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“You’ll be my arms, I’ll be your eyes”: A Story of Two Disabled Men Who’ve Planted More Than 10,000 Trees

By Doyle Irvin, American Forests

Hand holding tree

Jia Haixia and Jia Wenqi have been friends since they were schoolboys together, growing up in the village Yeli, in China’s Heibei province. Their fathers were best friends, too.(1) Wenqi lost both of his arms at the age of three when he touched a power cable, growing up with his disability and doing his best to lead an ordinary life.

“I used to play normally with the other children in the village … I swam with them, I tried to do work with them,” Wenqi said in a short video filmed by the company GoPro.(2) 

But, when his friend Haixia became permanently blind in his mid-40s it was much harder for Haixia to adapt to his new life.

“Because he went blind during his prime years, he was filled with despair,” Wenqi said.(3)

Haixia attests that it was his children that drove him to find a new calling in life.

“My son came home one day and said, ‘Dad, I smelled an orange when another kid was peeling it and it was like I could taste it,’” Haixia said. “I felt sorry for my son, that he couldn’t even eat his own orange. This motivated me to live on. I had to live.”(4)

Wenqi approached Haixia with an idea, and the duo decided to start planting trees.

Haixia admits that “Originally, we planted trees to make money, but now it’s for the environment — to improve air quality.”

The two now attest that environmental motivations are the significant reason for why they continue year after year. Their area of China is populated by a number of quarries, and the dust gets everywhere, decreasing air quality and poisoning local streams.

“We started to notice, the birds were disappearing,” Wenqi said.(5)

Haixia and Wenqi have planted more than 10,000 trees since 2002, completely filling an eight-hectare area, and it has not been easy work. Because money is very tight and they cannot afford nursery-grown saplings, blind Haixia must climb 20 feet up into pre-existing trees, guided by his friend from the ground, cutting branches in order to have clones to plant. Wenqi cantilevers a shovel using his shoulder and his chin, pushing with his foot, to start a hole, and then Haixia follows with a hammer and a stake to create the space for the branch. Wenqi then waters the tree, holding a bucket with his feet.

Their first year working together, they planted 800 trees into the dry ground. Only two survived.

“For normal healthy people, you can achieve [this] by sweating … But for the two of us, handicapped, it takes blood and tears,” Haixia attested.(6)

He was discouraged, after that paltry first year, and wanted to quit.

“But Wenqi was mentally stronger than me. He’s endured hardship his whole life… he said we will lead the water here,” Haixia said.(7)

The people of their village were highly skeptical of their project, when the two began.

“They didn’t believe what we were doing was possible,” Haixia mentioned, “the whole riverbank had been bare for years and there were hardly any trees.”

The two learned from their early mistakes — their 10,000 tree estimate only counts the survivors. Now, 14 years later, the villagers are believers, too, helping the men fix their tools, trim weeds, water trees, even donating to a pension and organizing a surgery to help Haixia hopefully fix his sight. He insists that he will carry on even if he is no longer disabled.

“It doesn’t matter if my eyesight comes back or not, I’m going to continue my work until my last breath,” Haixia said.(8)

Their work is a testament to an enduring sense of responsibility, and the men are proud of their contribution, even if their disabilities means that the work is slow.

“We stand on our own feet,” Wenqi said to one interviewer. “The fruits of our labor taste sweeter. Even though we are gnawing on steam buns, we find peace in our hearts.”(9)

Their story has spread around the world, gathering hundreds of thousands of shares. GoPro helped them record some of their efforts, showing the painstaking effort involved — and catching a couple candid moments, like the two teaming up to read a newspaper, one holding it up and the other reading over his shoulder. Even with their newfound fame, the two continue to plant day after day.

“Let the generation after us, and everyone else, see what two handicap individuals have accomplished,” Wenqi told the camera crew. “Even after we’re gone, they will see that a blind man and an armless man have left them a forest.”(10)

Photos and videos of the two are quite charming, and can be found through the links below. We recommend you watch the GoPro video!