Before 1970, the land around the village of Qiugang, in Anhui Province, China, was green, with date orchards and wildlife, and the nearby Huai River was full of fish. “It can only exist as memory now,” says local farmer Zhang Gongli. Factories sprang up near the village, pumping out pesticides and dyes. In 2004, the factories became privately owned and environmental conditions worsened significantly as production expanded. Wastewater discharged from the plants polluted the villagers’ fields; the harvest withered and the earth became barren. The villagers wondered if the grain that grew was safe to eat. The river ran black, and the fish disappeared. Cancer rates in the village shot up, and children and teachers had to cover their noses and mouths in class because of the intense smell emanating from the factories. Whenever it rained, wastewater flooded the villagers’ homes. For a long time, the villagers felt powerless to stop the destruction. Says one woman about why they didn’t sue or write petitions, “Most of us don’t know how to read or write. … How can we fight them when they can bribe their way out?” In 2004 and 2005, Zhang Gongli, whose polluted fields could no longer be farmed, filed suits against the factories—and lost.
The Oscar-nominated short documentary The Warriors of Qiugang, coproduced by the online magazine Yale Environment 360 with filmmakers Ruby Yang and Thomas Lennon, follows the villagers for three years, starting in 2007, chronicling their battle to shut down the factories and save their village. Zhang, who grew up in the village and has only a middle school education, led the effort, with the help of a fledgling environmental group, Green Anhui. He wrote a letter to the mayor asking him to require the factories to change how they handle waste. The villagers even offered to chip in financially to help the factories reform. The petition was signed by 1,801 of 1,876 villagers. But there was no response from the local government. (Locals believe that officials were receiving bribes from the factories.) Despite repeated death threats, Zhang left in secret for Beijing to attend an environmental conference and raise awareness of the struggle in Qiugang. He had never been to the city before. “I feel scared,” he says, “I really don’t want to be a hero. But the next generation will suffer. We risk our lives for their happiness.”
This powerful film gives the viewer a unique window into grassroots Chinese environmentalism and dramatizes the tension between economic expansion and the well-being of local communities. Eventually, the national government relocated the factories to a site a few miles away. Zhang is still fighting to clean up the chemical residue left behind. “We are sorry to be born in this place,” says Zhang, “but we had no choice. This was forced upon us.”