After a day’s work cleaning the river, fisherwoman Zhao Zhugen returned to her village outside Shanghai with a boatload of rubbish and green algae – no pig carcasses this time.
“All I dragged out was the usual rubbish. I saw more dead pigs in the water this time last year,” said Zhao, 58, who was hired to clean the Pinghutang, a tributary of Huangpu River that made headlines in March when about 20,000 dead pigs were found floating in Shanghai’s drinking-water source.
Pinghutang is the main river that flows into “the pig triangle” – an area bordered by the towns of Xinfeng, Pinghu and seaside Haiyan that has dominated pig production on the Yangtze River Delta for three decades. It joins the Huangpu River 60 kilometres downstream from Xinfeng, which took much of the blame for the dead pigs after ear tags were traced to its villages.
The dead pig scandal has dredged up problems associated with water pollution and pig farming in China, but behind the headlines, the story has had a cascading effect on the troubles of the fishermen and pig farmers in the region.
Zhao’s cleaning job started early last year when local authorities hired fishermen to clean already polluted waterways. She called the work “tough” and said she had witnessed the decline of the environment in the last two decades. Pig manure and carcasses were a familiar sight in the waters.
“It was quite common to see dead pigs dumped on riverbanks and along roadsides, even at this time of the year,” said Zhao.
Li Fucheng, head of the Fengnan fishing community of Xinfeng, was also surprised by the attention in March.
“I don’t even know why there was a scandal this year. Dumping pigs in the rivers is not news for us. We’ve seen a much worse situation,” said Li, 68, head of the Fengnan fishing community of Xinfeng.
The period between May and September is usually the busiest time for workers like Zhao, Li said. Locals usually dispose of dead pigs by throwing them into rivers and dams near their homes, but when the weather warms, the carcasses float to the surface.
Many of them now pluck dead pigs from the rivers rather than fish, but the change has not been by choice.
Xinfeng’s more than 200 fishermen have had to watch their livelihoods decline in the last two decades as pig farming grew in the region. The town has raised the most pigs in Jiaxing city along its 150 kilometres of waterways.
“Twenty years ago we didn’t expect raising pigs to do so much harm to our fishing industry,” said Li. “Things got worse in the early 2000s when more pig farms turned up. Dead pig carcasses and manure polluted the river. The water turned inky black, and in hot weather, you could smell the stink from far away.”
Looking at the turbid, algae-covered water, Li lamented that the Pinghutang was full of fish more than 20 years ago.
“Now everything has changed,” he sighed.
No one has caught a living fish in the river system for more than a decade. And since 2003, villagers from nine fishery communities in Jiaxing, including Li’s in Xifeng, have petitioned the government over water pollution.
Li said the government was aware of the problem but chose to do nothing. One petition from 2004 showed that pig manure was the main polluter in Xinfeng’s rivers, contaminating 61 per cent of the waterways, according to government statistics obtained by Li.
Only in May last year did villagers get a response from the Jiaxing agro-economics bureau. It promised to fund a clean-up of the rivers, and soon 25 workers, including Zhao, were hired. They are paid an annual salary of 30,000 yuan (HK$37,500). The average fisherman in eastern China earned about 13,000 yuan last year, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.
Plight of the pig farmer
Meanwhile, pig farmers are also in despair. Their livelihoods have been whittled away since the government ordered pig production to scale down after news of the rotting pigs spread worldwide, and as a way to counter the river pollution.
Zeng Jinmei, who preferred to use an alias, has raised pigs in Henggang village near Xinfeng for more than 20 years. Now she is forced to give up the only thing she does well.
“I have to tear down all my farms by September. I have no idea how to make a living after that,” said Zeng, 50, who has sold about half of her 40 pigs as the deadline nears.
A woman from Zeng’s village said she had to get rid of everything. “I have to demolish both my house and my pig farm and move into the flats over there,” she said, pointing to an area of residential buildings that used to be farmland.
“I have no choice but to give up my pig farm sooner or later,” she said.
In April, the official local newspaper Jiaxing Daily announced that farms within 200 metres of the main river and 100 metres of the main roads would be required to stop raising pigs. Farmers would each be compensated 300 yuan for each square metre of farmland they demolished by August. The government said it would help pig farmers shift to new work by encouraging them to grow mushrooms, flowers, fruits and vegetables along with providing professional training and job recommendations.
The farmers, however, do not appear to be prepared for the transition, and there has been little guidance from officials.
“I have raised pigs for 20 years, and I have no other expertise,” said Zeng, who said she was too old for a factory job. She said local farmers had been encouraged to grow ginger, but there is little chance of that because authorities have expropriated almost all the farmland since the 1980s and converted it into industrial plots.
“We don’t have any farmland left to grow crops,” she said.
Zeng said she did not understand why she had to give up her farm. “I have done everything local officials told us to do... I penned the pigs and never drove them out of the farms. I do not throw away carcasses carelessly,” she said.
Fisherman Li also believed Jiaxing had been unfairly targeted. He questioned the accusations levelled at the city and thinks the pigs must have been dumped much closer to Shanghai.
But such is life for fishermen and farmers: sometimes there are good days and sometimes there is bad luck.
Fan Di is a master of journalism student at the University of Hong Kong