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Full commitment to sustain improved lives

By (China Daily Global)

Enterprise, expertise help enable ethnic community to maintain firm path to prosperity

Editor's note: With China set to meet its goal this year of eliminating extreme poverty before next year's 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China, this series looks at the efforts of different areas of the country to erase poverty and improve livelihoods.

In 1994, agricultural researcher Zeng Fuping arrived deep amid the karst mountains of South China's Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region.

Zeng, then 30, was part of a team studying the use of latest farming practices and technology, to improve the lives of ethnic communities in the Huanjiang Maonan autonomous county of Guangxi's northern area.

His assignment was supposed to last just two to three years, but Zeng quickly realized the importance of his work and extended his stay-26 years on, he is still there.

"One task led to another and there was much to do. It only seemed natural that I remain here," Zeng said.

In the past three decades, Zeng has made major contributions to the lives of the ethnic Maonan villagers. Those include resettling poverty-hit residents in new communities based on environmentally sustainable practices that leverage local geographical and other advantages, setting exemplary measures for at least 400,000 residents in similar moves in the region.

One of Zeng's projects involves an "alternative animal husbandry model", based on converting the area's flood-prone land into plots for growing grass and other plant species that can feed high-yielding livestock and prevent erosion of the fragile soil at the same time.

Following the approach that ties technological expertise with commercial enterprise and green agriculture, Zeng and his team of specialists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences trained Huanjiang's farmers to expand the experimental planting zones, subsequently improving the local ecological landscape and raking in sustainable income for them. The county records capacity of 50,000 metric tons of the livestock forage a year, with net income from the new methods up to 10 times that from the common corn previously grown sporadically.

"The farmers were unsure initially and they questioned growing something that they could not eat. But they saw the results themselves and gradually gained the confidence to follow through," said Zeng, who is also the county's deputy chief on top of his work at the academy's Institute of Subtropical Agriculture.

Zeng's lifelong commitment on the ground in Huanjiang reflects the nationwide, all-inclusive resolve in successfully eradicating by this year extreme poverty-defined as living with less than 2,300 yuan ($343) in annual income-and improving lives throughout the country.

Guangxi is home to 12 ethnic groups including the Zhuang, Yao, Miao, Dong and Maonan, with Huanjiang being a key county at the front lines of the fight against poverty as one of the 20 deeply impoverished counties in Guangxi itself. Maonan members comprise one of the country's smallest ethnic communities-about 70 percent of Maonan people, or 64,500, live in Huanjiang, making it the only Maonan autonomous county.

At the end of 2015, there were 66,600 Huanjiang residents who had not been lifted out of poverty, with the poverty rate recorded at 19.56 percent. Among those, Maonan members numbered 14,700, making up 22.07 percent of the poor.

Within the decade, efforts like those of Zeng's have formed a multi-pronged, multilevel fight against poverty, ranging from agriculture and industry to healthcare and housing, that has reaped impressive results for the area. From 2016 to 2019, a total of 65,900 residents in the county were lifted from poverty, with 14,152 Maonan members among that group. The county's poverty rate also fell to 1.48 percent. On May 11, the regional government affirmed that Huanjiang was lifted from poverty and it was removed from the national list of impoverished counties. Huanjiang has since received national accolades for its anti-poverty achievements.

President Xi Jinping himself has called on the Maonan people to make their lives more prosperous. Xi, who is also general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, had pushed for the elimination of poverty for the entire Maonan ethnic group in his earlier remarks.

Xi said he was pleased to know that all Maonan people have shaken off poverty and their lives have improved significantly.

Not a single ethnic group can be left behind in building a moderately prosperous society in all respects, and the Maonan people themselves should take poverty elimination as a new starting point for a better life, he said.

In turn, Maonan representatives in Huanjiang recently penned together their thoughts to Xi, sharing with him their joy at being lifted from poverty and expressing their firm determination to build their hometown in line with the Party's work.

Huang Rongbiao, the county's Party secretary, said the encouraging results from placing poverty alleviation as a top priority will serve to boost its development.

"We've focused on main areas including capacity building for residents led by proven expertise, industry and infrastructure," he said.

Planting success

Karst landscapes make up about 40 percent of Huanjiang, which faces significant drought, flood and soil erosion risks because of its topography. The forage production to build a sustainable cattle industry encouraged by Zeng Fuping and his team has since helped to stem those risks-the green project covers about 12,000 hectares and 132,000 heads of cattle. The county records an average annual rate of 30,000 cattle added to the project, with each cow allowing farmers to increase their income by 3,500 yuan to 5,000 yuan per capita.

Mo Yousheng, 50, manages the 20 hectares set aside for cultivating the forage and breeding the cattle under the 3-year-old Fulin ecological agriculture development group in Huanjiang. The facility grows lallang-like grass and paper mulberry trees to process into cattle fodder. More than 200 cattle can be bred on site, with annual production capacity of over 300 cattle to meet demand for Huanjiang's popular beef products.

"The anti-pest and drought-resistant forage can help hold back the landslides here and it has proven to be good for cattle production. We also help villagers look after the cows that they receive from the government as part of poverty alleviation measures-each household receives at least one cow-which they can then sell when ready, adding to their income," said Mo, who was an English teacher before turning to livestock farming to tap the agricultural opportunities.

"Business is growing. We are looking at taking in more cattle, including foreign Simmental breeds on top of the local ones," he said.

Many villagers like Tan Junxin are benefiting from the efforts to bank on the local cattle industry as part of anti-poverty measures. The resident of Xia'nan town in Huanjiang worked odd jobs to scrap by and support his four-member household, including two teenage sons, before turning to raising livestock about five years ago. With the help of training and government support totaling about 20,000 yuan, Tan, 45, made the successful switch to cattle-he shed his poverty label in 2017 and now makes up to 40,000 yuan a year from the livestock.

"There are challenges and I'm still learning, such as making sure the cattle get proper care and don't succumb to hot weather or bugs and worms, but I'm also thinking of scaling up from the current 10 cows. People know our environment is good and it nurtures tasty beef,' he said.

"All these improvements we've had… We depend on them to provide well for the children."

The town's vice-head, Lu Xiaodong, 33, said cattle breeding is a proven model suited to local conditions, with more than 3 million yuan injected to aid at least 73 poverty-hit households.

"Our households are set to reap more than 20,000 yuan each from the program this year," Lu said.

Huanjiang's plans to further develop agriculture into a pillar industry include targeted fruit-growing zones covering more than 9,000 hectares and traditional medicinal crops on 2,000 hectares.

Tangerine farmer Tan Meichun, 45, is one of the Maonan members who wrote the letter to President Xi.

Five years ago, Tan and her husband loaned 100,000 yuan from the government, interest free, in line with the development plans to cultivate cash crops. They grew tangerines on more than 2 hectares in the area. The sweet fruit proved to be popular and in 2018, Tan set up an agricultural cooperative, bringing together 60 households, including 14 poverty-hit families. Their tangerine plantation, covering more than 18 hectares, raked in an annual income of about 1 million yuan last year.

It is a life-changing difference from the time Tan's five-member had to subsist on piecemeal farmwork and her job stints outside the county.

"Our tangerines are naturally sweet. There are no severe storms or strong winds here to affect them," Tan said.

"We will continue to maximize the planting seasons and tap new platforms like e-commerce. The improving roads and logistics networks, such as the planned high-speed rail through the area, will also count," she said.

"It's a big change, from before the anti-poverty measures rolled out. Now, when I touch these tangerine trees and their fruit, even my heart can feel the sweetness from them in my life."

Comprehensive growth

To help scale up from the agricultural inroads made by residents like Tan Meichun, Huanjiang authorities are rolling out high-tech industrial areas to tap cooperation with leading enterprises, integrating research and development, production, sales and services projects, providing more than 5,000 jobs for relocated residents. More than 100 skills workshops have supported hiring for relocated residents numbering over 2,600, according to latest figures.

The local government continues to place priority on improved housing for residents under its comprehensive development road map. During the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20) period, at least nine major relocation sites for poverty alleviation involved nearly 18,000 residents of more than 4,300 households, accounting for about one-quarter of impoverished communities.

In terms of medical care, investments include more standardized facilities to improve village clinic networks and physician follow-up services to further boost healthcare security for poverty-hit and relocated households.

More than 80 million yuan has also been invested in Huanjiang's early education sector, with the coverage rate of inclusive kindergartens hitting over 90 percent and the enrollment rate of preschool education at 95.3 percent. In line with plans to boost the educational sector and ensure zero dropout rates, advanced facilities and educational services are rolling out at relocated communities.

Building and preserving the cultural sphere is also an important element of Huanjiang's development path for the ethnic community, with at least 27 teams and groups set up to promote and practice literary and artistic training courses, as well as local drama and folk, song and dance performances.

Xia'nan resident Tan Jianxin, 68, is one of the few remaining master craftsmen of traditional Maonan Nuo masks used in ethnic rituals and celebrations. He runs government-supported craftsmanship workshops, numbering about 20 participants each, for poverty-hit villagers. Tan takes about a week to create a handmade wooden face mask, which can fetch about 800 yuan. The larger versions, more than a meter high, each take him about one month to make and are bought by museums and serious collectors for about 8,000 yuan apiece.

"I'm a sixth-generation mask maker and I've been doing this my whole life. The antipoverty development focus has turned this into a viable profession. You can make up to 60,000 yuan a year," said Tan, who has four main apprentices, including his 36-year-old son, aside from the poverty-hit residents who sign up for his workshops. The work is not easy, Tan said, with the eyes, nose and mouth the hardest features of the mask to carve.

"You have to start over again if you don't do it well. But it's a chance to preserve our heritage and learn an important, lifelong skill for making a living at the same time," he said.

"It's worth it, once you commit to it."

Full commitment to sustain improved lives

Tan Jianxin, a master craftsman of ethnic Maonan Nuo masks, demonstrates his technique in his Xia'nan town workshop. [Photo/Alexis Hooi/China Daily]