As in nearby villages, crops here appear wilted, and the village well is clogged with green muck. These were all sharp changes from Li’s childhood, she said.
Twenty people still live in Chenjiawan now, down from a population of about 100 in 2007, most of them elderly, Ge said, adding that many recent deaths had been from cancer.
There is no public data drawing a direct connection between these cases and the factories that loom over the farmland. However, a 2009 study published in a Chinese journal said that the area’s main crops were “at a high risk of heavy metal contamination,” and that only less than half could be rated “secure” or “good.”
Chinese farmers “have such a profound connection with the land,” Chen said. “Since China’s household registration system makes it difficult for them to relocate to other areas, there is a sense of fatalism, and they accept whatever comes their way.”
That sense of futility ripples throughout central Hunan. In one part of Hengyang, a mound of industrial waste that has destroyed adjacent farmland has drawn outraged comments from villagers on the Internet. However, they expect no action because the nearby factories are tied to local officials, villagers said in interviews.
“There’s no way to close these factories because of local protectionism,” said one farmer, Wang, who wanted to be identified only by his surname for fear of retribution.
For Hunan officials, the mines and factories around Hengyang are central to maintaining the province’s leading role in the production of nonferrous metals, essential for industrial processes like the manufacture of lead-acid car batteries.
“It’s difficult to lobby against those companies,” said Sun Cheng (孫成), a spokesman for Green Hunan, an advocacy group.
Hunan officials are eager to expand the nonferrous metals industry. In a development plan for the five years ending in 2015, officials have pledged to increase the industry’s revenue by an annual rate of 18 percent and have approved 80 new projects that have a total investment of US$8.5 million.
Given the nationwide health risks, some environmental officials in Beijing have praised recent experiments done by scientists that show certain plants could help clean the soil by absorbing poisons. Still, there has been no sign of action on the State Council’s announced goal for comprehensive monitoring and treatment of soil pollution.
Many farmers working their ravaged lands remain fearful and fatalistic.
“You’re born on this earth, you grow up on this earth, and you can’t do anything about it,” Ge said, sitting in an alley next to a pail of carrots. “Those who are most vulnerable have died. We’re still here wasting away.”
Additional reporting by Chris Buckley