Shangba Village in Wongyuan County, Guangdong Province used to be known as an area rich in rice and fish. However, more and more people, horrified by the strike of cancer, are fleeing the village (1). From 1986 to 2005, 214 people died of cancer in the village, which equates to double the average cancer incidence in rural China (112.57 per year in 100 thousand) (2). Most of the victims were families’ bread winners, leaving their parents and children deeply distressed about the cancer (3).
Shangba is located approximately 16-18 km south of the Dabaoshan Mine region, where the Hengshi River originates and flows past the village. The history of the Mine dates back to the Song Dynasty when it was one of the largest copper mining and refining bases. Sine 1970s the state-run Guangdong Dabaoshan Mining Corporation has been mining for iron and copper ores on a large scale (4). The business, villagers assert, has turned the Hengshi River, once a river of life, to a river of death, because it has brought them cancer. “Poisonous water” is the specific term they now use for the polluted river water (1).
Locals call the Hengshi River the Red or the Black River, referring to its colours caused by contamination. Fish and shrimps have long been extinct and ducks will die within four to five hours or in three to four days if they go into the river. Once villagers come into contact with the water, their skin will become itchy and limbs rotten. An official test revealed a severe excess of heavy metals in Shangba village’s river and soil. The lead in the soil was 44 times higher than normal and cadmium 12 times higher (1). Cadmium is known as a human carcinogen and, lead is a potential carcinogen.
The correlation between pollution and cancer is scientifically supported. An investigation, partly supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China and the Guangdong Bureau of Science and Technology, concluded that the extremely high mortality rate of the local population reported for the Shangba floodplain is at least partly related to the high levels of heavy metals, particularly cadmium in the drinking well water (4). CHEN Nengchang, a researcher from Guangdong Institute of Eco-environment and Soil Science, argues that the exploitation of Dabaoshan Mine has completely polluted Shangba villagers’ living environment with heavy metals. There had been a gradual accumulation of toxins in the human bodies for over 20 years, which eventually led to a major outbreak of cancer around 1997. He considers the Dabaoshan pollution a typical case where environmental factors cause cancer. (3) From the 1970s to 2001, villagers regularly submitted petitions with a belief that the “poisonous water” was coming from the Dabaoshan Mine. However, the accused Dabaoshan Mining Corporation only admitted to partial responsibility. It pointed out that their 8 dams, a 37 million Yuan investment, substantially recycled and reused all the industrial waste water and argued that the excess of heavy metals in Shangba’s river mainly came from scattered illegal private miners and large-scale non-governmental factories, which directly disposed mine tailings without any treatment. As local governments do not benefit from the Dabaoshan Mining Corporation, which pays tax at the municipal and provincial levels, they have turned a blind eye to the illegal operation of farmer miners (1). This has taught the villagers to target the provincial mine rather than the private ones, as it is more likely to get local governments’ support on those petitions (2). However, as it can be seen from above, the provincial mine is able to provide evidence to avoid full responsibility. This results in unfulfillment of villagers’ requests for clean irrigation water and compensation. (ibid) Repeated petitions only gained the village an annual economic compensation of 33,000 yuan from the Dabaoshan Mine. (3) This means that the average compensation per person per year was less than 10 Yuan. Despite a long and arduous process, the villagers’ efforts finally paid off to some extent. The village’s social texture is considered to have contributed to the success in tackling pollution. All villagers in Shangba share the same surname and this gives them a strong sense of cohesion. Villagers trust their carders who belong to the same kinship group. This works in the favour of collective actions and enables a continuous organisation of petitions since the 1980s (2). Villagers’ tireless efforts eventually gained themselves attention from the media and the Guangdong provincial government. Half Hour Economy (《经济半小时》) reported its investigation in Shangba on China Central Television in 2001. Since 2003, the Provincial People’s Congress has mentioned Shangba’s pollution problem in every meeting. A consensus was finally reached between the governments and the mine to construct a reservoir for Shangba, which formally commenced in 2005 (5). SHEN Yangquan, a Provincial People’s Congress representative, has been featured as the main motivating role behind the reservoir project (3) (6).
With clean drinking water in place, villagers become keen to rid themselves from the notorious “cancer village” label, which is negatively affecting men’s ability in finding wives and sales of village products. (2) No one buys crops produced in Shangba. Even if they do, they’ll request an extremely low price (3). Besides, having clean drinking water is not the ultimate solution to the pollution. Villagers’ health is still at risk and ecological recovery will be lengthy. An investigation in 2009 pointed out that the agricultural soil in this region was repeatedly irrigated with polluted water from the Hengshi River and consumption of the rice and vegetables contaminated with heavy metals posed a great health risk to the local population. (7) LIN Chuxia, a professor from South China Agricultural University, is currently working on the restoration of the ecological system of Dabao Mountain and planning to build Shangba village into a planting base for energy plants. However, professor LIN points out that the depth of Shangba’s pollution into the soil means that his proposal will not yield any result till at least one or two decades later. (3)