Wang Enlin is a farmer in a small village in northeastern China who remembers quite vividly the eve of the 2001 lunar New Year, the night his whole life changed.
He was playing cards with some farmer neighbors when the house they were in was flooded by wastewater from a nearby factory owned by the Qihua Chemical Group.
Qihua does crude oil processing and uses farmland to dump its wastes, none of them beneficial to land or life. Wang found that all the land around the house was polluted, dangerous to farmers and to anyone eating food grown there.
Wang reported the spill to the authorities and was told that in order to do anything about it, he’d have to provide evidence against the company and put together a lawsuit.
This was a bit of an obstacle for Wang. He had dropped out of school when he was 10 years old and knew nothing about the law.
But he was determined.
“I knew I was in the right,” said Wang, “but I did not know what law the other party had broken or whether or not there was evidence.” Wang couldn’t afford to buy any books, so for the next decade he gave bags of corn to the owner of a local bookstore in exchange for letting him stay and read books—many, many books. Wang read dictionaries so he could understand legal terminology. He read law books and business books and books on the environment. He read anything that he felt could help him substantiate the claims he was going to make against the company. And he copied reams of material onto notepads.
Finally, in 2007, armed with Wang’s knowledge, he and some of his neighbors gathered up the evidence they’d been collecting and filed suit against Qihua—this despite warnings from authorities that their actions would be useless and that there would probably be counter-claims.
And then came the waiting—many years of waiting. The case was accepted by the courts in 2015, and it was two years after that, in February 2017, that a court ruled in favor of Wang and his neighbors (now sometimes known as the Senior Citizen Environmental Protection Team), awarding each of 55 families about $119,000 to compensate for lost harvests.
The fight is not over, though. As expected, Qihua appealed and the ruling was overturned. Soon after that, the Qiqihar Intermediate People’s Court accepted Wang’s request to appeal the overturned ruling.
Wang is currently a senior citizen with lung problems; he’s on medication and air tanks to help him breathe. He’s periodically visited by police officers who tell him to drop the case and stop talking to the media. Wang ignores the warnings, instead hosting daily gatherings at his home, teaching his fellow villagers about their rights.
And he is confident about his case against the polluting corporation, saying, “We will absolutely win.”