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Ecological Agriculture
Where We Work: Guangxi

Putting heart into rice farming — an experiment to grow organic paddy rice in the Yao village of Wangshangtun, Lihu, Nandan County

Community-based natural resource management

Mutual help

By Mo Changzheng, Project Officer, Nandan

Wangshangtun in Lihu is a village of Baiku Yao people in Nandan County, northwest Guangxi. Currently there are 89 farming households with a population of 367. All villagers are of Yao nationality. In 2007, PCD and the Institute of Rural Development of Guangxi Academy of Social Sciences launched a project here on sustainable living. In 2008 we began to experiment with organic cultivation of wet rice.

What is organic wet rice? “Wet rice” or paddy rice is grown in inundated conditions, in contrast to hill rice. Following the definition and principles of organic farming and based on the local conditions in Wangshangtun, organic wet rice can be defined as follows. First, it entails natural and traditional rice varieties, the seeds of which can be retained. Second, it is cultivated without chemical fertilizer; only cow dung, lime, plant ash and local pesticides are used. According to the villagers, such organic wet rice is nothing new: “This was how the older generation of people cultivated crops 30 years ago!” But they were also worried: “We did this in the old days and not enough was grown to feed everyone. If we grow wet rice using the organic method, what will happen if production goes down? Will there be any compensation or subsidy?” So this became a critical issue we had to deal with when we embarked on our trials.

After much reflection, I gradually came to the understanding that the cultivation of organic wet rice would benefit the health of the people. The experiment to cultivate organic rice was to take place on a small scale. Its impact on the villagers’ health and on the environment of Wangshangtun would be minimal. So the real purpose of the experiment was to be a catalyst – to encourage everyone to join in. Only when everyone joined in would it have a bigger impact on the environment and on the health of the villagers. We were able to subsidise the villagers who took part in the experiment, since it was small-scale. But when the project was over and there was no more subsidy, would the cultivation of organic wet rice be able to continue? I think in the end it comes down to what one wants in one’s heart. Organic water rice cannot be cultivated by “money”. It has to be grown from the heart. If production in the test fields was lower than usual and the farmers got a subsidy because of this, who would put their heart into cultivating organic rice?

Since the very beginning, the experiment on the cultivation of organic paddy rice challenged the mainstream mode of thinking. The idea behind the experiment was “people-based, heart-oriented”. However, Wangshangtun is a community that has long been struggling in poverty. Many of the households have only recently been able to earn enough not to worry about food everyday. Would they risk growing organic rice?

With these questions in mind and with hope and expectation, we went from household to household to talk with the villagers. In this way, one after another, we came in contact with villagers who had the heart for organic paddy rice.

“Rice and chemical pesticides are too expensive. If we grew old varieties, we could retain the seeds ourselves. If we could use local pesticides, we would not need to buy pesticides. If no money had to be spent on chemical fertilizers, we would be saving a lot on our expenses. If we could do well in growing organic rice, it would truly be a solution to our livelihood problems.” – Xie Gang.

“I never use chemical fertilizer because I’ve got a lot of cow dung. I think I can find local pesticide in the hills. If you provided me with some good, old varieties of rice, I think I could try growing organic rice.” – Li Yingpei.

“I heard that we were going to grow organic rice, so I bought only four catties of the hybrid variety of rice this time. I usually buy 10 catties. I will retain some of my fields to grow the old varieties of rice…” – He Mingcai.

In 2008, 22 households took part on their own initiative in the experiment, and 12 mu (~0.9 ha) of fields were used for growing organic rice.

In late June, rice caseworm (a moth, Nymphula depunctalis) was rampant in the paddy fields. In the fields along the highway to Nandan County, many farmers were spraying chemical insecticides, with sprayers carried on their backs. But the field of He Mingcai was completely green, and his crop had not been attacked by pests at all. It was because he had been working very hard with local pesticides: root of Millettia, wood from the Chinaberry Melia azedarach, and unburnt tobacco (dottle) amassed in smokers’ pipes. These were steeped in water separately, and the solutions mixed on the day the insecticide was to be sprayed. Mr He had sprayed this insecticide just once – and the result was better than the other fields where chemical insecticides had been sprayed a few times.

When it was time to harvest the organic rice, I asked the organic farmers and members of the project management committee to come together to look closely at the rice cultivated. Even though the production output of the traditional varieties was less than that of the hybrid varieties, farmers who had taken part in the experiment did not complain. Many of them even sent me the traditional rice so I might taste it, newly harvested. When cooked, the organic rice was more fragrant than the usual rice and did not harden, even after it was kept overnight. The Baguixiang variety was especially impressive – one could smell its fragrance from an empty pot that had been used to cook the rice!

In 2009, with two more Baiku Yao villages joining in, a total of four villages and 20 households took part in the cultivation of organic paddy rice. When farmers sowed the seeds that year, I felt it was health and life they were sowing. How I wished the Baiku Yao villagers could struggle out of the “walled city” of chemical agriculture and rejoin the ranks of organic farmers.

Updates: In 2010, the total area of organic rice paddies in the Nandan Baiku Yao community continues to grow. Land used for growing traditional paddy rice has grown from none before 2008 to 21 mu (1.5 ha) today, and the number of varieties has increased to 11.