When these trees were still young, however, the farm couldn’t even afford permanent housing for its workers. For eight years Yang Shanzhou and his staff worked and lived in huts of simple wooden frames roofed with tarp and felt. Some of these shanties still stand, including the structure that served as Yang’s office and residence. The simple furniture – no more than desks, stools and beds – were all made by the huts’ occupants, and their obvious defects betray the amateur carpentry of their builders. In the ascetic world of farm workers even basic necessities like beddings were absent, and they slept on pine needles and hay.
For the first two years of the farm there were no paved pathways in the mountain. Workers and their horses had to wend their way through the undergrowth to transport the basic tools and supplies for the farm to their base. In 1990 Yang Shanzhou rallied a few skilled workers and hauled in some basic equipment to build a road themselves. The final result was a 14-km hardtop road for a cost of less than RMB 10,000 per kilometer. Thanks to such heroic DIY endeavors the farm soon restored flourishing vegetation to the formerly barren mountain.
Ecological Boon Plus Economic Boom
Under Yang Shanzhou’s stewardship, the project added 56,000 mu forests of varied tree species to the Daliang Mountain, blanketing it in dense greenery. Local flora was diversified, soil erosion was reversed, and wildlife flourished. Not only do smaller animals like monkeys and pheasants now populate the woods, but big predators including bears and leopards can also be spotted roaming the leafy valleys and wooded slopes of the mountain. The restored vegetation produces volumes of fallen branches every year, providing local farmers with ample firewood, and an abundance of wild mushroom and fungus brings them another source of income.
The plantation also built roads, erected high-voltage power lines, and installed irrigation and water supply facilities in the area. Combined with improvement in the microclimate, these works have led to a marked rise in agricultural harvest, with yields per mu more than doubling, from 200 kg to 450 kg. Thanks to these changes, more than 100 destitute households have shaken off poverty.
Zhou Bo, the head of the plantation, was recruited by Yang Shanzhou in 1990, and witnessed the substantial ecological and economic benefits brought by afforestation to the region and its residents. Most recently, in 2010 Baoshan was hit by a drought of a severity not seen for a century. The destruction it caused, however, was felt less on the Daliang Mountain, whose lush growth helps retain large reserves of ground water that can supply irrigation and drinking water for a protracted period of scarce rain.
The forest itself has become a huge, living fortune over the past two decades. The mountain it covers, which was barren and desolate when Yang Shanzhou started his work, is estimated to be home to 11.2 million trees at present, which, even when using a conservative estimate of RMB 30 each, could fetch well in excess of RMB 300 million when managed in a sustainable fashion.
Green Mission Carried On
Yang Shanzhou was honored in his life for his dedication to environmental protection and poverty alleviation with a slew of provincial and national awards, but it wasn’t until after his death in 2010 that his story became known nationwide. In 2012 he was nominated as one of the Ten Persons Who Move China. People from all over the country have since flocked to his farm to pay their respects and seek inspiration.
Yang’s family opens its door to all visitors who find the way to their home. His eldest daughter Yang Huiju, 61, is looking after her mother, and she and her husband tend a dozen mu of field that produces tobacco, tea and maize, earning them a handsome RMB 30,000 to 50,000 a year. The elder of Yang Huiju’s two sons is a college graduate and works for the Shidian County earthquake bureau, and the younger is a farmer, who, with his knowledge of fruit tree trimming and grafting imparted to him by his grandfather, volunteers in the village’s fruiters’ association in his spare time.
As Yang Shanzhou spent most of his time in the mountains during his retirement Yang Huiju knew little of his undertakings firsthand. Only tidbits information about her father trickled in from his associates. The family received no advantages from his official post, and the only benefits they saw from the farm that he founded and into which poured all his savings were those they shared with the rest of this rural community on the China-Myanmar border.
After Yang Shanzhou’s story came into the public’s attention, however, Huiju became much more aware of her father’s influence as admirers and investors alike streamed into this remote mountain area. A 10-km dirt road is the only route between the county seat of Shidian and Yang’s farm, but work has started to surface it with asphalt. Zhou Bo revealed that the farm is now negotiating with an investor from Guangdong Province about growing cash crops in between the trees. “Diversifying the plantation and generating more income is in line with the spirit of Yang Shanzhou,” said Zhou Bo, who has taken over leadership of the farm from his late boss and mentor. Though Yang Shanzhou is no longer with them, the 39-year-old new chief and his colleagues share Yang’s dream, and Zhou is confident that together they will bring the late visionary’s aspirations to fruition.