Profile: Logger, ranger, lawmaker – one man’s identity shift amid China’s green drive

File Photo of Zhou Yizhe, a forest ranger and a Chinese national lawmaker, patrolling a forest in north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. (Photo provided to Xinhua)

Throughout his life, Zhou Yizhe, 57, has worked with trees in a number of ways, each time using different tools.

For 35 years, he worked as a logger, cutting down trees with an ax and a saw. He then picked up a shovel and got involved in tree planting. Now, as a national lawmaker, he uses his pen and laptop to draft suggestions, calling for greater efforts in protecting trees.

At the ongoing annual session of China’s national legislature, President Xi Jinping praised Zhou for his transition.

“Your identity shift from a logger to a forest ranger epitomizes our country’s transformation in industrial structures,” Xi told Zhou during deliberations with fellow lawmakers from north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region Friday.

Zhou works on a forest farm in the Greater Hinggan Mountains of Inner Mongolia, along the country’s northern border.

In 2012, as the country raised the vision of building a “Beautiful China,” with ecological progress included in its integrated plan for development, some 16,000 loggers in the region shifted their roles to forest rangers in the Greater Hinggan Mountains.

NEW LIFE

Inner Mongolia has more than 100,000 square km of state-owned forestry zones, roughly the same land area as Iceland. It used to be a major timber-production base, fueling the country’s construction in infrastructure and other sectors for decades.

In peak times, the timber Zhou and his colleagues produced could fill 400 train carriages every winter. “Buyers from all over the country came here for our timber,” Zhou recalled.

Amid the increasing awareness of environmental protection and sustainable development, China started capping timber production in the late 1990s and natural forest logging in the Greater Hinggan Mountains was fully banned in 2015.

Tree fellers like Zhou turned into rangers. As part of the country’s green transformation, China has created tens of thousands of state-funded posts focused on protecting grasslands, forests, and wetlands.

Unlike in the past, when farm workers only got six months’ pay for logging in autumn and winter, these people now have work all year long. Their income of up to 60,000 yuan (about 9,234 U.S. dollars) a year is three times the amount in 2015.

Zhou takes a two-hour ride by shuttle van to get into the forest and walks five to six hours a day. His job includes planting trees, patrolling, spotting fire risks, and protecting trees through pest- and disease-prevention measures.

“With our afforestation efforts, we have built a green ‘Great Wall’,” Zhou said, adding that more wild animals, including roe deer and bears, are found roaming in the woods.

Over the past five years, the country has added 36.33 million hectares of afforested land, bringing the country’s forest coverage rate to 23.04 percent from 21.66 percent.

File Photo of Zhou Yizhe, a forest ranger and a Chinese national lawmaker, supervising forest protection work in north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. (Photo provided to Xinhua)

NEW IDENTITY

In the eyes of his colleagues, Zhou, who now leads hundreds of workers, is diligent and capable, caring for his team members.

“Under his leadership, we now have paved roads on our farm,” said Li Wenzhong, one of his co-workers.

Zhou was elected a deputy to the 13th National People’s Congress (NPC), the country’s top legislature, in 2018.

NPC deputies are from all walks of life and work part-time. Of the nearly 3,000 national lawmakers, more than 15 percent are grassroots workers and farmers.

Before Zhou headed to Beijing for the annual session of the NPC, he had visited the Inner Mongolia Agricultural University to consult on questions about building fire barriers in natural forests.

“We discussed planting fire-resistant trees, and I advised him on cultivating new breeds with biotechnology and genetic-engineering methods,” said Bai Yu’e, a forestry professor at the university.

This year, Zhou plans to offer suggestions about road construction for fire control, as well as improved telecommunication networks in forests.

He said natural forests are often hit by lightning, and it is necessary to ensure that fire trucks can access forests using paved roads.

Some years ago, he witnessed a pine forest being engulfed by fire. “I was heartbroken, like a farmer seeing his year-long toil torched to ashes.”

Zhou’s busy schedule doesn’t allow him to spend much time with his family. His grandson has become a first-grader in the regional capital Hohhot.

Zhou will retire soon, but he is glad to see more young graduates being recruited to the forest farm, as part of the country’s state-owned forest farm reform to attract talent.

“With the younger generation taking over the job of a forest ranger, I’ll have more time to spend with my little one after retirement,” he said. (Xinhua)