Aerial photo taken on March 6, 2020 shows a truck carrying straws and preparing for afforestation at the Babusha Forest Farm in Gulang County, northwest China's Gansu Province. (Xinhua/Fan Peishen)
When speaking of President Xi Jinping's attention to the prevention of desertification, Guo Wangang, a veteran afforestation worker in his 70s, has first-hand experience.
In August 2019, Xi, who is also general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission, visited the Babusha forest farm in northwest China's Gansu Province where Guo and his colleagues work.
Located on the southern edge of the vast Tengger Desert, the farm and its surrounding area was once plagued by severe sandstorms. In Chinese, "Babusha" means "sand in eight steps." It is derived from a local saying describing the area's harsh climate -- the sand is only eight steps away from one's doorstep.
To hold back the invading desert, Guo's father and five fellow farmers in 1981 established the forest farm after signing a land contract with the local government. They vowed to green the sandy area even if the goal would take generations to materialize.
In autumn 1982, Guo gave up a steady job to follow in his father's footsteps. Today, about 40 years later, Guo has afforested 257,000 mu (about 17,133 hectares) of land with his colleagues, making the forest farm a shining "emerald" in the sand.
As a leader who attaches great significance to environmental protection, Xi holds the efforts of Guo and his colleagues in high regard.
Holding his hand, Xi commended Guo and his colleagues for their decades of efforts in taming the desert. "You folks are the paragons of our time, we all should learn from you," he said.
Aerial photo taken on March 6, 2020 shows people making straw checkerboard sand barriers in Gulang County, northwest China's Gansu Province. (Xinhua/Fan Peishen)
Giving his praise to the workers, Xi compared them to Yu Gong, the protagonist of an ancient folktale. In the story, Yu Gong was determined to improve his family's living conditions by "removing" two mountains in the way to his home.
The folktale is being told by generations of Chinese, and Yu Gong is now remembered as a symbol of strong will and unyielding determination.
In many ways, the work of Guo and his colleagues is similar to that of Yu Gong's, which is reshaping the landscape for a better life.
Seeing the workers nearby planting grass in the sandy soil, Xi chatted with them to learn more about the living conditions of local residents and the techniques of sand fixation.
"I'll give it a shot," Xi said as he picked up the plow and joined their work. In a short while, he dug a trench about two meters long and amazed everyone with his proficiency with agricultural tools.
Desertification control constitutes an important part of China's environmental protection efforts. Its significance, as well as Xi's attention to it, was noted on many occasions and in many documents.
In 2021, when Xi discussed a coordinated ecological protection strategy with fellow lawmakers at the top legislature's annual session, he pointed out that "sands" should be added in the strategy which originally featured only mountains, rivers, forests, fields, lakes, and grasslands.
Speaking of the matter, Xi recalled how he once instructed local authorities in north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region to strengthen pollution control upon receiving reports on the discharge of sewage into the Tengger Desert from surrounding areas.
A fundamental purpose for environmental protection, including the management of deserts, is to improve people's lives. Just as Xi said when chatting with the afforestation workers, "The goal of controlling desertification is to secure better lives."
Over the year, China has made remarkable achievements in afforestation. Today, the country's area of desertified land has been shrinking by an average of 2,424 square kilometers every year, and forest coverage rate has risen to about 23 percent.
For Guo and his colleagues, their efforts being recognized means a lot. When watching Xi's 2020 New Year Address, they were especially touched when spotting a picture of them together with Xi placed in the president's office.
Managing the desert has shielded local villages and farmlands from endless sandstorms, granting them more opportunities to develop and prosper, said Guo. He added that economic crops are now being grown to help boost local income.
In 2022, Guo is optimistic about keeping up the good work. "There has been a lot of rain in the spring and soil moisture state is good," he said. "We are expecting to afforest another 35,000 mu of land."