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Inside China’s Cancer Villages:
Q&A with Souvid Datta

A few years ago, the younger brother of photographer Souvid Datta’s close friend was diagnosed with lung cancer. He was 13 and lived in Beijing. The cause: overexposure to small air particle pollutants, which severely exacerbated his existing respiratory problems. After a series of failed treatments, the boy passed away two years later. It was Datta’s first contact with pollution in China and it had a deep impact. Born in India, Datta was studying politics and law in the UK when he discovered photography. This year, as he was finishing college, he took advantage of his Christmas holidays to travel to China thanks to support by The Royal Photographic Society, The Photographic Angle, IdeasTap and Magnum Photos. Inspired by photographer Lu Guang, who has worked on China’s environmental stories for over three decades, Datta spent four weeks exploring some of the country’s so-called cancer villages. He spoke to R&K while on assignment in Afghanistan.

Roads & Kingdoms:
What is a cancer village?

Souvid Datta: In China, cancer villages began being referred to around 1997. They’re typically small communities based near chemical, pharmaceutical or power plants, where exposure to resulting pollution has led to cancer rates soaring far above the national average. Children born in the villages of Xingtai, for example, China’s most polluted city in 2013, can be up to 13 times more likely to contract lung cancer due to air pollution from local coal-fired power plants. Current estimates from the Chinese media, NGOs and academics say the country is home to around 490 cancer villages, though new cases seem to emerge monthly.

R&K: Which villages did you focus on?

Datta: I traveled through the Tianjin, Heibei, Jiangsu and Zheijang provinces, drawn to settlements with the highest pollution rates, such as Xingtai and Ningbo, as well as the mega-cities of Beijing and Shanghai that showcase the type of development that fuels pollution. For 30 years, the country’s formidable economic expansion has been laced with corruption and negligence. It’s politics, impelled by crafted stability and censorship. In that sense, the issues I covered are just a small fraction of this much larger picture. China’s environmental crises definitely arise on a scale as epic and sweeping as the country itself, and four weeks was nowhere near enough. I’d definitely like to return to properly explore more fundamental aspects of the situation such as corruption and exploitation.

Due to bad maintenance, pollution and climate change, half of China’s rivers have vanished since 1990.

R&K: What are the different kinds of pollution that plague China and how are they spreading?

Datta: There are numerous types, and as the country has industrialized over the past few decades, the resulting damage inflicted on people, the environment and the economy has only increased. Around Ningbo, the chemical and textiles factories that I explored often dump untreated waste water into rivers, contaminating local farming soils, affecting the fishermen, and often leading to a buildup of heavy metals such as lead or chromium, that are carcinogenic. Due to bad maintenance, pollution and climate change, half of China’s rivers (about 28,000) have vanished since 1990. About 300 million rural residents do not have access to safe drinking water. Elsewhere, in Xingtai for example, steel smelting and coal-fired power plants, as well as cars, pump pollutants into the air causing internal poisoning and respiratory problems. A PNAS study in 2013 found that air pollution is cutting an average of five and a half years of life expectancy in northern China. Another important type of pollution, which I didn’t cover is e-waste, which involves the disposal or dumping of electronic components containing carcinogenic heavy metals in the circuitry.

R&K: Can you talk about some of the illegal activities that add on to the pollution problem itself?

Datta: Since the cleanup efforts of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, many factories within the city limits have been closed down. But more often, they’ve simply been relocated. Ironically, this policy not only failed to reduce national pollution, but also worsened the situation in the capital. Prevalent regional winds tend to blow all the pollutants back, causing for example the smoggy airpocalypse scenes in Beijing. Beyond this, several factories still operate illegally behind closed doors in the capital. In Yinzhou, I followed up with the Youngor textiles factory that had been the subject of a Greenpeace Investigation in 2011. The multinational company, associated with global brands including Zara and Adidas, had been exposed for dumping waste water into the local Fenghua river, a river that provides for the village of Rongjianqui. Three years later, after promising to improve its practices and stop illegal dumping, I saw that the waste water pipe had simply been moved across the river into a difficult to access location a few kilometers upstream. The dumping time, instead of noon, had been changed to the early hours at dawn. Since 2011, 12 people have died of cancer in Rongjianqui.

R&K: What are eco-migrants?

Datta: It refers to someone who is forced to migrate or flee from his home region due to changes in the local environment, which compromises his well-being or secure livelihood. For example, desertification of farming land or contamination of local soil and water. The Chinese government initiated a program to accommodate such migrants, and according to the National Bureau of Statistics of China, as of 2013, seven million people have been relocated. The real number is difficult to pin point but likely to be much higher. I was deeply moved by the story of Jamyang, who I met while she was working on the streets outside the 5th ring road of western Beijing. Originally from a small town in inner Mongolia, she moved to Beijing following the desertification of her local arable land. Her youngest son died of colon cancer in 2010 as a result of chromium poisoning from a waste dumping site near their village, and her husband committed suicide subsequently. She now lives in tiny slum accommodations off the ring road with her eldest son. They both struggle to work as street vendors and rag pickers. She’s one of China’s growing generation of eco-migrants.

Increasing awareness about environmental abuses has lead to a level of public anger that the government can neither ignore nor suppress fully

R&K: Who are the activists trying to change this situation and what are they doing to help?

Datta: A thriving environmental NGO community has grown to push the government to stay on track. [On the individual level], I can mention a few people who are doing great work. Deng Fei, a prominent journalist, was among the first to compile and publicly list a map of China’s largest cancer villages in 2010. Wei Dongying is a formidable activist, based in her cancer village of Wuli-chun. For 17 years, along with her husband, she has been tirelessly campaigning for better waste management practices, more corporate accountability and dialogue with communities. Generally speaking, the previous decade has seen slow, if any change. In the past two years, however, increasing awareness about environmental abuses has lead to a level of public anger that the government can neither ignore nor suppress fully.

R&K: What has been done by the government since its acknowledgement of the problem in February 2013?

Datta: Since the acknowledgement of cancer villages, the government has mapped out ambitious environmental initiatives in five-year plans, although experts say few have been realised. The first nationwide blueprint for climate change was issued in December 2013. Since January, the government has required 15,000 factories to publicly report real time figures on their air emissions and water discharges. It pledged $275 billion to clean up the air and amended the country’s environmental protection law to allow for stricter punishments. With all that said, in China, what the central leadership wants is often not what local governments deliver. A crucial part of the environmental overhaul will be public oversight and awareness, otherwise promises could end up being empty words. This is something I’m particularly interested in following up on: whether victims continue being treated as collateral damage, whether government politics and funds trickle down to genuine effect, and of course, whether coming developments can empower China’s population to face up to the consequences of its growth.

You can see more of Souvid Datta’s work here.

[Top image: On the outskirts of Xingtai, Zhang Wei mourns his brother, a worker in the steel factory behind who died from chromium poisoning. The small local village has seen over 30 cancer related deaths in the past 15 years, making it one of the several unacknowledged cancer villages dotted around China.]

Pauline Eiferman
Pauline Eiferman is the Director of Photography at Roads & Kingdoms. Born in Paris, she lived in Washington DC and London before moving to New York. She previously worked at Monocle magazine and Agence France Presse. Follow her at @paulineeiferman.
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