How one mother's grief led to greening China's deserts

Holding back the desert
Holding back the desert

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Story highlights

  • Green Life is a project to reforest desert areas of China
  • Initiative came about through tragic death of founder's son
  • Non-profit has planed over 1 million trees over 11 years

(CNN)Each year Yi Jiefeng does what she can to stop China turning into a desert.

For the last 12 years the native of Shanghai has planted saplings in Inner Mongolia trying to reforest the region, but also to keep the memory of her dead son alive.
In 2000, Yi's only son was killed in a traffic accident in Japan.
    Yi almost succumbed to grief, but instead decided to devote her life to living out her son's dream of planting trees in the deserts of Inner Mongolia.
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    "He was fond of nature since he was a little boy," Yi said of her son, Yang Ruizhe.
    "He was concerned about natural things such as wind, rain, plants, and animals."
    Through the non-profit organization Green Life, the project has changed from being a tribute to her child to a campaign to raise awareness of the land degradation that is rapidly turning China's grasslands into barren plains.
    After the tragic accident Yi used the insurance money from Ruizhe's death -- 30 million Japanese yen -- to set up Green Life in 2003.
    It wasn't easy at first, said Yi, but in the past 11 years the group has planted more than one million trees.
    "In the beginning, I did this charity as a mother who wanted to realize her son's dream," said Yi.
    "But later I realized that China has a really serious desertification problem ... If the situation keeps getting worse, how can 1.3 billion Chinese people possibly survive? So we felt a sense of social responsibility. "
    Almost a quarter of China, an enormous 2.6 million square kilometers across 18 provinces, is classified as desert. In the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia alone, sandy plains accounts for an area greater than the size of Germany.
    Overgrazing, population growth, logging and droughts are largely responsible, according to researchers.
    One of the biggest challenges for Yi has been fundraising. She and her husband have invested most of their life's savings in the project and sold two houses to keep the initiative going.
    "Because we have limited funds, we can only afford a small operation team while there is a lot to do," said Yi. "I'm 66 years old now. But I have only an average of three to four hours of sleep every day. Sometimes I don't even have this amount of sleep. It's all for saving money for the project."
    Yi and her husband began their endeavor with little knowledge of agriculture and their first planting season was not a success: rainfall that year was less than 200mm and the saplings were blown over by strong winds and the shifting sands.
    But after seeking help from local forestry specialists in the second year many saplings took root in the harsh landscape.
    "It seemed that my son's spirits bestowed good fortune on us -- it rained heavily when we finished," said Yi. "Ever since, we would go and plant trees every year, and it rained every time. This made the survival rate stay above 85% even till now."
    Since 2008, there has been an increase in volunteers and donors, which Yi says gives her and her husband strength and enables the project to keep running.
    Among them are a number of parents who lost their own children, including one mother who lost her college-aged daughter to cancer, and another mother whose son committed suicide.
    "It is easy to break a chopstick, but they become unbreakable when we put all of them together," said Yi.
    "Everyone on the planet has his or her own weaknesses, but with one complementing the other, we will eventually get a big force. Environmental problems especially need this kind of power from people with benevolence."