Turning Sandy Waste Into Oasis

“If every Chinese plants a tree and ensures its survival, then our country will turn into a land with green mountains and clear water in ten years,” says Niu Yuqin, deputy of the Ninth National People’s Congress (NPC) which is in session now in Beijing. It was a time when Beijing was under assault from two large sandstorms in close succession, darkening the sky and causing great inconvenience. As a pacesetter of desert forestation, Niu Yuqin caught media attention during meeting.

Niu, 52, winner of an award issued by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in 1993, is also one of the most famous 10 female farmers in China and a national model worker. So far, she has contracted to plant elms, willows, and poplars on about 7,333 hectares of land in Shaanxi and Inner Mongolia. This wards off the advancing sand and preserves paddies and grasslands.

China’s deserts currently cover 2.632 million sq km, or 27 percent of the country’s total territory. It needs the unremitting efforts of several generations to turn most of the sandy waste into forests and fodder fields.

Niu lives in Jinjisha Village, with a population of 2,900 people, in Yulin near the Maowusu Desert, in China’s northwestern Shaanxi Province. Yulin had been plagued by sand-filled gales creating dunes for many years, and these had destroyed crops and engulfed residences. A severe shortage of water exacerbated the situation especially in spring when the dust carried by the wind fills the sky for days on end. To escape from poverty, grow more crops, and have adequate food and clothing, Niu Yuqin and her family determined to tame the desert by planting trees and vegetation.

While her children were herding sheep in the desert, she once built a shelter to help them escape from the scorching sun, Niu planted several trees in 1983, and, to her surprise, they grew well. This gave her a glimmer of hope in her plan, despite lack of funds and technology.

Niu raised money by selling all her chickens, eggs and family belongings to buy 120,000 poplar saplings, and contracted 667-hectare land in 1985. Relatives and friends criticized her, arguing that trees could not survive in the desert, where no plants had existed for thousands of years, and warned she faced heavy losses if the central government changed its agricultural policies. This didn’t deter Niu and Zhang Jiawang, her husband, as they believed the choice was of great significance not only to their own family, but to the entire country. Their move received support from the local forestry department, who offered them 30,000 elm saplings free and 1,000 other seeds.

During this time, her husband suffered from disease. To make things worse, Niu also fell sick for appendicitis. Burning with impatience for work to be done in the field, the couple learned injection technique from a nurse and went back home with boxes of syringes and medicines. After a day’s work in the field, they injected each other. But, Zhang Jiawang eventually had to be hospitalized. To take care of him, the second son quit school.

Every morning, when the first glimmer of dawn shone in the east, Niu and her eldest son, were out at 4 am, carrying bucks of water from a 90-meter well to irrigate the saplings some distance away. Niu hired 16 farm helpers, paying each three yuan per day. Standing unsteadily, Niu led others to dig pits against dusty sand. Once, they found that several hundred trees they planted the day before had all been uprooted by a gale in the night. After investigating the terrain, Niu decided to plant trees in the sand whirlpools not subject to strong winds. After these trees grew tall and formed a natural shield, she planted trees and grass beside and under them. Moreover, she chose to plant saplings in dry sand, which had better soil moisture content. She also set specific tasks for each group and sent persons to ensure each tree grew well.

The birth of Niu’s grandchild brought happiness to the family, and he was given the name Jilin (“develop the afforestation career”). In 1988, Niu’s husband passed away. Despite great sorrow, Niu struggled on. The traditional Chinese Spring Festival holiday often found Niu and her team working in the fields.

The efforts bore fruit. Trees and grass she planted grew extremely well. She contracted another two stretches of land. In 1991, she expanded the contracted land to 2,000 hectares. In 1998, she contracted 667 hectares of sandy land in Inner Mongolia, which fringes her hometown. To obtain both ecological and economic benefits, she consulted experts to develop ecological agriculture. She inspired local residents to join the effort.

Years of work made Niu realize the importance of knowledge. To give children in her village access to schooling, she established a primary school in 1991 with her modest savings and borrowed money. In addition, she has mobilized primary students in planting trees, instilling environmental protection awareness into their young heart.

Talking about desertification work of China, Niu urged governments at all levels to pay more attention to the efficiency and performance of forestation than just the number and area of trees being planted. It should guarantee and upgrade their survival rate, which involves a bigger role for technology. Certain rewards should be given to those who not only plant but also attend trees well and the necessary facilities should be provided, like motor-pumped wells. Only this can stimulate the initiatives of local people in fighting against desertification. China should cultivate and employ more such experts in its afforestation campaign.

“If a person smokes one less cigarette, the money saved could be used to plant a tree,” says Niu. “If everyone saves one yuan for one tree, then together we could turn our country into a forested land within ten years.”

Under her guidance, the government started to award those who plant and manage properly tree growth in Inner Mongolia by giving locals five yuan for each surviving tree. The capital launches a Green Home Program each year and Beijingers, old and young, voluntarily plant trees outside the capital to reduce sandstorms blowing down from the north.

As to future plan, Niu said she will introduce technology to upgrade her tree species and cultivate more grass for the animal husbandry. Besides, she will develop diversified economy including cultivating medicinal herbs in the forests.

(CIIC by Guo Xiaohong 03/14/2001)