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Besides his mediation work, Qi Xiaomin hopes to build a stronger community through an organic greenhouse project. Mei Jia / China Daily
A sociology student gets an immersion course in conflict resolution - and helps to unite a troubled community, Mei Jia reports from Baishan, Jilin province.
The peace of Diaoshuihu village, Baishan city, Jilin province, was shattered in 2009, as a Chinese-Canadian joint-venture company began mining the village's precious underground resource: gold.
Qi Xiaomin, born in 1985 and a post -graduate student in sociology of Jilin University, arrived at the village when the conflict between the local community and the mining company was at its peak.
The villagers blocked the only road in and out of the mining site. The company stopped the progress for four months, faced with huge financial losses every day.
Qi thought he was to participate in a fieldwork project, which is what he was told when he departed from his campus in the provincial capital Changchun.
But he soon found out he'd been sent to mediate among the villagers, the local government and the company to rebuild harmony in the community. It was a crisis role most students never have the chance to assume.
"I'm not officially employed by anyone here, and no one covers my social security. But I'd like to create a profession out of what I'm doing, and be in places where I'm needed," Qi says with a determined look.
For a postgraduate like him, the decision is unusual. He works as "a nobody" in a village of 400 families, while most of his peers rush for posts as civil servants or for a "stabilized" and promising future.
"I gave up chances for well-paid and stable jobs and have stayed there for three years. I'm thinking of staying longer," Qi says.
In 2009, Jilin BMZ Mining Ltd under Eldorado Gold, one of the world's leading gold mining companies, started operating in the village.
Local villager Gao Weixin, 61, says he saw reddish water being emitted from the mine site into the river where the villagers washed clothes. Locals were also bothered by the noise of huge construction trucks driving in and out at night.
"We were deeply worried about the possible harm, and the compensation they promised did not fully materialize, so we were determined to stop them," Gao says.
Besides gathering to block the road from July 2009, the villagers turned to local officials at different levels. They refused to talk to the company's employees.
The deadlock remained for four months, until the company proposed to set up a mechanism for a four-party meeting.
"To the villagers, mining companies are intruders," says Gao Xilin, general manager of risk management and community affairs of Eldorado China. "Unlike other manufacturers, we can't move to other sites to avoid facing the problems," Gao says.
Eager to change roles from intruder to good neighbor, Gao and his colleagues initiated meetings with representatives from the local government, the villagers and Jilin University.
Qi, being chosen to represent the university, arrived in front of a crowd of angry villagers whose appeals were not satisfied.
"Once, I was surrounded by villagers in six circles, making me disconcerted," Qi says. "Some of them even threatened to dismantle my office space."
Director of the village committee Zhang Kejun says at first he was puzzled by the presence of a university student and how he could change the situation.
"I could do nothing except to be patient, listening, taking notes and promising a deadline for feedback," Qi says.
Qi worked day and night, talking to everyone there. He started to absorb more knowledge, including law, engineering, agriculture, and local customs and language.
"I could barely understand their dialect at first - now I can speak like Baishan people," Qi says.
To address the wastewater emission issue, which was at the core of the dispute, Qi started an investigation with a team of four officials. They got samples tested and urged the company to comply with legal standards for emission quality and quantity.
Qi then pushed the company to present a solution while easing the villagers' anger through talks and meetings that were too numerous to count.
Finally, the company agreed to supply the whole village with tap water from an upriver source, and compensate the villagers' loss until the pipes were built.
Knowing Qi was the neutral fourth party, Gao and his fellow villagers gradually accepted him as a friend.
"Qi takes us seriously, and is always very responsible," Gao says.
Earning trust from the various parties, Qi has decided to stay. He continues to hold four-party meetings once a month. These require the presence of leaders from the company and the government, so that they can negotiate and settle existing problems in a timely way.
By the end of 2012, Qi's four-party working office received 700 visits from villagers, including 420 in 2010.
"Reality in rural areas is far more complicated than books can tell," Qi says, adding he started to issue water compensation totaling 850,000 yuan ($135,000) for 500 villagers in 2010, and only got the work done in 2012. "Too many details, disagreements and quarrels," he says.
Qi is now actively involved in developing the community with the company, working with officials to build roads and organic vegetable greenhouses, and to prevent fallout from natural disasters. They also take villagers to agricultural fairs for advanced farming technology.
The villagers' yearly income increased from 3,000 yuan per person in 2009 to 7,000 yuan in 2011. More young people get job offers from the mining company.
Villager Gao says his family recently moved into a new house with a beautiful yard, and his neighbors begin to buy cars.
"People from the neighboring villages are all envious of us," Gao adds.
After completing his master's degree in 2011, Qi stays on in the village, as temporary office director of the four-party platform, with about 5,000 yuan monthly income offered by the university, the local government and the gold company.
Qi says he's still single because few girls would begin a relationship with a "nobody", and he'd have to explain a lot to make them understand what he's doing.
"I used to care about social status. But I think nothing is more important than doing down-to-earth things and making changes every day," he says.
Born to a farmer's family in Longxi, Gansu province, Qi says he wants to do something for the farmers.
"I'm also lucky to have a chance to be at the front line of the country's changing rural scene, with a chance to reshape it for the better," he says.
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(China Daily 01/31/2013 page20)