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Ningxia residents begin the long climb out of poverty

By Peng Yining (China Daily) Updated: 2012-12-19 08:08
 

Ningxia residents begin the long climb out of poverty

Zou Xiaomei's young son drinks milk in the family sheepfold in Tongxin county. Zou used to work in Yinchuan, but returned home to breed livestock after she secured loans from a microfinancing service. Photo by Kuang Linhua / China Daily

Microfinance is slowly beginning to change the lives of people living in one of China's harshest environments, as Peng Yining reports from the mountainous Ningxia Hui autonomous region.

Zhang Yanqin and her poverty-stricken family are used to relying on charity. To show their gratitude, Zhang has pasted donation receipts on the wall of their cave dwelling in a remote village in the Ningxia Hui autonomous region.

Most of the papers are yellowed with age. The latest, sealed in a plastic cover, gleamed white against the brown dirt wall, detailing 500 yuan ($80) donated by a person called Liu Ning in 2011.

Labels on an old wooden table and a chair, the family's only furniture, proclaimed that they were originally the property of a local factory. Stamps in the children's picture books and on their school bags indicated that a kind-hearted person donated them to the family earlier this year.

"But we need more than charity," said the 36-year-old farmer. "We need to make a living for ourselves."

The desire to make a better living doesn't mean the family is ungrateful to those who have helped them. They wouldn't have displayed the documents, otherwise, she said.

Cultivation of corn and buckwheat brings the family of eight an annual income of less than 2,000 yuan, below the government's official poverty line of 2,300 yuan.

In 2012, Zhang and her husband obtained a loan of 20,000 yuan and bought 30 sheep. With help from the village administration, they learned about herding and now hope the animals will bring in an extra 20,000 yuan at the end of the year.

"The donations won't last long. We need skills or ideas for a small business, anything that will help us get out of poverty," she said.

More than 2.5 million people, 41 percent of Ningxia's population, live in the region's southern mountainous area, where the extreme conditions resulted in the United Nations listing it as one of the world's most inhospitable places in the 1970s. More than 1 million people officially live in poverty and require a considerable amount of aid every year.

However, the locals and the government are looking for a more sustainable means of poverty relief than charity can provide.

In common with many rural residents on Ningxia's Loess plateau, Zhang's family lives in caves excavated by their forebears a century ago. The two 20-square-meter caves are used as bedrooms, a living room and kitchen.

The walls are blackened by smoke from the cooking fire, and as only one side will allow a window, the caves resemble two hollowed-out eye sockets when viewed from a distance.

According to a 2012 report from the Ningxia Poverty Alleviation and Development Office, water scarcity has seriously restricted the development of this mountainous area. The population is eight times larger than the environment's capacity, meaning the imbalance between humans and available resources makes the poverty even more grinding.

A short rainy season in summer brings once-a-year rainfall to the dry, infertile soil, and provides the only source of water for people's cisterns. However, as it washes down the hill, the water carries dirt, leaves and other waste along with it.

Sugar and tea are such luxuries here that they are only offered to guests. They help disguise the taste of dirt in the boiled rainwater. Even after Zhang has settled and filtered the turbid water for a couple of days, you can still feel the sand and grit in the water, between your teeth.

"The griddle doesn't work well, because the sand has blocked most of the holes," explained Zhang Weifan, the family's youngest daughter. The 14-year-old said she couldn't remember the last time she took a bath or brushed her teeth. The family receives donations from the local government and charity organizations of, at most, a little more than 2,000 yuan every year. But the money doesn't help in the long term, said Zhang Yanqin. Her four children, aged 12 to 18, need more than 20,000 yuan a year and medical expenses for her elderly parents-in-law are also a heavy burden.

"Even a bowl of beef noodles costs 10 yuan," she said.

Zhang Yanqin and her husband are illiterate and have no skills that will enable them to find work outside their village.

Waiting, depending, demanding

At 6 am, just as dawn was breaking, Zhang Yanqin cocooned herself in a baggy yellow sweater and walked in the icy morning wind. Her face glowed red from the cold. Every day she rises early to mow the field near her cave and provide fodder for the sheep.

She said the lambing season will start in a few months and each lamb could fetch as much as 400 yuan.

"Life is not easy. But relying on my own efforts is more practical and makes me feel better than accepting charity," said Zhang. "I want my children to learn that."

Zhang Xinqi, the village head, said 12 of the 42 households in Xiagaoyao village have found a way to make a living and alleviate their dependence on donations.

The village administration is trying to help farmers start businesses by providing training and a small subsidy, according to the village head. Some of the farmers tried breeding pigs three years ago, but failed through lack of experience.

However, when some families made a profit by breeding sheep, it quickly became a trend in the village.

"Donations can make people lazy," Zhang Xinqi said. "We called it deng kao yao, or 'waiting, depending, demanding'. You can't live on waiting, depending and demanding."

In 2011, 6.95 billion yuan in poverty-relief funding was spent in Ningxia, according to a report from the Ningxia Poverty Alleviation and Development Office. Meanwhile, the Ningxia Charity Federation received more than 35 million yuan in charitable donations from home and abroad.

Despite the help, the average income of the farmers in the mountainous area is 3,415 yuan, 57.7 percent of the national average, according to the poverty alleviation office.

"Instead of having a blood transfusion, helping the body to make blood is the fundamental solution," according to a report released by the Ningxia government.

In addition to direct donations, the government launched a poverty-relief project earlier this year, helping the poor by providing job opportunities and vocational training.

The project, Huang He Shan Gu, or Yellow River Valley Charity, involves six industrial parks and has attracted 18.2 billion yuan in investment.

Yang Yanping, a 33-year-old farmer, said he benefited from the vocational training and became a veterinarian in 2010.

"My father passed away in 2009 and a drought destroyed all my crops," he said. "I was desperate."

Although charity was an option, it would take a long time for donations to ease the family's suffering and so Yang bought three sheep with borrowed funds. His family now owns more than 60 sheep and five cows. The animals bring in 30,000 yuan every year for the family of five.

"There are risks in starting a business on your own, compared with waiting for someone else to feed you," said Yang. "But I have to take that risk to live a better life, a decent life."

Zou Xiaomei, his sister-in-law, said that since she joined the sheep-breeding business she has felt increasingly confident about the future. Zou said she loves grazing her sheep across the vast expanse of open country. The local mountains may not be high, but they are extremely rugged.

"I have never before found my home so beautiful," she said. "Sometimes I just can't help singing when I stand on top of the hill, surrounded by my sheep."

"In the mountains" she sang in the Ningxia dialect, elongating the end of each sentence, "... the red flowers bloom." Her voice trailed off.

Microfinance and mountains

"You have to trust that the farmers have the ability to make a living on their own," said Long Zhipu, director of a microfinance company in Ningxia.

In 2011, Long's company, Ningxia Huimin Microfinance Co, provided 7,686 households with loans ranging from 3,000 to 20,000 yuan. Most of the farmers used the money to start their own businesses.

With a loan recovery rate as high as 99.99 percent, Long said the company is now planning to cover more villages in the southern mountainous area.

"Money needs to be transferred to farmers in accordance with the law of the market. Over-reliance on charity traps local people in a vicious circle of aid-dependency, corruption, market distortion and then even greater poverty," he said.

Sometimes charity funds don't get to the poorest families that need the most help, according to Li Jun, standing vice-president at the Ningxia Center for Environment and Poverty Alleviation, a grassroots organization.

"The money could easily be taken by village heads or people related to them," he said. "But skills, loans and businesses can't be stolen."

Those that can't "make blood by themselves" will still need direct donations, but only under the close supervision of the government, he added.

As an illiterate farmer with a badly wrecked spine, Liu Zhengfeng has only one way of making a living; by planting corn.

She receives 330 yuan a year from the poverty alleviation center. Li Jun said the money is insufficient, but at least it provides some spiritual comfort for the 51-year-old single mother, who has a 13-year-old daughter,

"That's all we could give. There are so many people out there waiting for help," said Li.

"Even though China is now the world's second-largest economy, there are still people in poverty. Please don't forget them," he urged.

Jiang Xueqing and Wu Wencong contributed to this story.

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