The hill is now covered in a several-thousand-hectare lush forest. Zhang has paid a high price, both physically and emotionally, to bring about this amazing spectacle. She first bought wild grass seeds, and scattered them over the whole area. The grass withered, rotted and mixed with the surface soil of the stone hill – an organic process that gradually nurtured fertile soil. Meanwhile Zhang set off in search of tree seeds, obtained by climbing selected trees, which she then planted. Zhang's method surprised even the director of the local forestry bureau. "Are you out of mind? Is your way feasible?" he asked incredulously. "As long as I devote myself to it, I believe everything is possible," was Zhang's unhesitating reply.
Zhang's workers often see squirrels, badgers, pheasants and foxes amid the hill's verdant vegetation. Wild boars also loiter around her pigsty. Zhang has thus established an ecological chain in her man-made "virgin forest." "Three or four years ago, I didn't even know what an ecological chain was," Zhang said. All her techniques come from the experiences of nearby farmers and her own practice and exploration. "One thing I noticed about Chinese farmers is that once they master a basic technique they stick with it, whereas I like exploring and digging deeper. I combined what I had learned from the experiences of local residents with practice, and have witnessed inspiring results," she told us proudly.
As the hill gets greener, Zhang's financial resources peter out. The costs of planting and labor have consumed her personal wealth and put her RMB 20 million or more in debt to her friends. In her T-shirt and patched trousers she looks no different from any other rural resident. Nothing, however, can obscure her naturally exuding pride and joy in her extraordinary achievements on the hill. "What I'm doing is for everyone, not just for myself," she said.
Zhang raises chickens and pigs on the hill, but has no idea how many because they are now part of the ecological chain.
In the process of guarding the forest, Zhang has over the past 10 or more years clashed many times with local farmers attempting to fell trees. "I don't hate them because I know how hard their life is," Zhang said. "There are still people who covertly fell trees, but I can afford to let a few go now, unlike at the early stages when trees were sparse, and each one counted," she explained.
Finding the Right Business
"When the first reporter came to interview me in 2008, neither of us could understand what the other was saying," Zhang told us. After living on the hill for over a decade, her language ability has obviously degenerated. Years of exposure to the weather have also made her appear much older than her years. "Somebody in her late 30s even calls me auntie," she told us with obvious amusement.
Since Zhang's story became known, a stream of visitors, including volunteers from colleges and members of NGOs, have flowed to her hill. They showed their support for Zhang Jiao and her project by patrolling the forest, repairing houses and laboring on the hill.
These days, other than Zhang and the 20-plus workers she employs to look after the 30 hectares of reclaimed arable land, no-one comes to the hill. "I refuse all volunteers. As my health is declining I'm looking for successors. I need people who can master all the vegetation restoration techniques, rather than learning one specific discipline like students at college. But I can't find one," Zhang said, looking bleak. Last year, a burst blood vessel in her liver brought Zhang to the brink of death. This close call has made her think seriously about who will carry on her work.
"Almost all the reporters that have interviewed me give the impression in their reports that I'm not interested in the hill's business development. This is not actually the case," Zhang told us. "I think that we can start considering commercial development only after cultivation of the forest has reached a certain stage," she explained. Zhang now thinks her forest is ready.
Zhang intended to run a thriving business based on her hill, and had been trading in its produce of green vegetables, eggs and pork. Owing to Zhang's limited capacity for expanding the business, however, it aborted. "Customers liked my products no matter how expensive they were. But I was totally exhausted by the work that fell to me and my few workers of picking and distributing vegetables to keep up with the expanding demand," Zhang told us. People suggested she take on helpers to take charge of product distribution, but she didn't know where to look. All the workers on her hill are local farmers who know nothing about business.
Too Many Predators
"If you want farmers to stop destroying the forest, you have to make them rich first," Zhang pointed out.
Zhang has developed a great conception about green farming. The current facts are that if farmers do not use agricultural chemicals on a one-mu (15 mu = 1 hectare) plantation, they will not be able to make ends meet. By applying fertilizers, they can earn RMB 200. "If I can figure out a way of helping neighboring farmers earn RMB 500 for a one-mu plantation without using chemicals. I believe that they would then never again sabotage forest or use harmful agricultural chemicals," Zhang said. As she knows well the benefits of green farming, promotion of green farm produce has become an important part of her development plan for the hill.
Nowadays, Zhang Jiao's hill constantly attracts investors, many with solid financial strength. "But it's impossible for me to give up the hill. It's my life," Zhang said.
Zhang has rebuffed the offers of 90 percent of potential investors. "To be my business partner, a person must be conscientious in his business dealings, because our vegetables are for human consumption. But as you know, most businessmen are motivated by profit, and I value consumers' health. So that makes it hard to make a match," she told us.
Another of Zhang's forest development plans, that of tree adoption, has also come to nothing. Her experience over the past two years has shown that the people who adopt trees usually have an annual income of more than RMB 200,000, are under no pressure to survive, and understand the importance of environmental protection. They are, however, a very small social group. This is the disappointing reality of the matter. So far, people have shown little interest in her tree adoption program because it will not bring the type of practical returns that they would get from any other investment. "Most people are predators, including you guys," Zhang said jokingly.
At any rate, these inspiring prospects, whether green farming or tree adoption, cannot help Zhang out of her current predicament. She urgently needs funds to complete the hill's cycle of cultivation, and only then can she begin to ponder plans for future development. Among all investors who have approached Zhang, she has chosen to take up discussions on cooperation with just two. They are respectively engaged in the health and Traditional Chinese Medicine business. It seemed to Zhang that their business would not threaten the environment, and would need the good environment that she can provide.
When asked what she will do after her 30-year management duration of the hill expires, Zhang appears stumped. "I don't know how to answer that question. I can only call on more people here to adopt trees in efforts to protect the forest. I would do anything for the chance to see the younger generation grow with it," Zhang said with fervor of true devotion to a cause.
When, during our interview Zhang received a call from her daughter her tone and expression suddenly softened. We later heard that she had never lived with her daughter for any sustained period. "Several years ago, she refused to talk to me, and hated me for always being absent from parents' meetings at her school. Sometimes she even told her teacher she was an orphan. But now she has begun to understand me," Zhang said.
More and more of Zhang's friends also understand her. They give almost all their spare time to helping Zhang realize her dreams for the hill by helping her find investors. They all know that promoting her mode of afforestation and green farming and proving that it is replicable is her ultimate ambition.
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