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An area in the Dunhuang oasis of Gansu province is marked out as part of ongoing anti-desertification measures, where sand is immobilized and trees planted. CHINA DAILY

When Yan Ping, a resident of Bazichang village in the historic Silk Road oasis of Dunhuang, first stumbled two decades ago upon the glistening ponds that appeared in the arid area, he saw tremendous opportunity.

The unusual springs offered rich pickings in the form of mirabilite, a mineral widely used as a purgative in traditional Chinese medicine. Yan quickly set about mining the valuable resource, helping him rake in nearly 100,000 yuan ($14,300) a year and making him a wealthy man in the community.

But Yan"s rise to riches also spurred villagers there to turn to mirabilite. Their mining activities soon desecrated many parts of their environment. One day, Yan realized the folly of their ways and his role in the damage.

"I knew I had to do something about it. I couldn"t bear to see our home this way," he said.

For the past seven years, Yan, 56, has been holding true to his word-as the head of Dunhuang"s Sandaoquan area environmental protection station.

His team of seven members covers more than 42,000 hectares of land, patrolling in all seasons of the extreme desert climate to check from their rudimentary base camp any fire hazards and illegal agricultural or animal husbandry activities that may impact the surrounding areas marked for green growth.

Through their efforts, large swaths of the protected plains and forested fringes have thrived, with the local community pointing to the ecological belt"s role in curbing the damaging winds and sand that threatened their livelihood and homes.

"Under my watch, we"ve had no fires and no mishaps," Yan said as he kept stock of the latest progress this summer. "We"re simple folk but I believe that whatever we do, we need to be responsible for our actions. We want to do things that people can give us the thumbs-up for."

Local authorities have since held up Yan and his station colleagues" work as a model of major green efforts to fight environmental degradation and help halt any encroaching sands of the Gobi Desert next to the oasis in Gansu province.

Dunhuang"s main natural forest and wildlife management authorities oversee more than 300,000 hectares of its vegetation, including targeted "green belts" stretching nearly 10 kilometers. Through sweeping measures to rein in deforestation, which include residents" widespread cutting down of the native red willow trees for heating, a record 90,000 hectares of natural greenery alone have been recovered, according to environmental authorities.

Xu Guoqiang, 53, who manages another environmental protection station in the area, said efforts to wean villagers from the highly polluting heating sources toward greener fuels have achieved encouraging results in just a few years.

"We"re also tapping new technology like drones to keep track of the progress," Xu said.

Wildlife sightings, including gazelles and foxes, have also risen significantly with the fight against any illegal hunting of animals in the protected areas, the station rangers reported, while increased greenery protection has resulted in the abundant growth of local flora such as the medicinal Cistanche tubulosa and black wolfberry plants, as well as more common reeds and flowers.

Dunhuang"s green achievements are in line with several major environmental drives launched by the central government in recent years nationwide to restrict commercial logging, protect forests and grassland, and replant trees and grasses to reclaim lands from desertification.

Earlier this year, President Xi Jinping sent a congratulatory letter to a global environmental forum in Ordos city of the neighboring Inner Mongolia autonomous region, where he called for concerted efforts from the international community to enhance cooperation on combating desertification, promoting global environmental governance and ensuring the full implementation of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

China has placed great emphasis on building an ecological civilization and made great headway in the prevention and control of desertification, Xi said in the letter.

In Dunhuang, the crackdown on the indiscriminate clearing of land, digging of wells and other environmentally unsustainable practices "demonstrates the determination to protect the ecology", according to a statement from its municipal government.

"The scientific and rational use of resources, guarding of wildlife and respect for nature depend on everyone, and persistence in these protection measures will prevail," it said.

Ma Jingna contributed to this story.

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