial seas as well as mounting urban waste continue to consume arable land and squeeze people's living space everyday. This is a grave environmental reality facing China today.
As for finding solutions, it is unthinkable to solve all the problems the same way throughout the country. For example, when the Yangtze River Basin is ravaged by serious flooding, the Yellow River basin is most likely struggling with drought. Likewise, the desertification in the northwest and soil pollution by pesticides and chemical fertilizers elsewhere cannot be rectified by raising energy efficiency alone.
It is therefore an unavoidable task for China to find ways that will effectively improve the environment, and at the same time allow it to pursue "green growth" of the national economy.
In fact, we could learn from the experiences of developed countries, where not only the manufacturing and financial industries are developed but also their agriculture. In developed nations, the countryside is "the most advanced comprehensive technology test site" for such sciences as botany, genetic engineering, medicine (veterinary medicine), physics and even business administration; and "farming" is regarded as a "respectable career".
Farmers take care of forests and protect water sources in their role as "guardians of a green homeland".
China is blessed with an enormous territory and abundant agricultural labor supply, the central government's policies favor the rural areas, and provide farmers with an overall guideline for building a green homeland.
Currently, reforestation, green farming and recycling have become a trend in China's countryside. Planted forest coverage is expanding fast. The Chinese government, by providing financial and technological assistance, is helping farmers in the dry northwest find and conserve underground water, including drilling wells in desert areas to let the "fluid of life" trapped deep underneath the sands for millions of years resurface and do its magic.
The government is providing more financial support to farmers in northwest China. It is building "water cells" to collect rain for daily consumption. The government has also introduced irrigation technologies from overseas, such as the drip system from Israel and spray units from Australia as well as crops and trees that are more resilient to dry conditions.
Meanwhile, farmers have developed technologies themselves using fences and nets to keep out the approaching desert. With joint efforts by the government and the people more "man-made oases" are emerging in the Gobi desert.
In response to the demand of the times, the Chinese government is proactively channeling science and technology resources into rural areas to popularize green organic farming and reduce the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers.
In north China, for instance, such recycling efforts as leaving crop stocks in the fields (as natural fertilizer), household methane producing chambers and solar-energy water heaters are spreading everyday; while "eco-farms" using new technologies are changing the country's rural landscape.
It is a new approach by China to combine agricultural development with environmental protection so that forests, water sources and crops play a role in environmental protection, while farmers become an important force in the production and management of the "green assets".
There is no doubt China's rural environmental protection has a lot of room for development and the market value is incalculable. What is important is finding the right way to combine the rural economy with rural environmental protection, and to combine China's rural environmental protection with the fight against climate change.
It is a mission of the times. China must protect farmers' interests and let them benefit from environmental protection.
According to the Kyoto Protocol, the European Union has established the world's first "carbon dioxide emissions right exchange". Now that it has become a profitable commodity, the world is being shown a new path for the protection of the environment. For the same reason, China will also in the coming years have to boost the market value of its rural environmental protection as it builds its own "green equity exchange" so the investment in rural protection will generate a positive return.
The author is a researcher with China Institute of Contemporary International Relations.
(China Daily December 14, 2007)