The Yunnan experience

Feature story - 26 October, 2004
The spectre of genetically engineered (GE) rice is looming on the horizon, especially in China where the government plans to introduce it soon. To see what is at risk from this dangerous gamble we have been visiting heartlands of rice production in China and now you can share our amazing experiences.

Child in traditional costume of the local tribe. Traditional agriculture in this and across Asia is threatened by the planned introduction of GE rice.

Rice is the staple diet for most Chinese people and it is the source of livelihood for more than 100 million farmers, it is cultivated in traditional paddy fields such as these in the Yunnan Province. During our Rice is Life tour in Yunnan, four buses carrying farmers, journalists, volunteers and rice experts looked for the best ways to ensure the sustainable development and agriculture of rice as well as educating locals against the dangers of GE rice.

During the week diaries cataloguing the tour's progress and its amazing experiences were written by five different volunteers. Two of the volunteers, Lisa (aka Lizardfish) from Bermuda and Akiko from Sweden via Japan wrote about their experiences in English. Lisa is one of our most active online community members and earned a place on the tour by getting the most people involved in online actions against GE rice.

To catch a glimpse of the beauty of this province and the way of life that is at risk from GE rice, watch our slideshow and read the diary highlights from Akiko and Lisa below:

16th October

The tour kicked off with an opening ceremony in Kuming, Yunnan.

Lizardfish: "It was a cloudy and misty morning with birds I had never heard before twittering to us as we walked along the pathway past ornamental flower beds bursting with colour.

My first task of the day was to remain stationed at a junction in the pathways and direct bus tour people towards the stage where we were having the opening ceremony. Pretty soon though it began to rain and before long I was rather soggy. So many of the people who needed my directions offered me their umbrella and seemed quite concerned about my excessive moisture situation. Thankfully it didn't last long. I stood there for an hour or so and said "nee how:" (hello in Mandarin) to everyone as they came by. Some people were rather shocked that I could speak so much Chinese.

Akiko: Farmers and host guests put stickers on 4 buses for the tour. The stickers said "Cheil Lal Ku". It means "Call for the spirit of rice". Wow! The Hani's way. Ask the rice spirit to come back. I will follow the wisdom of rice and express my deep appreciation to rice and people who have been farming rice for many generations. I am very excited about visiting the rice field tomorrow.

17th October

One of the first stops for the tour was in Xinping where the buses visited a village of Doi people and experienced the Doi way of life.

Lizardfish: I have never seen rice harvesting taking place before. The farmers pick up a large bunch of the rice plants and smack them against the inside of a wooden trough and all the rice grains simply fall off. Some of the farmers on our bus tour picked up some rice plants and helped out. Apparently many farming communities work this way. They help each other all the time. So one family's farm will have everyone in the entire community working it at one time.

When we arrived at our destination everyone was split up into 3 groups and each group was to go into a paddy field to greet working farmers and help them to take Polaroid pictures expressing "rice in their eyes".

When we got to the paddy fields I was shocked at how narrow the mud wall was on which we had to navigate. My nerves took hold of my legs and as I stepped sideways along the slippery wall my knees began to wobble like jelly.

Akiko: A few times during the day, I felt tears in my eyes, while sitting on the bus looking outside. It happened when I was looking at mountains through the window. First I thought they are so beautiful and very natural. Then I remembered about mountains I saw when I was in Japan travelling by trains this summer. Most of the mountains had big electric power plants on the top. I felt really bad every time I saw mountains that had metal stacked in it. I felt the mother earth, who is wise enough to be so patient. Maybe that's why I felt relief today, when I noticed about natural mountains in Xinping.

18th October

The tour travelled further into the province of Yunnan.

Akiko: Today, we were on the bus for about 9 hours to come to Yuan Yang. We left Xinping at 8 in the morning, after the breakfast. I knew it will be a long journey, so I have planned yesterday to ask some questions to a farmer, Li Shuin To, from the north part of Yunnan, who is a participant of the bus tour.

He is from a farmer's family and he is the 8th generations following the family path. He is 31 years old, and lives with 4 generations together. He has a little daughter. I was very curious first of all about how much Shuin To knows about GMOs. He said he did not know anything about it until he came to the tour.

"It is very scary", he said. He is very concerned and he wants more information in order to tell his friends and local farmers about it. He said he will try to find books about GMOs and research more about it."

19th October

The tour arrived in Honghe where the Hani people live and also practice traditional farming methods.

Lizardfish: The days have been very long and I feel as if I have been in China for many weeks already. However, the tour has only been going for 4 days (we have 4 days left). Mostly the views are spectacular especially when the sun is out.

The mountains are all covered in lush green vegetation and the 4 buses climb up winding roads to the tops of mountains and drive along valleys through clouds and mist and forest. The journeys we've been doing are usually quite bumpy and bendy so just as you are falling asleep you nearly slide off your seat and are awoken in a state of panic. Sleeping on the bus is therefore almost impossible.

Akiko: I really feel from the native farmers I met on this bus tour that they truly love their livelihoods, and their strong connection to the mother earth. When we stopped the bus for taking some photos of the terrace field, I noticed a sign. It said, "Protect Our Natural Environment. Let this warning message be with you!". A very powerful message for us humans.

I could see a part of the terrace, since the father sky asked the mist to go away for a while for us. I thanked to the father sky and to the mother earth. My 6th day in China started with this powerful experience. So far I like this day best, I said to myself.

20th October

Rice New Year celebrations in the heartland of rice.

Lizardfish: WOW! What a day! We are in Jiayin, which is a Hani village. They are celebrating the New Year today. The Hani have their own calendar which it is based on rice growing and harvesting. Now that the rice is harvested there is cause for much celebration. This place is very famous for the rice festival of the Hani's because everyone eats dinner on the street in a long line of hundreds of tables.

Akiko: The Hani festival for the rice harvest, which is their new year, reminded me of my childhood time. The atmosphere in the whole village was very similar to the summer festival I have had up until my teenage time in my town. Everybody was so excited and very busy preparing the foods. A lot of food. Different thing was the way they prepared the food. The Hani people prepared meat dishes from the very beginning. They brought a cow, a pig and chickens in the morning from their farms into the town, and killed them, cut them and cooked them with different vegetables and spices in the centre of the town.

21st October

More celebrations and experiences in the neighbouring village.

Lizardfish: The walk to the village was breathtaking. We went through forest and stood overlooking the lush, green valley. It was very tranquil and I wished we could have walked more or stayed on this path for longer.

First we walked to some terraces with local farmers and helped them use Polaroid cameras like last time. I was in charge of the equipment again and would you believe it, they had me walking down steep slippery rocks with all this stuff (flash back to paddy field instability)! We also went into a farmer's house and took pictures there. My favourite place to help them take photos was on a roof where women were raking the rice out to dry. I had never seen this being done before. Rice is everywhere! In the fields, in the kitchen, in the grinding sheds and on the roofs.

Akiko: The proper way to enter the village of Hani's is to go though the main gate. A few of us witnessed this afternoon that a young man was invited to a very old Hani woman, who seems like the most wise woman of the village. She gave him a ritual ceremony by singing and giving him some initiation. I would like to be a wise old woman who can understand the deep meaning of life.

I must say that I am very impressed that Greenpeace together with the co-organizers could prepare this wonderful and amazing tour. I noticed that the farmers who are participating with the tour are very satisfied and pleased to be here with us. Thanks Greenpeace!

End of tour

Akiko and Lizardfish's thoughts on GE

Lizardfish: These kind and trusting people are completely oblivious to the dangers that lie ahead. Someone could walk into their village in 2005 and convince them to grow GE rice so easily by telling a few lies. If rice growing communities in China are all similar in this respect, then they are all vulnerable to this kind of persuasion. If something goes wrong with the GE crops then these communities will disintegrate and the people will have to move to the cities, which will then engulf the countryside more and more.

The evidence indicates that the probability of agricultural catastrophe resulting from the use of GE crops is significant enough to warrant great concern. I am pleased that Greenpeace China is going to continue to raise awareness about this issue together with ecological rice farming.

Akiko:GMOs should not be released into the nature anymore. This is our responsibility to stop this. It is our responsibility to keep the traditional knowledge alive. GMOs are destroyers of the long lasting relationship between nature and us. This is one of the biggest challenges for all of us. We should all stand up on this urgent matter, it is not too late, but really urgent. GMOs should not be released into the nature.

The Rice is Life Tour is now over but we'll leave it to Lizardfish to sum it up:

I hope with all my heart that these beautiful (inside and out) minorities will continue to farm rice without interference from the biotech companies. However, hoping isn't enough to ensure this. We can sit here and hope as much as we like but we still need to DO SOMETHING!

What you can do:

Send a selection of beautiful ecards or an animated ecard to spread the word about GE rice.

Like Lisa you can sign up as a Greenpeace cyberactivist.

Join Greenpeace.