Young China’s long green march

The work of the country’s largest youth environmental movement is only beginning, writes Huo Weiya. Students’ sense of not doing enough provides an impetus to keep going.

“Back when I was in junior high school, the grass in my village would reach up to my chest,” recalls Liu Shitie, a student at Inner Mongolia University of Science and Technology. Yang Qian, in her first year at China Women’s University, finds that a bit odd. She’s from the coal-producing province of Shanxi and has never been to the grasslands. “The grass is much shorter now,” Liu explains. “There are very few places you can see it grow that tall, and a lot of places are suffering desertification.”

Liu’s group – with the poetic name of Grassland Strollers – is one of the seven teams that participated in this year’s Green Long March event. The Green Long March is a youth environmentalism event held jointly since 2007 by the US organisation FutureGenerations and Beijing Forestry University. Every year students from nearly 50 Chinese universities campaign and research on a green theme in an environmentally sensitive area.

The events of 2009 drew to a close on October 30. This year – the third in which the Green Long March has been held – saw almost 1,000 students take part in environmental and energy education and research into the use of new energy in Inner Mongolia’s grasslands, the Yangtze and Yellow River basins, and on China’s south-east coast. The results of their work have been published as a collection of articles.

At the closing ceremony, students from 17 provinces presented their findings. The opening discussion of the book was taken from one of the discussions at that ceremony.

In fact, the Grassland Strollers were not actually focusing on the grasslands themselves. They went there to visit a wind farm. The theme of the Green Long March this year is new energy, so each group designed their activities around this topic.

Zhang Zongshuai is a member of Grassland Strollers, and also a student at Inner Mongolia University of Science and Technology. He and his colleagues investigated the use of methane, with the details of their research being included a video about the 2009 event. As the video shows, the local villagers are happy to use methane due to government subsidies – for only several hundred yuan then can build a methane generator.

Methane is the only new energy source to have been widely adopted in rural China. So another group, Gold Coast – formed by students from four universities on China’s south-east coast — also opted to investigate this source of energy. But as one member, Chen Mingwei, noted in his journal, the case they chose to study was a failure. In 2006, the village of Wushi in Guangzhou province set up a methane demonstration project. At the start, 10 households were participating; now, only two or three are still using methane.

The students were aware of this before carrying out the field study, and initially wavered over whether or not to continue. But in the end they went, to find out why it didn’t succeed. As Chen wrote in his summary, it turned out that regulations designed to prevent pollution of a nearby river meant that large numbers of livestock could not be kept in the village. But without livestock, the animal dung to use as methane feedstock was not available, and so households dropped out of the scheme. Hence, not every location is suitable for methane generation – and this needs to be taken into consideration.

In the discussion cited above, Yang Qian mentioned a case she knew of. Her neighbours at home were also using methane, she said, and there was no shortage of the gas – but clearing away the waste sludge was a problem.

Yang Qian and her three companions didn’t actually participate in any of the teams this year. They attended the closing ceremony, as they will be taking part in next year’s Green Long March. Three students from Hong Kong University came for the same reason, and have already planned their activities for 2010.

The participation of students from almost 50 universities and the publicity generated means the Green Long March is China’s largest youth environmental movement. It is attracting increasing numbers of young people to get involved, learn about the environment through research, and spread knowledge. This is something new when compared with the Chinese youth environmental movement that started in the mid-1990s.

One of the organisers, FutureGenerations, is an environmental NGO founded in the United States. As an overseas group, its role in the Green Long March is fund-raising, expert guidance and communication with sponsors. Its cooperation with Beijing Forestry University differs from the usual form of youth environmental movements in China.

In the past, when Chinese students got involved with the environmental movement there wasn’t much active guidance or support from their universities; it tended to be the students themselves getting together. There was only so much they could do. Support from the universities or official organisations was rare, so their fund-raising ability was limited and activities were simple and run on a shoestring.

But if a university itself organises activities in its own name, it becomes easy to work with government and businesses – and that’s the strength of the Green Long March.

Its sponsors are also different, in not just providing financial support. The Grassland Strollers were able to get access to the wind farm thanks to help from their sponsor, turbine manufacturer Suzlon. Employee volunteers at Swire Pacific participated in the entire process of Gold Coast’s activities, helping them in making preparations, optimising questionnaires to make them more targeted, and so on. Exposure to these professional attitudes towards standards, rigour and attention to detail meant the students learned about more than just the environment.

But the grassroots nature of earlier movements does have one advantage – more freedom, and so no curbs from the university or even government. The Green Long March is at a disadvantage here, as China’s universities are political in nature and sensitive topics – which environmental matters sometimes are – cannot be touched upon. Operations can also be limited in terms of efficiency.

A major part of China’s youth environmental movement has always been students carrying out environmental education on campus, in communities and even in rural areas. This type of activity is easy to conduct and requires little if any funding or capability; with just simple training, individuals and groups can carry out environmental education work. Environmental groups at Chinese universities are still doing this.

But many people doubt the efficacy of these events. Spending a few hours in a community and then leaving – do these one-off events actually do much good? Evaluations always talk about how many people were influenced – but were they? These questions remain.

The participants in the Green Long March had the same doubts. Liu Shitie says that publicity alone isn’t enough. Issues need to be followed up in a sustained manner. Many participants in this year’s research had the same feeling.

A FutureGenerations project coordinator, Clay Baylor, told me that “the Inner Mongolian team felt that methane use is worth expanding in villages, and they hope to do more on that – not just research.”

So Green Long March has been making changes over the last two years, including a new “Green Seed Awards” designed just for those students who think they’re not yet doing enough. The prize requires students to carry out initial research in a community and use the information gathered to design a project. The winning project will get a small amount of funding for implementation. Twenty-five awards were made this year.

The students’ sense of not doing enough indicates that there is plenty more to do – and this is the impetus to keep going. The Green Long March of China’s youth has just started.

Huo Weiya is operations and development manager for chinadialogue in Beijing and former editor-in-chief of Environmental Culture Newsletter, published by Green Student Forum, an environmental NGO established in 1996.

Homepage image from FutureGenerations

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