In the 3,800-meter-high Nordu Village in Zhaqi Township, Zhanang County in Lhoka Prefecture, 57-year-old Bengyur owns a large nursery that comprises an area of 33.33 hectares. No less than 56 varieties of trees are thriving in his nursery, such as oriental arborvitae, elm trees, poplar trees, peach trees, apple trees, and walnut trees.
But 25 years ago, this area was still a desert wasteland, and Bengyur, a farmer who lived here, has struggled turn this desert into an oasis for his dream.
“Every spring, the whole sky would be covered by sand. Our mouths and eyes would be filled with sand. You couldn’t see the road when you went to drive your car or walk outside, and there were airport delays every day,” Bengyur said, talking about the dust storms of the past, which most residents of Lhoka have experienced.
Bengyur’s love of trees began in childhood: “I started herding sheep when I was 13 years old, and I would take tree saplings from near our home and plant them in the area where I let the sheep out to pasture. After a couple of years, I could sit under the shade of the trees I planted.” Trees give us shade – and Bengyur has a simple feeling of gratitude toward them. Later, Bengyur planted peach trees and apple trees in the courtyard of his family’s home. He is happiest when groups of children come to his home to eat fruits.
Desertification is called the “cancer of the earth”, and the “cancer” is all the more difficult to combat on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.
In 1990, 32-year-old Bengyur took 12 people to plant trees along the side of the road. “At that time, the government gave us one yuan for each tree that was planted. They would also dig wells and repair the homes of those of us who protected the forests. The work we did was really exciting.” Since then, Bengyur began his own reforestation career. Even he admits he does not know if this is the right path or not, but he is wholeheartedly involved in it.
Is it possible to plant trees in the sand? To common Tibetans, this was an incredible thing. “At that time, there was no electricity to the north of the Yarlung Tsangpo River , so we used a tractor to both generate electricity and drill a well for water. In one week we broke two tractors. I was really nervous, hoping for rain every day; a little rainfall would make me happier than if I had found gold! I only wished for rain.” Remembering the difficulties of that time and because he understands the importance of water, Bengyur says that he and his wife normally do what they can to avoid wasting water.
“If there’s no water, we can’t control the sand! Sometimes I would plant trees in one year, and in the next year they would all dry out and die. So I told the government that I didn’t want a large area to sow seeds, but to build it slowly; first build a pipeline, plant a group of trees, and then plan for another one."
Bengyur went to a lot of cities to see how other people control desertification. He also figured out his own “ secret” to fighting desertification: how to dig wells, lay pipe, choose appropriate Tibetan tree species… he is very systematic about it.
Foreign tree species are either unable to survive in Tibet, or they bring diseases. “In 2004, the head of the Forestry Bureau here suggested that we build a nursery, cultivate local, suitable trees in it, and then replant them along the banks of the Yarlung Tsangpo River.” Bengyur then began to build a nursery. "Back then this area was a desert wasteland, and floods had just eroded the area. Even grass didn’t grow,” he said, pointing at the now-abundantly green nursery. Bengyur is kept very busy, from drilling wells, soil preparation, planting seedlings, and building greenhouses. Even the soil in the fields has been brought from elsewhere by Bengyur and his neighbors.
As a result of untiring efforts, the nursery has been a success. “There are currently more than 3 million trees in the nursery, and there are constantly people coming to buy trees. Later, I discovered that people who bought trees only cared that they were good-looking. After they took the tree back, they didn’t care for it very well, and the seedling would soon die.” Bengyur couldn’t bear to see the trees he had so painstakingly cared for die, so he came up with an idea: people could come and “take” a tree; after they took it away, if the tree lived, they didn’t need to pay for it. If the tree died, then they had to pay double. Now, the local village, school, and work departments all have trees from Bengyur. They all say: “Bengyur was able to plant trees on stone and make it grow.”
In 2006, the Tibet Northern Yarlung Tsangpo River Anti-Desertification Project began. Bengyur brought villagers to undertake the project together, and he also issued a national model base. As a result, they have been able to combat desertification over an area of over 2,600 hectares during this period.
Bengyur and the 68 local villagers who work for him make an annual profit of 3.6 million yuan by planting trees and fighting desertification. Taking away 3 million yuan for salaries and other expenses, they make an annual profit of more than 600,000 yuan. Furthermore, they have created over 2,600 hectares of oasis in the desert.
"Just like the 56 minorities of China, they still exist in one family. This is father and mother of the peach trees in the nursery, and the fruit it bears is quite sweet!” Uncle Bengyur says as he points to a bright red nectarine in the orchard, his smile even sweeter than the fruit.
The Lhoka, Tibet Bengyur Parks Reforestation Construction Company was officially established this year, and many villagers are willing to follow Bengyur and plant trees. There are already 68 farmers from surrounding villages working here, with incomes ranging from 130 to 230 yuan per day. Bengyur always pays the workers their wages on time, and if a family is in need of money for an emergency, he will generously lend it to them. Now, Bengyur’s company has an annual income of 3.6 million yuan. Taking away 3 million yuan for salaries and other expenses, they make an annual profit of more than 600,000 yuan.
In the summer, Bengyur and everyone sing songs, drink beer, and eat fruit together in the nursery. He said, that the happiest time is in spring when they take the big trees that have grown in the nursery and replant them in the sand along the river, and seeing the villagers singing while they plant the trees.
“Thinking about it now, I’m not on the wrong path,” he said. “We Tibetans say there is always a ‘cause and effect’. I don’t make money by mining, I don’t harm anyone; everyone says I’m doing a good deed and accumulating merit.”
Bengyur points at a huge cypress tree by the gate, and says that in the coming year this tree will be transplanted to Samye Monastery. “I also recently made Samye Monastery green, and the trees I planted there made the monks in the monastery more comfortable.”
Thanks to a 25-year long dream for an oasis, Bengyur’s perseverance has gradually turned the banks of Yarlung Tsangpo River green. The lush vegetation is a pair of big, green hands that care for the slowly flowing water of life.