Generations of greening grow job opportunities
Forests and grassland now cover the once barren mountains and hills of Youyu county, Shanxi. [Photo by Xin Tai For China Daily]
Once a drought-plagued region in the northwestern part of Shanxi province, Youyu is now an eco-friendly county with forest coverage of more than 56 percent, thanks to greening efforts by generations of locals.
Li Yunsheng was one of many residents who fought desertification. "Back in the old days, the environment was severely damaged and living conditions were terrible," the 66-year-old recalled.
"When we were kids, we used to light up the house even during daytime because the sky was clouded by sandstorms. Some mornings, it was difficult to open the doors because our house had been half-covered by sand during the night."
The local government said that in the 1940s and '50s, the greening rate in Youyu was just 0.3 percent.
In 1949, the county's Party secretary, Zhang Ronghuai, called for trees to be planted to reduce sandstorms and improve the environment. Since then, government officials, forestry technicians, workers and local residents have spent decades working to improve the local environment.
"Growing up watching the greening efforts by the older generation had a great influence on me. After running a driving school and making enough money to support my family, I started thinking about what I could do to follow in their footsteps," Li said.
In 2002, he left the driving school and spent about 6 million yuan of his own money on equipment and a rental contract to work more than 666 hectares of sandy land on Mount Matou.
He has spent nearly two decades far from his family, planting trees and devoting himself to greening efforts.
"It was much harder than you could imagine. At that time, the land had deteriorated too severely for trees to survive," he said.
"In sandy areas, the saplings could easily be blown away by winds. Also, there were no roads on the mountain, which made water and sapling deliveries extremely difficult."
There were more challenges to overcome. As the high altitude made it difficult to cook or boil water, Li could only eat simple meals, mainly made from flour, and drink untreated water.
Eventually, after many attempts and consultations with professionals, he discovered ways to plant trees in the sandy ground and, after years of effort, the environment of Mount Matou has improved greatly.
Li said he started a herding business on the mountain in recent years, which has helped him earn as much as 500,000 yuan ($77,200) per annum. He is also planning to develop tourism-related businesses on the mountain.
Decades of dedication
Han Xiang has also spent decades planting trees. Thanks to his efforts, Shuimogou, once a wasteland in Youyu with some 3,000 trees across 160 hectares, has been turned into a forest of about 300,000 trees.
Han's story dates back to 1998, when the local government encouraged residents to rent deserted land and undertake greening efforts. Han, then Party chief of Youyu's land construction bureau, became the first person to sign a land rental contract.
He spent two years leveling the ground and doing preparatory work for planting on Shuimogou.
In the first few years, he and his son fetched water from a nearby ditch about 60 times a day, bringing it back to the planted areas on the slopes or the mountain top. A lack of equipment meant they had to use simple tools, including wooden buckets and shoulder poles, which often caused injuries, Han recalled.
He said a businessman offered him 10 million yuan to buy the rights to his rental contract, but he refused.
"The forests and land of Shuimogou mean I am spiritually wealthy," he said.
When he was 66, the heavy workload saw Han diagnosed with a herniated disc that compressed a nearby nerve and made it impossible to take care of himself.
His daughter, Han Jianfang, who looked after him at that time, said the family understood and supported him. "My father was one of many who devoted themselves to the greening efforts and improving Youyu's environment," she said.
Yu Xiaolan, 55, is another local who has spent years turning wasteland into forests. In 1989, she arrived in Youyu from Kaiyuan, a city in Yunnan province.
Having grown up among mountains covered by trees and plants, she was shocked to see the barren land and sandstorms.
Her first thought was to move back to Yunnan, but when she saw that the local people were trying hard to improve the environment, she was touched and decided to stay.
As a result, she rented over 266 hectares of deserted mountain land and started planting trees.
In the first few years, she carried barrels of water up and down the mountain numerous times a day, planted seeds, nurtured apple saplings and grafted them onto Siberian crab apple trees.
After five years, she harvested her first apples and promptly gave them to her fellow villagers. "It was like a miracle from heaven, growing fruit on such drought-hit, barren land. I wanted to share the joy with others," she said.
In the past 30 years, Yu has planted more than 800,000 pine trees, about 30,000 fruit and cottonwood trees, over 0.6 hectares of sea buckthorns and many other plants. She has also started fishing, livestock breeding and agritainment businesses on the mountains she rents.
"Planting trees and grasses helped with the greening of the wasteland, while livestock breeding and other businesses provided job opportunities for local villagers, especially those living in poverty. The improvement in the environment has also boosted local people's incomes," Yu said.
Hundreds of thousands of locals like Li, Han and Yu have spent years working on the greening of Youyu.
In the past 70 years, the county's green area has risen from 0.3 percent to 56 percent, thanks to the efforts of generation after generation.
Now, Youyu has nearly 113,333 hectares of plantation forests and about 130 million trees. The county's environmental improvements have also helped boost the number of businesses. To date, local residents have bred about 750,000 goats and sheep, and grown 26,667 hectares of grain and many other crops.
The environmental changes have also attracted a growing number of tourists. Last year, despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 outbreak, Youyu registered 4.25 million visits.
The tourism boom has played a major role in the growth of the local economy, according to the county government.