Policymakers are hoping to kill two birds with one stone through a tree-planting program that endeavors to trap carbon emissions and combat poverty.

Announced Sunday at the 10th Eco Forum Global in provincial capital Guiyang, the voluntary program connects residents of Guizhou province’s low-income villages with individuals and businesses across the country who are willing to pay to offset their own carbon footprint. Villagers plant the trees and pocket the money — expected to reach more than 1,000 yuan ($150) a year per household, in a province where the average annual income for rural residents is only 8,869 yuan.

Fu Yeqiu, head of the climate change department under Guizhou’s provincial development and reform commission, explained that she and her colleagues will help villagers record the trees they plant, calculate their carbon sequestration, and upload the information to an online platform. When people buy offsets on the platform, the money is deposited directly into the planter’s bank account. Each tree earns the planter 3 yuan per year for both the initial planting and subsequent care.

Image: BBC

According to Fu, households plant the trees on their own land and commit to protecting the forest. If the trees are damaged by natural disasters, they must report the damage and replant affected trees.

Tareq Emtairah, director of the Department of Energy at the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, made the first purchase via the platform at Sunday’s forum, along with a local Party official. “My suggestion now for the program is to launch an English version so as to have more international participants,” he told Sixth Tone.

Emtairah spoke highly of China’s efforts to curb carbon emissions through its forthcoming national carbon market. “China’s initiative is extremely important to demonstrate to the global community that there is a market mechanism for carbon emissions trading,” Emtairah said. So far, however, Guizhou’s tree-planting program cannot offer official emissions offsets to enterprises.

But economic justice is just as imperative as environmental sustainability in places like Guizhou. At the end of 2017, 2.8 million people in the province lived below the poverty line, accounting for one-ninth of China’s population living in poverty. Coal mining, hydropower, and tobacco planting and processing are some of the province’s main industries.

“Most of the population living in poverty is distributed in the mountain areas,” Wu Qiang, deputy governor of Guizhou province, said at another Eco Forum Global event on Saturday, adding that the area is severely affected by limestone erosion.

In its bid to protect the environment and reduce poverty, Guizhou has issued policies for reforesting farmland, as well as relocating hundreds of thousands of people living in ecologically vulnerable areas. Yet it’s difficult to break the cycle of desperate people seeking economic development by any means.

“In an ecologically vulnerable area, continuous exploitation of natural resources for development leads to ongoing destruction and reliance on these resources,” Li Xiaoyun, a professor at China Agricultural University, told Sixth Tone. Li stressed that sustainable alternatives need to offer residents real financial incentives.

“The income it brings must be much higher than their original income, or they will return to their previous livelihoods,” Li said.