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Rural sorority turns desert into forest

(Xinhua)    09:52, January 12, 2021

HAIKOU, Jan. 11 (Xinhua) -- After retirement, Tao Fengjiao enjoys taking a walk along the coast to visit her many "kids" there.

"Look how strong and tall they are!" Tao said, pointing to the casuarina trees along the Qizi Bay in China's tropical island of Hainan.

The forest in Changjiang Li Autonomous County holds the cherished memories of Tao and others in a sorority-like team, who over the past 28 years planted 5.88 million trees to fend off the incursion of the coastal desert.

The bay was once a desert without any living plant. Whenever a typhoon landed, the sand was all over the sky, sometimes posing lethal threats to local fishermen.

In 1992, a businessman took the barren land in Changjiang on lease and hired locals to plant trees for a daily payment of 7 yuan (about 1 U.S. dollar).

In Changjiang, men brought home the bacon by fishing, and women used to stay home to take care of the family.

Eager to earn a living after her husband died in an accident, Tao, a mother of two, joined the largely female team that later became known as the "Green Detachment of Women."

However, facing large expanses of coastal desert and the torrid climate, they failed to plant any trees in the first three years. The frustrated businessman abandoned the project, but the spirit of Tao's team remained unfazed.

"The tree-planting drive is not only for the sake of our livelihood but also for protecting local people's lives," Tao said, explaining the determination to continue tree plantation.

In 1995, the local government took over the afforestation project and invited German experts for guidance. Huang Jincheng, a former provincial forestry official, recalled how the visit ended in frustration.

"We stood before a large expanse of desert, something that many people would not believe to exist on the island. It felt painful when the wind blew up the sand to hit our faces and bodies," he said. "The experts later concluded afforestation was just not feasible."

Yet Tao's team refused to give up. "When I was a kid, I saw there were trees on the bay, so I thought we could find some way to keep the saplings alive," she said.

Under the guidance of domestic experts, Tao's team first made an attempt to fix the moving sand using thatch screwpine, a smaller plant. Then they planted casuarina trees, a taller evergreen that can resist strong winds.

The method, though feasible theoretically, was not easy to enforce back in the 1990s.

To protect the seedlings from the coastal gale, they had to be soaked in freshwater to make them heavier before transplanting. Without vehicles and cement roads, Tao had to carry the 60-kg saplings with shoulder poles and walk barefoot on the burning sand.

"We could plant 400 trees per day. Sometimes when we ran out of drinking water, we drank from a manger. Because of the hot weather, our food often went bad," said Zhong Yingwei, another member of the team.

Though some members left because of the hardship, Tao said the planting team had more than 60 women at its heyday.

According to the forestry department of Changjiang, the team has planted a total of 5.88 million trees, covering an area of 2,253 hectares. Apart from the 1,253-hectare forest in Changjiang, their afforestation campaign later expanded to other parts of Hainan to help the province tame desertification.

In 2020, Tao was accorded "National Model Worker" for her persistent efforts on ecological restoration.

An unexpected beneficiary of the team's afforestation work is the local tourism industry. Since 2010, a number of high-end hotels have chosen Qizi Bay as their location, turning the former desert into one of the island's most popular tourist destinations.

After retiring from the tree-planting team, most members were recruited by local hotels to water flowers and trees, which bring them about 2,800 yuan a month.

"Twenty years ago, we could not even earn 3,000 yuan a year, but now, we can earn the money in a month. Our efforts have been paid off," Tao's teammate Chen Shenglian said.

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Web editor: Wen Ying, Liang Jun)

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