Social Entrepreneur, Curator, and Documentary Filmmaker. Unearthing the Power of China’s Rural Areas Through Sustainable Development and Cultural Preservation
Luo Yi has a Bachelor of Environmental Analysis and History, Claremont McKenna College and graduated from the University of Chicago with a master’s in social science in 2015. Later she set up Laotu, a social enterprise committed to urban and rural sustainable development and consumer and youth education. She studied and worked in major cities around the globe, such as Washington, Hong Kong, and Beijing, but her passions remain strongly planted in the countryside. In 2012, she worked as an intern in the Wolong National Nature Reserve, Wenchuan county, Sichuan province. The county was the epicenter of the devastating 2008 earthquake, but Luo noticed that local traditions and culture were disappearing even though physical structures were being rebuilt. So Luo Yi decided to focus on promoting China’s rural areas and sustainable development, and on encouraging urban-rural dialogue, including through programs for city dwellers to visit rural regions. Luo Yi is UNEP 2018 China Youth Champion of the Earth, Shenzhen City’s 10 Excellent Youth, 2019 Top 10 Under 30 Social Innovator of China, 2020 G20 Young Global Changer.
This interview first appeared in Planet China Vol 15, March 2023
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When did you first realize you wanted to pursue a career that reconciles the conflict between urbanization and environmental protection? What initially drew you personally to becoming engaged in this theme?
In my first year at university I traveled to a panda habitat in China as an intern and became aware of the complexity of urbanization and environmental issues. Also, as I grew up in Shenzhen, a metropolis, for a long time, I was concerned about the urban villages in the city. I became interested in urban-rural issues from the social sciences perspective, mainly caring about the relationship between humans and nature.At the time when Laotu started, the Chinese government had not yet proposed the “rural revitalization” national policy in 2016. At the time, I thought that connecting rural and urban development was an extremely important issue, even if few people were paying attention to it. When the related government policy was introduced in 2017, more and more people started to be aware of the issue of rural-urban co-development.
How did Laotu come to life? Can you tell us more about it, what is the main mission and what activities it promotes?
Laotu’s mission is to share the stories of rural China, uncover local ecological products and lifestyles, and showcase their unique qualities. By highlighting the connections between natural, cultural, and economic resources in both urban and rural areas, Laotu aims to foster dialogue and understanding between these two communities. Rooted in the concept of environmental protection, Laotu has developed a range of original cultural, educational, eco-tourism, environmental protection, and public welfare initiatives that encourage young people to participate in rural revitalization. By enhancing the ecological, economic, and cultural heritage of China’s rural areas, Laotu harnesses the power of local communities, promotes local culture, and supports the sustainable development of China’s rural areas and urban-rural relations.
What were some of the biggest challenges for you personally and for Laotu at the beginning?
Due to my deep admiration for pandas, I decided to intern at the Wolong Nature Reserve in Sichuan during the summer of my freshman year. However, during my stay, I realized that the area was facing an unprecedented economic crisis and that traditional culture was slowly disappearing due to the devastating Wenchuan earthquake, which had severed mountain roads and destroyed the panda tourism industry. After spending a month in Wolong, I became fascinated by the local culture and returned in 2013 to film a documentary. Inspired by my experiences in Wolong, I collaborated with MBA partners to establish the social enterprise “Laotu” with the goal of helping farmers sell their products. Over the years, we have continued to return to Wolong every six months with volunteers to document oral histories. The Wolong project has evolved from an urban youth education experience and rural oral history project to an incubator for public service initiatives. Supported by the Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment, the United Nations Environment Programme, the official organizing committee of the United Nations Biodiversity Conference, and the German Bosch Foundation, Laotu has become a driving force for public welfare, rural development, environmental protection, globalization, and sustainable development.
How has Laotu grown since its start? What are the goals you have achieved so far?
Laotu was established in 2016 at the University of Chicago, USA, and received support from Polsky Incubator through the Booth School of Business Social Enterprise Competition. Over the past few years, Laotu has been recognized by numerous media outlets, including Guangming Daily, People’s Daily, Irish National Daily, The New York Times, and others. These publications have highlighted Laotu’s innovative approach to promoting rural revitalization and sustainable development.
Raise awareness of “sustainable development” it’s not always easy. What is the biggest misconception you’ve seen about this topic and how did you work for breaking it?
Sustainable development is an old concept, but in reality it is difficult to realise it. So I think we need to talk about the balance and conflict between economics, environment, and culture in specific contexts, and these need to be told in living examples.
The signs of climate change are increasingly evident every year. Have you noticed more concern or a change in people’s habits? What are Laotu’s initiatives based on this theme?
I witnessed climate change 20 years ago in the Qilian Mountains in northwest China, where glaciers are melting more quickly as global warming and extreme weather is now occurring more frequently. In recent years the Chinese public has become increasingly aware of climate change-related phenomena that come to life in such a real way, for example in different parts of China, we can feel the weather in different seasons from the past. But they still need to be pointed out that these problems are serious because they don’t realize that this is a significant part of climate change. I don’t think climate change and biodiversity issues should be analyzed separately, the Laotu does work both in frontline communities in national parks and encouraging residents in big cities to take positive action on related environmental issues in big cities.
Laotu, 老土, is a social enterprise shaping green consumption in emerging markets, promoting a cutting-edge sustainable development scheme for China and the world. While studying for her master’s at the University of Chicago, Luo was encouraged by the Social New Venture Challenge to establish Laotu. In 2016, the idea became a reality and Lou’s hope was her social enterprise could contribute to sustainable development in rural China while preserving traditional culture. One of its projects, for example, aims to help residents in Wolong reduce the use of chemicals in agriculture. Laotu helps local residents reduce the use of chemicals by empowering them with the necessary skills. Laotu also educates young people in urban areas, who are increasingly isolated from country life, about rural issues and culture. Its Course in the Mountains program takes young urbanites to rural areas where they conduct field research and interact with villagers. The program is designed to stimulate their understanding of the relationship between people and nature. Rooted in environmentalism, Laotu uses storytelling, online marketplaces, and educational programs to strengthen the network between city and country.
Has something in your life changed since you founded Laotu?
In 2019, I participated in a scientific research activity in Antarctica, and on that ship, an Australian coach I met said to me: What you are doing is very cutting edge, so lifestyle in China would be cutting edge too. I thought I wanted to be normal but later I found that my life is also cutting edge or can be cutting edge and I have to accept that in this society.
Can you share with us any meaningful story that has inspired you over the years?
What we remember most is the many stories about an old man surnamed Zhang. He passed away a few years ago, and we hope there will be more opportunities to share the local knowledge and wisdom he passed on in his life as a farmer, and many like him. Zhang, a 79-year-old man, who had experienced the Wenchuan earthquake in China and lived in a remote village. He embodied the spirit of rural China and passed on a sense of heritage and tradition. Zhang Shuping served as a captain in the military, later becoming a shepherd in the mountains. Zhang was proud of his heritage and concerned about the environment. He shared his knowledge and wisdom with anyone willing to listen, inviting visitors to see his private garden and taking people on hikes. Zhang was also passionate about beekeeping and his honey was popular. Despite being designated as a recipient of aid for poverty-stricken households, Zhang’s true wealth lay in the love and knowledge he shared with those around him. He was like a grandfather to those who knew him and eager to share his love of nature and wisdom. There are countless old people like him in rural China who have local wisdom that is very important to environmentalism for the future of the planet and human beings, and when they pass away, it is difficult to preserve that wisdom. That is why we still want to listen to and record the living stories and experiences of these old people.
Does Covid 19 Pandemic affected Laotu’s activities? What about now?
When it comes to the impact of the pandemic on Laotu, I would say it should be different every year. We get ready to share more projects with the guys. We delayed a lot of projects during the COVID-19, so we are now ready to start again. For example, we’re going to start communicating again with international NGOs, because many projects in China now also need a wealth of international resources. We hope that Laotu will have a more positive impact on public education after the epidemic.
Photos courtesy of Yi Luo & Laotu