By Wang Fengjuan, Li Nan
Back in the 1980s, six seniors became so incensed with the sandstorms plaguing Gulang County in northwest China’s Gansu Province that they pledged the remainder of their lives to combating desertification through afforestation. But the limits of their lifetimes inspired them to vow to pass on the green baton from generation to generation.
On August 21, 2019, 78-year-old Zhang Runyuan and other afforestation workers welcomed a special guest to their forest farm: Chinese President Xi Jinping. “President Xi joined us in plowing the soil and building barriers to stabilize the sand,” recalled Guo Wangang, a second-generation eco warrior on the forest farm. “He cares about our efforts here. We aspire to pass on the cause of fighting desertification from generation to generation to make our hometown greener and more beautiful.”
Over the past 38 years since the drive started, several of the original six founders have passed away, and survivor Zhang is now too old to do such physically demanding jobs. However, just as they wished, their descendants have carried on with the mission, and the afforestation team continues expanding with each passing year. The team adopted the name “Six Old Men” to celebrate the first of three generations of green “warriors” fighting desertification in Babusha, Gulang County.
“Sand dunes would creep towards our village at a speed of seven to eight meters per year, consuming our fields and crops,” recalled Zhang Runyuan while smoothing his silver-white beard. “An old saying goes that the sand can pile as high as the wall, so look out for donkeys on the roof after a night of north wind.” Back then, thin sand carried by wind was inescapable in the eyes and mouths, and the expanding desert threatened the village and crops. “Where there is a will, there is a way,” he added. “We still believe we can change the desert through our efforts.” Simply preventing their homes from being swallowed up by the desert was the original mission of the “Six Old Men.”
Babusha is a sandstorm pass of the Tengger Desert in southern Gulang County. Locals used to worry about how to protect their crops from sandstorms and survive in the locale despite harsh natural conditions.
Standing Up to the Desert
In 1981, Gulang County launched a campaign to harness desertification by introducing non-public forces, with Babusha as a pilot project. Shi Man, head of the Yiquan Production Team, was the first to take up the task. “Over the years, sand dunes have been chasing people away,” he declared as the unit was founded. “We need to control desertification to ensure our fellow villagers are never trapped in sandstorms.” Shi Man, Guo Chaoming, He Falin, Luo Yuankui, Cheng Hai and Zhang Runyuan pressed their thumbprints to a desertification control contract one after another, establishing the Babusha Forest Farm as a joint household contract.
At the time, the oldest of the six men was 62, and the youngest was 40. Only three to four kilometers separated the desert from the village. One early morning, they set up a camp in the desert to save commuting time. Without shelter, they dug a pit in the sand and covered it with a thatched roof supported by wooden sticks. Locals call such dwellings “pit shanties.” They raised funds to buy saplings. With a donkey, a cart and several shovels, they started afforestation efforts.
Growing trees in the desert was much more difficult than they had thought. In the beginning, they planted trees according to the traditional method of “irrigating a sapling with a scoop of water” due to a lack of experience. Zhang Runyuan recalled, “The desert was completely barren back then, without any grass to protect the newly planted saplings. In the first year, we planted about 670 hectares of saplings. However, 60 to 70 percent of them were blown away by sandstorms the next spring.”
“Is saving our homes hopeless?” The six men began to panic. Eventually, the director of the Forestry Bureau of Gulang County brought six technicians to Babusha to offer help and advice.
An unexpected discovery kindled hope in their hearts. They found that saplings grew better in places where weeds had survived sandstorms. Excited by this realization, the six regained confidence. They started planting grass in grids to stop the sand and determined that “a sapling planted with some grass has a better chance of surviving sandstorms.”
Gradually, the sweetvetch and sacsaoul seedlings they planted began to sprout buds and leaves, which swayed like little hands in the wind. With an increasing survival rates of saplings, the vast desert slowly became greener.
The hardest thing wasn’t planting the trees but nurturing them. Grazing cattle from nearby villages often ate the newly planted saplings. The six started taking turns guarding the saplings during grazing times. They stayed awake long past midnight. Eventually, an oasis integrating trees, bushes and grass took shape in Babusha.
In 1983, support from the local forestry bureau enabled them to build three small houses in the desert. With most work to be done in autumn, they mobilized their families to help. More than 40 people, some as young as teenagers, from the six families were organized to combat desertification.
Ten years later, 2,800 hectares of desert turned green, and the hair of the six men had become white. He Falin and Shi Man died in 1991 and 1992, respectively. Shi’s dying wish was to be buried as near as possible to the trees he planted in the desert.
Passing the Torch
In 2000, Guo Wangang became head of the Babusha Forest Farm. Under his leadership, the forest farm became a private company with assets of more than 10 million yuan (US$1.4 million). Satisfied with his position at the county’s Supply and Marketing Cooperative, Guo initially had no interest in becoming a forest ranger. “Control desertification? The desert is boundless,” he once lamented to his father. “How are you going to fight it? Magic?”
But a catastrophic sandstorm changed Guo’s mind. On the afternoon of May 5, 1993, just as children were leaving school, a severe sandstorm struck Gulang County and devoured everything into darkness. Guo, who was then patrolling the desert, sheltered himself in a pit. “The wind was so strong that it could blow a person into the air, and I couldn’t see anything,” he recalled. “The dark sandstorm lasted for half an hour, devastating crops and blowing the roofs off many local residences.” After the sandstorm let up, parents swarmed the streets looking for their children. Guo learned that 23 children were killed in the disaster. “I never realized sandstorms could cause such catastrophic losses and couldn’t believe my ears when I heard the news,” he admitted while wiping away tears. “If we couldn’t protect our children, how could we survive?” From that point on, Guo became steadfastly committed to efforts to combat desertification in Babusha.
He Zhongqiang, son of He Falin, joined Babusha Forest Farm due to prodding from his father.
However, new challenges emerged.
In 1993, the state adjusted its ecological policies such that Babusha Forest Farm could no longer receive government allowances for afforestation. Quick-thinking Guo Wangang proposed they “promote the development of forestry with agriculture and sideline industries and seek rational and coordinated development of forestry and agriculture.” The forest farm bought 20 hectares of nearby wasteland and dug a well to transform the land into farmland to improve the living conditions of Babusha.
On the eighth day of the first lunar month of 1998, just before the well was completed, the drill malfunctioned, disabling the water pump. He Zhongqiang, then in his 20s, rappelled down into the well. The drilling team instructed him to cut a wire on the drill. “To my surprise, I got caught on the gyrocompass and iron hook, which dragged me up and down,” he recalled. “The wire hit against the wall of the well, causing sparks. People rushed to pull me out, which was lucky for me because I was numb from being in cold water for nearly four hours.”
The well provided ample water for irrigation. They began to plant grains like wheat and corn and cash crops like watermelons and tomatoes. Life at the forest farm improved markedly. Its fixed assets increased from 2 million yuan (US$280,000) to 20 million yuan (US$2.8 million), and per capita annual income of its workers has now grown from less than 3,000 yuan (US$420) to more than 50,000 yuan (US$7,000).
The forest farm has never stopped its fight against desertification. After overcoming economic difficulties, the second generation of green “warriors” embarked on a journey to conquering another three major sandstorm passages in the Tengger Desert: Heigangsha, Dacaosha and Momisha, 25 kilometers from the forest farm.
At daybreak, Guo Wangang led a team to the sand control frontier. They pledged not to give up until the sand retreated and all the trees they planted survived. Over years of practice, they have explored many useful methods. Since 2003, they have planted more than 4,260 hectares of forest to control desertification and 7,600 hectares of forest to fix sand. In total, they have grown more than 20 million saplings. In 2015, after completing their desertification control mission at Heigangsha, they continued their afforestation drive in the desert in the north.
“I often travel around sand dunes and love seeing lush trees, green grass and purple, yellow and red flowers growing in the desert,” Guo Wangang beamed. “Most Babusha workers are farmers with little education, but they have a spirit of perseverance.”
In recent years, the forest farm has been contracted to implement a series of national major ecological projects such as national key ecological functional zone transfer payments and the Three-North Shelter Forest Program as well as vegetation restoration for national key projects like the west-to-east oil pipeline and the Gantang-Wuwei Railway.
“We plan to purchase drones to patrol the forest and introduce more professionals,” declared Guo. “By promoting poverty alleviation through developing desert industries, we’re leading desert dwellers towards prosperous lives.”
New Green Hope
Guo is ambitious. He suggested taking over another desert area near their farm. “The government rolled out a strategy to develop the western regions, and I thought more preferential policies would be issued to fight against desertification,” he explained.
The Western Development Strategy was launched in 2000 to develop 12 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions. Gansu was among them.
In 2009, the eco warriors founded Babusha Afforestation Co. to bid on more greening projects. “Alongside managing four desert areas in Gulang, we have branched out to the border of Gansu and Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region,” said Shi Yinshan, a second-generation green warrior.
Seven years later, new blood started joining the group starting with Guo Xi, from the third generation of the Guo family. “When I was young, Babusha was my playground and I have fantastic memories of the place,” he commented. “I am enthusiastic about taking the baton and continuing to expand the forest in the desert.”
Babusha Afforestation also welcomed its first college graduate, Chen Shujun, as a technician. “I heard stories about Babusha when I was young,” Chen revealed. “I never imagined that one day I would become part of the story.”
The third generation bids for projects on the internet and plants trees with new technologies and machines.
Chen advised the company to bid on greening projects under the Ant Forest scheme. In 2016, Ant Forest was launched by Alipay, the financial arm of Alibaba, China’s biggest e-commerce company. Alipay users who behave in an environment-friendly manner are rewarded with virtual energy. When they accumulate a certain amount of energy, Alipay plants a tree in the desert in the user’s name. Usually, the trees are planted by local afforestation companies with funding from Alipay.
At the end of 2018, Babusha Afforestation received 10 million yuan (US$1.4 million) from Alipay to plant an Ant Forest. This development amazed the second generation of eco warriors. “The college graduate has indeed been a big help to our afforestation efforts,” admitted Wang Zhipeng, a second-generation farmer.
Mechanic Guo Xi excels at operating machines. “In the olden days, my grandfather planted about 0.67 hectare per day,” Guo explained. “With a tree-planting machine, I can plant 3.33 to 4 hectares, 50 to 60 times faster than manual labor.”
He is also helping Babusha become known to youngsters via social media. He shares videos about the farm on Kuaishou, a popular short video social platform in China. His most popular videos have been viewed more than 200,000 times. “Babusha was a desert, and now it’s green,” he said. “I think more people should see what’s happening here.”
After nearly four decades of efforts, Gulang’s environment has improved dramatically. “Today, the desert winds are tamer and less frequent. Annual rainfall has increased from 100 mm in the 1980s to 300 mm this year,” Guo Wangang noted.
He is most proud that many who fled Babusha are now moving back. They have welcomed 24 returning households already. “In the 1960s, everyone was running away from the desert. Now the reverse is happening.”
The farm is now creating jobs for the impoverished in the neighborhood. This year, it rented land from poor farmers in a nearby community and planted drought-resistant cash crops including medicinal herbs and dates. Community residents were hired as farmhands during busy seasons.
“We hired 3,000 people from neighboring communities to plant trees this spring,” Guo illustrated. “Everyone earned more than 3,000 yuan [US$418.8] in two months. We designed a new road out of poverty by combining afforestation with agriculture and raising chickens.”
“As President Xi says, clear water and lush mountains are invaluable assets,” he said. “And we did it. Planting trees in the desert is not easy. But if you persist, eventually you will see results.”