Forestation provides lifeline for poor villagers

Updated 2017-08-03 12:36:43 Xinhua

Walking under the shade of the trees, Wang Wenhua remembers the days when the barren mountains were swept by sandstorms.

"After we had the forest planted, gone were the sandstorm and flash floods," said the 59-year-old woman. "Villagers saw the improvement and their minds changed as well."

Wang lives in the Zhenzigou village of Guyuan county, Zhangjiakou in northern China's Hebei Province, believed to be a "protective screen" for the capital Beijing.

Those who live in Beijing remember decades ago, when people in the capital had to wear gauze scarves before going out in the sandstorms. The situation in Zhangjiakou was worse.

An Chunfu, 60, lives in Miaotan village. When he was young, he remembered a saying, "A wind each year, from spring to winter."

"After the wind a pile of sand was left in the house, which was so tall that by stepping on the pile you could mount the roof," he said.

"When it rained, there were floods, because the mountains were so barren that even if you dropped a needle, you could easily find it," Wang said. "The farmland was inundated."

Zhangjiakou started planting a forest net in the 1950s to protect the farmland. In 1978, it launched projects to return the farmland to forestry.

Wang, as Party chief of Zhenzigou village, began leading villagers to plant trees in 2000.

"At first it was difficult," she said. "Some even threatened to commit suicide instead of planting trees, because they had cattle. If we planted trees, the grass would be fenced so that the cattle could not graze."

After some time, she managed to persuade some women to work with her, leaving the men doing their farm work. Gradually, people saw the necessity of planting trees and joined in.

Zhenzigou mirrored the change of Zhangjiakou, where forests cover 308,733 hectares and 22.4 percent of land is forested.

"After we had forests, the wind seemed less strong," An Chunfu said.

Wang said: "We had more rainfall and the oats grew well. In the past, the fruit was as small as a bird's tongue."

Seeing improvement in the environment, many villagers gave up raising cattle and went into towns and cities to work.

"After the reform and opening up, we had 300 to 500 cows and 4,000 sheep, now the village has less than 100 sheep and only 20 cows," Wang said.

But new problems soon arose.

In Zhangjiakou where the weather is dry, only a few trees can grow. Due to falling groundwater levels and poor management, many poplars planted last century died.

The dying trees, still thin, were called "young old trees."

"They withered before growing into big trees," said Yang Fan, head of the forestry bureau of Kangbao county in Zhangjiakou. "In such difficult conditions, even trees have to do their utmost to grow up."

Some villagers went to forestry authorities, complaining that the sandstorms had returned and their farmland was buried.

According to the forestry bureau of Zhangjiakou, among the 101,933 hectares of poplar forests, about 80 percent degenerated.

In 2014 Zhangjiakou started replacing the dead or dying trees, planning to complete the task in three years. Currently 64,380 hectares have been replaced, with pine trees planted instead of poplars.

"Pine trees need less water than poplars and can live longer," said Wang Jinhuan, head of the forestry bureau of Zhangbei county.

Villagers joined the effort. An Chunfu became a ranger, contracted for 13.3 hectares of forest, and patrolled every day.

The forests alone bring villagers little profits, and the locals find different ways to increase their incomes.

Duan Guibin, 46, has contracted 266.7 hectares of land in Kangbao county, half forest and half uncultivated land. Duan plants mushrooms in the forest and roses on the rest of the land.

He hires locals from poverty-stricken households to work for daily pay of 80 yuan (11.9 U.S. dollars).

"One hundred people, mainly old villagers, work for me each day. Their average age is above 70," Duan said. "The work can bring them some income." The oldest person Duan employs is a 82-years-old man in charge of planting seedlings.

Wang Guiming, 63, has worked on Duan's rose field for two years.

"We could hardly earn any money from farming due to the drought," he said. "I used to be too poor to buy a pack of cigarettes."

"Now that my wife and I plant roses, we can earn enough money to repair our house," he said. He has recently upgraded his small television to one four times bigger.

Seeing the opportunity, many villagers who used to work in the cities have come back. In Wang Guiming's village where there used to be only 200 people, the population has now doubled.

Zhangjiakou is expecting a boom in winter-sport tourism as the 2022 Winter Olympic Games will be partly hosted there.

Duan hopes the event can bring more tourists to his rose plantations and forests.

Wang Wenhua shares the same dream.

"We still have some uncultivated land in our village. If we grow more fruit trees there, we can enjoy the beauty of flowers in spring and taste sweet fruit in autumn. How fantastic," Wang said.

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