The tireless volunteers

Community based health


In 2006, collaborating with the local government of Gong County in Sichuan, PCD launched a project on garbage management and resource recycling at the Ningtai community in the town of Xiao Er. The purpose of the project was to address the problem of garbage management in rural areas and to advocate the building of ecological villages. In response to the community’s demands for better environmental and sanitary conditions, the project encouraged them to take part in garbage sorting. This was intended to enhance their awareness of the need to conserve resources and protect the environment, and to become more aware of the close relationship between the environment and human health.

Faced with the task of turning a small town filled with garbage into a town that sorts its own garbage, the people were at first worried. “There’s been talk of managing the garbage problem for many years, yet even the garbage on the streets has not been resolved.” “Garbage sorting? I’m afraid this project will be given up sooner or later…” “Even households in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai don’t sort their garbage – why should we, out in the hills?” But some villagers were curious: “What is garbage sorting? What is it for?”

Using concepts of good governance, and participatory methods, the project team addressed the villagers’ worries by facilitating formation of a grassroots organisation in the community, and by launching self-education and training activities on environmental issues at the grassroots level.

A critical factor that facilitated the progress of the project was the building of volunteer teams. Four teams of volunteers were set up, one after another. With the help of schools and under the guidance of school teachers, three teams were set up as student bodies. The fourth volunteer team consisted of residents, and was run by the residents themselves. “Though I was elected by the team, I was uncertain what we were supposed to do…” recalled Li Xiaoren, the team leader. It was not only Li who was confused – other team members and residents were also perplexed about their task.

The project office always believed that the only way to answer residents’ questions was to work together with them – looking at the environment and discussing the health problems we were facing. Only in practice would the residents find the answers to their worries and doubts.

The project office invited external volunteer trainers to conduct various training activities for environmental education. Soon the volunteers in the community discovered clues to the answers they were looking for, and began to develop interest in the project. Their worries were replaced by curiosity. To enhance the enthusiasm and the participation of volunteers, and to build their capacity for self-management, a small grant was established. The volunteer team could apply for a subsidy for its activities. The project office also helped the volunteers to build their own management system, with such details as division of labour and financial management.

The power of the community gradually grew. Community members were soon walking at the same pace and their voices became more unanimous – and loud. Thanks to their efforts, launch events, evening galas, slogan banners, publicity boards, “garbage fashion shows”, and “environmental swimming” in Nanguang River, were organised. They also assumed the role of supervision and leadership in garbage sorting. Everyday a small group of volunteers supervised the collection and transportation of garbage, taught people to sort their garbage and publicised the advantages of garbage sorting. “Without the volunteers, it was not possible to do garbage sorting.” The hard work and the contribution of the volunteers were summed up in these words of sanitary workers – words that came from the bottom of their hearts. “If there hadn’t been so many people taking part in the activities, we’d still be living among garbage. We’d feel more troubled than before and would have more illnesses,” said people in the community. In the last two years, everyone has witnessed the improvement in the community in terms of the sanitation of the streams and streets. Fewer people litter and most people feel more at ease, physically and emotionally.

Garbage sorting is a means to encourage change in people’s awareness about the environment. At first, people in the community felt the volunteers were a nuisance. In the process of garbage sorting, people sometimes got into quarrels and fights. Neighbours who used to talk to each other stopped talking. In some cases, volunteers’ children even urged their parents to stop: “Volunteers don’t receive any money. The job is dirty and tiring and you often have to offend other people. When you die, no one will carry you to the graveyard…” Despite these difficulties the volunteers persevered, because they knew that environmental health was closely connected with the physical and emotional health of the people. “Voluntary work in environmental issues is not an easy job. But we belong to this place. We live here and our children and grandchildren will live here. If we don’t do it, if we don’t protect our own environment, who else will?” Xiong Peizhen, a volunteer, said resolutely.

Because of their determination, their perseverance, and their care and concern for the environment and the public good, today – three years later – the volunteers have not only won an improved environment for their community; they have also gained the compliments and recognition of their neighbours, and the understanding, agreement and support of their children.

From ignorance to curiosity and participation and then to self-organisation, the volunteers of Xiao Er Town have gone on a journey which is neither long nor short. The force of volunteers is renewed every year with new members, and with new activities emphasising environmental protection, such as boatmen songs, boat processions, and rap songs. The new force of volunteers has helped to generate potential resources and channel the many talents in the community. An environment photography group and a monitoring group were subsequently set up. The Elderly Association is also organising different forms of environmental protection activities. People are no longer simply waiting for external intervention. Instead they have become more proactive and have taken the initiative to go out and see how other communities act; after this, they have come home and looked for resources to launch new activities. Their bond with the community has grown stronger. Their smiles and laughter convey their pride in their community, their sense of ownership and their eagerness to participate. From the relentless actions of the volunteers, one can discern their enthusiasm for environmental protection.

Now Xiao Er Town has changed completely, thanks to the efforts of the volunteers. Such actions can improve the natural environment of rural villages in China. This growing force of volunteers consists of people of different age groups and backgrounds: students, teachers, residents, workers, shop owners, individuals, and local government. They interact and influence each other. Hand in hand they pass on the idea of environmental protection – to protect the environment is to protect one’s own home and oneself.

I firmly believe that in this affluent land, the growing force of tireless volunteers will continue to create miracles.