No matter what country you're in, a single farmer taking on a polluting corporation in the courtroom is a huge task in which only really works out for the little guy in the movies. And yet in China, that's exactly what happened—happy ending ending and all.
Wang Enlin, a small farmer in Yushutun, a town in the far northwestern Chinese province of Heilongjiang, had only three years of formal education prior to 2001. He grew corn there, which wasn’t an easy life; Heilongjiang has long, tough winters and brief summers. Pollution, as it is in other parts of China, is a constant and sometimes disastrous influence. By 1982, groundwater was so polluted that he could no longer drink from his well.
Nearby, in the provincial capital of Qiqihar, a company called Qihua Group manufactures PVC plastic. The manufacture of PVC, a form of vinyl, is well-known to be a potentially horrific source of pollution, and Yushutun bore the brunt. Starting in 2001, the town flooded with toxic waste and the land quickly became unable to be farmed; calcium hydroxide residue took over 71 acres of land and huge mounds of white sludge piled up. Qihua uses the mostly abandoned method of using calcium carbide to make its PVC. This method requires massive amounts of energy (which, in China, is coal) and creates huge amounts of waste, in addition to resulting in an inferior product.
Wang, when he attempted to hold Qihua accountable, was told to bring a proper lawsuit or, basically, shut up. So he spent years in the library, studying law books with the aid of a dictionary, boosting his knowledge to the point where he became known locally as the “Soil Lawyer.” In 2007, a Chinese law firm took an interest and began helping Wang, and this year, the district court in Qiqihar ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. The ruling holds Qihua accountable to the tune of about $120,000 USD in damages to the villagers, reports the Daily Mail. Qihua has appealed, so the case isn’t officially over yet, but this first victory is a huge win for the little guy—and a message that corporations can’t get away with whatever they want.