Sun Shaohua was 16 when he started mining coal in Demao Village in Yunnan province, a place once known as one of the key counties in China for churning out a large amount of coal.
It was the natural way to go, the only job available, so he gave it the best he could to make his family proud, and, to earn an honest living.
“If you wore new clothes and took a walk outside, the clothes could easily turn black,” he said.
When it rained, there was black water everywhere.
Cave-ins were frequently reported, and mudslides often struck. It was a way of life, and it was accepted.
Sun spent ten years transporting coal and four years detonating bombs at the mines, a dangerous job.
“I made a lot of money from coal mining, but the environmental crisis was exacerbating,” he said. “Sometimes I could not sleep well because I was worried.”
The era of coal was finished, and everyone knew it.
As locals felt the pinch of the waning mining industry, the local government gambled on a shift to the green industry. And at first, no one paid any attention to it.
Situated near the Jinsha River, the upper reach of the Yangtze, China’s longest river, Huaping County has abundant resources of light, heat and water.
As it turns out, the geological advantages made the county quite suitable for mango cultivation.
“Back in the 1990s, the government encouraged us to grow more trees, but because the mining industry was so well developed, nobody ever paid attention,” Sun said.
In 2015, with the government’s encouragement, Sun started to grow mangos, but could not find a proper area for cultivation.
“I had to grow the mango trees on gangue,” Sun said. “I did not hold my hopes high because I didn’t think it would work.”
The coal residue is reportedly full of minerals, which provides sufficient nutrients for the mango trees, according to a local agricultural expert.
To his surprise, Sun’s mango trees blossomed the next year, and the ecstatic farmer expanded mango cultivation the third year.
The better-than-expected results excited local officials, and the county government encouraged the farmers to grow mangoes on the mining areas by providing subsidies and insurance for them.
Sun improved the soil quality and tried a variety of mangoes. So far, he has cultivated 9.2 hectares of mango trees, which generates an annual output value of more than 3 million yuan (US$4436,400).
According to official figures, by the end of 2018, the mango-planting area in Huaping reached about 22,400 hectares, with 291,200 tons of mangoes produced each year, generating an output value of 1.98 billion yuan.
According to official figures, the forest coverage in the county has reached 72.2%, and water loss and soil erosion has significantly decreased along the Jinsha River. In 2018, the average disposable income of rural residents per capita in the county exceeded 12,000 yuan.
“Mango trees have born fruit above the coal mines,” Yu said. “They truly transformed fortunes here.”