Notes from the Field

From China: Women-Led Earthquake Recovery

May 13, 2009

On March 6, 2009, over 30 villagers in Mingyue Village at Anxian of Sichuan – near the epicenter of the devastating 2008 earthquake – gathered at the village committee’s meeting room. They were coming together, almost a year later to join their first participatory planning workshop to discuss how to re-start productive activities in this earthquake-affected community. Representing all of the 485 households in the village, participants included village leaders, women’s organizations representatives, and ordinary villagers. Some of them just finished rebuilding their houses that had collapsed in the earthquake, while the rest were still in the process of rebuilding. However, most of them had one problem in common: rebuilding their homes was costly, most of their money, if not all, was now gone, and they were having difficulty resuming agricultural activities. They all knew it was unlikely they would get government support any time soon to assist them in rebuilding their livelihoods. Anxian was one of the 10 worst hit counties in China, according to the central government; the local government’s initial focus was on reconstructing the country’s major infrastructure facilities in the county.

A workshop was organized by the Sichuan Academy of Social Sciences (SASS) with support from The Asia Foundation through the Give2Asia China Earthquake Recovery Fund. It is a major activity under the one-year program called Community Participation in Rural Development in Earthquake-affected Sichuan. Since December 2008, the program has aimed to promote public participation in rural communities’ recovery decisions in Sichuan. After the needs assessment and participatory planning workshops, it provides initial funding to pilot villages to carry out the plans developed by the villagers, and encourages them to seek relief funds from other sources to complete the rest of the necessary activities identified in the workshops.

With support from SASS, villagers from Mingyue actively and openly debated for over three hours on how best jumpstart their local economic recovery. Some thought it was important to first repair the irrigation system that was damaged in the earthquake. Others believed that they should switch to grow new varieties of oranges, because a market no longer existed for the current variety. And some shared eco-agriculture models they had seen on TV and in newspapers. Throughout the debates, many of them repeatedly emphasized that they needed quality and practical technical support on agricultural activities. Women, the majority in the village, asked for development plans tailored to their needs. (Most of the men have left villages in Sichuan to work in eastern and southern coastal areas of China.)

The Mingyue villagers finally agreed on an eco-agriculture model: to utilize the existing orange orchards to raise a native species of chicken and promote home-stay tourism. The initial funding provided by the program would cover fees for technical experts, expense for villager’s study tours, cost of purchasing chickens, and paying for materials such as feeds, immunizations, and pesticides for orange plants. The villagers also decided that the village’s women’s organization should lead this effort.

But the Anxian local government has been behind the project in the Mingyue Village; the Agriculture Bureau and Animal Husbandry Bureau have become involved daily with the project team. While the central government has called for public participation in the reconstruction efforts, such community participation normally remains a substantial challenge. One example, some of them noted, was the building of pre-fabricated houses in the wake of the earthquake. That was an efficient solution for earthquake victims in urban areas, where houses and residential buildings were destroyed or damaged and it would take at least a couple years to rebuild. However, very few rural residents chose to stay at these types of houses because they could build temporary houses by themselves and preferred to stay closer to their orchards, fields, or animals. Many of them hoped the money spent on the pre-fabricated houses could instead have been channeled to them to rebuild permanent houses in these rural areas. Having said that, many officials shared that they were already doing their best, but acknowledging that capacity for participatory recovery at both the local government and community levels was weak. They were enthusiastic about this project, saying customized relief efforts are essential for successful long-term rehabilitation and reconstruction.

Chen Liuting is The Asia Foundation’s Executive Program Assistant in China. She can be reached at chenliuting@asiafound.org.cn.

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