Guangzhou, How Villages Get Swallowed Into A Megacity

In 2002, the major southern city gave developers a decade to revitalize 138 old villages as part of China's rapid urbanization. Almost 15 years later, only four have been revamped, and the last holdout residents still refuse to leave.

Workers dismantle buildings in Guangzhou
Workers dismantle buildings in Guangzhou
Alain Ruello

GUANGZHOU â€" For the owners of Fuli, one of the leading developers of Guangzhou, May 18 marked a milestone seven years in the making. In a festive atmosphere with drums, incense and fireworks, they handed keys over for brand-new apartments to the people of Yangji, a village nestled in the heart of this megacity in southern China.

Merchants selling interior appliances, mattresses and furniture were quick to position their stalls at the foot of the new towers. Fifteen new buildings of 36 to 42 floors, surrounded by parks, playgrounds, and pools replaced nearly 1,500 dilapidated structures in the old village whose history can be traced all the way back to the Song dynasty, around the year 1000.

The old apartments were so tightly packed that "we could shake the hand of our neighbor from the window," quipped Zhang Huifang, a 40-year-old woman whose husband was born in the village. The couple "swapped" their run-down home of 150 square meters for the same space with all the modern comforts.

Lin Jianye was another proud new owner â€" of three units. Shirtless, wearing a jade necklace and smoking a cigarette, the longtime resident of the village recounted the history of Yangji without interrupting his mahjong game.

The Li family was one of 4 clans that had shaped this history of the town. True, he admits, while moving the game tiles, that his family was scattered in several apartments. But he also believes the direction of the new homes completely messed up the feng shui, which he holds responsible for his cousin's suicide in 2012. "She did not want to leave her place," he said of the mother of three. "No one could reason with her."

The policy of concrete

There are plenty of people like Zhang Huifang and Lin Jianye who believe the pros outweigh the cons in exchanging their old properties for new. But all agree it took far too long, and some longtime residents were indeed broken-hearted to have to leave. An iconic photo in 2012 showed a desperate woman, collapsed in tears and covered with dust from her house that had been demolished to make way for new construction.

In the nearby village of Xiancun, cranes that have been idle for a year and collapsed houses make the scene look like Beirut during the civil war. A barber says: "It has been at least seven years since the developer wanted to level the area." On the opposite side of the street, a poster on a wall warns that blocking demolition is like being "heartless towards one's parents." Still, no one pays it much attention anymore.

This is a country where more concrete has flowed in the last 30 years than all the concrete used in the United States in the 20th century. In China, real estate and politics go hand in hand. The cases of Yangji and Xiancun are not isolated. There are 138 old villages in and around Guangzhou â€" a metropolitan area that is home to nearly 24 million people â€" that found themselves swept up by the rapid urbanization of recent decades. The residents of these villages occupy 23% of the buildable area of the city and their total population is estimated to be around 6 million.

In 2002, the city was given 10 years to raze all the villages. Today, only four of them: Liede, Pazhou, Linhe, and Yangji have been rebuilt. Meanwhile, a handful of families are determined not to move. The Chinese call these families "ding zi" or "nail families": nails because they are attached to their homes like nails in walls. "Even the Chinese do not understand the specific nature of these villages," notes Yilong Yao, an economics professor who worked with Jean Tirole, a 2014 economic Nobel Prize winner. For years, he has studied this subject with his students.

Yao explains that these urban villages are a product of 1949, the year of the proclamation of the People's Republic of China, when the localities were endowed with higher social, economic, and political identities. Because they could find affordable rents there, they became the choice refuge for "mingmong," the migrants who formed the working poor backbone of the country's economic miracle. Rehabilitating the villages first requires a change in status, which meant facing the complex laws of the land. The ancestral rivalries between the "small" and "large" owners also helps explain the difficulties. The small owners have occasionally retaliated against the larger owners who have always monopolized the village administrative committees.

The "nail families" are especially fascinating because they illustrate all the legal, political, and social complexities in China, where contrary to Western beliefs, the citizens have long possessed some rights and freedoms. Owners in Yangzi who are some of the last to relent saw streams of water redirected toward their homes to pressure them to move. Photos showing men forcing owners to leave illustrates the combustible real estate-political cocktail that has risen in China over the last 30 years.

Workers dismantle buildings at the construction site of Liede village in Guangzhou â€" Photo: Zhang Zhitao via Zuma

Take the case of Cao Jianliao, the former vice mayor of Guangzhou who is suspected of receiving a 77-million RMB ($11.5 million) payoff as part of alleged corruption of village committee executives.

Meanwhile, others have served time for refusing to relocate. According to one man who did not want to give up his house, Chen Kailai, "From the beginning, I did not want to negotiate. It was a question of principle: I cannot let my ancestral property be used to enrich the Party."

Omnipotence of money

All of these struggles show the age-old fight against corruption and the powers-that-be. Still, in spite of all the sympathy these struggles can inspire, one can also quickly see the other motivation. Beyond all the desperate and unjust cases, the principal motivation of those who choose to resist is money. The longer one resists and chooses to stay, the better their compensation will be. The local government knows that, and even when they try to remain discreet, the numbers speak for themselves. Initially, there were only about 1% "nail families" and now there are more than 8%.

Quietly flipping through the pages in the newspaper at the entrance of his house, Guo Zhaolai, a self-proclaimed neighborhood gardener, isn't going anywhere. "Why leave? We like it here," he declares. Rather than anger, he is more focused on the size of the check and the amount of property it will buy. In his area, 29 of the 179 residents are still negotiating, even while the rents are skyrocketing. "More than 200 RMB ($30) in three months," laments one young hairdresser who rents a small room.

The first of the four villages to be reconstructed was completed in 2010 when the Asian Games were in Guangzhou. The residents received 4 million RMB ($600,000) in order to not tarnish the event. For the second village, Pazhou, the developer negotiated directly with the villagers, and everything went smoothly.

Since 2012, the courts no longer accept requests from the village committees for compensation. Coincidentally, 2012 was also when the young woman (the wife of Lin Jianye's cousin) committed suicide after refusing to leave. The economist Yilong Yao thinks the most important thing is to create clearer rules, and apply them even-handedly. That may be the most important construction job China needs to work on.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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