Loess leader

2nd November, 2006 by Anonymous

One of the world’s most extraordinary exercises in ecological restoration is taking shape in central China. John Liu reports from the Loess Plateau.

High on a hillside in Shaanxi province, an old man stood alone with a shovel, digging a hole to plant a tree. It looked the most vain exercise imaginable. For all around him, acre upon bare acre, stretched empty slopes without trees, grass or soil. This is the Loess Plateau, the most eroded place on earth. Decades of overcultivation and overgrazing, compounded with uncontrolled logging, have stripped the soil from the hills - and the hope from the farming communities who depend on it.

That such a disaster has happened here is deeply ironic, for this land was once famed for its fertility - rich enough to make it the cradle of China’s first civilisation.

But I write in the past tense. This was in 1995. As a film-maker, I was charting the early days of a remarkable restoration scheme: one which holds out the hope of ending rural poverty across vast swathes of the country, and leaving future generations with the priceless gift of an intact ecosystem.

Ten years later, I returned to the same hillside - and could not recognise the place. All around me were flourishing young trees, and in the valleys, crops and orchards. The old man hadn’t been fighting a lost cause; he’d been an ecological pioneer.

This is the fruit of the Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation project - a massive undertaking which has mobilised millions of local people to restore their environment, in what is surely the biggest ecological reforestation effort ever undertaken.

The plateau, named for its fine powdery loess soil, stretches across parts of seven northwestern Chinese provinces; in all it covers 640,000 square kilometres, approximately the size of France. Until recently, the 90 million people who live there were locked in a cycle of poverty and ecological destruction.

As all too often, the first blow was tree cutting. Without the forests, the people tried planting crops on the slopes. When that failed, they allowed goats and sheep to graze freely until all the vegetation was gone. It took with it soil stability, fertility, biodiversity, the natural infiltration and retention of water, and the ability to sequester carbon: all were lost. The plateau is soaked with between 250 and 800mm of rainfall per year, but without vegetation and stable soils, as much as 95% of that simply runs off as soon as it lands. So the land became little more than a moonscape.

Over the last decade, it’s undergone a dramatic transformation. Teams of local people, together with planners, government officials and external consultants, worked for more than three years to plan systematic restoration works, under the government’s World Bank-backed rehabilitation project. Local and external experts collaborated to analyse the watershed, soil composition, biology, agricultural practices, economics and culture.

As a result, the land was divided into two main zones: one, usually in the valleys or on shallow slopes, where careful farming could still continue; the other set aside and painstakingly reforested.

Early in the project, small dams were built that can hold water for use locally throughout the year. Simultaneously, the local people were employed in massive terracing campaigns that created viable agricultural fields, while replacing the destructive practice of planting directly on the steep hillsides. New, less damaging farming methods were introduced and encouraged. Orchards, vineyards, and greenhouses gave local people new high-income crops. Growing fodder for livestock replaced the destructive free ranging of goats and sheep. Backyard pigsties provided a new source of income - and, for some, a new source of cooking fuel, too, in the form of biogas from the methane captured from the pig waste. This not only saves the householder money; it spares trees that would otherwise be cut for fuel wood. [For more details of this remarkable project, see the Green Futures Special Supplement on small-scale energy generation, A hundred thousand points of light.]

Strong new policies were instrumental in the transformation. Tree cutting, growing crops on slopes, and unrestricted grazing were banned. Vast tracts were planted with grasses, bushes and trees, usually by local people themselves. In areas where the desert was encroaching, dunes were carefully stabilised through planting belts of hardy grasses.

Transforming the landscape meant transforming the lives of local communities, too - often radically. Farmers had to become foresters, or develop the skills needed to undertake a completely different type of farming from the one they grew up with. But while some welcomed the new opportunities this brought, others were suspicious. As one old man complained to me: “They want us to stop planting crops, and start planting trees, even on the good land. What are the younger generation going to do? They can’t eat trees!” In some villages, husbands left to seek better-paid work in towns, leaving their wives to manage their land alone for weeks or months on end.

Gradually, though, the scheme has won hearts and minds. In part this is because of a sustained public education programme; in part because local people are being paid for their work; but more positively, because the results are starting to show. Fields have become more productive and the bare slopes are slowly greening. Bit by bit, the benefits are becoming apparent. Support is bolstered, too, by awarding long-term land use contracts to local people, so securing for them the benefits of the restoration happening on their doorstep.

In areas where the restoration is most advanced, the benefits have been dramatic. Local people’s income has quadrupled, according to World Bank figures. Young people now expect an education and a future. And a sense of hopelessness has been replaced by cautious optimism. In the words of one villager, Guo Hai Wang: “Everything was a desert here. All we wanted was a brick house and enough to eat... but now with all these changes, it’s as if our imagination just couldn’t keep up!”

LESSONS FROM THE LOESS The Loess project is a special case - but it need not be unique. Strong visible evidence is emerging that by involving local people in carefully integrated programmes, it is possible to restore large-scale damaged ecosystems. Employing the rural poor as agents of conservation can help to reduce the disparity between those living in wealth and privilege, and those who for generations have lived as subsistence farmers.

Designating ecological land, protected from human impact and encouraged to return to near pristine state, has the potential to restore soil stability. This in turn means reduced erosion, increased natural fertility, greater diversity of plants and animals, and a balanced water cycle where rain infiltrates and circulates through the natural systems. It even sequesters large amounts of carbon, helping to mitigate emissions elsewhere and their adverse effects on global climate change.

While specific local conditions must always be considered, the concept of employing marginalised local people in large-scale ecological restoration is an idea with real potential elsewhere in the world.

John Liu is a film-maker and director of the Environmental Education Media Project (www.eempc.org). His film is currently in production (www.earthshope.org). Additional reporting from Shaanxi by Martin Wright.

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