Eshya and the farmers

bureaucrats make time for her
and the mute gweilo.

The third member of the Rice Harmony group that I hung out with was Eshya. She’s an environmental scientist by trade, but her job here goes far beyond the usual science and engineering aspects of environmental management. She’s conducting research on the government’s agricultural policies, while spending time with farmers in the village to understand better how their current farming methods mesh with their way of life.

Here we are – me, Eshya and Shu Hao, on our way to the local town in the back of a sort-of-motorised rickshaw:

lucas, eshya, and shu hao

Eshya decided to capitalise on my visit, and dragged me along to a set of meetings with bureaucrats in the local government agriculture offices. She wanted to find out what the government pest control recommendations are for rice farmers. Sometimes it’s difficult for ordinary people to get access to government workers, and Eshya’s hunch was that the spectacle of having a foreigner along for the meetings might be helpful.

And it was! Well, I didn’t actually do anything, but I believe I was a useful prop. All I did was sit there drinking endless cups of tea and smiling serenely, and handing out my university business card to all and sundry, while Eshya had four meetings with Serious and Important Looking Men in charge of agricultural administration.

One of the tips that Eshya got from these meetings was to go visit an agricultural supplies shop in one of the nearby villages. So we went down there. Here she is talking with the proprietor:

eshya talks about agricultural policy in the shop

Her method is a bit like a “mystery shopper” – she presents as a customer, and describes the particular problem she’s having with her rice crop (some sort of bug infestation). She then asks what the government recommends as a response to this problem.

In the above photo, you can see Eshya looking at a piece of paper the shopkeeper has handed her. That paper has the government recommendations in simple terms. Basically, farmers are advised to use this or that pesticide depending on the insect that is bothering them. There aren’t any recommendations about alternative, non-chemical methods of controlling pests.

Eshya told me that this is one of the challenges that she deals with in her job at Rice Harmony. Farmers tend to be very obedient and follow government policy without question. (It’s also significant that the main point of distribution of this policy is in a shop which sells chemical pesticides.)

Eshya sits in the
farmers’ front rooms – sipping tea
and building “guanxi“.

One of the most important things that Eshya does isto spend time with the farmers in the local village. Each night after dinner she checks her list and pays house calls to two or three families. This is a relaxed time of day when the urgency to solve immediate problems is less intense.

I was honoured to be able to accompany Eshya (and Shu Hao) on a few of these visits. (Again this entailed me drinking a lot of tea!). Here she is chatting with some of the farmers who have taken up the challenge of producing rice without harmful pesticides:

eshya with farmers at home

One of her aims in these informal conversations is to try and understand, from the farmers’ perspectives, what constrains them from transitioning to less chemical-intensive methods. In many cases it’s labour. From what I could gather, it’s only been since the 1980s that the government has been recommending pesticide and fertilizer use for rice farming.

These farmers still remember a time before that, when the work that the chemicals now do was performed by human yakka. For example, hauling bulky manure and compost requires more heavy lifting than spraying a concentrated soluble fertiliser. So the advent of chemical farming was something of a relief in what is a very labour-intensive occupation.

On top of this, the current farming generation is ageing. The children of farming families from the village now have the opportunity to travel to the big city to study. There are so many diverse (and better paid) career paths available to them, and so they don’t tend to return to the farm. When their parents retire, they sometimes follow the kids to the city – and so the village starts to empty out.

This is one of the complex problems facing farming in China today. Nobody that I spoke to seemed to have an easy solution. Farming is simply too laborious, and too low-paid, to be attractive to the younger generation. Who will grow the rice in the future? Will China become a net-importer of rice from other, poorer countries?

in the farmers house with shu hao and eshya
In this photo: Aunt Tang, Tang Zeke, Tang Zeping (Tang Zeke and Tang Zeping are brothers). Standing at the back is ShuHao Lin. On the right is your humble author, Lucas Ihlein.

I’m familiar with some of these social problems associated with farming. In Australia, the economics of farming have tended towards fewer farms, much larger farms, and more mechanisation. This can results in social and geographical isolation, and the depopulation of rural centres.

Eshya and I talked about all these problems, and I showed her the work I’d done previously with Ian Milliss on The Yeomans Project, as well as its successor Sugar vs the Reef. We were excited about the crossovers in the work of Rice Harmony and in my creative arts approach. I do hope that we have a chance to share strategies again – perhaps via the Kandos School of Cultural Adaptation, which is also grappling with very similar issues around regional culture, environmental management, and agriculture.

“Eshya and the Farmers” is one of three blog posts about my visit to Xiangyang Village in Guangdong.

In the first post, I spend time with Linda in the mud of the rice fields. In the second post, I hang out with ShuHao and go looking for bugs and frogs.

This adventure in the rice paddies was brought to you by Guangzhou Delta Haiku.

Shu Hao and the Insects

While I was in the village, Linda’s colleague Shu Hao took me out on a nightwalk. This is his specialty. He’s the Rice Harmony expert on biodiversity, so his job is to keep an eye on all the other (non-human) lives that proliferate alongside the rice.

Tracking biodiversity is a method for gauging the health of the local environment in which the rice is being grown. To put it bluntly: the more toxic chemicals there are, the fewer species will be present.

Night time is when many of these small creatures come out, and so Shu Hao loves to go on a walk with a torch to see what he can discover. Frogs, toads, tadpoles, crickets, grasshoppers, stick insects, moths, fireflies (fireflies!!), caterpillars, ants, spiders, snails, slugs, beetles, bugs: we saw multiple varieties of all of these, and Shu Hao responded with fascination and respect every time. He paid close attention in order to observe the patterns of behaviour of each of these animals.

Here’s a beautiful green stick insect that Shu Hao photographed on my arm:

stick insect

And here is a short audio recording in which you can hear the cacophony of the night in the village:

I recently attended a talk by Hildegard Westerkamp, one of the pioneers of “acoustic ecology”. She spoke of the use of audio recording as a method for documenting the biodiversity of a geographical location. The idea is that you return to the same spot at the same time of year, over several years (or decades) and then by comparing the audio mix, you can get a sense of what is changing in the ecosystem.

At this point, the diversity of life forms in the Rice Harmony village seems very strong. In fact, Linda explained to me that one reason why they selected this place to set up their social enterprise – that it was still part of a relatively healthy environment.

Shu Hao never really stops working. The next day we were out on the road having a breather, and he spotted a micro-movement in the grass. He sprung over to take a close-up photograph of an orange butterfly:

shu hao photographing a butterfly

Shu Hao loves insects.
His whole body reaches down
To get nearer them.

“ShuHao and the Insects” is one of three blog posts about my visit to Xiangyang Village in Guangdong.

In the first post, I spend time with Linda in the mud of the rice fields, and in the third and final post, I accompany Eshya to visit some agricultural bureaucrats, and sip tea with some rice farmers.

This adventure in the rice paddies was brought to you by Guangzhou Delta Haiku.

Linda and the mud

One of the highlights of my time in Guangzhou was an opportunity to leave the big city and visit a farm.

Strangely, for an area like the Pearl River Delta that was built on agriculture, it wasn’t easy for me to find a farm. I don’t speak or read Mandarin, and the Great Firewall doesn’t make internet research very easy. Plus it seems that over the last 30 years, massive industrial and housing development has really pushed agriculture out of Guangzhou.

Because of all the other work I’ve been doing on agriculture, I really wanted to feel for myself how farming in southern China is different from Australia, so I kept prodding Hanting (a local Guangzhou artist and our hardworking “fixer”) to “find me a farm!”.

Eventually Hanting’s extensive network came through: her friend Huáng Hé dug up a link to Rice Harmony, and we called them up and arranged a visit.

Here I am at the Guangzhou office of Rice Harmony, where they do their central planning and product distribution. I’m posing with Linda Tan, who is one of the key members of the group:

Linda and Lucas at the Rice Harmony HQ in Guangzhou

Linda invited me to come and visit the village where Rice Harmony is collaborating with a network of local farmers. The day after our exhibition launch at Observation Society, I jumped on a provincial bus for a four-hour journey to the town of Qingyuan, where I experienced two extremely interesting days with some of the Rice Harmony people: Linda, Eshya, and Shu Hao.

I was so happy when my view from the bus window changed from this sort of thing:

industrial highway scene

…to this sort of thing:

view of rice farms from bus window, guangdong

(I know, the comparison between these two pictures isn’t really fair is it? The former image is blurry and with grey skies, and the latter is sharp, with a bright sunny aspect. But there you have it, ya can’t argue with the “aesthetics of nature”!)

Rice Harmony rents a house in a tiny village:

rice harmony house

Notice all those yellow and red sacks? They are full of organic fertilizer.

The Rice Harmony team is a social enterprise. Their method is really interesting.

While I hung out with Linda in the fields, we talked through the challenge that the group has set itself: They are a business. There are about 15 employees. They sell rice on behalf of some of the farmers in the village. Their goal is to transform local farming practices to be less reliant on chemicals (fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides).

This is one of the most interesting things that they do: although the Rice Harmony members have no prior experience in growing rice, they are now learning how to do it, with the local farmers as their teachers. They rent a series of un-used rice paddies for this purpose, and Linda has taken on the task with gusto.

linda's rice field

In the above photo, the two lovely looking green carpets are Linda’s early experiments in striking rice seedlings. These will soon be transferred and planted out in the field. (Meet “Mike” the scarecrow on the right hand side of the shot).

In Australia, one of the most common issues farmers have to deal with is water – specifically its scarcity. At the moment, there’s no problems with water supply in northern Guangdong. The river gushes through the village, and concrete culverts divert it alongside each rice paddy:

concrete culvert for watering rice paddies

This water is “free” – there are no debates around rationing or “water rights” here. If a farmer wants to flood her paddy, she’ll just stack some rocks and a clod of grass behind a strategically placed hole in the concrete culvert, and and water will flow in.

Playing with water levels in terraced rice fields is quite fun. Linda and I did the rounds of the paddies she’s in charge of. She’s still getting her head around the topography. Depending on how much water you want, you simply build up, or chip away at, the mud walls of each paddy. The tools are ancient: a long handled hoe, and a shovel.

hoe and shovel, rice farm

When the water reaches the height of the wall, it flows on into the next paddy down, and so on, eventually making its way back into the river.

Here’s Linda trying to get to the bottom of a hydrology problem (note that building in the background – it’s the old village schoolhouse, now empty):

linda in the rice paddy

Each paddy has an
“in” and “out” — Linda maps
water + gravity.

Here’s Linda’s map. The fields with white borders are the ones she is working with. You can see from the annotations that Linda has begun to indicate where the water flows (click the map to view it larger):

linda's map of rice paddy ins and outs

And here are my feet, feeling the lukewarm wet clay mud of the rice paddy:

I found the Rice Harmony social enterprise method inspirational for these reasons:

  • they situate themselves right there within the village (not just fly-in fly-out);
  • they demonstrate their intention to learn, thereby honouring the deep knowledge of the local farmers;
  • they offer an alternative market to the conventional fertilizer-pesticide rice market, for those farmers who are interested to transition to a chemical-free method.

“Linda and the Mud” is one of three blog posts about my visit to Xiangyang Village in Guangdong.

In the next post, I hang out with ShuHao and go looking for bugs and frogs, and in the third and final post, I accompany Eshya to visit some agricultural bureaucrats, and sip tea with some rice farmers.

This adventure in the rice paddies was brought to you by Guangzhou Delta Haiku.

Guangzhou Delta Haiku – exhibition at Observation Society

pearl river delta region - showing current sea level
Pearl River Delta region. Light blue colour indicates current land below sea level.

Silty river delta,
Fishing, farming, trading –
Everyday life.

Of all the world’s cities, the great Guangzhou “megalopolis” is now considered the single place most likely to suffer catastrophic damage from rising sea-levels. The maps shown here indicate some possible future scenarios for the Pearl River Delta. Much of the land in the Delta is already below sea level, so industry and housing are vulnerable to flooding:

Factories, shipping,
“Special Economic Zone” –
Everyday life.

Sea level rise is influenced by a wide range of factors. The most obvious causes are associated with global warming: the thermal expansion of the oceans, and the melting of glaciers and Antarctic ice sheets. More complex local factors include tidal variations, warm and cool ocean currents, the building of sea-walls to hold back the water, and the damming of rivers further upstream.

pearl river delta region - showing one metre sea level rise
Pearl River Delta region – light blue colour indicates potential flooding caused by a one metre sea level rise.

The screenprinted maps shown here cannot show the full complexity of this situation. Rather, they employ “bathtub modelling” – a simple way of showing what might happen if seawaters were to creep up onto the land in a uniform way.

Although it is nearly impossible to predict the local extent of sea level rise with any precision, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that a global sea level rise of 98cm by the year 2100 is very likely. This corresponds roughly to the “one metre” maps presented in this exhibition. A “five metre” map is also shown – which is entirely possible if polar ice deposit melting continues to accelerate.

pearl river delta region - showing 5 metre sea level rise
Pearl River Delta region – light blue colour indicates potential flooding caused by a five metre sea level rise.

Massive migration.
“Mega-projects”. Modernisation:
Everyday life.

The animated map depicts a massive “60 metre” sea level rise, which is a possible scenario if all the world’s polar ice was to melt.

Pearl River Delta Flood Animation from Luca Zoid on Vimeo.

The prosperity of the Delta has always been based on water. And the future of Guangzhou is going to be increasingly watery:

How will the city evolve?
What kinds of decisions will the city make to survive over the next hundred years? What does “survival” even mean?
And what do the people who live here think about all this?

Habitat, transport,
Sustenance, trash disposal:
Everyday life.

guangzhou haizhu area - current sea level
Haizhu area of Guangzhou – this map shows current river arrangements in this heavily populated zone.
guangzhou haizhu area - showing one metre sea level rise
Haizhu area of Guangzhou – light blue colour on this map indicates possible effect of one metre sea level rise.

This investigation is ongoing, and your correspondence is welcome.

Guangzhou’s watery future

Yesterday at Observation Society, I was describing the Waterways of the Illawarra project to Anthony, Trevor and Hanting. At home, the seepage from the escarpment is a major part of the “character” of the region. It’s what creates the more than 50 creeks which make their way through the landscape into the sea.

It wasn’t something I had considered before I arrived, but a major part of the “character” of Guangzhou and the Guangdong region is the Pearl River Delta. In the delta, waterways flow in a crisscrossing matrix wherever you find yourself. Maps of the delta are beautiful and confounding – they don’t look like “normal” rivers which have a clear directionality:

pearl river delta
This map also shows the massive urban development in the Pearl River Delta over the last 30 years.

So – one thing that’s been haunting me recently is the future rise of sea levels. In the Illawarra, it seems clear that sea level rises will immediately affect the areas surrounding creeks, since these are the lowest parts of the landscape. Like in the big floods of 1998 (when the extra water came from the sky), houses with creeks running through their yards will have to think about how to protect themselves from serious land erosion and property damage.

Here’s a map I saw of Brisbane a few years ago, where the future sea level rise totally transforms the city’s useable spaces:

brisbane sea level rise
This is the first image I saw which showed future projections of the impact of sea level rises on low-lying cities, and I imagine we’ll be seeing these maps with ever more frequency now.

So what about Guangzhou?

Anthony, Trevor and Hanting didn’t know what the future prospects of the city will be. So I googled it.

Uh oh. Of all the cities in the entire world, Guangzhou is listed at number one. The most likely to be caused massive damage due to sea level rises:

In terms of the overall cost of damage, the cities at the greatest risk are: 1) Guangzhou, 2) Miami, 3) New York, 4) New Orleans, 5) Mumbai, 6) Nagoya, 7) Tampa, 8) Boston, 9) Shenzen, and 10) Osaka. The top four cities alone account for 43% of the forecast total global losses.

OK. So, what can be done about this?

In a rudimentary search, I couldn’t find much specific about Guangzhou’s plan for the future of sea level rises, but hopefully something will turn up. Meantime, here’s some research from 13 years ago: a paper called “Coastal Inundation due to Sea Level Rise in the Pearl River Delta, China” in a journal called Natural Hazards, by geographers ZHENGUO HUANG, YONGQIANG ZONG, and WEIQIANG ZHANG, from 2003. The authors mention 193 flooding events in the last 40 years (that’s about 5 per year!) and make some calculations based on the idea of a 30cm rise by 2030. Their conclusion:

The potential rise in sea level during the 21st century will pose a severe threat to the communities in the deltaic area. In order for the current and future investments and communities to be protected from potential threat of marine inundation, preventive policies need to be formulated and implemented as soon as possible.

And here’s something from 2005, where plans were mooted to upgrade the Pearl River Delta’s flood defences (no mention of climate change though in that article).

Here’s a more recent article which describes the threat to GZ from Climate Change, but without any mention of what measures could be taken to mitigate it.

This article seems to tackle the heart of the matter, and it’s more recent (2013): “A Review of Assessment and Adaptation Strategy to Climate Change Impacts on the Coastal Areas in South China“. The strategies discussed include:

  • improving the monitoring and early warning systems;
  • fortifying coastal protection engineering;
  • working on ecological restoration to buffer the effects of climate change on biodiversity;
  • and strengthening salt tide prevention to ensure the water resource security.

This last factor was one I hadn’t considered. With rising sea levels, salty water will start to infiltrate areas where fresh water had been drawn for drinking.

This jaunty piece discusses the threat to Guangzhou in connection with China’s apparent turnabout on Climate Change policy.

Even though these articles present some practical ideas, they still seems to be operating at the level of generalised recommendations.

Surely work is already underway? Surely?

It seems to me that the options for adapting to the future for GZ are the following:

  • build defenses against flood events (sea walls? dykes? will these work in the future??);
  • smarten up evacuation plans (how do you evacuate a city with more than 15 million people?);
  • begin radically re-designing the city with higher water levels in mind (what, like lift it up on stilts? what other ideas are there?);
  • start relocating the city to higher ground based on future sea level projections (abandon current Guangzhou and move it inland??);
  • Stop burning coal and oil.

Similar ideas (and some nice maps) are generated in this project which was presented in the 2011 Shenzhen and Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism.

What have I not considered here?

Guangzhou Mobility Fetish

guangzhou bike umbrella

I’ve been noticing these bike umbrellas around Guangzhou. They’re round on the front and long in the back, kind of the mullet of rain deflection. The long tail is so your passenger is also kept dry – and having a passenger on the back of your bike is pretty much the norm here.

Today, as we went around the city, Hanting, Trevor and I kept our eyes out for these umbrellas. I almost bought one (a pink one with raindrops pattern!) – it was only 45 yuan – but the place didn’t have the bracket that you need to fix them to your bike.

The brackets used to connect them to the bikes are gorgeous make-do pieces of vernacular design in their own right. Like the sticky tape used to strap the cushion padding onto the seat in the image above, the key here is to make it work (not to make it “pretty”).

Here’s a typical one –

bike umbrella mount

The bottom of the umbrella is a hexagon tube which slots into the bike mounting brackets. Bolts or brackets connect to the stem of your bike, and then make an elbow turn and have a hollow tube.

And here are a few variations on the mounting brackets. These photos show electrified tricycles, but the umbrellas are used on ordinary bikes just as much.

I love these things because they extend the mobility that you might have with your bike. Back in Bulli, if it’s raining Albie and I would probably take the car, even for a short trip, and really the only reason is that the car operates as a sort of “drivable umbrella”. But with this “convertible” roof, we could take the bike out more often in the wet.

Walking the Haizhu “Smelly Creek” with Trevor

Yesterday after a long lunch with Trevor, Anthony and Hanting near Observation Society, Trevor and I decided to walk the small creek that I spotted yesterday from the window of my hotel room.

The creek runs very close to the OS gallery, it was only a matter of 30 seconds to reach it from there. I asked Trevor if the creek had a name, he said it was just generally known locally as the “smelly river”.

The waterway looks more like a canal, with stone walls shoring up the edges. Unlike our creeks in the Illawarra, it’s clearly an official recreational route, with pathways all along and people jogging and riding bikes.

To walk this little “joiner” of a creek is to realise just how vast Guangzhou is. It looks like a small distance on the map, but it took a few hours just to do less than half of it, heading north. Here’s Trevor inspecting the map as we decide how much of the river to tackle:

trevor looking at map, smelly river

The “x” marks on this map show how far we got:

annotated map

There were numerous obstacles, bridges and giant highway obstructions, as well as outflow pipes from the surrounding neighbourhood which flow into the creek, and fat hydraulic pipes spanning its breadth.

hydraulic pipe, guangzhou river

At one point we had to make a huge diversion due to a blockage of the river where it looked like a new roadway was being built. The waterway was completely blocked by a dump of rubble. This might be one of the reasons the water is not moving at all, and why it’s on the smelly side.

rubble blockage

Our diversion took us through a market selling vegetables, plastic household items, as well as live animals like eels, frogs, turtles and scorpions:

scorpions in market

Trevor lives in Hong Kong, and hasn’t had much time to explore Guangzhou beyond coming here occasionally for exhibitions, so this was as much an adventure for him as it was for me.

And although this walk was an urban exploration of sorts, getting to know the neighbourhood, it was also very much about the two of us spending time together, getting to know each other, while moving continuously through space, with “adherence to the creek” as a guiding score.

And as Trevor said halfway through our walk – after a while you don’t even notice the smell.

trevor and lucas on walk

Minor Waterways of Guangdong

I’m in Guangzhou for a short residency organised by Gallery 4A in Sydney, and hosted by Observation Society (OS) here. In early June, I’ll have an exhibition at OS together with GZ/HK artist Trevor Yeung.

Yesterday in my haiku I couldn’t look past the bright blue roofs on the houses in the low-lying neighbourhood below the 46th floor of my hotel window. Today, peering closer at them to try and work out why they were so blue (I can only guess that the blue roofs are the ones that have been more recently repaired?) I noticed something even more interesting – a small waterway wending its way through this district:

view from hotel, guangzhou

The waterway you can see in the upper left and upper right of this picture, it sort of loops down towards me and then away again, and its surrounded with dense green growth on both sides. Here’s a close-up:

guangzhou waterway close up

On my map, this seems to be an odd thin creek (or canal?) which cuts off a the corner of the Zhu Jiang (Pearl River). There do seem to be a lot of these creeks running through this district.

closeup of map haizhu district guangzhou

The whole Zhu Jiang is part of a massive river delta, which I presume means that the land is very low lying, so that instead of running fast and cutting deep into the land on its journey to the sea, the river slows down and spreads its energy in all directions.

aerial photo pearl river delta

Being in such an unfamiliar place, and where I don’t speak any Cantonese, it came as a great relief to see that local creek.

I’m off to see if I can find it with my feet now.