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Villager Li Fengtao harvests water shield in Shizhu, a county of Chongqing. The plant, seen as both a vegetable and an herb in China, has helped lift her family out of poverty. [Photo/Xinhua]

CHONGQING-By offering land to an herb-planting cooperative, more than 400 farming households in Chongqing municipality have received more than 200,000 yuan ($30,000) between them in dividends this year.

The farmers live in mountainous Shizhu Tujia autonomous county and are looking forward to receiving more dividends at the end of the year, in time to celebrate Chinese Lunar New Year.

Traditional Chinese medicine has a history of thousands of years. Despite having its detractors, it is popular in many areas in China and is helping decrease poverty.

In Shizhu, more than 70 percent of the people are ethnic Tujia. In the village of Huangshan, where the farmers live, poverty abounds due to the terrain and poor land quality. There are few crops. Of the 1,741 people in the village, 230 live below the national poverty line.

Younger people usually go away to work in cities, leaving the elderly and weak behind. This leads to a vicious cycle in which increasing amounts of farmland is left uncultivated.

"There aren"t many electric appliances at my home. The old television was bought when I got married in 1995. It hasn"t been changed for over 20 years," said resident Qin Tinglan.

Offering new hope, a professional TCM cooperative was started at the beginning of the year, with 416 households providing 62 hectares of farmland for planting herbs.

"The decision to cultivate TCM products in the village was not a hasty one," said Huang Wanneng, deputy head of Daxie township.

He Zengfeng, president of the cooperative, said: "The environment, weather and vegetation coverage here are fit for herb planting. The quality of medicines produced here is leading in the country.

Since my company already has mature industrial chains and advanced technology, many large-scale pharmaceutical factories come to purchase our products."

He said that, so far, they had planted and harvested lily bulbs, turmeric and hogfennel root, all of which have a stable market.

Pharmaceutical factories from Beijing and Hebei, Anhui, Zhejiang and Sichuan provinces have ordered many of the herbs.

After the cooperative was founded, households achieved more or less predictable fixed incomes through dividends on the land.

Moreover, the cooperative has created many jobs for local villagers. Those who cannot do heavy farm work can do other things, such as weeding, clearing insects or washing herbs. Each can be paid 60 to 100 yuan per day.

Ran Chongfang, 52, gave 5,000 square meters of land to the cooperative, which she also works for.

"We can get more than 20,000 yuan this year. Before we joined the cooperative, the highest income of my family was around 4,000 yuan a year," Ran said.

Qin Zongzhen, 68, also bought into and works for the cooperative. Her children left the village, and only her husband, who is ill, lives with her.

"We could make a living from the government"s minimum living allowance. But now we have a TCM industry in our village and I have become a shareholder. Our family income is expected to increase," Qin said.

Xinhua