YUEYANG, China — When veteran Zaibao Zhu was told that he had no more than five years to live, he accepted the news with dignity but disbelief.
That was in 1966, when he was 37, and had just had his stomach and part of his colon removed because of stomach cancer. Forty-six years later, Zhu is not only alive but as active as ever before.
"Life is short," said Zhu. "When I heard the diagnosis, I didn't want to waste my life, if I only had five years to live, then I needed to do something, quickly."
After serving in the Chinese army for more than a decade, the retired soldier started a new fight for another reason. Zhu started a service in environmental education and conservation.
"I treasure my life and all kinds of life as well," said Zhu. "I believe all creatures were born equal on earth, whether they are animals as large as a tiger, or a plant as tiny as grass. A better environment is crucial for all."
Back in the time when the level of public awareness about environmental conservation was still quite low, Zhu had already recognized the importance of conserving the wetlands, home of birds and aquatic species, around East Dongting Lake, in his native Yueyang, a northeastern city in Hunan. In the early 1980s, with an old-fashioned camera and a shabby bicycle, he spent hours researching the area and its fauna.
Since then, Zhu has done everything possible to raise awareness and prevent harm to the delicate eco-system there. Most of Zhu’s environmental activities are targeted at children.
“Teenagers are a key group for environmental education,” he said. “Their attitudes determine the future of our world. I believe in good environmental education for children at early age can develop good habits which benefit generations."
He has talked to nearly 1 million students across the city of Yueyang, advocating an eco-friendly lifestyle. He has given at least 1,200 lectures at schools and residential communities, and organized 140 environmental activities, involving more than 30 million participants.
He is known as "Uncle Zhu” to students in more than 400 primary and middle schools as well as colleges in Yueyang and neighboring areas for decades.
"I don't think there are many people who do not know Uncle Zhu," said Keshu Li, an English major student at Yueyang Normal College. “I have known him since I was in the fifth grade in primary school. Uncle Zhu really did a lot for the conservation in East Dongting Lake."
Besides giving lectures and handing out literature at schools, Zhu has organized trips to the lake, for children to research and understand the problems faced there. A series of pictures snapped during such an activity were presented at an international conference on Asian wetland protection held in Malaysia in 1988 and received wide attention.
As the founder and chairman of Yueyang Environmental Protection Volunteer Association, one of the most famous non-government organisations (NGO) in Hunan Province, Zhu has also been an environmental activist for many other projects locally and nationwide.
For last two decades, Zhu has devoted himself to environmental protection, travelling more than 40,500 kilometers, and cycled back and forth between villages and urban areas in Yueyang preaching his belief that all creatures on earth should be protected. He has broken three bicycles and worn out more than 30 tyres. In addition, he has spent more than 200,000 yuan (US$35,000) on various promotions - all at his own expense.
"Honestly speaking, I used to know nothing about environmental protection. But I forced myself to learn," said Zhu. Lots of books and magazines on environmental issues were piled up in his small room. He subscribes to more than 10 newspapers and magazines every year. By reading widely he has been able to acquire new information quickly and this has inspired his efforts in environmental protection. In recent years, he has also learnt to search the Internet for information, which is where he heard about Ford’s Conservation & Environmental Grants, China (CEGC) programme.
As one of CEGC programme winners this year, Zhu came to Shanghai the day before the CEGC awarding ceremony for a final presentation.
“When he presented to judges what environmental projects he has been doing, you would never believe that he was an 85-year-old man with all the stomach and part of his colon removed. I’m deeply moved by his devotion and passion for environmental conservation. To protect the planet not only became his career, but the living spring of his life,” commented Lynn Ouyang, sustainability and CSR communications head, Ford APA, who is also a Ford representative who participated in the CEGC final presentation and judging.
“I want to thank Ford for the great support they provide for NGOs and individuals like me. I am very honored to receive the CEGC awards for the second time. Receiving awards is not my goal, it is just recognition for the past, and it shall encourage me to start a fresh page. I’m committed to devoting myself to environmental conservation.”
When asked why he spends so much time and money on non-profitable environmental activities, Zhu said, “Compared with many of my buddies who died in the battlefield, I am lucky to have survived the war. I am determined to be a warrior in the environmental battlefield. I know I'm not in good health so I choose to use every minute to make this world a better place.”
As one of the most respected environmental awards in China, Ford’s Conservation and Environmental Grants, China (CEGC) program has helped trailblazing grassroots environmental organizations and leaders realize their vision. Since 2000, CEGC has awarded RMB 12.6 million (US $1.85 million) to 278 grantees.
Zaibao Zhu at CEGC awarding ceremony.
Uncle Zhu gave lectures to local schools students around East Dongting Lake, Zhu’s start place on environmental conservation.