Lu Liu is a video journalist based in Beijing. Clarissa Pharr is an associate editor of The WorldPost.
DAYANG, China — In January, China’s State Forestry Administration announced an enormous reforestation campaign, a project that pledges to reforest more than 16 million acres of land, an area roughly the size of Ireland, within the year.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has led China on an effort to create an “ecological civilization,” in part through environmental restoration projects and crackdowns on polluting industries. The historically coal-dependent nation said in March that it is ahead of schedule on the quest to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 to 45 percent by 2020. Xi has emphasized international climate deals and pledged to stop all emissions increases by 2030 to comply with the Paris climate agreement. Meanwhile, China continues to race ahead on renewable energy and electric cars.
The national reforestation project aims to plant a million acres of trees in Hebei province, the industry-heavy area that encircles the smoggy capital city, Beijing. Traditionally a region of steel manufacturing and coal processing, Hebei contained the top six most polluted cities in the country in 2016, according to the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection.
Industrial development has wreaked havoc on places like Yueming River in Hebei, where people say birds no longer sing and you can smell the stench from over a mile away. Some also blame the pollution for high rates of cancer in the area.
To combat the pollution and environmental degradation, Hebei aims to increase its total forest area by 35 percent by the end of 2020 and has deployed 60,000 workers to plant trees. Yet as Xi pushes forward with his plan, not everyone is happy.
Here in the village of Dayang, a farmer named Tian Datuan found his livelihood destroyed when the government forced him, like his neighbors, to turn his land over for reforestation and banned him from growing his usual crops of wheat and corn.
“It left me no choice but to rent it out,” he told The WorldPost. Tian now earns about $15 a day working alongside the 300 to 400 or so villagers who have taken up tree planting for government wages. “I don’t have any land anymore,” he said. “All has given way to trees. It was taken.”
By early spring, workers in Dayang village had planted about 1,300 acres of trees toward the province’s overall million-acre goal. Tian, though, wishes he could go back to the way it used to be, before the reforestation campaign began.
“Of course I think wheat farming is better,” he said. “This land used to belong to me.”