YINCHUAN, Sept. 9 (Xinhua) -- Every autumn in the 1980s, Huang Zhong's farmland in northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region was invariably blanketed with heavy layers of sand blown by strong gales.
"A severe sandstorm could bury mud huts overnight in the village, and sand dunes scattered almost everywhere," the 56-year-old recalled.
His home village of Liuyangpu in Yanchi County is on the southern edge of the Muus Sandland, where the tough climate, prolonged drought and overgrazing stranded about 75 percent of its population in the desertified area at that time, according to statistics released by the county government.
Life was difficult for Huang growing up. Following poor harvests, Huang's family used to feed on millet and buckwheat grown on their farmland.
"We didn't even have grass to graze our sheep," he said, adding that, back then, they had to migrate to other cities to earn a living.
But not anymore. Now the sand and dunes are gone, replaced by lush greenery including bushy trees and thriving Chinese herbal medicine, thanks to a project to prevent desertification and soil erosion.
In 1978, China launched the Three-North Shelterbelt Forest Program (TSFP). Consisting of forestation in northwest, north and northeast China, the eight-phase project, covering 13 provincial regions making up about 42.4 percent of the country's total land area, is expected to be completed by 2050.
Over the past 40-plus years, over 7.88 million hectares of windbreak trees have been planted, 336,000 square km of desertified land has been managed, and more than 10 million hectares of desertified grassland has been protected and restored, according to a report released by the National Forestry and Grassland Administration.
Forest coverage has grown to 13.57 percent from 5.05 percent in 1977.
As one of the key areas under the TSFP, Yanchi accordingly started a large-scale ecological restoration project to "tame" the ravaging wind-blown sand in the 1990s. In 2002, local authorities officially prohibited grazing, and henceforth, locals in Yanchi bid farewell to their traditional herding lifestyle.
Straw was weaved into grids to contain the moving sand dunes, and drought-resistant shrubs and grass were grown on the dunes. At present, over 133,000 hectares of desertified land in Yanchi has been restored, and large sand dunes can hardly be seen.
In addition to improving the ecological environment, the TSFP has injected impetus to poverty alleviation efforts.
"The program has effectively curbed the expansion of desertification and become a 'Green Great Wall' to protect areas from sandstorms, preserve water and soil and safeguard agriculture, laying a solid ecological foundation for poverty alleviation," said Yue Taiqing, deputy director of the TSFP construction bureau of the National Forestry and Grassland Administration.
Yue added that nowadays, more and more ecological resources in northern China are being transformed, using eco-tourism, forestry and other means to lift people out of poverty.
Some people have also taken up roles as forest rangers to participate in local afforestation and forest management.
With the help of the TSFP, in 2016, Huang and over 1,100 villagers from registered poverty-stricken households were recruited as forest rangers, with an annual income of over 10,000 yuan (about 1,461 U.S. dollars).
Huang and his wife also plant Chinese herbal medicine seedlings, through which they earned an income of more than 30,000 yuan in the past year.
"As forest rangers, we don't have too much pressure now, because villagers make efforts to plant trees, and they are aware of the importance of forest protection," Huang said.
In 2018, Yanchi became the first of nine counties in Ningxia's Xihaigu, an area known for its poor living conditions, to escape poverty.
According to Yue, afforestation has been fueling China's poverty alleviation efforts, and the success of the TSFP shows that China is determined to protect the environment in a sustainable way.
"We will proceed as scheduled and plant some 666,667 hectares of forest and push forward the treatment of desertified and salinized land of the same size every year so that more impoverished households can benefit from the ecological restoration," Yue said. Enditem