Earthquake hurts farmers’ hopes to escape poverty

By Emma Graham-Harrison, Reuters

LONGMENSHAN, China — The ribbon of collapsed homes winding up the Jian river valley in southwest China doesn’t feature on the picturesque billboards that once welcomed tourists and now help protect its homeless residents from the rain.

Lush fields and wooded hills made the area a favorite getaway for affluent urbanites in recent years, and catering to their needs offered many farmers a welcome escape from backbreaking agricultural work or ill-paid casual labor.

But the valley was hard hit by China’s deadliest quake in decades, which struck southwestern Sichuan province last week and has killed at least 30,000, and locals fear the tremors that took their homes have also destroyed their future.

“So many years of hard work and now I’m left with nothing,” said Zhang Guangliang, tearing up as he looked at the ruined beds, chairs and televisions stacked in the courtyard of his ‘country wife’s rural retreat’.

A fully- booked sign still dangled forlornly from the balcony of a collapsed second-storey room.

“We don’t have the money or the spirit to start again, but we don’t want to go back to driving trucks either,” added his dejected wife Chen Jialing. The 7.9 magnitude tremor rippled through southwest China a week ago. The government said it probably killed over 50,000 people and about 4.8 million have lost their homes.

The Jian river valley was cut off after the quake destroyed a key bridge and in some areas over half the buildings crumbled, although single storey country homes kept the death tolls lower than in areas were people had to race down stairs to escape.

President Hu Jintao on Saturday visited the area, connected only by a temporary army bridge and still officially closed to journalists and visitors, to see the devastation.

Traditional country houses along the road were reduced to jumbles of giant matchsticks and newer concrete buildings crumpled into the piles of twisted steel and rubble that have become painfully familiar. In some areas bulldozers were helping residents sift through remains for cash and valuables.

A flood of government and individual aid has been pledged for the region. But even with financial help rebuilding, many of the rural hoteliers fear that their idyllic valley will struggle to escape the shadow of the earthquake’s devastation.

Images of homes reduced to rubble and desperate survivors have been plastered across Chinese television, and gripped the nation, triggering an outpouring of support.

Zhang and others in Longmenshan are very grateful for the help, but they worry that once the immediate crisis has past people may no longer want to visit or holiday in an area they remember as a disaster zone, or where they fear new shocks. As a constant reminder of the terror, at the valley’s heart is the town of Longmenshan — Dragon Gate Mountain — which shares the name of a major faultline in the area.

“Everything is very ugly here, now so much has collapsed,” said Bai Yuqiang standing in the center of a courtyard of picturesque but condemned rooms that she had only recently finished decorating.

“I worry that it is going to affect us for a long time, less customers are going to come,” Bai said.

But up the valley hker competitors had been cheered by the visit of old customers who were worried about their safety and President Hu, who is also head of the Communist Party.

“Having the head of the Party come here to this small valley is like a visit from the emperor. Now I’m sure the government will help,” said Wang Dong, beside the homestay sign that was all that remained of his small hostel.

“We are going to rebuild. Earthquakes like this don’t happen more than once every 70 or 80 years so I’m sure people will come back,” he added.