Patrick Nijs, a former ambassador farming in Dongchuan

Wearing a straw hat and carrying a hoe, he is a tall English speaking “farmer” in Dongchuan. While he has changed his clothes from the former suit and a necktie, he wore as a diplomat with a long diplomatic career. This is Patrick Nijs, Belgium’s former ambassador to China.

01 Patrick  works in his study. [Photo Wang Junyan]

Patrick  works in his study. [Photo/Wang Junyan]

In 2012, Patrick and his wife, Deng Minyan, were looking for a place in Yunnan to retire and live. They came to the mist fogged the hills of Yuanzi village in Wulong town, Dongchuan district, to small farmhouse in the pine forest were it was especially quiet and the view from the mountain was wide and spectacular.

02 The old house was built up with hollow bricks and asbestos shingles on their roofs

The old house was built up with hollow bricks and asbestos shingles on their roofs. [Photo provided by Patrick]

Patrick stepped into the muddy ground and looked into the distance.

“Minyan, this is the place where I think we should settle.”

“Why? Are you sure?”


03 Patrick and his wife came to  mist fogged the hills of Yuanzi village in Wulong town, Dongchuan district.

Patrick and his wife came to  mist fogged the hills of Yuanzi village in Wulong town, Dongchuan district. [Photo provided by Patrick]

Persist in promoting permaculture without applying fertilizer 

In 2013, Patrick, a Belgian, gave up the opportunity to pursue his diplomatic career in Turkey and instead settled in Dongchuan with his wife to explore permaculture, or sustainable agriculture. This 63-year-old man wanted to spend the rest of his life, “doing something for this beautiful planet.”

04 Aerial photo shows Patrick's white house and various crops planted in Kabissa. [Photo Wang Junyan]

Aerial photo shows Patrick's white house and various crops planted in Kabissa. [Photo/Wang Junyan]

Patrick’s house is in a remote place. It takes 2 hours to drive from Kunming to the centre of Dongchuan. From there one must traverse through tunnels and over bridges before entering Wulong town. Here the roads become narrow and zigzagged. On the way to Niji’s home, we see some villagers enjoying the sunshine outside their house. As the car continues forward, things outside the window seem to move backward, then we see more trees as if we entered the forest! There is a sign at the crossroads. Turn right — Patrick’s house is there.

Nestled into the top of one mountain is the community of Lao-zhuan-di. Here you will find a white, two-story building with four dogs lounging on the ground. The spacious courtyard is filled with lush plants. Roses are blossoming and rye tassel are swaying in the wind on the red terraced fields in front of the house.

Wearing a hat and a green vest, Patrick is working in the fields. His socks are worn out, and his sandals are covered with red dust. He has a tall nose and a height of 1.9 meters, not like other farmers on this ground.

06 Patrick sees some beetles perching on a walnut tree. [Photo Yuan Hongkai]

Patrick sees some beetles perching on a walnut tree. [Photo/Yuan Hongkai]

Patrick sees some beetles perching on a walnut tree, he takes out his smart phone to take a picture. “We never expel insects,” he said. “I just wonder why they come.”

It is a good thing for him that insects are coming. He wants to figure out how to “cooperate” with them. On these red fields, he and his wife are exploring permacultre, which means no ploughing, no fertilization, and no insect repellent. He believes that ploughing will destroy the ecological balance of the soil, and fertilization will pollute the environment.

“Human beings are parts of nature, but not above the nature.” Patrick agrees with the Taoist theory that man is an integral part of nature. He lives in harmony with nature and listens to the voice of every species to explore ecological and organic agricultural products.

This year, Patrick tried a planting method from the Incas, where maize, beans and squash are grown together. “The corn will grow toward the sky, the beans will wind around the corn, and the squash will cover the soil which is good for the environment.” Patrick said with smiles on his face.

In order to promote permaculture in a systematic effort, Patrick named this field in front of his house Kabissa. It has some commercial crops, such roses, fruits, honey, herbs, walnuts, etc.

He plans to develop Kabissa in a large scale within the next five years, selling organic produce and doing some training programs. Like-minded people can come here to learn about farming. Parents with their children can stay for a few days and get close to nature, like what Patrick did when he was a child.

Patrick was born in a small village in Africa. He spent his childhood in Congo during the 1950s because of the requirements of his father’s job. He wandered through the tropical rain forest by day, and enjoyed the sky full of stars by night. It was also here that he witnessed the extinction of many plants and animal because of excessive logging.

In the face of historical failures Patrick tells us “We can’t repeat the mistakes we made. We must change.” This is why he settled down in Dongchuan and persisted in permaculture. He tells us that Yunnan is very similar to Africa, with beautiful scenery and rich biodiversity.

“Africa is where I started my life, and I want to finish my last journey in Yunnan.” Patrick said firmly.

Fall in love with Yunnan’s most beautiful “flower”

Eight years ago, Patrick met his wife, Deng Minyan, a beautiful and generous lady and a native of Dongchuan.

At the time, Minyan was running a Yunnan restaurant in Beijing’s Hutong. She did everything from shopping for ingredients to cooking dishes. The authentic Yunnan flavor attracted many foodies, and business went on quite well. Sometimes reservations needed to be made three months in advance.

“I went to her restaurant to eat, and she made me a cup of Pu’er tea.” Patrick recalls of his first meeting with Minyan. “When I saw her, I knew she was the one.” However, Minyan didn’t think so at first. “I didn’t want to date with a foreigner at that time.”

With the deepening of mutual understanding, Minyan found that Patrick was a simple but intelligent person, “Minyan is like the most beautiful ‘flower’ in Yunnan.” Patrick said.

Minyan’s relatives came to visit them during Spring Festival. They talked happily in the dialect, but Patrick couldn’t join them and was in a moody sullenness. “When we ignore him, he’s not happy, but if you talk something about permaculture, a big smile would come out.” Minyan explained with a smile.

07 Patrick and his wife have a break and enjoy the sunset. [Photo Wang Junyan]

Patrick and his wife have a break and enjoy the sunset. [Photo/Wang Junyan]

Although they are different people with distinct personalities speaking two languages, they have their tacit understanding after years of mutual adaptations. They have one same dream, the Kabissa.

Respect and help each other with the villagers

Patrick and Minyan moved their house from Beijing to Dongchuan. Having foreigners move into the region made the local villagers extremely curious. Some of the villagers came to meet Patrick, and they stood in the fields talking excitedly. Patrick could only say, “I don’t understand, I don’t understand.”

While he hopes the villagers will embrace the idea of permaculture, he knows it will take time. “I don’t force them, I respect them.” Patrick said.

He had already tried permaculture in Belgium in the 1970s, but the condition in Dongchuan is different. Dongchuan is located in a dry and hot valley with high temperature and drought. It doesn’t rain very often and the land is poor at storing water. “We have to find a way to make the soil hold on to the water like a sponge.” When problems arise, he often consults with professionals and travels to other farms to gain experience.

08 Patrick walks in the fields of Kabissa. [Photo Su Wenqian]

Patrick walks in the fields of Kabissa. [Photo/Su Wenqian]

After these years, Patrick’s persistence gradually made the surrounding villagers respect him. His best friend in the village is 68 year old Li Guanghe. Li is a traditional, diligent farmer, following the 24 solar terms to work. He plants maize very well, and often teaches Patrick how to do farm work. His corn is tall and full of nibblets, which piques Patrick interest in the 24 solar terms. He shows a willingness to combine permaculture with such traditional Chinese wisdom in the future. 

08 Patrick and his friend Li Guanghe in the village. [Photo Su Wenqian]

Patrick and his friend Li Guanghe in the village. [Photo/Su Wenqian]

Li speaks with Dongchuan accent, and although he does not understand English, he already regards Patrick as a member of his family. Patrick left Li a key and asks him to help with the planting and pruning. Of course, Li knows not to mention some words like “chemical fertilizers” in front of his good friend.

Deng Minyan asked a lady to help manage the fields once, using some chemical fertilizer in the process. When Patrick saw the white powder, he was very angry and said madly, “how could you do that? It will kill us.”

Perhaps the villagers couldn’t understand why Patrick was happy with slender fruit trees which may only have two or three apples for each, but he insists, “it will take time. They will understand.”

09 Patrick with villagers sings folk songs for amusement after tired work. [Photo Wang Junyan]

Patrick with villagers sings folk songs for amusement after tired work. [Photo/Wang Junyan]

Nowadays, villagers often come to help Patrick fix up his house and do some farm work. When they are tired, they sit together under the walnut tree and sing local songs. Patrick also follows the tune and sings. He admiringly talks about the how nice the people in Laozhuandi are.

Go to the countryside to see how China shook off poverty

Taking off his vest and straw hat, Patrick puts on a tidy suit and a bright red tie. He looks different from the farmer he had been. 

He has many identities. He is Belgium’s Former Ambassador to China, Honorary Ambassador and Global Facilitator, Co-founder of European Union - China Joint Innovation Center (Beijing-Brussels), Co-founder of the Taoist Association in Belgium and so on. Many photos hang on the walls of his house in Dongchuan of himself and various Chinese leaders.

After 23 years in China, Patrick has seen the country lift itself out of poverty. He points out, “there are always a lot of people in Europe who have misconceptions about China. I tell them, if you really want to know what the Chinese government is doing, you have to go to the countryside.”

Patrick recalls the changes in Dongchuan over the past few years. “When we first arrived, there was nothing, now the highway is open to traffic and this remote village has Wi-Fi.”

Dongchuan shook off poverty in 2019. The most impressive thing for Patrick is the Dongchuan-Wulong second class highway.  In the past “It took me three hours to drive from the downtown of Dongchuan to my home. It was a nightmare.” With the completion of the construction of Wulong tunnel and Dongtang highway, now it is only 1-hour drive to Patrick’s home.

10 Aerial photo shows the Kuaihe Bridge between Dongchuan to Wulong. [Photo Wang Junyan Yuan Hongkai Zhang Yuling]

Aerial photo shows the Kuaihe Bridge between Dongchuan to Wulong. [Photo/Wang Junyan, Yuan Hongkai, Zhang Yuling]

There is a value to rural life that is attractive enough for people to return from the city to the countryside. They want to return to nature and enjoy it. Patrick is sincere in his belief that Dongchuan is a potential and fascinating place. “This is the time when there is a real need for young people to return to the countryside and give it value.” Patrick added.

There are so many things governments can do and Patrick is always thinking about that. In southern Belguim, is a place called Wallonia. It was once as famous for mining as Dongchuan, but it was closed when the mines ran out. Now many of the mines have been converted into museums where people can go underground to explore the old labrynths. He thought perhaps Dongchuan could do the same, developing tourism to prevent people from returning to poverty.

The most important thing in his mind, of course, is protecting the environment. That is what the Kabissa is for.

Patrick wants to make Kabissa a window to the world, welcoming people from all over the world to learn about and communicate about permaculture. Starting from Dongchuan, he plans to help people realize the importance of protecting the environment. “I know where I’m going.” Patrick said.

As he looked into the distance he exclaimed, “I want to live longer and take my Kabissa to the next level. That way, when I leave, this ‘ship’ will be able to sail on with more people.”

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(Repoters: Christine, Rachel)

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