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A Balancing Act
China's desert communities promote a viable and sustainable approach to fighting desertification
By Li Xiaoyu  ·  2019-06-10  ·   Source: NO.24 JUNE 13, 2019

The Kubuqi Desert in north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in 2013 (COURTESY PHOTO)

Li Long is a 39-year-old doctor in Beijing who still remembers sandstorms ravaging the capital during spring when he was a university student about 20 years ago.

"On the streets, everyone had to wear a mask or a scarf to cover their noses and mouths. The sand wasn't only an outside menace, it also blew into people's homes," he recalled.

Yet, in recent years, sand and dust storms have rarely been seen in Beijing. In the 1950s, there was an average of 56 sand or dust storms per year sweeping across the city. In 2017, that number dropped to seven.

The Kubuqi Desert, the seventh largest in China, is one of the three deserts that caused these sandstorms. Located about 800 km from Beijing, the desert was traditionally blasted by Siberian winds every spring, sending sand flying toward Beijing. The decrease in the number of sandstorms in Beijing is largely due to reforestation efforts in Kubuqi.

Formerly known as "a basin of sand suspended over Beijing," Kubuqi has seen its vegetation coverage increase from about 5 percent in the 1980s to 53 percent in 2016 through an ecological restoration project estimated at nearly $1.8 billion. With desertification proving to be a global scourge, Kubuqi's transformation model is gradually attracting the attention of the international community. The United Nations Environment Program (UN Environment) describes the region as "a global eco-economic example."

Acting in concert

Located in the northern part of the Ordos Plateau in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in north China, Kubuqi covers an area of ​​18,600 square km. Around 3,000 years ago, it was a forest region. With climate changes and the overexploitation of the land, the ecological system was weakened and the once fertile fields were transformed into a "sea of ​​death."

"In the 1950s and 60s, we did not have enough to eat," Liang Changxiong, Deputy Director of the Forestry Bureau of Hanggin Banner of Ordos, told Beijing Review.

"To ensure local residents had enough food, excessive farming took place, resulting in the further deterioration of the environment," he said.

By 1988, there was an annual rainfall of under 100 mm, less than 10 animal species were left in the area and vegetation coverage was 3 to 5 percent, making the situation dire.

"The land had never been left fallow, so nothing had grown back," said Liang. "We then realized that we could not exploit nature excessively. We had to find a balance."

From the late 1970s to the end of the 1980s, an ambitious project was initiated to build a forest belt in northwest, north and northeast China. This project is a symbol of China's goal of environmental restoration aimed at supporting the fragile ecology along the belt. Ordos was part of this project.

It was also during this period that the local administration implemented an income generating and land management policy, which is still in force today. According to this policy, anyone who plants herbs or trees in the desert can farm the land and claim all the generated profits. The policy was welcomed by local residents.

One of these beneficiaries was Baiyindaoerji, 63, a local shepherd. In 1983, he left the army and prepared to move to the city. However, when he heard of the new policy, he decided to return to his hometown to plant trees.

"I wanted to change my destiny with my own hands. It was a golden opportunity," he told Beijing Review. Today, along with trees, plants such as jujube and caragana that thrive in these conditions cover the 600-hectare meadow in the land that Baiyindaoerji contracts. Sandstorms or dusty conditions are a thing of the past.

Like Baiyindaoerji, many local businesses are also involved in Kubuqi's ecological restoration. The Elion Group, founded in 1988, was born from a salt refinery located in the middle of the desert. Back then, a 300-km detour was used to carry salt from the remote area of the refinery to the market. To cut down on the cost of transportation and ensure the company's survival, Elion built a new 65-km road through the desert in six months. However, a sandstorm buried the road a few days after its inauguration. In order to preserve this vital corridor, the company began to plant trees along the road and then started to reforest the desert. After 30 years, thanks to this effort, an oasis of 6,000 square km covers the region.

According to a UN Environment report, the core of the Kubuqi model is the establishment of a system that integrates policy instruments, private sector investment and the active participation of local residents. This is echoed in an analysis made by Han Meifei, chief scientist at Elion. It would be impossible for a company to succeed alone in the reforestation of the desert without government support and the participation of the local people, Han said.

"For example, when Elion proposed the ecological restoration of Kubuqi, the government immediately announced a ban on grazing. The construction of a road crossing the desert would also have been unfeasible without the collaboration of the administration and the local inhabitants," he said.

Sustainability is key

No model of development can claim to be sustainable without respecting the laws of nature. The fight against desertification is no exception.

With more than 30 years of experience, Liang still remembers the first planting method adopted. "We planted anything that was likely to grow green," he said. After an expansive reforestation effort, many plants died as a result of the scarcity of water. "This failure pushed us to adopt planting strategies that took into account the availability of water," Liang said.

Thus, the greening of Kubuqi has made steady progress with various methods implemented. For instance, the northern end of the desert is dotted with large trees to stop the progression of the sand into the north, while in the middle of the desert there are shrubs, which are more water-efficient. Furthermore, the construction of roads crossing the desert facilitates the overall management of reforestation efforts.

Planting-in-sand methods have also been adjusted gradually for maximum effect. Today, trees are planted only on the slopes of the dunes exposed to the wind and up to three quarters of their height, which lets the wind carry the sand from the top to the bottom of the tree trunk. With time, the dunes are gradually reduced by the wind and the sand is fixed in place by the tree roots. "This technique is more efficient and less expensive than the old method where we planted grass, maize stalks and reeds on all the slopes," Han said.

Always aiming for sustainability of their model, the local governments now place greater importance on the balance between ecological restoration, economic growth and improvement of the population's well-being. "At first, we only focused on the ecological aspect of reforestation, but if people cannot earn a living and obtain more profits, their enthusiasm will eventually wane," said Liang.

To this end, residents and businesses have been encouraged to plant cash crops, such as licorice, which is not only an important traditional Chinese medicine plant, but also helps introduce nitrogen into the soil, improving its quality. Thanks to the planting of licorice, the desert has been transformed into large scale organic soil, making it possible to develop desert-specific agriculture which includes the cultivation of watermelons and tomatoes.

Baiyindaoerji has been growing licorice for over 10 years. The plant has helped him pay off a 670,000-yuan ($98,000) debt and he now has an annual income of more than 200,000 yuan ($29,500). But even so, he wants to harvest only a few licorice plants a year.

"I want my plants to be sustainable. My goal is to maintain a balance between ecological protection and the accumulation of wealth," he said.

Internationally recognized

China's efforts to combat desertification go far beyond the reforestation of Kubuqi. The desert area in the country is shrinking by more than 2,400 square km a year. This makes China the first country in the world to achieve a decline in desertification, according to statistics from the National Forestry and Grassland Administration. For the 2016-20 period, China aims to rehabilitate 10 million hectares of desert and transform it into green areas.

A study published in February by NASA showed that China has been one of the main contributors to the greening of Earth between 2000-17, contributing at least 25 percent.

Moreover, during the Third Session of the UN Environment Assembly held in December 2017 in Nairobi, Kenya, Wang Wenbiao, President of Elion, was awarded the Champion of the Earth prize for his commitment to the transformation of deserts into oases. The Chinese afforestation community of Saihanba, north China's Hebei Province, also won the prestigious award.

Saihanba is now a vast forest covering an area of ​​about 750 square km. It was a barren piece of land nearly 60 years ago, but decades of hard work has made it an important ecological shield for Beijing and Tianjin.

Erik Solheim, former Executive Director of UN Environment, praised the Saihanba community not only for their pioneering and innovative work, but also for their profitable efforts in restoring a degraded environment. He also acknowledged that the Kubuqi model is a valuable example for other countries and regions suffering from desertification, adding that it should extend to countries participating in the Belt and Road Initiative for their own benefit.

Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo

Comments to zanjifang@bjreview.com

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