In the province of Anhui, we were taken to the village featured in The Warriors of Qiu Gang, a documentary film that was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short in 2011. Qiugang village had a very high incidence of cancer and other sicknesses related to industrial pollution prior to intervention. Our partner organization, Green Anhui, home to the Middle Huai River Waterkeeper, was instrumental in empowering the citizens of Qiugang to fight against the chemical plant that had been poisoning their village.
We met with Zhang Gongli, the villager who spearheaded the fight against the plant, and the central figure in the documentary. He had sparse eyebrows, salt and pepper hair, and the large weathered hands of farmer. “My health has been good, and our village now has a cancer rate on par with the national average,” he said over lunch.
Before getting involved in environmental justice, Mr. Zhang raised pigs and worked the fields in Qiugang. After the documentary was released in 2010 and the pollution issues were resolved, he was given special status by the city’s environmental protection bureau and now works as an environmental inspector for them.
He ate sparingly at lunch and refused to take any leftovers home, “We can make that at home, and make it better!” he said about the dishes. Before the documentary, he and his family faced death threats from the chemical plant as he gained support of other villagers.
Mr. Zhang’s initial attempts to approach the local government were fruitless – only when he took a long petition to higher-ups in Beijing and started a media uproar did the situation start to change. After long negotiations, the chemical plant was shut down and relocated, and the area it occupied was re-soiled and planted with crops. The officials that ignored Mr. Zhang and the pollution problem (probably fat with industry bribe money) were fired. When we went to visit the plant, its walls were still standing and its gates were locked. “We can’t go in without previous agreement by the government. And since you are foreigners, I don’t think it’ll be possible anyway,” said Mr. Zhang.
Green Anhui and the Middle Huai River Waterkeeper have been helping many villages since to fight polluters that are poisoning their air, water, food, and bodies.