Autonomy and Nature —Reflections on the building of a well

By Xu Xiaoling (Officer for Nandan Project, Guangxi Museum of Nationalities)

Guiyang in March is not cold but still cool. Green tender shoots are emerging from the swaying branches of willow trees. Wayao, a tranquil village with plentiful water and fertile soil, is adorned with golden-yellow vegetable flowers and the air is filled with the scent of peach and plum flowers. In spite of its many high-rise buildings, old Guiyang city looks weary and tired. Like a maiden in love who is torn between refusing and accepting her lover, rich and fertile Wayao finally throws herself into the bosom of the market. Even though ecological farmers are not willing to talk about the local market, what is happening can be readily seen from vegetables grown on the land in front of the village.

Where spring water is sweet, the wings of self-reliance grow

Wayao Village [1] is located right next to the city of Guiyang. Benefiting from its unique location and the favourable policies of the city government, the living standard of its villagers is far above that of the Baiku Yao people of Lihu Township. Wayao villagers cultivate chiefly chives and non-seasonal tomatoes. There are three harvests a year in the chive cultivation project. Each mu of land produces about 3,000 to 4,000 catties of chives. In other words over 10,000 catties of chives are harvested from one mu of land every year. The wholesale price of a catty of chives is between RMB 1.5 and 3 yuan, and the government provides a subsidy of 40 yuan for each mu of land. During peak harvest time as much as 40 tonnes of tomatoes is brought to the wholesale market, and the wholesale price for each catty is 0.7–1.5 yuan. The annual income of the villagers is relatively high. Because of this, the small grant/loan which PCD provided for ecological agriculture had little attraction for them. In the end, the grant was used to build a well (known as a "solidarity well") which has not only benefited a lot of people, but gave an opportunity to the villagers who planned and built it to showcase their talents.

When the community facilitators recalled the process of planning and building the well, they were smiling happily even when they were talking about the difficulties and villagers' incomprehension of the plan. This is because they were proud of their achievement. It is difficult for others to feel the satisfaction and fulfillment that the success gave them because they had undergone so much hardship. In spite of this, one can still share their happiness. It is also a wonder that the community facilitators are all women. Among national minority peoples, or more accurately in all patriarchal societies, women face more difficulties than men. For example, when the idea of building a well was initially brought up, they were ridiculed and sneered at by villagers who said: "What makes you think you women can draw water from under the ground?" Lacking the power to rally supporters, they started by doing everything on their own, hoping that other villagers would finally be moved by their determination.

Well building as a cultural symbol

The building of the well was not only a manifestation of the villagers' self-government and self-reliance, it has also become a sign of the cultural memory of the community. The refreshing spring water from the well will not only reminds villagers of the hard work of the people looking for water sources in dark caves; it also reminds them of the collective wisdom demonstrated by the plan to build a well, to draw drinking water for the village. Self-government requires agreement between, and organisation of, the villagers. Occasional activities organised by a loose organisation such as the ecological farming group are unsustainable. They are only a manifestation of the need for community self-government. However, the spontaneity shown in these types of activities is a necessary precondition for sustainable self-government of local communities.

The aspiration for self-reliance is stronger in a community that is materially prosperous, but it is not a necessary result of material prosperity. The self-reliance demonstrated by the women of Buyi Nationality in the construction of the well can not only be traced to the better material conditions of Wayao, it is also closely related to Wayao's cultural background and individual personalities. I have come in touch with Wayao only recently and do not have any in-depth knowledge of the village. However, it is easier to find people being self-reliant in a society whose cultural background is relatively open. The cheerful personality of the community facilitators of Wayao and their proactive mentality enabled them to express their aspirations naturally and face setbacks calmly. Because of their proactive mentality, they were also willing to try out their ideas. Since they were able to put their ideas into action and actualised their plan by building the well, their self-confidence has increased. In this way their search for self-reliance and self-government has acquired them wings of hope.

Lack of self-reliance results in ecological imbalance

In a healthy or ecological community, self-reliance is the norm. However, this is only an ideal depicted in theories. Without self-reliance, it is impossible to have ecological sustainability because the dynamic environment will gradually lose its balance. This is already happening in Wayao as cash crops are replacing traditional crops. If Wayao's ecological farmers had not attained self-reliance and protected traditional crops, it would seem likely that when the project supported by PCD closes, cultivation of diverse traditional crops will give way to large-scale monocropping. It is a luxury to talk of pure self-reliance. In the rush towards a market economy, even when people have the idea of self-reliance, they fail to resist the lure of material gains. With the gradual decline of culture, even reflections on self-reliance become lame. Moreover our culture has often sought to serve human beings. Education that has love for nature as a core value has yet to become popular. Even our advocacy on ecology relies on utilitarian rhetoric that is human-centred. Because of this, the self-reliance being built is fragile. How we may nurture self-reliant partners is a difficulty question that needs to be addressed!

Until we reach the goal of self-reliance on Nature, nurturing self-reliance among ecological farmers in the Nandan Project would be my preoccupation. When we were in Guiyang, I encouraged and urged the farmers to question what they saw. By asking questions, abstract concepts may be clarified and independent thinking may be fostered. It also helps to achieve the purpose of reflection—"When one sees a virtuous man, one should think of becoming his equal; when one sees an unrighteous man, one should reflect upon oneself." [2] Compared with those Wayao villagers' self-reliance (those who built the well), the consciousness of self-reliance of the ecological farmers in the Nandan Project is very weak. They even asked me what I wanted them to say in planning meetings. Nurturing consciousness of self-reliance is a process that takes time and one has to be prepared to face setbacks before reaching the goal, of enhancing participants' capacity and courage to express themselves.

Photo sharing:
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A bright and clear spring refreshes the mind and calms the nature.
A deep and ancient cave: source of hope and determination.
Sharing reflections on traditional crop varieties by the spring.
Learning about traditional farming in the field.
Farmers from Guiyang and Guangxi meet in Wayao.



  1. In March 19, 2012, a team composed of 11 persons from the Nandan Project in Guangxi visited the Wayao Project in Guiyang for learning and exchange on traditional farming and crop varieties. This visit has not only strengthened the exchange between the two communities, it has also provided us with an opportunity for reflection on the relationship between nature and people. We witnessed the influence the natural environment has on people and on their traditional farming practices, and the difference it has created in the two communities.
  2. Translator's note: A quotation from The Analects of Confucius.