Eight years ago, Zhang Wenting took a contract on 23.33 hectares of sand in Mu Us Desert bordering Shaanxi Province and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in Northwest and North China.
The contract was to plant trees, but she wondered if she would be able to accomplish what she had set out to do this time.
Born in a small town near the desert, Zhang had tried several businesses before the age of 24 - a grocery shop, a chicken farm and photo shop. But she says she didn't do well in any of those ventures.
This time, after careful investigation, she decided to have a go at tapping the harsh desert and invested all her savings in the venture.
"I can't fail this time," said Zhang. "There can be no retreat this time, only advance."
Zhang, now 34, has reaped some rewards. And like Zhang, many other rural women in Shaanxi Province have joined the local "Green Mothers" project initiated by the Shaanxi Provincial Women's Federation and become a major force in improving the local environment.
When it comes to improving the environment, the old phrase "Women hold up half the sky" is no exaggeration in this northwestern province of China, said Ban Li, deputy secretary general of "The Green Mothers of Shaanxi" under the Shaanxi Provincial Women's Federation.
Shaanxi has long been plagued with drought and soil erosion. Today, the local women have been mobilized to help halt further degradation of the local environment.
In the past five years, some 14,982 women from all walks of life from 35 counties in the province have joined in the "Green Mothers" project. The project has several programs under its control to encourage local rural women to build clean methane pits or vegetable greenhouses or plant trees in the desert and barren Loess Plateau areas.
These women have helped build and plant some 67 hectares of "demonstration green woods" in Yan'an, Xi'an and Yangling, as well as on the border of the Mu Us Desert, Ban said.
In a series of projects from tree planting, sustainable agriculture, green families, and green schools to green communities, the "Shaanxi Green Mothers" have pushed the message of sustainable development, Ban said.
Zhang Wenting's success story is one of toil and joy.
After selling their houses in the town, Zhang, along with her husband Du Xusheng and another 11 households, moved into the desert.
<b>Odyssey in the desert</b>
In the first year, her family had to live in a tent under the yellow sky, ravaged by the sand-filled howling wind.
It took them three months to level the sand with two bulldozers. Then they planted 30,000 poplars and willows around the area within one month, which served as a natural protective shield against the savage wind. In the following year, they dug several wells.
"That was the hardest time for me," said Zhang. Without any experience in farming, she had to learn from the very beginning. Since the trees hadn't grown strong enough to block the wind, the seeds she sowed were often blown away.
"I often had nightmares at that time," recalled Zhang. "I feared I would wake up to discover that my crops had disappeared."
Even worse was the isolation. "It seemed there was no hope sometimes," Zhang said, "especially when I had no gains, only losses after a year of backbreaking work."
In the third year Zhang got a loan of 1 million yuan (US$120,000) with the help of the local government to plant fruit trees.
The next autumn, Zhang smiled as she looked at the peaches, apricots and apples hanging heavily from the branches of the trees she had planted.
In 1998, Zhang expanded her pig farm, raising more than 500 pigs, which brought her a net income of 20,000 yuan (US$2,400).
The desert is turning out to be an oasis in Zhang's hands. At present, her farm raises 1,000 pigs for market every year, bringing in a net income of 30,000 yuan (US$3,630). In addition, she built three greenhouses to raise vegetables in in 2000, which now earn her 500 yuan (US$60) a year.
"My efforts have truly paid off," said Zhang. "The desert will reward you many times more than what you have paid."
While Zhang and her peers were battling the encroaching sand, Qiao Yulian, in 1998, attended a series of training classes provided by the local women's federation in Yan'an in the northern part of the province.
Qiao, who lives in Caojiagou Village, recalled that she was fascinated by the idea of methane gas during the training.
The training was part of the provincial women federation's efforts to establish a pilot project to develop model households for green farming.
The methane, generated in pits of fermenting excrement, could be used for lights and for fuel to cook the farmers' meals. The methane fertilizer also would nourish their vegetable gardens much better than chemical fertilizers, she was told.
Qiao's family lives in a cave-dwelling, the most common type of housing in the rural areas around Yan'an.
Qiao had been burning firewood to cook for her family of four - she herself, her husband and two sons. At the same time, the stove also heated the kang, their brick bed. But she hated it because the thick smoke hurt her eyes.
Methane gas gave her a better option. So she registered to enter the project constructing methane pits, even though she had to pay 1,000 yuan (US$120), nearly the annual income of her family at that time.
"I just wanted to have a try," Qiao recalled, "even though I was a bit sceptical about the outcome."
At first, only seven households in the village participated in this project, though the local government helped pay half of the construction fees.
The beginning wasn't without its problems. Due to their lack of experience, the valve at the methane pit wasn't closed tightly one day in 1998, and her younger son, then three years old, died from breathing the poisonous gas.
Heart-broken, Qiao destroyed the methane pit.
The staff from the local women's federation came to talk with and comfort Qiao. "Through the talks, I came to see what went wrong," Qiao said.
She rebuilt the methane pit. The next year, Qiao fed 18 pigs, which brought her 2,000 yuan (US$240). The vegetables she planted sold for more than 1,000 yuan (US$120).
Her annual income amounted to 3,000 yuan (US$412) in 1998, up from 1,200 yuan (US$145) before she started to use methane gas.
Inspired by the heartening change in the lives of the seven households like Qiao's, 10 other families joined in the project later in the year.
At present, all the over 20 households in the village have adopted this scientific way of farming.
Last year when a new upgraded model of methane pit was introduced, villagers rushed to get involved.
Qiao got an interest-free loan of 2,000 yuan (US$240) from the "Green Mothers" Project to register for a new plan which is to be put into operation this September, she said.
Speaking of her annual income, which is expected to reach 8,000 yuan (US$967) this year, Qiao said that she made the right decision.
(China Daily August 19, 2003)