Far from home, volunteers fight poverty

Minhang has spent about 120 million yuan (US$16 million) on poverty programs in Yunnan as part of national efforts to get wealthy areas to help poorer regions.

Yunnan Province in southwestern China has 3.3 million people registered as poor. That is the challenge for Minhang District.

For years, Shanghai has been paired with Yunnan as part of national efforts to get wealthy areas of China to help poorer regions. Shanghai districts are involved in development work, with Minhang assigned to help Shangri-la, a county-level city in Yunnan, and several villages in the province.

To date, Minhang has spent about 120 million yuan (US$16 million) on poverty programs in Yunnan.

A volunteer team from the Minhang Agriculture Committee has just returned from Yunnan. Five of the 20-strong team have stayed on for longer-term work.

Agriculture has long been the cornerstone of Shangri-la’s economy. So, in 2016, Minhang set up a plan to industrialize agriculture and raise the incomes of local farmers.

In the Yunnan city of Baoshan, Minhang volunteers introduced cash crops, worked on improving livestock herds and set up processing facilities. The quality of tea leaves and saffron, both local specialties, has been raised. Meetings were also set up to help farmers who wanted to migrate to other areas of China.

Medical services and education are beyond the means of many farmers. Minhang has signed contracts to promote shared resources involving 22 hospitals and 32 schools in Minhang and Yunnan. The Minhang Chamber of Commerce plans to establish partnership-assistance models with poor villages in Shangri-la.

“Minhang will work on personnel training to make sure Yunnan develops more talent,” said district Party Secretary Zhu Zhisong. “We will do our best to help alleviate poverty.”

But all these efforts really boil down to people-to-people contact on the ground. Two volunteers who have spent time in Yunnan tell us their stories.

Ti Gong

Aid volunteers in Shangri-la work against the backdrop of the breathtaking Yunnan Province mountain scenery.

Ti Gong

Chen (second from left) talks with farmers at an orchard.

Chen Chao, in Shangri-la

Before I ended a video call with my mother, she reminded me to get plenty of sleep and eat more fruit. She equates Yunnan with fruit cultivation.

I promised I would and she seemed happy when we ended the call. Then I put on my heavy winter coat and went out. It’s May in Shangri-la, but it’s still snowing heavily.

My mother doesn’t know that her son has been telling white lies. She thinks all cities in Yunnan have mild climates, like in the capital Kunming. But I am now working in an area bordering Tibet, at an altitude of 3,450 meters. The annual mean temperature here is 6 degrees Centigrade.

Mountains surrounding the area cause transport problems and isolate the area. Many companies like the high quality of products and the pristine environment, but they refrain from doing business here because the cold weather limits production times and there is a lack of qualified workers.

We are doing the best we can, knowing that even small efforts can make a difference.

When I first arrived here, I noticed animal with black fur roaming the hills. Locals told me they were Tibetan pigs and constituted a farming tradition with a long history. These free-range pigs are farmed in high altitudes, which gives the meat a delicate texture.

At the end of last year, I liaised with several companies in Minhang to get them to buy surplus pigs and chickens at a higher-than-market price, but local farmers refused to accept more money because the meat would be sold in Shanghai and they wanted to thank the city for helping the local area.

Based on a research, we discovered that children in Shangri-la suffer a higher-than-usual rate of congenital heart disease because of the high altitude. Local medical facilities were limited in their ability to diagnose and treat patients, and many families couldn’t afford health care.

Since 2016, volunteers from the Children’s Hospital of Fudan University came and examined all 7,429 children suspected of having the disease. The medical staff concluded that 97 of the children needed regular follow-up exams and 36 needed surgery.

With the help of donations, all the surgeries were performed at no cost. The Minhang Red Cross also raised 300,000 yuan (US$46,838) to improve facilities at the Shangri-la Maternity and Child Health Hospital.

The assistance project is a long journey, filled with victories and setbacks. I feel proud to play even a small part.

Zhou Xingjun, in Baoshan

Ti Gong

Minhang volunteers talk to pupils during a visit to a primary school in the Yunnan village of Baoshan, where they have set up local development projects.

The image of Zha Liuhe, a middle-aged disabled man, haunts my mind.

He can’t speak because paralysis has robbed him of the ability to make sounds. His wife died, leaving two children in his care. When we visited him, he would look up into our faces from bed and tears would stream down his face. The poor man struggled to get out of bed every day. With our help, he could move to the living room, where the best piece of furniture was a damaged 14-inch television.

We gave him some money we had raised from donations, but his situation was beyond our worst expectations. We had never seen such extreme poverty before.

Here in Baoshan, Zha’s struggle with daily life isn’t all that uncommon. In this rural village, about three-quarters of the 1,418 population live below the poverty line. Twelve are disabled, and five families can’t afford to send their children to school. About 61 children have been “left behind” by parents who have sought work in other parts of China to send money back home.

There are 3,539 villages in the same dire straits in Yunnan Province. I had trouble understanding the numbers before I came here, but now I can see the truth of it all. As a volunteer, I’m not here for the clear air or the breathtaking views. I am here to help.

If life is a journey, living in remote parts of Yunnan is an unfortunate stop. Yet people here don’t complain. They are extremely grateful for any help we can provide. It tugs at our conscience and our sympathy.

When I returned to Shanghai for Spring Festival, I shared some of my Yunnan experiences with friends. Thirteen of us signed a pact to help underprivileged students in Yunnan. One of my friends said he wanted his son to come here so that he would learn to appreciate what he has in life.

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