Yunnan Farmer Learns "Development" Lessons from Failed Fishery

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BEIJING—In Chinese development theory, the saying goes that if you build a road, the wealth will follow. That is precisely what government officials have promised unemployed fish farmer Yi Zhuzhi once the new super highway connecting his remote village to larger cities in Yunnan province and neighboring Burma is completed. But Yi is skeptical that this will solve any "real dilemmas" he and other villagers face.

Fishery: Pipes rust and weeds flourish in Yi's aquaculture ponds, now abandoned because the cost of raising the fish is higher than the market price.

Yi came to the village over a decade ago from Dali, a more than two-day bus ride to the north, at the request of the local government. "They told me about their plan to develop a fishery in the south, and they promised great wealth," he explained as we walked around dozens of shallow concrete ponds lined with rusty pipes. "The hot spring water would enter over there and mix with the cold mountain water to make just the right temperature of water all year round. This system was supposed to make a lot of money for the village because the fish grow faster in warmer water."

But the fishery quickly ran into unanticipated costs. "The faster growth requires a lot more input of food, and in the last five years, the cost of fish feed has gone up 600 percent," Yi noted. "We aren't in Beijing—it's hard for us to be so dependent on outside resources." According to Yi, the selling price of fish in Yunnan also dropped after Burma closed its borders with China during the 2003 SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic. "Now it costs us more for us to raise the fish than we can sell it for, so we just raise enough for our family. So much money and resources went into this place, and now there's no use for any of it. It's all wasted." Yi shook his head in disgust as he surveyed the empty, overgrown pools in the late afternoon sun.

Abandoned Resort: Too remote to attract tourists, this resort also failed to make good use of the hot spring water. It has not had guests in years.
Part of a decade-old government development scheme for the village, which included an equally unsuccessful hot springs resort, the abandoned fish farm is testimony to what Yi calls "the drawbacks" of China's increasing reliance on outside investments to develop the country's vast western regions. Himself an outsider, Yi now argues that only the local people really know what kind of development is right for them. "I've learned a lot from living here, but not without taking great losses first. If you talk to the locals, they know what they need, and it's not useless fancy fishing equipment," he said, waving his hand in disgust at the acres of concrete and metal piping.

"What people here need is simple," Yi explained, noting the lack of electricity and schools, rutted roads, limited outlets for selling local crafts, and poor retirement compensation from the rubber plantations. "We are very isolated in this community. There aren't even any public buses to the nearest village." While improved roads are sorely needed, it isn't the market or the highway that will solve the community's basic problems, Yi said—and in fact, he added, these changes will likely encourage people to abandon their villages for the big cities out east. "The theories of the Beijing market experts don't always work here."

Rubber Plantations: Villagers are completely dependent on the cash economy of government-owned rubber plantations, which cover the mountainsides.

According to Yi, what his community—and others like it in China's largely undeveloped West—needs is to be valued and invested in. "Before the experts came in with their expensive ideas, locals had fish farming techniques that didn't require any feed at all," he explained. Traditional methods of raising fish integrated poultry and vegetation to form a natural feedback cycle, requiring little to no input. Chinese aquaculture dates back some 3,000 years, and such integrated techniques have gained respect around the world for their efficient conversion of protein and use of natural systems.

But as demand for animal protein has risen in China—and as wild fish stocks collapse in surrounding seas and around the world—the government has encouraged more intensified output. China now accounts for more than two-thirds of the world's aquaculture output, producing some 30 million tons of fish but requiring 16 million tons of feed in 2003.

Polluted Spring: Unused, the hot spring pool lies idle, collecting trash and debris.
"This is making the outside investors richer, while robbing villagers of our livelihoods," Yi said. "And those roads, they send the message that there are better things elsewhere, that all of our answers can be found in the city. But we can't all move to the city, can we? We need better lives for China's peasants too." The new road, ultimately, could help wealth flow into the village; but without careful planning and the participation of the villagers, it also has the potential to encourage both money and resources to ebb away.

All photos in this article are courtesy of Lila Buckley.