06/21/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Growing China's Environmental Movement, One Person at a Time.

This Sunday, after an hour and a half of a typically frantic and heart-stopping taxi ride through the dusty and congested streets of Lanzhou, we arrived at the Lanzhou Business School to participate in an International Youth Environmentalist Exchange Salon, organized by several university-based environmental clubs. I gave a presentation on Pacific Environment's work, highlighting each program's unique focus and approach to demonstrate the diverse ways that U.S. NGOs deal with different environmental issues. Simon, a French student and volunteer with Green Camel Bell (GCB) talked about sustainable development in France and Ran Liping, Green Camel Bell's Water Program Officer presented on GCB's work.

Although China now has over 3,500 NGOs, most concentrate in big and high profile cities like Beijing and Yunnan. In backwater regions like Western China, the concept of NGOs is still foreign. Being the only registered environmental NGO in Gansu and with a growing reputation both domestically and internationally, Green Camel Bell is nonetheless finding it challenging to hire qualified people to join its expansive programs. They hired two people a few months ago through a recruitment event they held at a university; one left after seeing the homey but sparse GCB office located on the ground floor of a residential complex, the other left after a field visit to GCB's rural project after realizing how difficult the work is.

The event today was designed to generate interest among the students on Gansu's many environmental issues and promote their active participation through GCB. Throughout my presentation, I continued to remind people that the growth of civil society in China is in many ways inevitable as Chinese people become more and more educated, wealthier and assertive of their voices in society. I also explained how in every developed nation, NGOs play a crucial role in shaping development and if they join now, they would be in the forefront of this growing and cutting edge trend.

One student stood up and commented in hesitant English that our presentations focused on how people protect the environment in the West but that those tactics are not applicable to the Chinese situation because China is very different from the West. By the time Simon finished his presentation on sustainable development in France, a wave of hands rose in the crowd of two-hundred and most questioned how they could make a difference in protecting the environment in China while having to deal with so many government restrictions. Simon was surprised to find that many students actually thought the government was a hindrance in environmental protection.

At the end of Ran Lipings presentation about the few successes they've had in Gansu, including helping the village Liangjianwan secure access to clean drinking water and successfully conducting an independent audit of a polluting enterprise with the explicit blessing of the Gansu Environmental Protection Agency, some students finally became inspired. A crowd of students surrounded Liping for a long time after the conference ended to ask her about volunteering for the organization. Liping was so pleased with the result that she joked that from now on she will focus on presenting only about her Water Program and not about the other projects of the whole organization. The hope is, by the time these students graduate from school and after volunteering with GCB for a couple of years, they too would join the growing movement like Ran Liping did a little over a year ago.

Please find the original post here at Pacific Environment's blog.