Once a farmer, this eco-warrior takes on big business in China

64-year-old taught himself law

Wang Enlin, an elderly farmer who left school when he was 10 years old and taught himself law armed with a single textbook and dictionary, makes for an unlikely eco-warrior.

Yet the 64-year-old is determined to reap justice as he readies for a fresh battle in his war with a subsidiary of China’s largest chemical firm, which he accuses of polluting and destroying his farmland.

“In China, behind every case of pollution is a case of corruption,” he said of his mission to bring Qihua Chemical Group (also known as Heilongjiang Haohua Chemical) to account.

Mr. Wang and others villagers from the northeast Heilongjiang province have sued Qihua, accusing it of contaminating their soil, rendering it untenable for crops, in a case that has stretched on for more than 16 years.

This February, Mr. Wang and his self-styled ‘Senior Citizen Environmental Protection Team’ earned a rare victory when a local court ordered Qihua to clear up their chemical waste site — adjacent to the farmers’ land — and pay a total of 8,20,000 yuan ($1,20,000) to compensate for lost harvests in 55 affected rural households.

But that ruling was overturned on appeal, and Mr. Wang is now gearing up to fight back on another day in court. “We will absolutely win. The law is on our side,” Mr. Wang said.

His case is testing the possibilities of a national environmental protection law revised in 2015.

The legislation was widely touted as a way to open the courts to public interest environmental damage lawsuits, but has been criticised for poor implementation.

Qihua is a subsidiary of the state-owned ChemChina, the country’s largest chemical enterprise. It specialises in crude oil processing and petroleum products.

Lease of land

Mr. Wang’s battle began in 2001, when a village committee leased 28.5 hectares to Qihua for use as a chemical waste dumping ground without the villagers’ consent.

The villagers claim that the company failed to take proper pollution control measures.

Mr. Wang says he felt compelled to teach himself law after realising he lacked the knowledge or resources to take on the might of an industrial giant.

China had just emerged from its Great Famine when Mr. Wang left school: “It didn’t matter at the time whether you got an education,” he said. “It wouldn’t change your fate.”

He was well into middle age when he found a textbook on environmental law at a local book store. It took him years to understand as he painstakingly looked up unfamiliar terms in a dog-eared dictionary.

After petitioning the local authorities to no avail, he received aid in 2007 from the Centre for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims, which helped the villagers put together a lawsuit using evidence he had compiled. A 2013 sampling of mercury levels conducted on the site by the Green Beagle Institute, a Beijing-based non-profit, found the land was “not suitable for agricultural use.”

‘Major’ case

The Ministry of Environmental Protection included Qihua in a 2014 list of “major” environmental cases.

But it was still another year before Mr. Wang’s case was accepted into China’s justice system.

Prominent environmentalist Ma Jun said while the litigation process has been streamlined since 2015, pollution lawsuits can still take years to be heard partly because “local governments give some degree of protection to polluting companies.”

Today, Mr. Wang prepares his own legal paperwork and hosts daily gatherings at his home for villagers hoping to learn about their rights. Mr. Wang, who suffers from lung problems and requires medicine to help him breathe, accuses Qihua of “pretending to be deaf and mute” on the issue.He says he is frequently visited by police officers who urge him to drop the case and stop talking to the media.

Qihua’s lawyers declined to comment on the case.