Xichou county's rocky road out of poverty

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In 1990, Xichou county was considered an inhospitable place to live. Through hard work, locals transformed the rocky ground into thriving farmland and have now lifted the county out of poverty.

China.org.cnUpdated: November 27, 2020

Walking around Xichou county in southwest China's Yunnan province, it's hard not to notice a slogan painted on the walls of many cottages: "Don't wait around for others' help; Only hard work leads to hope."

A view of Xichou county in southwest China's Yunnan province, Nov. 18, 2020. [Photo by Wang Yiming/China.org.cn]

This philosophy of diligence and self-reliance has allowed the people here to lift themselves out of poverty and turn the rocky hills into a lush green home.

Between a rock and a hard place

Located in southeastern Yunnan, Xichou county suffers from rocky desertification, while 99.9% of the county is covered by hills, and 75.4% by karst landscape.

In 1990, the region had less than 0.053 hectares of arable land per person, forcing locals below the poverty line. During an inspection tour of the county back then, an Australian geologist from UNESCO stated that the environmental conditions made the area essentially "unsuitable for human habitation."

However, some determined people in the county chose to change their living conditions. That same year, the local government decided to use explosives to break up the rocks and reclaim the land.

Liu Dengrong, former secretary of Muzhe Village's Communist Party committee, who led villagers in the 1990s to clear rocks and reclaim land for farming in Xichou county, Nov. 20, 2020. [Photo by Wang Yiming/China.org.cn]

Muzhe Village was chosen as a pilot site. Liu Dengrong, then secretary of the village's Communist Party committee, encouraged the villagers to do something their ancestors had never done.

Liu and other Party members led more than 300 villagers in blasting apart the rocky ground. Next, they used simple tools such as hammers and chisels and then backfilled with soil to make the land usable.

"After 105 days of hard work," Liu recalled, "we'd turned 40 hectares of rocky ground into arable farmland. Next fall, the maize yield was four times higher than the previous year."

The authorities of Xichou county promoted this practical solution and introduced subsidies for rock-blasting and farmland cultivation. It was at this time that the slogan "hard work leads to hope" became popular.

Levelling the land was only one part of the efforts to tame the harsh environment. The county also planted trees on the stony mountains, repaired roads and developed industries.

Since 2012, over 140 square kilometers of rocky ground in the county has been reclaimed and more than 2,200 hectares of trees have been planted. Forest coverage has risen sharply from 25% in the 1990s to the current rate of 53.3%.

New sources of revenue

"Xichou county is committed to attracting business and developing industries based on the local natural conditions to help boost the income of locals," explained Jiang Jun, secretary of the county's Communist Party committee.

In 2011, Gao Xinglong, a villager who had previously worked as both a forest worker and a veterinarian, founded the Xinglong Farmers' Cooperative. He started exploring a green ecological development path by raising the distinctive "furry" silkie chickens under anise trees.

After his business became profitable, Gao set about helping other poverty-stricken villages in the area increase their income.

"We have distributed around 110,000 chicks to farmers free of charge and offered guidance on preventing poultry diseases. The local villagers then sell the chickens to us, without having to worry about marketing," explained Gao, noting that the cooperative has so far generated a total income of 9 million yuan, with over 2,000 villagers having profited.

Apart from poultry farming, people in Xichou county have also taken to growing kiwifruit, citrus fruit, medicinal herbs and other crops in order to escape poverty.

In 2016, Wenshan Haohong Agricultural Development Company started investing in the county. To date, the company has cultivated more than 300 hectares of farmland in the area, the majority of which is used for growing organic kiwifruit.

Chen Dengshu, the company's chairman, explained that local farmers now have multiple options to boost their income: transferring their land-use rights, working in the orchards, and even providing farm stays for tourists.

According to data from the Xichou county government, as of November, the county now has 774,600 poultry animals, and grows 5,000 hectares of vegetables, 2,760 hectares of fruit trees, and 5,150 hectares of medicinal herbs.

A local worker at an orchard in Xichou county displays organic kiwis grown in the area, Nov. 18, 2020. [Photo by Wang Yiming/China.org.cn]

Escape from poverty

On April 30, 2019, the Yunnan provincial government announced that 62 impoverished villages in Xichou county — with a total population of 37,341 people — had been successfully lifted out of poverty.

Data from the Xichou county government shows that per capita disposable income of rural residents is expected to reach 11,410 yuan this year, up from 7,210 yuan in 2015, and representing an average annual increase of 9.6%.

The people here have achieved the seemingly impossible — eradicating extreme poverty in a rocky and mountainous area once said to be "unsuitable for human habitation."

As he talked about Xichou county's transformation over the years, 47-year-old Liu Dengrong couldn't help but feel proud. He told China.org.cn that the crop farming and chicken raising are both going well and that the villagers' living standards have greatly improved.

"Now that we've shaken off poverty, I hope that the village's infrastructure can be further improved and more young people can return to the county to set up businesses," Liu said.