Pain stemmed from abandoning village and being homeless;
The site left behind to alert future generations
China Environment News
Article and picture: Erjun Yuan
The “36 Gulf", located in the upper reaches of the Ganxi River, was the target of chaotic digging and mining operations for a very long time. Sand dug up during these operations were dumped along the banks of the Ganxi River, leaving the fertile land on both sides covered by sand.
These quaint buildings seem to tell the long history of the Ganxiping village
A village with a history of over 500 years, the Ganxiping village, located in the Sanhe township of Hunan's Linwu county, was recently forced to relocate due to severe environmental damage and the threat of pollution. The local government advocated to destroy the village completely, but a person who paid long-term attention to the Ganxiping village voiced that if the Ganxiping village were preserved, then the village could serve as an educational landmark that would teach people about the effects of environmental pollution.
Walking through a doorway with an overhanging plaque engraved with the phrase “around mountains and water”, we saw a long, narrow street, no wider than 2 meters, paved with flagstones. Along the sides of this street were flagstone drainage gutters whose depth and width were about 20 centimeters. The meticulous design of these gutters reflected how much effort went into designing the street. Alongside it were ancient, yet well-preserved houses all lined up in a picturesque disarray of elegant, swooping eaves, tightly closed doors, intricately carved stone blocks, and fading murals on the peaks of roofs. These elegantly quaint buildings seemed to tell us of the long history of this village.
This village, located in the southern-most mountains of the Hunan province with a history of more than 500 years, is the Ganxiping village of the Sanhe township in Hunan's Linwu county. Upon walking along its old streets and seeing its well-preserved ancient buildings, visitors will feel immersed in the history of the Ganxiping village.
Yet all of this may disappear in the near future. The Ganxiping village is constantly threatened by landslides and mudslides caused by the serious siltation and pollution of the Ganxi River. Now, all of Ganxiping's villagers live in a new village not far away from their original home, while their ancient streets and buildings, so rich with historical heritage, turn into gravel and rubble.
A conservationist in charge of the Environmental Protection Education Center, who paid long-term attention to the situation of the Ganxiping village, strongly advocated preserving the ancient village instead of tearing it down: “Not only does this village have well-preserved and rare architectural characteristics from the Ming and Qing dynasty, but also its villagers were relocated due to environmental pollution which makes it an excellent environmental disaster educational center with a special historical background."
In early June, reporters visited the village and learned how it changed from a beautiful small town surrounded by mountains and water into a dangerous village prone to mudslides caused by the pollution from long-term illegal mining. They talked with local residents about the issue of whether to "leave or stay" in the ancient village.
Chaotic mining forced Ganxiping villagers to move
The “36 Gulf", located in the upper reaches of the Ganxi River, was the target of chaotic digging and mining operations for a very period of time. Sand dug up during these operations elevated the riverbed of the Ganxi River, leaving the Ganxiping villagers with no choice but to move away from their village.
Traveling through the mountains of southern Hunan, reporters arrived at the Ganxiping village beside the Ganxi River, the second tributary of the Xiang River. Under the bright sunshine of June, the quiet village was nestled in the embrace of towering mountains. Walking through town, the reporters saw only a few villagers in the huge village. Many of the houses were closed with tightly locked doors.
This was a disappearing village.
The main reason leading to the relocation of the Ganxiping village is that the “36 Gulf", located in the upper reaches of the Ganxi River, was the target of chaotic digging and mining operations for a very long time. Sand dug up during these operations were dumped along the banks of the Ganxi River, elevating the riverbed and leaving the fertile land on both sides covered by sand. Now, the riverbed is higher than the village and the Ganxiping village is faced with the danger of being flooded.
Mr. Tan, the head of the Environmental Protection Bureau of the Linwu county, accompanied the reporters through the village and told them about the area. "The 36 Gulf is one of the Xiang River’s upstream tributaries. It is rich with abundant resources such as tin, tungsten, lead, zinc, copper, and molybdenum. Around the 1980s and the 1990s, many people began mining here. At the time, a group of two or three people could easily start mining whenever they wanted to.”
During that time, there were very few restrictions on mining in the area and the native residents were the first to take advantage of this. At the peak of the mining boom of the 1980's, more than ten thousand people were mining in the mountains.
In July, 2007, "China Economic Weekly" issued a report named "A Survey on the Chaos of Chenzhou Mining in Hunan" which noted that from the end of the last century to the beginning of this century, for a period of about 10 years, the 36 Gulf was in a plundering, exploitative phase. Up to 100,000 miners were gathered together like busy ants in a stretch of land no bigger than 49 square kilometers in the 36 Gulf area.
Data provided by the Environmental Protection Bureau of the Linwu county showed that in 1995 there were more than 300 mining camps in the 36 Gulf district. At the end of 2005, there were still 106 mining camps in total, as well as 80 concentrators, 879 blanket factories, and 86 pool dams in the area. None of these mining camps followed environmental approval procedures.Although a few concentrators had waste storehouses, most of them poured their waste water and debris directly into the river, causing the water to become severely polluted. It also raised the riverbed and caused damage to the ecological environment of the river basin upstream of the area.
After years of discharging waste into the Ganxi River, these concentrators and miners have not only caused serious siltation of the Ganxi riverbed, but have also flooded large areas of farmland on both sides of the Ganxi River.
Xiaoguang Jiang, the village branch secretary of the Ganxi village, said that both sides of the Ganxi River were originally fertile farmland. Between the Ganxiping village and the Tanxiaping village, there were 1,600 acres of such farmland. Cotton and corn used to be planted there, but after so many years of miners dumping waste on these fields, only 50 acres of arable land remains.
Now, the riverbed of the Ganxi river is higher than the Ganxiping village itself, similar to the condition of the downstream portion of the Yellow River. In order to prevent the river from flooding the village, two levees were built along its sides. Xiaoguang Jiang said that a second levee had to built because the riverbed rose in height and the first levee became too low to prevent the river from overflowing.
Speaking of the construction of the levees, the local villagers lamented: "While others install security doors to prevent robberies, we have to build a waterproof wall."
In spite of the construction of the levees, the Ganxiping village is still in danger. Xiaoguang Jiang told reporters that in addition to the Ganxi River, there is another river to the east of the village. Normally, the eastern river provides the Ganxiping villagers with water to drink, while the western river (the Ganxi River) is mainly used to irrigate the farmlands. Now the riverbed of the Ganxi river has risen to a height of almost six or seven meters above the village. When it rains heavily, the east river usually floods and the whole village becomes endangered by mudslides and severe flooding.
Led by Xiaoguang Jiang, the reporters climbed on top of the high levees that protected the village and looked towards the river. Along the broad path of the river, the fertile farmlands of the past were gone and in their place were sandbars covered by red debris, stretching for miles on end. In the middle of all this was a narrow stream, the remains of the Ganxi river. It was hard to imagine that all of this used to be fertile farmlands. Now, this river has become a channel for severe and threatening floods.
In order to control the pollution, the villagers moved to a new village
In order to solve the many problems caused by the illegal digging and mining around the 36 Gulf , the government of Hunan's Chenzhou City and the government of the Wulin county have started a comprehensive treatment plan and has invested more than 12,000,000 yuan to build the Ganxiping villagers a new village.
The extent of the ecological damage caused by the illegal mining around the 36 Gulf is not only limited to the Ganxiping village of the Wulin county. Jiahe county and Guiyang county, located along the sides of the Taojia River downstream of the Ganxi River, have also been affected by the mining around the 36 Gulf area. Because of the sand and gravel deposited by these mining camps, some of the dams of the Jiahe and Guiyang counties can no longer store water and generate electricity. A large part of the power stations, electric arrangements, pumps, and dams in the area were left either fully or partly paralyzed by the debris from the mining.
In the Jiahe County, ten villages in four towns were polluted. 16,000 acres of land, which is 81% of the total cultivatable land of these ten villages, were affected by this pollution. Most of these fields were in the same damaged condition that the farmlands of Ganixping were in.
The river silted up and its riverbed was elevated. Soil eroded. Severe flooding became a possibility. The ecology of the area was destroyed. Farmlands could no longer produce crops. The water became polluted. Tens of thousands of people had difficulty in finding clean drinking water. All of these life-changing problems were triggered by pollution.
The illegal and damaging mining operations near the 36 Gulf needed to be controlled and the ecology of the Ganxi river needed to be balanced. Mr. Tan of the Environmental Protection Bureau of the Linwu county said that during Hunan's Xiang River improvement project, the Ganxi river was one of their main concerns. In July, 2006, Chenzhou's municipal administration publicly adopted a rehabilitation plan which suspended the issuing of all mining licenses and took measures to separate mining operations from selecting operations. Aimed towards stopping illegal mining operations, more than 30 remediation and combat activities were organized that year, lasting more than two months.
In August, 2007, Linwu county utilized a combination of legal, administrative and economic means to combat illegal mining. To prevent and punish these operations, legal action was taken against the illegal exploitation of minerals and the dumping of sewage, as well as the illegal supplying of electricity and explosive products to these miners.
In 2008, from May through July, Linwu County's city planning committee, environmental protection bureau, police department, and safety supervision departments as well as other surrounding towns affected by the pollution all took action. They launched "the Hundred Days campaign” which focused on stopping the mining operations of the 36 Gulf mining districts, dealing a devastating blow to the rebounding illegal mining plants and maintaining constant pressure on these illegal operations.
Mr. Tan said that the original mining enterprises of the 36 Gulf were all shut down. The Linwu county government set up the Southern Company, combining the 10 certified mining enterprises in the area. The Xiangxi company, which belongs to the Hunan Province, integrated 7 certified mining companies and closed all other illegal mining operations as well.
In 2003, In order to resolve the risk of flooding in the Ganxiping village and keep the 250 households and 800 people of the village away from the threat of environmental pollution, the Linwu county government prepared to move the Ganxiping villagers to a new village 500 meters away. The selected location was higher than the Ganxiping village, and through funds from local corporations and the government, a total of more than 12,000,000 yuan was invested into building the new village. On December, 2008, the 127 houses of the new village were complete, and the villagers gradually moved in. However, during an interview, reporters learned that more than 10 families still lived in the old Ganxiping village.
Now, even though the Ganxiping villagers are safe from floods, they still only have 50 acres of non-polluted farmland. Without enough land to make an adequate living, life became tougher.
Xiaoguang Jiang, the secretary of the Ganxiping village, said that the villagers had to find other ways of making money. Those who were born before the 1960s were too old to go out to work and could only work close to home. The younger villagers who were born in the 1980s searched for work in the neighboring Guangdong province.
Starting in 2008, the local government began subsidizing villagers. Each villager received 60 yuan per month. But is 60 yuan enough to support families who no longer have a source of income? A woman who still lived in the old village told reporters, "60 yuan is not even not enough to buy a bag of rice. An ordinary bag of rice costs 65 yuan."
Should we destroy or preserve this 500 year old village?
The local government advocated to destroy the Ganxiping village completely, but a person who paid long-term attention to the village voiced that if the Ganxiping village were preserved, then the village could serve as an educational landmark that would teach people about the effects of environmental pollution.
Ganxiping's villagers have moved to a new village. Should the old Ganxiping village be torn down or preserved?
The conservationist in charge of the Environmental Protection Education Center of Hunan, who traveled to the Linwu county to report on the remediation of the upstream portion of the Xiang River and the 36 Gulf, told reporters that he supported the preservation of the Ganxiping village, and would have deep regrets if the village were torn down.
He also told reporters that, “the village's buildings contain well-preserved and rare architectural characteristics from the Ming and Qing dynasty. Buildings like these are very rare in the Hunan Province and are worth preserving."
"More importantly, these ancient buildings are located on the two banks of the polluted Ganxi River, which make them even more valuable. Because its villagers were relocated due to environmental pollution, this village would be an excellent location for an environmental disaster education center. The preservation of the Ganxiping village will allow future generations to learn about the rich historical, cultural, and architectural heritage of the area as well as the history of the local environmental pollution.
When the reporters entered the old village, they could sense how smart and careful the builders of the village were in selecting this site 500 years ago to build their village. The village is located in the arms of towering mountains. In the past, the east river and the west river flowed past the two sides of the village, providing the villagers with an ample source of water and a convenient form of transportation. In front of the village there used to be fertile farmland that stretched along the sides of the Ganxi River all the way to the foot of the surrounding mountains. This used to be very valuable land.
500 years of history have left behind many ancient buildings in the village. All roadways, inside and outside of the village, were paved with flagstones, and the sewers were staggered in an orderly fashion. The ancient buildings on the two sides of the road were also made out of flagstones and the roofs were covered in small flagstone tiles. The corners of the walls were made out of flagstones as well. There were intricately carved door stones in front of the houses and beside certain doors, there were permanent poem couplets written with lime on the walls.
The windows, lintels, canopies and beams of the old houses were carved with rich floral and animal patterns. The walls below the eaves were painted with artistic/floral patterns which made them seem antique.
Walking through the long, narrow alleys of the village, the reporters felt as if they had gone back in time. They finally understood the reasoning behind the head conservationist's decisions when he chose to preserve the village.
However, during the planning of the Linwu county, after the villagers were relocated, the old village was scheduled to be destroyed and restored to farmlands.
When reporters mentioned the advice of the head of the Environmental Protection Education Center, Xiaoguang Jiang called the plan unrealistic. "The riverbed is too high and the local drainage system is inadequate. Floods are guaranteed to occur in the future. Safety comes first. If big floods do occur, who will take the responsibility? "
But according to that argument, even if the village is restored to farmland, the threat of floods still exists.
During the journalists' interviews in the old village, they noticed that some houses had already been torn down. According to Xiaoguang Jiang, already 1 / 3 of the village had been razed. "If the village does not consent to being torn down, it will not receive government subsidies".
In accordance to the local government’s plan, the old Ganxiping village is scheduled to be entirely demolished. However, if proper measures are taken, such as heightening the dams around the village, dredging the river, and paying close attention to the river during rainy seasons, the village could be saved and transformed into an environmental disaster educational base. Because all the villagers have moved away, flooding would no longer be a threat to personal or property safety.
When the reporters left Ganxiping village for Chenzhou city, they passed the submerged land downstream of the river and looked back at the fertile farmlands caught in the middle of the mountains and immersed by red tailings from mining. One could no longer make out the original appearance of the area.
Among the green mountains, a blanket of red tailings marked the contamination that ruined the Ganxiping village and forced the Ganxiping villagers to leave their homes.
This story teaches a very harsh lesson. In this sense, it is important and valuable to change the old Ganxiping village into an environmental disaster base to teach the public about the dangers of environmental pollution.
What is left is not only history. It is also a warning.
The Ganxiping village is over 500 years old. But more importantly, it is an example of abandonment caused by environmental pollution. The village serves as an example, a warning bound in concrete evidence and facts, that teaches people about the dangers of environmental pollution. To the Chinese, who find it difficult to leave their homeland, this is an unforgettable lesson that will make people think about the impact they are making on the environment.
The most fundamental significance in preserving China's historical heritage is to allow people to cross the boundaries of time and personally experience the historical atmosphere of ancient times in order to cause a positive impact on modern day society. However, important historical relics are often destroyed due to all sorts of reasons. Recently, the media reported extensively about 13 large granaries of the Song and Yuan dynasties that were destroyed in order to make room for a real estate project in Zhenjiang city of the Jiangsu province.
Compared to the destruction of these 13 granaries, the Ganxiping village is lucky to be mostly intact. Although some buildings have been demolished, many of the village's ancient buildings have been well-preserved. If the authorities can fully understand the meaning and importance of these old buildings, there is still time to protect the village.
Compared to the current prevailing teenage revolutionary educational bases, history and culture educational bases, industrial relics travelling bases and other educational bases, there is a lack of environmental disaster educational bases in China. Environmental awareness needs to be promoted through real-life examples, not just through written and spoken information. When people actually see a disaster caused by environmental pollution in person, the power of the experience will far exceed the impact of other promotional methods. From this perspective, it would be more useful to make the Ganxiping village into an environmental disaster educational base rather than to tear it down.
When I conducted interviews at the village, the village officials, as well as local environmental protection departments, advocated the demolition of the village. I understand that they are concerned about floods. But that problem can be solved. Tearing down the village is not the only solution.
The Ancient Pingyao town of the Shanxi province also faced a similar threat of being destroyed at the end of the 20th century. The ancient city walls of the town hindered the development of the local economy. Fortunately, due to the help of professor Yisan Ruan of the Tongji university, this world level historical and cultural heritage relic was saved.
Although the Ganxiping village is not nearly as historically important as the ancient Pingyao town, the value of preserving this village is still immense. Not only does the ancient Pingyao town have Ming and Qing dynasty architecture and city walls, but it is also "an outstanding example of Chinese Han influences in the Ming and Qing dynasties". Similarly, the Ganxiping village has well preserved Ming and Qing architecture and is also an example of the effects of environmental pollution and a warning to the development of human civilization.
Translator: Jia Luo
Proofreader: Ryan Yu