HARBIN, Heilongjiang – A farmer in China’s northern province of Heilongjiang has won his first victory in a local court against a chemical company that was dumping pollutants on his farmland.

Wang Enlin, who left school in Grade 3 of primary education, spent the past 16 years suing Qihua Group, a state-owned enterprise, for dumping chemical waste on farmland in his Yushutun village in Heilongjiang, Xinhua reported.

Last week, Chinese media reported that he had won his suit in a local court: Qihua was ordered to clean up the contamination and compensate 55 households for economic losses totaling 820,000 yuan ($120,000).

Ruling in favor of the village, the court ordered the company to clean up the obvious waste and tak it back to its industrial site. The court case said that for 16 years, the production plant dumped an average of 20,000 tonnes of chemical waste each year on farmland that covered more than 70 acres.

The chemical waste, in both solid and liquid form, also contaminated the water in a nearby lake, the suit contended. According to Xinhua, the villagers said the lake water had become sterile, tranquil and almost completely devoid of life.

However, the company has appealed and the case will be referred to a higher court for retrial.

Wang, who is a farmer, was personally affected by the contamination. He said that, at Lunar New Year in 2001, the dumping of chemical waste by the plant was so excessive that liquid chemical waste flooded his house, along with those of many other villagers.

“I knew I was in the right, but I did not know what law the other party had broken or whether or not there was evidence,” the 60-year-old farmer told reporters. The easiest thing to do would have been to hire a lawyer, but Wang and his neighbors could barely afford to put food on the table, so professional legal counsel was definitely not an option.

Wang then started studying law and searching for ways to fight for the rights of himself and his fellow villagers.

But even teaching himself law was a financial challenge, because Wang couldn’t afford to buy the books he needed, so he spent every day reading law books at the local book store, and copying important information from them, by hand. The farmer would offer the shopkeeper bags of corn for letting him read the books in the shop.

Wang used a dictionary to make sense of the technical terms he didn’t understand, and little by little, he started making some sense of this whole law thing, to the point where he knew what evidence would be required in court.

He met with strong resistance in his battle with Qihua and was unable to file the case until January 2015.

After the first hearing, the court ordered Qihua Group to get rid of the chemical waste on the land and pay compensation of a total 820,000 yuan (US$119,145) to the 55 families involved.

Wang said the victory was most important for the principle of the farmers having stood up for their rights, as the compensation would only amount to less than 15,000 yuan for each family.

Even though Qihua Group has already filed an appeal, Wang Enlin is confident that he and the other 55 families involved in the lawsuit will prevail. “We will certainly win. Even if we lose, we will continue to battle,” he told reporters.