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To save rivers, she helps farmers

Chinese environmental activist Tian Jun found that in order to clean up Chengdu's rivers, she needed to look upstream.

Growing greener: Gao Shengdian, in China's Sichuan Province, gives a tour of the plots he's converting to organic farming.

Christina Larson

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Tian Jun remembers when she could still drink the water from the rivers. But that was long ago, before industrial and agricultural pollution turned the water a fetid brown.

Now, she is working to turn things around.

Ms. Tian is a Chinese environmentalist from Chengdu, the capital of western Sichuan Province. She lives in a small apartment in a city of 10 million people.

But she also makes regular trips to the surrounding countryside. One sunny spring afternoon, Tian toured the family farm of Gao Shengdian, a longtime farmer who, together with his wife, grows wheat, rice, corn, and 10 kinds of vegetables.

Like most farmers in China, Mr. Gao once used large quantities of chemical fertilizer. He purchased this fertilizer from the wheelbarrow of an unlicensed local vendor and he believes it was often impure, even toxic.

Now Gao points proudly to a series of tidy tomato plots. They are labeled with new signs that read, in neatly written Chinese characters, "Green vegetable farmland." He is converting these plots to organic farming, a three-year process. For Tian and other residents downstream, this means less agricultural pollution in their water supply.

This farm is one of a dozen now enrolled in a sustainable-­agriculture program that Tian helped launch three years ago. An environmental group that she heads splits the cost of equipment to produce "biofertilizer" from compost and manure on the farms, provides tips on what crops grow best, and connects farmers with nearby urban consumers who want organically grown produce.

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