Finding solutions on the roof of the world

A radical organic agriculture and biogas programme in southwest China’s Yunnan province is now being replicated high on the Tibetan plateau. But what challenges does it face? Blake Stone-Banks reports.

Wujinmai Village in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) lies sequestered in the dry hills an hour and a half outside Lhasa. At an altitude of over 3,500 metres, Wujinmai’s brutally cold nighttime temperatures contrast starkly with the scorching heat of its unobstructed Himalayan sun. The soil here is dry and unforgiving, and local farmers are rarely able to grow anything other than highland barley.

Such barren conditions inspire few visitors to contemplate the economic potential of organic agriculture. But this is precisely the location that the Beijing-based Global Environmental Institute (GEI) chose to launch its most ambitious biogas and organic agriculture project yet. 

In the Tibetan plateau, farmers subsist on diets of tsampa (grain made from highland barley flour), dried meat, yoghurt, and their infamous yak butter tea, which provides Tibetans with their main calorie source. Green vegetables are few and far between. 

Farmers like Sangzhu, a mother who lives in Wujinmai, explain that the soil here cannot grow green vegetables. “We used to grow only highland barley, maybe some wheat and potatoes,” says Sangzhu. But her fortunes have changed. “Now we can grow all kinds of vegetables,” she says. Since GEI assisted Sangzhu in the construction of her family’s greenhouse and biogas system, she has grown bok choy, cucumbers, hot peppers, tomatoes and many other vegetables. 

Biogas is a fuel source produced by the decomposition, or digestion, of organic matter. In both Tibet and in Changshui, GEI uses “continuous feeding systems,” where farmers add manure and other organic matter to two underground basins. They then add water to break down the material and pump it into an airtight “digester” through a pipe. From the digester, the biogas travels through a hose straight to appliances in the farmers’ homes, where it can be used as fuel for cooking and heating — and even to generate electricity.

GEI’s programme in Wujinmai assists farmers like Sangzhu in two ways. Firstly, the biogas system provides methane gas that farmers use as a fuel source for cooking, heating and electricity. And secondly, farmers use the slurry left over from the fermentation process as an organic fertiliser in greenhouses, which create conditions that allow local farmers to grow surpluses of green vegetables. By locating the biogas systems inside these greenhouses, GEI has ensured that the slurry inside the biogas tanks will not freeze overnight.

Although the program has already won praise from government officials and local farmers, the launch of GEI’s Tibet programme is only the most recent step in a larger biogas and organic agriculture venture that has yet to be fully implemented.

Market solutions

When GEI’s executive director Jin Jiaman began planning the NGO’s strategy in 2003, she envisioned a group that could develop market-oriented solutions to the challenges posed by pollution, deforestation, climate change and poverty. Jin knew that China would continue to prioritise economic growth in its development strategy, and she collaborated with a team of partners to develop models that would address both enviromental protection and economic development. As a result, GEI has earned support within China by emphasising the market potential of its programmes as much as the environmental and social benefits. 

“In 2003 I traveled with Dr. Lin Zhi of Conservation International and Dr. Zhang Jiqiang of the Blue Moon Fund to Sichuan, Guizhou, Yunnan, and Guangxi provinces,” says Jin. “These areas of China’s southwest are rich in biodiversity, but local farmers in these areas face chronic poverty. These farmers’ main fuel source was the timber they got from cutting down trees from the surrounding forests.” 

While in Yunnan and Guangxi provinces, Jin and her partners investigated sites in which other organisations had implemented biogas programmes to stem local reliance on forestry resources. But the team found that few of them had succeeded. “The technology was outdated, and 40% to 50% of the biogas systems could no longer be used at all,” Jin explains. “But perhaps the real problem was that the majority of the systems had been donated from either the government or international NGOs without the local farmers’ active participation. Consequently, few of the local farmers who had biogas systems either appreciated or took care of them.” 

After the group returned to Beijing, they began to design what would become GEI’s biogas and organic agriculture programme. “We thought a lot about why these previous biogas programs had failed,” Jin says. “The biogas systems didn’t help the farmers economically. The systems were only designed to help with domestic energy issues. They might have saved the farmers some labour and gas costs, but they didn’t provide any income to help them out of poverty.”

Jin and her partners decided that by integrating a biogas project with an organic agriculture initiative, they could address the environmental problems caused by exploiting local forestry resources, and ensure local farmers’ participation by providing them with a means of generating income.

In 2004, Jin Jiaman and Chen Zhiping, GEI’s rural programme officer, selected the village of Changshui, near Lijiang in southwest China’s Yunnan Province, as the site for a biogas and organic agriculture pilot project. Here, the Development and Reform Commission, a local economic planning body, had recently attracted a donation of 100 Australian dairy cows, and waste from the cattle was causing severe pollution in local water resources. The conditions made Changshui an apt choice for a biogas programme.

Three months after five households in Changshui adopted GEI’s biogas technology, GEI and the local farmers began to construct the greenhouses where the farmers would grow organic produce. Over the past two years, the biogas systems have solved Changshui’s animal waste problems and greatly reduced the community’s reliance on wood for fuel. It has also saved farmers money by providing fuel and organic fertiliser, and the organic agriculture component has greatly increased farmers’ incomes.

But these successes have been limited, and the programme is still not economically self-sustaining. In fact, it has faced myriad obstacles, but by far the most challenging has been helping Changshui’s farmers to establish an effective market chain that will allow them to package, transport, and sell their goods through specific vendors in larger and more profitable markets.

Overcoming obstacles

Winning support from the local government for the project in Changshui was relatively easy. Winning the dedication and commitment of local farmers, however, proved more difficult. Farmers in these areas had witnessed the previous, failed biogas initiatives, which had required little assistance and participation from them. They were uninterested in committing their time and labour to implementing what appeared to be a similar programme. “Local farmers wanted to carefully consider how they would benefit,” says Jin. “We gave them economic analysis and took the time to explain to them exactly how they would benefit.”

In Tibet, getting support from the local government proved to be more difficult than in Yunnan. Officials were initially reluctant to invest time or resources into the project. Lila Buckley, GEI’s assistant executive director, explains: “When we first started looking at this area to develop biogas, everyone told us it would be impossible at this altitude and these temperatures.” However, the success of the pilot project in Wujinmai Village eventually caused the government to warm to GEI’s approach. With investment from the TAR Development and Reform Commission, GEI plans to construct 400 biogas systems and greenhouses by the end of 2007.

But problems remained. Neither programme is yet profitable enough to be financially sustainable. To fully succeed, a market chain must be established that connects the farmers to outside markets, where they can sell their organic produce for profits that allow them to be competitive in the market economy, and not be tempted to lease their land to developers or agri-businesses, who are keen to exploit the low land prices in western China.

The Changshui Farmers Cooperative had originally planned to reach markets in places like Guangzhou and Hong Kong, where organic produce can sell for much higher prices. But this has proved difficult; it would have required business expertise and connections that the cooperative does not yet have.

So in response to these challenges, GEI is establishing “Lijiang Snow Mountain Organics”, a company financed and guided by Chinese and western business experts, who plan to market the cooperative’s organic produce.

The strategy in Tibet is similar, but the programme is operating on a much larger scale – and is at an earlier stage. The pilot project now complete, GEI is working with the local government and local farmers to expand the scale of its Tibet operations 40-fold this year. In April, the farmers cooperative in Tibet began to sell its first produce.

The programmes have succeeded in getting the active support and participation of farmers in Tibet and Yunnan. They have also managed to present real solutions to environmental degradation and poverty. But these projects can only succeed, and become truly sustainable, when they manage to organise farmers and help them really compete in the market economy.

Blake Stone-Banks is communications officer at the Global Environment Institute

Homepage photo by Jerrold