How Wide is the Gap Between Urban and Rural?

By Hu Xiaoping (Programme Officer for Sichuan, PCD)

Editor’s note:

Although urban and rural areas are self-evidently interdependent, development focuses almost exclusively on urban areas, leaving rural areas marginalised. Urban dwellers live unsustainably, and have little or no knowledge of agriculture. In a PCD programme in Sichuan that aims to restore urban-rural linkages, participants learn to do urban farming. Traditional organic farmers from suburban and rural areas are invited to teach them farming skills. One of the teachers, Cheng Decong, had previously given up organic farming after facing numerous difficulties. The programme has greatly enhanced urban dwellers’ knowledge and support of organic farming and has also revived Cheng’s enthusiasm for farming. The urban dwellers taking part in the programme have been able to reflect on their relationship with agriculture.

Liu Zhanhong, an organic farmer (in red), shared knowledge on ecological farming methods with urban dwellers on a piece of farm land in the suburbs of Panzhihua, Sichuan.

Cities and civilisation began to emerge a few thousand years ago as a result of the development of settled agriculture, which brought surplus production. Although urban and rural areas have the same roots, due to so-called 'progress' they have been perceived as two separate entities over the last century. In our exploration of sustainable living, we have begun to address the issue of rebuilding urban-rural interactions through agriculture. An urban farm and CSA project supported by PCD have been initiated in Panzhihua in southwestern Sichuan. Participants are rediscovering the common roots of urban and rural areas.

For six months a group of urban dwellers, linked by a common desire to get closer to nature and farm some land, came together every weekend to learn farming skills under the guidance of rural villagers. Through learning, practice and exchange, the participants have not only reaped the harvest of their labours but also gained emotional rewards and a working knowledge of agriculture.

A Former Organic Farmer Becomes a Teacher

Cheng Decong, a farmer and village doctor in Panzhihua, has been struggling between ecological farming and conventional agriculture. Since she is a doctor, she has always been sensitive about health issues. This might be why in 2008 she started to practice ecological farming with the encouragement and support of PCD. She did it for four years but had to give up at the end of 2012 because her family, neighbours and urban-based customers did not understand what she was trying to do. She told me during a visit that her eldest son, who was in junior school, had broken his arm in 2010, but because the family had been so busy with farm work and were also facing economic pressure, they had missed the optimal treatment time and had adopted a more conservative treatment plan for her son. He would have to wait until he grew up for corrective surgery. She said she had very mixed feelings then. I think, as a mother, she must have felt so sad that she found it hard to describe her feelings.

In 2013, Cheng Decong was invited to teach in the urban farm programme launched in Panzhihua. She made a great effort to teach her group of students how to grow vegetables without using pesticides or chemical fertiliser. As a doctor, she shared how our health might be affected by consuming vegetables grown using these unnatural products, and how we can reduce such harm. As a local villager born and bred in Panzhihua, she explained how modern agriculture had been destroying the ecological environment of her home village in the last few decades. As a farmer who had once practiced ecological agriculture, she shared her experience and the hardships she had gone through. Perhaps the participants were concerned about health issues, or they had learnt more about agriculture, or maybe they were touched by Cheng Decong's  story, but after listening to her, they responded: It’s a pity that you gave up. Why didn’t you persist? Where can we find healthy food cultivated ecologically? Where can we find farmers who practice ecological agriculture? We want to meet them.

When the programme came to an end, Cheng Decong told me that it was very different from her earlier experience. She had held food tasting activities in the city before and had also distributed leaflets about her work, but the feeling she got was that she was trying to sell a product. It had been difficult to gain others’ trust and understanding. This time it felt really different. I think she said “this is different” because she felt that the urban dwellers had understood what agriculture was about and this is the force that keeps ecological agriculture going.

Urban Farmers’ Reflection on Agriculture

Apart from sharing the fine food produced in the first phase of the urban farming programme, the participants also exchanged their ideas about lifestyles in the city and in the countryside, and began to question their ideas on these matters. Participants from the rural area found that even though the material conditions in rural villages might not be as good as in cities, they at least had healthy food that they had grown themselves. Their air was less polluted and their environment better. They also had more autonomy over their work schedule. While material conditions and public services might be better in the city, there are many things that city dwellers feel helpless about, and they face all sorts of pressures. The rural participants felt that others in the programme understood them and identified with them. Their confidence to continue living in the rural area grew. Urban dwellers expressed the belief that when farmers use a lot of pesticides and chemical fertilisers, they are driven not only by material gain but by urban dwellers’ idea of consumption which has affected rural farmers’ ways of production. Urban consumers are responsible for what agriculture is like today. But urban dwellers and villagers can support each other.

How Wide is the Gap Between Urban and Rural?

Cheng Decong's family has not yet returned to organic farming, but it is evident that she is working hard to find the force that will support her to take up such practice again.

How wide is the gap between urban and rural areas? Slow down when we eat. Think where our food comes from. Learn more about agriculture and try to understand. Go into each other’s life more often. We may then find the answer.

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Liu Zhanhong, an organic farmer (in red), shared knowledge on ecological farming methods with urban dwellers on a piece of farm land in the suburbs of Panzhihua, Sichuan.
Cheng Decong exchanges organic farming knowledge with an urban farmer.
Sharing knowledge on organic food between ecological farmers and urban dwellers.