By Wang Peng
Published: 2008-04-22

From Nation, page 12, issue no. 363, Apr. 14, 2008
Abridged translation by Zuo Maohong
Original article:

A weary-eyed and long-haired Zhao Zhong chose his words carefully. As the 26-year-old cofounder of Green Camel Bell (GCB), the first green NGO in Gansu province, he had no choice but to be cautious.

Two years ago, a staffer was forced to quit after he was misquoted by local media, which resulted in pressure by local government. "We're so fragile, and there's so much to face. If we stop being cautious, we could lose our position," Zhao lamented.

The exit of his coworker was just one of a litany of factors that have challenged the existence of GCB. They include complicated relationships with local industry and government, competition with foreign NGO's over international grants, organizational instability, and even the accidental drowning of a volunteer.

After graduating from university in 2003, Zhao worked in the Lanzhou office of the Institute of Modern Physics under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). That same year, Zhao and some of his university friends founded GCB.

In October 2007, GCB registered with the Gansu Administration of NGOs. Zhao then quit his job at CAS and became a full-time leader of GCB.

According to Zhao, the GCB's goal was to conserve the natural environment of West China, where half of China's ecologically-fragile counties and 60% of its poverty-stricken ones were located.

Presently, water and soil erosion in this region made up 77% of the total national amount. Not only were its grasslands degenerating rapidly, forest coverage was also decreasing to a level far below the national average.

Through "Greens and Reds"
After registering, GCB began to coordinate more with farmers and government officials. "We hope to build up our brand by carrying out specific projects," Zhao said. But to negotiate with the government wasn't any simpler than handling other relationships.

On May 29, 2006, a fire broke at a PetroChina Lanzhou plant. As panic spread that the Yellow River was being polluted by leaking liquid, locals downstream began stockpiling water supplies.

To inform local residents of the truth of the situation, at an emergency meeting the next day, GCB decided to collect first-hand materials and information about the fire from authoritative government departments and publicize them on websites, university campuses and in communities.

The plan was derailed, however, when their requests for information and the ability to participate were refuted by both local government and the company.

The relationship with the government was the most sensitive, said Zhao, because they needed its support to implement their projects. "It decides whether GCB will live or die," he added.

Hu Zhi, a doctorial candidate who studied NGOs in Gansu, believed NGOs and the government had yet to establish a balanced relationship suitable for further cooperation.

According to the head of another NGO, there were usually more red lights than green lights from local government. With a "less is better than more" attitude, he said, most government supervisors criticized NGOs more than they supported them.

"Our relationship with municipal governments is basically like this: if we take care of the expenditures, then they will cooperate well. As for the provincial government, it's of course us that's begging to be involved," said Zhao.

Resistance in the Field
On the last weekend in March, Zhao made a trip to Nanju village of Huining county, where the living standard was low and soil was seriously salinized. Two farmers, Wu Baolin and Laochai, were waiting for him at home to discuss a sunflower-planting program.

GCB planned to offer 10,000 yuan to help poor households buy sunflower seed, and take back the money after harvest, Zhao said. He assured the farmers a specific reclaim price, by which their yearly income would double from the current 500 yuan to 1,000 yuan.

Meanwhile, sunflowers would help ease soil salinization, he explained.

"This village would become a brand new one," Zhao sounded excited. But the farmers were skeptical.

"We don't want the profit to flow out," Lao Chai said. Every year, he traded over 3,000 tons of sunflower seed to processors in Guangzhou. The seed was purchased from locals at 2.2 yuan per jin (500 grams), but could be sold for more than 7 yuan a jin in Guangzhou, he added.

After visiting two villages, Zhao felt his ideal village was fading away. On his return trip to Lanzhou, he said, "farmers were not as keen on growing sunflowers as I'd imagined."

Accidents and Obstacles
During a summer vacation two years ago, GCB organized a group of university students to investigate the wetlands in Gannanmaqu of Gansu. During the investigation, a student drowned while trying to save another team member who was swimming in the river and was unable to get back to the bank. As GCB hadn't been registered at that time, the student's family brought Zhao into court.

Having lasted for two years, the dispute finally ended. "We've basically reached an agreement. There are only a few final details to handle," Zhao said.

Soon after the accident, most students left, and 3,000 yuan of the investigation fund went missing. "We really thought of quitting," he said.

In mid-March, another staff left. He shared Zhao's dream, but couldn't bear the instability of the job and its 1,000 yuan monthly salary. "About 15 staff left recently. One worked for just one day. Most persisted for three to five months," said Zhao.

Sometimes there could be ten people in this team, but there were also times when he was totally alone, he said.

In late March, Zhao had to hurry back to Lanzhou from Huining, where he had been busy helping the local farmers with a marsh gas program. He needed defend himself in court the next day in a lawsuit stemming from the drowning.

Though initially, cooperation with university volunteers had been a basic model for GCB, after the accident, such cooperation lessened. Since last May, GCB began regularly organizing volunteers to investigate the southern banks of the Yellow River on foot. Volunteers became more diverse. Besides students, there were teachers, other NGO workers, technicians etc. The oldest member was 68, and the youngest was only eight.

Running on Fumes
According to Zhao, most of GCB's funds came from overseas supporters like the Global Greengrants Fund (GGF). It was through one of their grants that the organization was finally able to have an office of its own in March 2006, Zhao said.

The same year, authorized by Green Map's New York headquarters, GCB drew the first green map of Lanzhou and later a green map of the Yellow River of Lanzhou.

However, to depend completely on foreign funds wasn't ideal for Zhao, as they were limited and unstable.

And then there is competition. Last year, an international environmental organization won a grant which Zhao said should have gone to GCB. "This really upset me!" Zhao sighed.

How to secure funding through the available foreign grants has been a question haunting Zhao all along. "Without any government background, we are a completely grassroots NGO. We have to rely on ourselves to survive and grow," he said.