Climbing Out of Poverty – The Uplifting Story of Atuler Village

By Liu Hui and Zhang Ling

Alarming photos that emerged last May of 15 Chinese schoolchildren forced to scale an 800-meter rock face on unsecured rattan ladders on their journey to and from school, drew international attention to the local area’s poverty.

Cliff school 2
A file of children climbs up the 800-meter cliff on their way to school. [West China Metropolis Daily]

Cliff-top Village 

The children, aged 6 to 15, belong to 72 families living in the cliff village of Atuler, in Zhaojue County of Liangshan Yi autonomous prefecture in southwest China’s Sichuan Province. It is a severely isolated and poverty-stricken community located halfway up a mountain at an altitude of over 1,400 meters.

The rattan structure, a chain of 17 smaller ladders tied together without any railings, was the shortest possible way for locals to access the outside world.

Cliff school 3

Even for adult villagers, climbing up and down the old rickety wooden stairs on the cliff is not an easy task. For the schoolchildren, traveling to the boarding school that lies at the foot of the mountain once a fortnight is like a battle with death. It is hard to imagine how dangerous it can be during snowy and icy weather!

“Last April, a middle-aged villager died after falling off the cliff,” said a local resident, Chen Jigu. “The case raised local parents’ concerns over their children’s safety, and they decided to create a rota to accompany the children on their way to and from school.”

school run 1
Children take a rest during their long trudge to school. [China Daily/Chen Jie]

Even so, too many school-aged children still drop out of school. Family poverty is another major impediment to the local children in taking advantage of a proper education, said the father of five.

Income from their farms is simply not enough to meet their monthly living costs and the demands of their children’s education. To make matters worse, the need to accompany their children prevented parents and carers from exploring other possible sources of income. According to the head of the village, residents live hand-to-month on less than U.S. $1 per day.

“Our main income comes from selling agricultural products, mainly chili peppers, walnuts and potatoes,” said a villager. “Poultry farming could help us earn a little extra money, but the problem is that there is no feasible way for us to transport poultry down the mountain.”

It is also poverty and the lack of road access that prevents young local men from marrying people from other villages at the foot of the mountains. Most of them have no choice but to move out.

Undergoing Changes

As the Chinese government highlights the ongoing fight against poverty and provides strong social and governmental support, the village has vowed to make changes.

“Formerly, we attempted to address the issue locally by developing a ropeway and repairing roads,” said Api Jiti, Party Chief of Atuler Village. “But the ropeway connecting the foot of the mountain to the peak consumed hundreds of kWh of electricity on every trip. This was obviously a burden for the small groups. Eventually, it was simply shut down.”

It would cost at least 60 million yuan (U.S. $8.7 million) to fulfill the locals’ plan to build a road connecting Atuler and two other remote villages with the outside world, he added.

Relocating the villagers at the foot of the mountain is not an option. They say they do not want to leave their time-honored habitat and lose their land, said Jike Jinsong, an official at the Zhaojue County.

Weighing the options offered, the local government promised to have the makeshift rattan ladders replaced by metal ones with an angle of no more than 60 degrees.

school run 3
A lot of time can be saved on the journey by using these new metal ladders. [Barcroft Images]

Construction began on the handrail-equipped ladders last August, with the local authorities footing the one million yuan (U.S. $148,000) bill. Work was completed by the end of October.

Previously, the trek took about two hours going up and 90 minutes coming down. Now, climbers can reduce the length of a round trip by more than an hour. In addition, the newly built ladder is expected to have a service life of between 10 and 20 years.

“It’s much safer, and I no longer feel scared,” said a 6-year-old student, Mose Niuniu.

Eco-village Resort

“Solving the transport issue was the most important problem at hand, and we have done it,” asserted Jike. “This will allow us to make grander plans to open up the economy, and to look for opportunities in tourism.”

“The cliff that has provoked all the public outcry will be at the center of local tourism,” said village official Mose Zigu.

He explained that the village will be renovated in accordance with the Yi people’s traditional customs, and more ethnic and specialty produce will bring revenues to the village. In the near future, visitors will be able to reach the village by both metal ladders and mountain cableways to experience its unique charms.

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The natural landscape is beautifully preserved. [sc.people.cn]

The natural scenery in the area offers a wide choice to tourists, including primeval forest, potholes, rock canyons, and hot springs, which will certainly help boost the local economy and lift the population out of poverty.

To the great delight of the residents, a tourist enterprise from its capital city Chengdu, partnering up to support outdoors tourism, has signed contracts to invest in the steep cliff spot worth an initial 300 million yuan (U.S. $43 million).

“We plan to make the place a world-class tourist attraction, featuring mountain hiking, as well as a nationwide demonstration base in terms of alleviating poverty through tourism,” said Jin Wenming, an official from Zhaojue County.

Statistics from the local authorities show that the average person’s income rose last year by 710 yuan (U.S. $103), an increase of about 11 percent over the previous year.

Jin believes that poverty alleviation through tourism, together with eco-tourism and ethical tourism, are the key drivers in increasing revenues for the local poor, and are also essential to reaching poverty relief targets.

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On March 8, Chinese President Xi Jinping made the remarks at a panel discussion with lawmakers from Sichuan province during the ongoing annual session of the National People’s Congress, the top legislature. Mountainous Sichuan, with many ethnic groups, has 3.8 million people living in poverty.

The whole process of poverty reduction requires tailored poverty relief policies and precision measures, and sometimes patience and accuracy like “doing embroidery”, Xi said.

During the discussion, Xi also urged local authorities to push forward with supply-side structural reform in agriculture, improve quality and produce more green, organic and pollution-free farm products.

 

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