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Last Updated: Saturday, 15 December 2007, 12:13 GMT
Harsh life for China's hill farmers
As China prepares for the 2008 Olympics, we hear a lot about the economic boom which has transformed the big cities. But BBC Business presenter Peter Day discovers that for villagers, life has not changed that much.

Mr Ma and some of his family
Failing harvests mean a hard winter for the Ma family
The farmer Ma Yu Bao is an old man.

He and his wife have seen many winters in their cave-like home carved out of a hill in the Ningxia autonomous Hui region in the middle of China.

But this coming winter will be one of the worst in his scattered settlement of Go Jong, or "Deep Ditch" village.

For the past two years, there have been no spring rains in these dry hills, mainly populated by members of a Muslim minority.

Twice in succession, the harvests have failed.

No wheat, no maize, just a handful of sheep for the Ma family to live on, plus help from relatives and a government welfare payment of 200 yuan (13) a month which only the very poorest are eligible for.

Generations of farmers have built terraces to make cultivable land

"Life is very hard," say the Mas, in a fatalistic way.

But their little farmyard looks out on one of the wonders of the world: a mountain landscape that is breathtakingly, picture-book China.

Their cave in the hillside is carved out of loess, the silt dumped by the desert winds over vast areas of the country to a depth of hundreds of feet.

The dry crumbly loess is shaped by occasional rains into fantastic gorges and spectacular cliffs.

Two vicious droughts are merely the latest nasty reminder of the hardship of life in the hills
And the ingenious Chinese, always short of farmland, have spent generations slicing terraces out of the fragile mountains by hand, making tier above tier of land cultivable to the very top of the hills.

Farmable, maybe, but not very productive in these arid conditions.

Two vicious droughts are merely the latest nasty reminder of the hardship of life in the hills, so far away from the new luxury in China's booming cities.

City prosperity

Forty years ago, most of China was poor and rural like this.

Then the rush for growth - ushered in 29 years ago by the official socialist market reforms - was supposed to transform the whole country, as it has the cities.

A Map of China showing Ningxia Huizu Zizhiqu region and the capital Beijing
They are exploding with activity, with traffic and booming real estate as a new Chinese consuming class has been created at unprecedented speed and scale.

Market socialism was supposed to enable the new prosperity to trickle down to the very poorest.

For two decades, commentators have talked with pride about how many people were being pulled out of poverty.

But last summer the authoritative Asian Development Bank published an official survey showing that China's economy was actually smaller and poorer than hitherto thought.

It estimated that the number of people living below the World Bank's poverty line was three times previous estimates: 300 million people living on $1 a day or less, about 50p.

The speech of the party chairman Hu Jintao refocused concern on rural poverty
Now the worries about how the countryside has been left behind by the new China are out in the open.

At the five-yearly national Communist Party Congress held in Beijing in October, the speech of the party chairman Hu Jintao refocused concern on rural poverty. He pledged more action.

People you meet in the cities express their sympathies. Newspaper editorials are free to mention poverty, in a country where it was officially supposed to have been almost eradicated.

Mass migration

Meanwhile, in the hills of Ningxia, Ma Yu Bao and his wife do not know what to do.

Experts say large-scale official resettlement to irrigated farmland hundreds of miles away is the only solution
Two of his grown sons are sick, and even obtaining the basic necessities of life causes problems.

In these dry hills Mr Ma has a daily trek to fetch the household water in a sort of improvised rubber tub strapped to the back of his mule. The journey - some 3 miles (4.8km) there and back - takes him four hours.

He says he would like to abandon the village, as so many others do.

Of the 1,800 inhabitants of the neighbouring settlement, called Mountain Village, some 500 men migrate to the towns to supplement their farm incomes for at least part of the year.

Mr Ma's house
The Ma family house is built into the hill for winter warmth
Experts say large-scale official resettlement to irrigated farmland hundreds of miles away is the only solution, rather than trying to "improve" life in the mountains.

But I must say that inside the house in the hill, it was rather cosy, a bit like living in a caravan.

These cave homes are warm in the winter when the temperature falls to -30C (-22F), and cool in the summer when the thermometer soars to 28C (82F).

And there is one really enviable feature: right inside the door is a bed made of earth, a "kang".

It is warmed by going outside and pushing burning coals into a cavity deep inside the bed. It is a rare home comfort in a village on the poverty line. But it still takes Ma Yu Bao - and his mule - four hours a day to fetch the water.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 15 December, 2007 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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