For 17 years, two disabled friends, one blind and the other, a double amputee, worked together to plant trees on a seven-hectare barren riverbank site. Yes, this is the work of Jia Haixia and Jia Wenqi, who have planted over 12000 trees to create a manmade forest. In 2002, when the friends could not find any jobs, they decided to start a commercial venture to grow around 800 cedar trees a year. They leased a plot from the village committee, hoping to earn from it, but in the very first year, a drought devastated their plantation. Not being the ones to give up easily, the commercial project soon turned into their life purpose – to clear the polluted air, to protect our village from flooding, and to leave a stretch of green to our children.
Jia Haixia and Jia Wenqi – The Disability
The childhood friends grew up in Yeli, a small village in the northeastern part of the Hebei city of Shijiazhuang, China.
Haixia, because of a cataract at birth, had no vision in the left eye. But, he worked in a stone quarry till 2000 until an accident there left him completely blind.
Wenqi lost both his arms when he was electrocuted by a live wire at the age of 3. But that did not deter him from leading a near-normal life. He used his neck and shoulders to hold a plough and his feet to swim, write and do needlework. After graduating in 1976, he worked with the local forestry team to look after fruit gardens and trees. He later worked as a calligraphy artist, writing with his feet in a traveling troupe of disabled people.
Both friends had gone their different ways until 2002 when fate brought them together again. Since they had no jobs, they decided to plant trees to make enough money to support themselves and their families. With help from the local community, they leased a plot for their commercial venture. They knew the task ahead would be difficult, but so was their life.
To get to their plot, every morning Haixia, had to grab onto the empty sleeve of Wenqi, who would lead the way to the riverbank. Then, Haixa would get on Wenqi’s back to cross the fast-moving Ye river.
At the site, both worked in unison. As they could not afford tree saplings, Haixia would climb trees to get the best cuttings. While Wenqi dug holes for the cuttings, tucking a shovel between his cheek and shoulder to aim it and then using his foot to drive it into the ground.
The work was slow and laborious. But Jia Haixia and Jia Wenqi continued until their plot was full of trees and the birds returned to nest.
A short film by GoPro, titled “You’ll be my arms, I’ll be your eyes,” chronicles the environmental restoration by the duo.
Not only did two disabled friends turn barren land into a green forest, but they even changed the mentality of the Yeli villagers. Haixia explains, “When we began working together on the project, other villagers were cynical. They didn’t believe what we were doing was possible. The whole riverbank had been bare for years, and there were hardly any trees. But after a few years, the trees grew, the area became greener, and the villagers changed their attitude. They help us to fix our tools, water the trees, and trim the weeds. They even bring us saplings to plant.”
In 2019, the friends moved to work on another 100-acre area that the village set aside for a forest.
Wenqi says in the film, “let the generation after us, and everyone else, see what two handicapped individuals have accomplished. Even after we are gone, they will see that a blind man and an armless man have left them a forest.”
(PS. While this is a fascinating story of two disabled friends who created a forest, don’t forget to read about India’s very own ‘Forest Man’!)