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Alleviation of Poverty Enriches Miao People
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Zhang Zhimin in Southwest China's Yunnan Province lives near the evacuation site of the Yuanmou Ape-Man, who, according to current knowledge, is regarded as the earliest primitive man to have existed on the Chinese mainland.


But 1.7 million years later and until a dozen years ago, the life of Zhang was still close to a "primitive" state: living in poverty a gnawing pain in mind and facing the same problem confronting his ancient ancestors.


He was head of the mountain-top village of Mahuangqing in Wuding County's Jiuchang Township, which is about 150 kilometers from the Yuanmou Ape-Man site and 100 kilometers north of the provincial capital, Kunming.


More than a decade ago, Zhang recalled, farmers in the village with nearly 300 people in 78 families could live on a yearly income of 100 yuan (US$12.30) apiece. Their annual harvest, mainly maize and potatoes, was enough for only four months a year at most.


"Without adequate access to drinking water and firewood, our living environment was too fragile for us to think of any production," he said of the villagers, who are from the Miao ethnic group.


However, with a helping hand from the local government and the Amity Foundation, which provided needy cash and timely skills, the villagers now have better lives: incomes of 600 yuan (US$79) a year, increased grain for everyone, tap water, a satellite TV with 30-odd channels, and, starting from the new year, access to a supply of pork.


"A magic change indeed," Zhang beamed.


The helping hand came


Xie Xiaoxiang, now 58, was the link between the helpers and the needy ones. He was an employee at the Intellectual Poverty-Alleviation Office under the Yunnan Provincial Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) when he first visited Mahuangqing village.


He has helped bring in about 1 million yuan (US$123,000) for these Miao ethnic people.


Xie himself had a trail of hardship, living in a poor rural family, entering a primary school at the age of 10 and joining the army eight years later to get out of hunger. When he left the army in 1986, he got his job at the provincial CPPCC office.


"Intellectual poverty alleviation just means we can arrange for communication on scientific topics, arrange lectures in poor regions and raise suggestions for improvement," he said.


However, his trips to Mahuangqing left him stunned. "We have no money to afford education for our children and no clear water to drink, let alone to irrigate the fields. How can we spare the time to listen to your lectures and read your publicity?" he recalled some residents as asking.


Further investigation painted a bleaker picture: excessive felling of trees in a fight for firewood with other residents nearby, fewer plots and less skill to plant better crops such as potatoes and maize, no vegetables and no proper drinking water. These factors left the villagers unable to think of any better life than struggling for survival.


"We needed first to provide them with better fuel to cook meals and proper drinking water," Xie said.


He went to enterprises in the province which still has about 8 million people living in poverty asking for social donations, and they turned out to be little more than a drop in the bucket. Xie had to find other way to raise funds, and in 1992 a CPPCC member hinted that he should try non-governmental organizations (NGOs).


Xie took a trip to Nanjing in East China's Jiangsu Province to visit the local-based Amity Foundation, an independent Chinese volunteer organization created in 1985 to promote education, social services, health and rural development from coastal provinces in the east to the minority areas of the west.


Xie took Amity Secretary-General Qiu Zhonghui to Yunnan in 1992, and they visited the dark thatched huts of the Miao residents in Mahuangqing. Qiu came out without a word and donated 100,000 yuan (US$12,300) to help the Miao in Wuding County learn to build and use methane gas.


Local government responded


Four years later, Amity worked to bring in a donation of 4 million yuan (US$493,200) from a Dutch organization. A 10-day trip to Yunnan by Hoccima Yan an official from the organization moved him.


Since 1992, Amity helped introduce 50 million yuan (US$6.2 million) in donations to the province.


The local government was deeply touched. It matched the donation.


With that money and funds from the government, comprehensive agricultural and water conservancy projects were started while poor children received cash assistance to go to school.


In a span of more than 10 years, three cash-invested villages in Wuding County saw the arrival of huge improvements.


Better life


Zhang Meihua is now so proud: This year, her son became the first college student from her mountainous village to go to school in Kunming.


Encouraged by her excitement, she began to take up a new business: making accordion-pleated skirts in the Miao style and selling them in the cities for 30 yuan (US$3.70) each to supplement her income. She lives in Xiachangchong Village in Wuding County, located about 35 kilometers from Zhang Zhimin's Mahuangqing Village.


"We learned to set up our own ethnic handicraft business," she said.


Xiachangchong Village head Long Dehua, 32, said on his newly bought tractor: "The changes in our village during the past decade are quite beyond our imagination."


There are about 60 families in his village located on a mountain slope.


"We now have tap water for each family, from which each person can get an average yearly income of 1,000 yuan (US$123)," Long said.


"The local agricultural science station helped us adopt diversity in planting, which resulted in increased grain, and we began to plant fruit trees," he said.


Also, he said, each family took up the business of planting organic vegetables and sold mushrooms.


"Previously, there were only four horse-pulling carts in our village; now more than 40 households have their own tractors," Long said.


As for Mahuangqing Village, its head Zhang Zhimin said though the villagers are far from rich, they are now quite content in that they can eat heartily and are no long victims of hunger. Each villager can now harvest about 150 kilograms of grain with improved irrigation.


"Our life and production are now in a good cycle, which makes us quite confident of our future," he said.


Zhang Mengguan, a villager, added that each household now has a pigsty instead of having to let pigs roam about on the mountain slopes.


The result is that fewer pigs run away, and the income from raising them increases.


Before, only about one-fifth of the families could afford a pig to celebrate Spring Festival. Now each household can kill one or two pigs for food at that time of the year, Zhang Mengguan said.


"Of course, my greatest affection is for the tap water and the satellite TV," he said proudly.


Love not to be forgotten


"The villagers express their great thanks to the Amity Foundation, and I believe their thanks are sincere, as the assistance they received was sincere," Xie Xiaoxiang said.


"It is this NGO and the local government that helped lift the villagers out of poverty. Words cannot express our thanks.


"Our cooperation with Amity during the past 14 years proved successful, and I can never forget their dedication to and love for the villagers."


(China Daily December 2, 2005)

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