Springtime in Central China’s Hubei province is marked with bright yellow terraced fields of rapeseed blossoms -- life abounds. But inside a small home in the tiny village of Liuchong*, death is near. 42-year-old Zhang Runxiang is curled up in the fetal position on her bed inside a bare concrete room, insulated from the sound of birds singing to each other outside. She’s suffering through the late stages of uterine cancer. Her mother sits beside her, caressing her pale white hand, sobbing. Zhang’s husband Zhou Yuansheng walks out of the room, shaking his head.
“My wife was diagnosed with cancer three years ago after they started digging underneath our home,” recalls Zhou. “She got it from the drinking water. It changed color and it developed a thick layer of sediment from all the mining.”
Economy at the expense of the environment
Like many other villagers here who have lost loved ones to cancer in recent years, Zhou blames his wife’s condition on Dasheng Chemical, the village’s phosphate mining operation and fertilizer factory that began operations nearly a decade ago.
“Now many people here have cancer,” says Zhou, shaking his head, “all kinds of cancer.”
Stories like this have become more common as China begins to come to terms with three decades of historic economic growth that has left much of the nation’s countryside –the source of China’s massive food supply -- contaminated with toxic chemicals. It’s also left Chinese people suffering from an 80 percent increase in cancer rates from 30 years ago, at the start of the country’s economic reforms.
“Our existing economic growth model –the relentless pursuit of GDP growth- is built on sacrificing the environment,” says Zeng Xiangbin, a Wuhan-based environmental lawyer. “There is simply no pollution site that I visit where I don’t feel heartbroken.”
Zeng has made a career out of defending farmers who live in China’s so-called “cancer villages” against local industry and government officials. On this day, he’s in Liuchong village to assess the damage from Dasheng Chemical’s mining and fertilizer production operation. A one thousand foot-high pile of ash looms above a river valley, blending in with the mountains that surround the village. Each day, Dasheng Chemical’s dump trucks unload more ash onto the hill, dumping piles of phosphogypsum, an industrial byproduct of phosphate fertilizer that contains cancer-causing chemicals like arsenic, chromium-6, and cadmium. Factories have dumped 300 million tons of phosphogypsum in villages like Liuchong all over the country. China produces nearly half of the world’s phosphate fertilizer, exporting nearly a fifth of it to other countries.
In 2009, Chinese journalist Deng Fei published a map highlighting a number of China's 'cancer villages.' Stella Xie translated this version of the map.
View China's Cancer Vilages in a larger map
It takes a village
Liuchong villager Yao Chengying, a straight-talking pig farmer in her 50s, says the runoff from the mountain of phosphogypsum combined with the emissions from Dasheng’s fertilizer factory have poisoned the village’s crops. “All the crops just died,” says Yao. “The watermelons were inedible. Even the pigs wouldn’t eat them.”
Yao’s piglets were born with deformed bodies as her other pigs slowly died off. She tried to fall back on her rice crop, but as the pollution became worse, more regional purchasers avoided the region, labelling rice from Liuchong village as poisonous. And that’s when farmers in Liuchong realized the battle for safer food in China started with them.
“Ever since 2010, we’ve assembled a group of farmers to protest at the Dasheng factory gates on a weekly basis,” says Yao.
Farmers have even made several trips to Beijing to petition to the central government authorities. Facing pressure from the provincial government, Dasheng chemical reimbursed the first two farming families to complain about lost livestock and crops. And then more farmers protested.
“The local government quickly became scared,” says Yao, “so police arrested the two residents -- my husband included -- who’ve managed to get reimbursed by the company as a warning to the other farmers who were protesting.”
Yao’s husband Wei Kaizu and villager Yu Dinghai were arrested by police six months ago, charged with blackmailing Dasheng Chemical. Yao says the two men were framed by the local government, which owns a stake in Dasheng Chemical and was doing the company a favor.
Neither Dasheng Chemical nor officials from the city of Zhongxiang, which carried out the arrest, agreed to an interview with Marketplace. The trial of the two men is was originally scheduled for April 9
. It’s been postponsed until the end of April.
Village chief: "I'm ashamed."
Meanwhile, the village chief of Liuchong has been busy mediating the near-constant struggle between his villagers, Dasheng Chemical, and government officials in Zhongxiang, the city that has jurisdiction over the village.
“As the head of the village, I’m ashamed that I can’t do more to help get villagers access to cleaner water,” says Li Jun, “They have every right to complain about it. I’ve appealed many times to my superiors in the city government, but since it’s going to cost a lot to install new water lines here, they’ve put the village on a waiting list.”
In the past year, city officials have sent Li to Beijing multiple times to intercept local villagers who made it to Beijing to file official complaints against local officials.
“My villagers made it to Beijing three times last year,” recalls Li, “I was finally removed from my previous party secretary role because of my failure to rein them in.”
But Li’s got other things to worry about. His father is one of dozens in Niuchong village who are dying of cancer.
At the home of Zhou Yuansheng, family from throughout the region crowd around the bed of his wife, who is in her final days of battling cancer. His 20 year-old son has just arrived from Southern China.
“Before she became sick, we made enough money to ensure that our son would finish high school and go onto university,” says Zhou. “But we’ve spent so much on her chemotherapy treatment, my son had to drop out of high school to earn more money at a factory.”
Two days later, Zhou’s wife Zhang Runxiang died at the age of 42, the latest villager in Liuchong to succumb to cancer.
Correction: Due to a translation error, the original article misstated the type of cancer Zhang Runxiang suffered from and the village she was from. She died from uterine cancer and the village's name is Liuchong. The text and audio has been corrected.