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The Start of Something Big: Environmental Education in China

Originally appears in the Winter 2007 issue

On March 12th each year, China celebrates National Tree Planting Day. Participation is generally high, as all Chinese citizens between the ages of 11 and 60 are required to plant 3 to 5 trees each year and most fulfill this obligation on the designated day. Schoolchildren are often bused to large planting sites that have been prepared for them in advance. I visited such a site just outside Beijing one year, and witnessed 4,000 students descend upon a dry, barren field in which rows of holes had been dug. Next to each hole was a mound of earth, and irrigation ditches ran between the rows. At the head of each row a bundle of long sticks had been placed — these were the trees to be planted, although, to my eye, they more closely resembled supporting stakes. They were poplar trees that had been stripped of all their branches and most of their roots in preparation for planting.

The students formed lines at the head of each row and their teachers issued instructions and shovels. They then formed pairs and tore off down the rows, making for the end of the field furthest from the watchful eyes of teachers and local officials. Once a hole had been agreed upon, one child held the stick upright while the other shoveled the pile of the earth into the hole. It was evident that planting was not a common activity for these children, as the trees were going in at all angles and the earth was predominantly placed on the side of the hole closest to where the mound had been located rather than all the way around the tree. Most tried to get their trees to stand as quickly as possible so that they could chase each other around the field, flinging dirt and threatening to push each other into the irrigation ditches.

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Jane Sayers works in community education for the environment at Environment Victoria, a non-governmental organization in Melbourne, Australia. This article is based on her doctoral research, which was completed in 1994 and is documented in her thesis, “Start with the Little Things: Environmental education as political participation in contemporary China.”