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« Farms in the balance: Countering attacks against EPA on climate | Main | Peasant farms and ecological sustainability in China »

March 03, 2010

Ecologically sustainable lifestyles in China...and the struggles of people living them

This is my first blog post, so let me briefly introduce myself. My name is Mindi Schneider. I’m a native Midwesterner, and studied horticulture, agroecology, and local food systems at the University of Nebraska starting in the late 90s. I’m currently living in China and working on research for my dissertation in Development Sociology at Cornell. I’m particularly keen to understand how the industrialization of agriculture, especially hog production, is re-organizing rural economies and peasant practices here.

But enough about me. Let’s talk Chinese peasants and sustainable agriculture…

I just returned to Beijing this morning after spending six days in an 80-household mountain village in central Hebei Province. I was there to learn about farmer cooperatives, agricultural practices and peasant livelihoods. Through a friend who works as a village cooperative coordinator at the Liang Shuming Center for Rural Reconstruction (also Renmin University’s New Rural Reconstruction Research Center and the Ground Green Union), I was able to stay with the Ge family, and follow them around through their daily activities. While it’s difficult to narrow the insights I gained during my trip into a short blog post, I want to share some thoughts on a contradiction that I think is particularly worth noting, namely, the contradiction between ecologically sustainable lifestyles and the struggles of the people living them.

Let me explain. On the one hand, when I looked at farmers' practices in the village through an agroecologist’s eyes, I was continually struck by how these were the complex, low-carbon systems that we hold as models of sustainability in theory and in practice. If I were to analyze these farming systems solely in terms of material flows and nutrient cycling, I would say bravo. Sustainable. But on the other hand, whenever I asked anyone in the village about their life, the response was always that peasant life is full of kunnan, the Mandarin word for difficulties and problems. The question then becomes not so much about sustainability per se, but about inequalities, injustices, relationships between rural and urban areas, farming and non-farming populations, and policies. As a sociologist and activist, I want to understand these struggles and relationships in their proper context, and look for solutions.

The contradiction I’m proposing is related to themes that others have written about and pursued as a course of action (see for example Miguel Altieri’s “Small farms as a planetary ecological asset: Five key reasons why we should support the revitalization of small farms in the Global South” at Food First, and La Via Campesina “Climate crisis—Small scale sustainable farmers are cooling down the earth"). In my next post, I want to pick up this thread, and relate it to the farmers I met in Hebei.

Mindi Schneider

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