In the two and a half years leading up to 2006, Qiugang—a village of 2,000 people in the Huai River Basin in Anhui Province—had 53 deaths due to cancer. These deaths were not solely among the elderly; children as young as one-year old manifested malignant tumors. The air in the village smelled like rotten eggs. The pollution of Baojiagou River—a tributary of the Huai that is vital to the Qiugang's local economy and welfare— was due to the Jiucailuo Chemical Plant, a chemical factory in Bengbu, Anhui Province, located 135 km north of Nanjing on the Huai River.
Ministry of Environmental Protection placed the factory in the environmental blacklist in 2007, calling for the plant to be shut down immediately. The local Longzihu District government, in which the factory is located, pushed for the plant to be moved instead. The local environmental protection agency took a more conciliatory stance, allowing the factory to continue operating on probation, with the understanding that it would be closed or moved. Local residents are reportedly skeptical that anything more will be done about the factory.
Meanwhil, it has been the source of serious environmental health problems. Turtles and fish were turning belly-up in the river and farmer's seeds that came into contact with river water would not sprout. Children in the schools near the river suffered from severe diarrhea, vomiting, nosebleeds and lightheadedness. The villagers in Qiugang knew that the wastewater of local factories caused this discoloration, but did not know how the pollution related to their health problems (ibid).
The pollution from the Jiucailuo Chemical plant became so egregious that in 2007, Qiugang’s residents — working with a fledgling environmental group, Green Anhui — began to try to do something about it . Their efforts soon attracted the attention of Chinese-American filmmaker Ruby Yang, who with cinematographer Guan Xin and longtime collaborator Thomas Lennon, spent the ensuing three years chronicling the struggle of Qiugang’s increasingly emboldened population to curb the pollution that was poisoning them in their homes, schools, and fields (ibid). In the documentary co-produced by Yale Environment 360, “The Warriors of Qiugang,” we see local villagers, with the help of NGO Green Anhui, attempt to stop the pollution caused by recently built factories that are poisoning the water and the land .
The film focuses primarily on the fifty-nine-year-old farmer Zhang Gongli, who is propelled into a leadership role mostly because, as a middle school graduate, he is more literate than the other villagers and can write a petition to township authorities . With the encouragement of the civil society group Green Anhui, whose obviously educated urban young volunteers allow the filmmakers to follow them into the village, the villagers organize themselves to protest to township leaders. This they do despite harassment and pressure from factory leaders and even death threats against Farmer Zhang. In a village of 1,876, more than 1,800 affix their names and thumbprints to a letter asking the government to do something about the air and water pollution. Meanwhile, forty local fifth graders’ essays about the pollution in their village achieve national media attention, helping to spotlight the village’s plight (ibid).
The authorities’ and factory owners’ predictable promises and delaying tactics lead to escalations and street demonstrations, especially after external NGOs furnish specific information about the toxicity of the chemicals in the water . Eventually, Farmer Zhang, together with one of the Green Anhui activists, goes to Beijing to participate in an environment and civil society conference. There he receives inspiration from others in the same situation and the viewer briefly meets some of China’s famous environmental activists, including Huo Daishan and Yu Xiaogang. The Anhui farmers’ struggle, which the filmmakers follow over a period of three years from 2007 to 2010, concludes when Beijing environmental authorities bring sufficient pressure on local officials to close the factories, which simply move a few miles away to an industrial park.
At the close of the film, the abandoned factory with its toxic wastes remains in the village, and one woman who is shown warmly thanking the activists dies, we are told in a text-over, of cancer. This suggests that despite the villagers’ optimism about their vegetables and peaches, the pollution will have long term repercussions (ibid).