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"Green wealth" for former N China badlands

Xinhua, January 17, 2017 Adjust font size:

A heavy year-end snow of shiny white covers Huangjiayao, a small village nestled on a mountainside in Youyu County in northern China's Shanxi Province.

An old Chinese proverb says a timely snow promises an auspicious year, and it is particularly true for Zhang Jianping, a skinny, swarthy peasant who lives in the region.

This is the first time Zhang Jianping does not have to worry about medical expenses for his wife, who has suffered from mental illness since giving birth and spends over 5,000 yuan (about 720 U.S. dollars) on drugs every year.

"By planting (the medicinal herb) Radix Isatidis and potatoes, I have earned over 30,000 yuan this year," says Zhang, brushing snow from his hat.

Once a barren land where nothing grew, Youyu has transformed into a green county.

Back in the 1950s, less than 0.3 percent of Youyu's land had vegetation, and more than 76 percent of the land suffered from serious desertification making it unsuitable for cultivation.

A local ballad describes the Youyu of old: "The wind blows continuously from spring through winter/oil lamps are lit at day as dust blocks the door at night/ no harvest in nine years out of ten/men leave to make money as women and children live on wild vegetables."

"Nothing grew here, not even grass," says Li Yunsheng, 61, who now plants trees to earn a living. "The town was almost buried in sand. People in Youyu lacked everything but wind goggles as the sand often blinded their eyes."

A German geological expert once visited Youyou and declared it inhospitable. He was not wrong.

That changed with Zhang Ronghuai, the county's first Party secretary, who insisted on planting trees despite repeated failures.

Zhang Ronghuai was stunned by the sandstorms that came the day he took office in 1949.

When the sandstorm passed he went on a two-month field trip and came to the conclusion that only by planting trees could they survive. But it was no easy task.

"The trees were planted, died, planted, died, and planted again," says Zhang Jianping's 72-year-old father.

In the 1950s, trees managed to grow in large parts of Youyu, but a sudden sandstorm that blew for nine days turned all their efforts in vain.

Frustrated, they started over again. Pang Hanjie, Party secretary in 1958, set up a team to seek scientific solutions for sand control.

They found a mixed plantation of highwood and shrubbery worked much better. And in 1962, they used aerial seeding to plant grass that successfully fixed in the sand dunes.

After numerous attempts over more than a decade, plants finally took root. Today 54 percent of Youyu's land is green, and foxes and roe deer wander the land. The badlands have become good land.

But grain such as oats still could not grow. So they started looking for a crop to feed residents.

Local officials heard that villagers once grew Radix Isatidis, a traditional Chinese herbal medicine for colds, but only on a very small scale. They invited a Chinese herbs trader for a visit, and he said the soil was perfect for Radix Isatidis and immediately signed contract with the farmers.

Zhang Jianping takes a Radix Isatidis and breaks it apart.

"It is yellow inside, indicating good quality," he says. "The buyers told me the fertile ground here is even better than in northeast China."

Radix Isatidis has become a fountain of wealth. Huangjiayao is home to 45 households, and 37 lived in poverty before. But 32 managed to escape poverty last year by planting the Chinese herb.

Construction of a 20,000-hectare herb plantation with an estimated annual value of 1 billion yuan is in progress, which will help more people make good money.

Those who left are returning. Zhang Zhijun, 40, has just returned from Hohhot, capital of northern China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, where he had worked for more than ten years. This time he is going to stay.

"I am still young. I am sure I can make more money at home planting herbs than working elsewhere," he says.

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