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In 1855, the Yellow River, China"s second-longest waterway, changed its course after spilling over its banks.

The major diversion of water resources from the waterway - known affectionately as Mother River - left the formerly fertile land barren, with intensifying desertification encroaching on farmland and threatening to swallow up a major grain-growing plain near the old river channel in Shangqiu, Henan province.

Minquan Forest Farm was established in Shangqiu in 1950 to combat the creeping sand dunes, and over the past 68 years, locals have added 4,600 hectares of "green barriers" to help reverse desertification.

Tong Chaoran, 80, came to Minquan Forest Farm in 1962 after graduating from Beijing Forestry University, and he has worked there ever since.

"In spring, we planted trees day and night without going home. We sheltered overnight in a cellar that we dug in the sand, and ate nothing but dried sweet potatoes and radishes," said Tong, who was a senior engineer at the farm before retiring.

At that time, nothing could be harvested due to frequent sandstorms, and houses and fields could be buried overnight.

With steady tree planting, the farm has increased annual forestry coverage by an average of 17,000 square meters over the past few years. The forested area now totals 187,000 sq m, according to Wang Wei, the farm"s director.

There are more than 100 varieties of plants at Minquan Forest Farm. Wardens have spotted more than 180 species of animals in the forest, with 16 listed as protected species.

The trees help preserve wetlands and lakes, and the ecosystem is able to sustain 80,000 hectares of farmland, while absorbing 22,500 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year.

Because of the ecological transformation, 2,877 hectares on the farm was turned into a national ecological park in 2015, with the approval of the State Forestry Administration.

Bird-watchers and aspiring botanists pay for the privilege of keeping an eye out for rare fauna and flora in the forest. Others come to get closer to the land, picking grapes, pears, apples and walnuts. Activities like these have contributed some 696 million yuan ($109 million) in annual income to the locals.

A plan to plant another 2,400 hectares of forest along the old Yellow River channel is also on the government"s agenda.

The government opened bidding in 2017 to invite contractors to plant trees in a 1,282-hectare area, and to help maintain the 16,500 trees already planted.

"We put emphasis on green development, and attach equal importance to protection and development. The forest in the future is for our enjoyment and our health," said Ji Maichang, Party secretary of Minquan county.

Xinhua