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Building a sustainable skills learning center from the ground up

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​View from the orchard of the village reservoir and surrounding farms (photo: Nick Clarke)
​View from the orchard of the village reservoir and surrounding farms (photo: Nick Clarke)

While a narrative in the foreign press has long been focused on China's rapid urbanization, a 'back to the land' movement that pushes against city-centered life has begun to emerge over the last several years across the country. One of the latest projects in the vein started recently in an Yi minority village on the western outskirts of Kunming.

In our ongoing collaboration with Kunming Green Drinks, GoKunming recently toured the site of the Gooday (麗日永续生活中心) Sustainable Lifestyle Center. There we found out more about how this movement is developing in Yunnan, which just happens to be the topic of this month's Kunming Green Drinks event.

The project broke ground early this summer, lead by Dali native Li Tingting (李婷婷) and her husband, who returned to Yunnan to start a community center focused on promoting social enterprise, sustainable development, and village culture preservation. After touring similar projects around China and studying in Shanghai, they settled on permaculture, a set of design principles that encourage holistically working with the natural environment as the framework for their endeavor.

Looking down into the courtyard at the restoration site (photo: Nick Clarke)​
Looking down into the courtyard at the restoration site (photo: Nick Clarke)​

After finding a village that was interested in hosting, they quickly signed a lease to cultivate approximately five hectares of orchards and farmland, as well as to undertake the full restoration of one of the many traditional brick courtyard homes found in the town. The couple plans to transform this near century-old home into a space where future volunteers, tourists, educational groups, village children, and interested locals can both stay overnight and learn about permaculture and other aspects of sustainable development.

Using WeChat, the project has quickly attracted a rotating crew of around twenty volunteers from around China and the world to help with the construction and setup of the center. These volunteers, who vary in age from 21-40, and come for at least a month at a time, have been hard at work on the full restoration of the courtyard home. They rely heavily on the local environment for their needs, reusing and recycling materials from the site. Tingting and her team hope to see the home fully restored and open for visitors by the start of Spring Festival next year.

While promising, Gooday's project has many hurdles to still overcome. Although they have secured the support of the local government, some villagers are suspicious of the influx of outsiders and are dubious about the merits of permaculture, which would require changes to the way many currently farm in the area.

Soil quality from topsoil depletion and other environmental concerns also pose challenges. The project is currently something of a victim of its own success. While using nothing more than WeChat and a Weibo blog, organizers have had more applications for volunteers than they can afford to take on without growing too quickly. However, on the whole, these hurdles are not likely to be insurmountable.

Beyond the community center and farmland, in the future Gooday hopes attract other like-minded individuals to build a larger community in the village, and hopefully become one example of how those uninterested in Chinese urban life can go 'back to the land'. Li Tingting will give a more detailed presentation about Gooday's new Sustainable Lifestyle Center at the The Elephant Books (大象書店) on Sunday, November 15, at 7pm. Please see the GoKunming calendar event for full details and updates.

Editor's note: This article was submitted by Kunming Green Drinks organizer Nick Clarke. For more from Clarke, check out his Instagram page.

Gooday founder Li Tingting (photo: Nick Clarke)
Gooday founder Li Tingting (photo: Nick Clarke)
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