satellite view of Leizhou peninsula in southern China. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Yu Huang is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her involvement with the Wenner-Gren Foundation goes back to 2007, when she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant as a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington, Seattle to aid research on ‘Cultivating ‘Science-Savvy’ Citizens: Empowerment and Risk in Shrimp Aquaculture Development in China,’ supervised by Dr. Ann Anagnost. The Engaged Anthropology Grant allowed her to return to her field site in southern China’s shrimping industry and share her research with her collaborators.
Since 2006, I have been conducting research on the science extension network of shrimp aquaculture in Leizhou, Guangdong Province, China. Through my own experimental farming experience, as well as interviews and participation observation with shrimp farmers, extension officials, and marine biologists, I have tried to understand the two vicious cycles that shrimp farmers fall into. The drive to overproduction has lured farmers to increase stocking intensity, leading to both ecological and economic crises. Ecologically, high-intensity farming has deteriorated the pond environment and made shrimp more stressful, rendering them more vulnerable to disease attacks. Economically, overproduction depreciates the value of shrimp, making it difficult for farmers to get out of poverty. Moreover, as shrimp prices drop, a lot of farmers have to stock more shrimp juveniles to balance high input costs, incubating new risks of diseases. If few farmers benefit from the treadmill of overproduction, who gains? As farmers are enticed to become “science-savvy” farmers, they have adopted various kinds of “inputs” and equipments to boost yield, changing their mode of production from polyculture with fish and crab to monoculture of shrimp. The plight of farmers has formed stark contrast with the dramatic growth of agribusinesses that monopolizes the upstream sector of credits and inputs for shrimp juveniles, compound feed, aeration machines, and shrimp pharmaceuticals, and the downstream sector of processing, marketing, and sales.
After I received the Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology Grant in August 2012, I started to think about the issue on how I could disseminate my findings to the community of shrimp farmers. The problem is not so much that farmers are unaware of their dilemmas, but they do not know how to get out of the treadmill of overproduction. As petty commodity producers, the slogan “work more, gain more” failed to come true. While they see their income squeezed away by agribusinesses, they have to bear the risks of shrimp diseases and market fluctuation. Rather than just telling farmers the cause of their plight, I thought that I needed to do something to help them. The idea of organizing a co-operative came to mind.
The re-cooperatization movement in China sprouted at the turn of the century when family farms collaborated together to shield themselves the full costs of market relations and to capture a higher portion of the added value of the agro-food products in the commodity chain. After the Law on Specialized Farmer Cooperatives was passed in July 2007, farmers’ cooperatives mushroomed. The registered cooperatives totaled about 100,000 in 2008, grew to 689,000 by the end of 2012, and was projected to reach 900,000 by 2015.
However, the cooperative movement has not spread to Leizhou, which is located at the south end of mainland China. I decided to do some mobilization work to make farmers understand how a cooperative might help them. In summer 2013, I organized focus groups and household visits to introduce to farmers the concept of cooperative. Here are the potential benefits:
1) Uniting together, farmers can regain the pricing power by directly negotiating with hatcheries, feed manufacturers and processing factories. When the cooperatives grow bigger, farmers can even set up their own hatchery to supply quality shrimp juveniles to its members. In the downstream, farmers can develop CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) to exchange with consumers directly without the extortion of the middlemen and processers.
2) The cooperative makes decisions democratically. The mode of operation, profit distribution, and administrations are based on democratic consensus of all cooperative members. “Two heads are better than one” – yet the key is to maintain the cooperative as an organization for all, not serving only a couple of big households.
3) Cooperative members are encouraged to share farming technologies and consult others for advice in disease control. The co-op also encourages experiments on ecological aquaculture and polyculture that minimize inputs. If there are 100 ponds in the cooperative, ten can be used for fish-shrimp or shrimp-crab polyculture trials.
Soon two co-operatives were established in two villages with about ten household members each. The co-operative in one village were composed of young farmers at the age of 30s, while the co-op in the next village had mostly elderly farmers over 50 years old. At my suggestion, both co-ops agreed that their first business would be bulk purchase of shrimp feed. We did a quick calculation. In summer 2013, farmers usually ordered shrimp feed from an agent who asked for 150 yuan for a bag of 20kg (1 US$=6 RMB). The cooperative could order from the feed mill directly to save RMB20 per bag (or RMB1 per kg). Given that the average size of a pond is 5 mu (1 mu about 667 m3) and yield per mu is 750kg, a pond can produce 3,750kg of shrimps (and save RMB3,750) per crop. If RMB3,750 is saved from each harvest, RMB7,500 can be saved for a year of two crops. RMB7,500 will be split evenly between the household and the cooperative. This means that the cooperative can establish a common fund both for expanding production and cushioning farmers’ loss from shrimp disease attack.
To help farmers better understand the operation of a cooperative, I took some members from each cooperative to Yongji, Shanxi to join a training workshop organized by an NGO that works on rural development. “Puhan Rural Community” was originally formed in 1998 as a cooperative that provided technology extension service to less than ten households. Now the Community has grown to incorporate 6,520 household members in 35 villagers, covering an area of 260 km2. There are 40 specialized cooperatives that offer a whole range of services for the production and marketing of wheat, cotton, peanuts, sweet potatoes, fruit trees, and farmed animals. The Community is reputed as a comprehensive community that integrates economic, cultural, and social functions in a democratic manner. In August 2013, we stayed in the Community for one week to learn how to run the different services of a cooperative, including administrative planning, member mobilization, agricultural science extension, input supply & product sales, financial management, and even social service provision, including elderly care and women empowerment. The Community’s recent plan is to promote organic agriculture by offering members standardized services in soil test, fertilizer use, pest control, seed selection, and sales. We have found that the secret of their success lies in their large team of community coordinators (fudaoyuan) that maintain a close relation with household members. Each month, a coordinator needs to visit a household at least once to learn their needs and assess the service provided. In the spirit of “from the masses, to the masses,” the Community seeks to serve the needs of members rather than profiting from them, a widespread problem that has dampened the potential for cooperatives to bring prosperity to poor farmers.
By now, the shrimp farming cooperatives that I helped establish have been running for over one year and members are delighted not only for the economic benefits, but more importantly, the spirit of solidarity that binds them together. The Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology Grant has inspired me to think about how anthropologists can apply our knowledge for social change as I move forward in my next ethnographic study on action research, rural co-operatives, and food sovereignty in China.