Cleanup efforts have resulted in more jobs and higher incomes
Senqi, or “Forest Life”, a suburban town in Taiyuan, capital of the northern province of Shanxi, has become the only settlement in the province to be added to the list of “national forest health bases”, the Chinese Forestry Industry Federation announced on July 19.
As part of an environmental restoration project covering 358 hectares and stretching across several hamlets in Dongjiazhuang village, Senqi is home to 47 families, whose ancestors lived by quarrying and farming for generations.
With a total investment of 1 billion yuan ($140 million), the project consists of homestays and farms on mountains that are being restored after years of serving as quarry sites and developed into ideal places for climbers and hikers.
The lifestyles of local farmers have changed along with their hometown. As the project is creating sufficient jobs via homestays and catering to tourists, local people no longer need to leave the villages to seek employment as migrant workers during slack farming seasons. Meanwhile, their farms are also being transformed by the cultivation of more local specialties and cash crops for tourists.
The project has won a number of national honorary titles, such as Beautiful Village of China, and the local government has named Dongjiazhuang as a model of rural vitalization for the rest of the province to follow.
That”s thanks to the pioneering work it has done to advance agricultural modernization and optimize its economic potential, while striking a balance between environmental conservation and rapid development.
Liu Pingping, a farmer in her 50s, said she is content with the changes in her village. She works as a server in a restaurant, while her husband is a gardener. They both earn about 3,000 yuan a month, plus a bonus and paid vacation. “Such jobs are usually beyond the expectations of poorly educated rural women of my age,” Liu said. “I have worked near my home for about three years now.”
Before she was offered the job, Liu, like many other local women, received comprehensive training as a professional-level restaurant server.
Shanxi Donglinsheng Cultural Development, a local company, offers the villagers jobs according to their age, skills and work experience, and provides them with all the training required for the jobs they take, according to Wang Bin, general manager of the Senqi project.
The villagers said they not only appreciate the new opportunities, including work as forest rangers and cleaners, but also benefit directly from the improved environment and public facilities resulting from the project. As such, they have realized that a balance can be struck between environmental conservation and the improvement of their livelihoods.
“Even though it is only about 7 kilometers from Taiyuan’s urban area, the village was once connected to the outside world by just a narrow mountain path that meandered along the edge of a valley. It was difficult for people to travel, and mules and tractors often toppled into the valley,” said Li Jianming, Party chief of Dongjiazhuang.
Before 2015, the villagers planted corn, potatoes and other subsistence crops. However, yields were quite low, so they basically lived a hand-to-mouth existence. Quarrying raised incomes for a while, but it proved to be a flash in the pan as the process destroyed vegetation, polluted the water and devastated the landscape. Not even wild grass grew on the mountains back then, Li said.
After the villagers realized that the “drain-the-pond-to-catch-all-the-fish” development model was unsustainable, investment from Shanxi Donglinsheng and the support of the local government enabled them to change the situation by building roads, improving water conservation and irrigation systems, and enhancing infrastructural facilities in 2015.
As a result, Dongjiazhuang is now easily accessible by car, the mountains are covered by trees and the rivers are clean once again. After a community center was opened for seniors and a square was equipped with simple leisure facilities, the villagers felt a marked change in their daily lives, especially as working the land now only takes up a small part of their time.
The company’s investment has helped bring tangible benefits to the villagers by transforming the restored ecosystem and beautiful landscapes into tourist attractions, and has also formed a model of sustainable environmental restoration that features government support, enterprise investment and the residents’ participation to achieve a multi-win scenario.
“In addition to earning money through our jobs, it is really good that we can rent our land to the company because the rent is a reliable source of income,” said villager Han Aizhong.
The farmers can rent their land as their “share” of the business and obtain cooperative dividends accordingly. This operating model makes the farmers feel that they are the project’s owners as well, rather than just company employees. Experts said it is important that Shanxi Donglinsheng allows the villagers to feel that they still own their hometown through this model so they will feel united and won’t regard the company as an outsider.
After the first phase of the project finished earlier this year, Senqi entered trial operations. From the top of the surrounding mountains, an artificial lake in the center of the resort — complete with geese, ducks and other waterfowl — looks like a piece of jade embedded in the forest. It is a major draw for large numbers of weekend visitors from Taiyuan.
With 90 percent forest coverage and high levels of negative ions, which many scientists believe can increase the flow of oxygen to the brain and result in improved feelings of well-being, Senqi has received an average of more than 10,000 tourists every month so far this year.
Wang Bin, the project’s deputy manager, noted that its rapid development has been inseparable from the establishment of norms and standards.
“We have formulated standards and norms in terms of the environment, services, facilities and equipment, management and healthcare products, and formed businesses such as homestays, catering, conference receptions and tearooms,” he said.
Peng Ke’er in Taiyuan contributed to this story.