Every day Jia Haixia and Jia Wenqi walk to work carrying a hammer and a metal rod. Work is an eight-hectare plot of land they lease from the local government.
The route is a well-trodden one for them now – they’ve been heading to the same place for 13 years, and always with the aim to plant as many trees as possible in the area, to prevent their village from flooding and improve the environmental surroundings.
The two went to school together as children in the small village of Yeli in northeastern China. Wenqi says they have always been like brothers, there is only a year between them, and they are very close.
To get to their plot, Wenqi, a double arm amputee, leads the way through a forest, guiding Haixia, his blind friend, who holds his empty jacket sleeve. When they reach the river, he gets on Wenqi’s back in order to cross the fast-moving water without falling.
“I am his hands, he is my eyes,” says Haixia. “We are good partners.”
The elder of the two, Haixia, 54, was born blind in his left eye because of a cataract, and since a fragment of stone flew into his right eye during a factory accident in 2000, he has been totally blind.
His colleague and close friend, Wenqi, 53, has been a double arm amputee since the age of three when he touched an unprotected electric cable lying on the ground and received a high voltage shock.
When Haixia went blind he says it was very difficult to adjust to life without sight. “At first I felt very depressed,” he says, “and I just sunk to rock bottom.” At the time his son was four, his wife couldn’t work due to illness and, as Haixia could no longer work at the factory, their only source of income was lost.
Wenqi says he was so young when he had his arms amputated that he has no memory of life with them. “Growing up I just used to play normally with the other children in the village,” he says. “Whatever they did I followed them. I swam with them, I tried to do work with them.”
Wenqi has adapted to life without arms or hands. At work he uses his neck and shoulders to hold a plough, and at home he writes and does needlework with his feet.
He says the village officials always looked after him as a child and when he reached seven they asked his parents to send him to school. Wenqi graduated in 1976, after which officials organised work for him with the local forestry team. Here he looked after the fruit gardens and watered trees, building up experience of growing plants outdoors.
Haixia believes fate brought the two of them together again in 2000 following his accident so they could help each other to prosper, allowing them to fulfil work they couldn’t do alone. He suggested they could start planting trees and in time make enough money to support themselves and their families – they get a small income from the local government for their efforts.
They are both passionate about the environmental benefits of what they do, but are aware that their disabilities limit the opportunities they have for employment.
“For me it is not complicated,” Haixia says. “I’m disabled and don’t want to be a burden on my family, so I plant trees. After ten years the trees will grow and I will get money.”
Their task is to grow as many trees as they can. It is a lengthy process which involves taking suitable cuttings from pre-existing trees, also planted by them, that have been growing over the last decade.
Wenqi climbs on Haixia’s shoulders to reach the best cuttings higher up, a task which requires trust that they’ve built up over a lifetime. “When we work together, two become one,” they both say.
So far they estimate they have planted ten thousand healthy trees, and three thousand more which have died. While the work may not be fast, the three-hectare site is now covered with trees and attracts nesting birds.
When they began working together on the project, other villagers were cynical, Haixia explains. “They didn’t believe what we were doing was possible,” he says, “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 choosing now to assist the two men.
“They help us to fix our tools, water the trees and trim the weeds,” Haixia says. “They even bought us saplings to plant.”
For Haixia, recent news from doctors means his blindness could soon be reversed. He is currently on the waiting list for a donor, having been told he is a suitable candidate for a cornea transplant.
But if he does regain his vision, he is adamant he’ll carry on planting trees with Wenqi. “it doesn’t matter if my eyesight comes back or not, I’m going to continue my work until my last breath,” he says.