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Turning barren hills into a woodland oasis

By Meng Fanbin in Beijing and Yuan Hui in Hohhot | China Daily | Updated: 2017-06-07 08:03

Li Fengshu always has a smile on his face when he talks about his beloved poplar and pine trees.

The 64-year-old farmer has transformed around 20,000 mu (8,097 hectares) of barren desert into a green oasis outside the village of Ulias.

This is near Naiman Banner, which roughly translates into "a county" in Tongliao city, in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region.

"Once I see my trees growing, my happiness rises from the depth of my heart," Li said. "All my hard work has paid off for the past 30 years."

Looking after the woodlands of poplars and pines has also helped Li make a living, as well as protecting the environment, since government subsidies are a big part of his monthly income.

"Our earnings come from two parts," he said. "Government subsidies are paid to us for planting and looking after the barren hills. Then there is the income of selling trees.

"They are mainly poplar and pine trees because we have cultivated large woods around the area," Li added.

In order to encourage farmers to plant trees or bushes on barren land, the government started paying them 70 yuan ($10.2) per mu back in 2013. Since then, subsidies have grown to 200 yuan.

"I have managed to turn 3,000 mu of desert into woods every year between 2013 to 2017," said Li, who hires dozens of laborers to help him during the planting season each spring.

But it can be grueling work, taming the desert and fighting constant winds.

Li's journey started in 1983 when he first started planting trees because he needed a steady income.

"We didn't have any other way of making real money," he said. "At the same time, the government supported us to tend the barren hills by helping us with bank loans."

About 85 percent of the land in Ulias village could slip through Li's hands as it was made up of sand.

These were back-breaking times when the villagers survived on 1.5 mu of farmland per person. It was a tough existence, eking out a living and being mired in poverty.

"The most difficult time was at the beginning," Li said. "To start planting trees, I sold almost all my livestock, including cattle, goats, camels and horses.

"I then borrowed money from the bank and I even moved nearer the desert, living in the pumping well house, where it was very cold," he added.

Another problem he faced was that during the night roaming livestock immediately ate what he had planted during the day.

It meant he was constantly on patrol, protecting what he had sowed.

"It was really a big headache," Li said. "But after several years of hard work, the white barren desert was transformed into a green land.

"This gave me hope and I decided to cultivate more barren hills," he added.

In 2001, Li rented more than 20,000 mu of barren sand land and decided to plant around 2,000 mu that year. Around 85 percent of the trees and bushes survived.

During the past 34 years, Li has never stopped battling against the wind and sand.

"I will keep planning trees and bushes for the rest of my life, to change more white sand into green land," he said with a smile.

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