Passion leads Shanghai man to create organization to fight desertification
Liu Zhizhuo juggles life as a graduate student, the founder of an environmental organization and a volunteer in the fight against desertification.
Liu, 23, studies environmental science at Shanghai Jiaotong University.
He was honored as one of the "Most Beautiful Chinese College Students" of 2020 by the Ministry of Education. Only 10 students are given this honor nationwide.
Since 2016, his sophomore year, Liu has been growing plants in Minqin county, which is surrounded by the Badain Jaran and Tengger deserts, in Gansu province.
During the summer of 2016, after a 24-hour train journey and a six-hour drive, Liu and eight of his peers from the university finally arrived in Minqin－2,360 kilometers from Shanghai－for the first time.
Not familiar with the situation in Minqin, Liu, a native of Fuyang, Anhui province, and his companions slept on the floors of local residents' houses.
They would soon develop a routine, waking up at 6 am and heading toward the Tengger Desert with grass squares, seeds of haloxylon ammodendron and the necessary tools.
They would usually stay in the desert for several days. Their skin would burn under strong, ultraviolet rays, and sand blown by wind gusts would sting their eyes.
Meals were a problem, and fresh vegetables were a treat. Every four days, one of the group members would go to nearby market in town to buy produce.
Of course, they experienced some joy amid their initial hardships.
They learned how to cook different potato dishes, a skill that became useful during their stay on the sands. And during their first night in the desert, they enjoyed stargazing.
"Watching the stars that night will be a special memory for us," Liu said.
Founding a nonprofit
When local villagers first met the group, they thought the young men were just on a fun excursion to experience being in the desert for the first time in their lives.
To their surprise, Liu has returned to Minqin every summer since 2016 with his team, which has grown each year.
Liu understood that more power is needed to fight desertification, and that power is in numbers.
He founded the charitable organization, Lyu Ge, meaning "green grids", hoping to populate the deserts with green plants.
His group has drawn attention from other like-minded individuals. The organization now has 800 members from 30 universities nationwide.
Liu's mission isn't just about desertification.
"I realized poverty and desertification are twins here," he said.
To help locals escape poverty, he and his team began to plant cistanche herba in Minqin under the guidance of his college professor.
Cistanche herba, a type of parasitic flower, has high economic value. Fully grown, the plant can be sold as medicinal material. Also, haloxylon ammodendron makes a wind break in the desert.
As a link between the local government and experts, Liu plays an important role in the expansion of the cistanche herba industry in Minqin.
He looks to his professor to bring new planting technology to Minqin. With assistance and guidance from experts, locals are more willing to invest in it.
So far, the cistanche herba industry in Minqin has covered an area of 7,000 square kilometers.
"I remember one night in the summer of 2018, the host of the family we stayed at asked us to have a drink with them. She served us homemade wine and said to us, 'We didn't make much of it, please enjoy'. I knew from that moment, we were recognized by local people," Liu said.
After nearly five years' of working in the deserts, Liu and his team have planted more than 3,000 trees.
Being a volunteer teacher
In the summer of 2019, upon earning his bachelor's degree in environmental science, Liu choose to be a volunteer teacher in Eryuan county, Dali, Yunnan province.
"I wanted to do something meaningful, so I wouldn't regret not doing so in the future," Liu said.
In Eryuan, he teaches mathematics and biology to hundreds of high school students. There, he met a student who wanted to drop out because of financial difficulties.
"The student thought going to school was a waste of money because he wants to be a farmer and earn a living," Liu explained.
Liu talked him out of it, convincing him of the importance of education.
Liu has a role model, also a professor at Shanghai Jiaotong University, who has spent all his career working to promote environmental governance around Erhai, a lake in Yunnan. Safeguarding the country's blue waters and green mountains thus became Liu's dream.
"As a student of environmental science, it has taken me a long time to master skills and knowledge and then put them into practice," he said. "It takes long time to bear fruit. I am deeply moved by the spirit of devotion my team has shown."