University students and villagers plant trees in Gulang county on the edge of Tengger Desert
In recent years, crops of walnuts, maize and wheat in Lanzhou, northwestern Gansu Province, have turned to dust. But a tree-planting program in the area means sandstorms have become significantly less frequent this year, say Church leaders and officials, meaning farmers are looking forward to the best harvest in more than five years. “The dust and small stones caught in the wind made it hard to do anything outdoors,” said Father Wang Xikui, director of the Lanzhou diocese Social Service Center. The main problem in this harsh corner of northern China has always been the long winters and late springs, meaning crops rarely had a second chance in the event of a severe sandstorm. In recent years, these storms have been a common occurrence, particularly in March, a month which has seen an average of 17 sandstorms in Gansu, or more than one every two days. But this year there was only two. According to the Gansu Civil Affairs Office, 2012 has recorded the fewest number of sandstorms since 2007. Father Wang says mass tree-planting programs have been key to reversing the tide of desertification in this desolate area of China beside the huge expanse of the Tengger Desert on the ancient Silk Road. Just last month, the priest brought 30 university students and about 200 local villagers to a 10-day tree-planting activity in the town of Gulang, hoping to “produce yet more green land in an effort to protect the planet.” They planted 20,000 jujube trees and more than 1,000 Xinjiang poplars, walnuts and apricot trees each covering an area of 0.2 square kilometres. While Father Wang has organized numerous mass planting programs with the help of high school students in the past, this was the first time university students had helped out. He said many of them were shocked that human beings could live and work in such harsh conditions but that the exercise had been vital in teaching them about the realities of life, the environment and the challenges facing their communities. “These students are nerds who only know how to study,” he said. “They knew little about the hard life of farmers.” Gao Jie, a student who was taking part for the first time, said he felt ashamed that people still lived in such dire conditions. “I was brought up in the city,” he said. “There are many problems that don’t even come to my attention.” Zhang Ao, another student who took part, has parents that used to be farmers, meaning he had witnessed the devastating power of sandstorms on numerous occasions. “During those years, we often experienced a bad harvest and my parents sometimes quarreled because of our meager income,” said the 21-year-old. He said it was important for children to continue to learn about farming, despite China’s mass migration from rural areas, so that people remain in touch with the environment and the problems posed by the country’s rapid development. Farmers, he added, were starting to learn that it was possible to do something about the adverse conditions they routinely face. That meant people could make a better life for themselves, he said.