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The Loess Plateau: from China's sorrow to Earth's hope

China's Loess Plateau is one of the most degraded ecosystems in the world (WRENmedia)
China's Loess Plateau is one of the most degraded ecosystems in the world

The cradle of Chinese civilisation, once a rich, fertile area of mixed forest and grassland, is now one of the most degraded ecosystems in the world. The Loess Plateau, an area the size of France (640,000 sq. km), is characterised by deep eroded gullies where, each year, 1 billion tonnes of sediment is washed down into the Yellow River.

For generations, the population of the region had been caught in a vicious cycle of unsustainable agricultural practices leading to ever-worsening ecological degradation. And yet, in just ten years, large-scale rehabilitation has been achieved. The lessons learnt in the Loess Plateau provide hope for other regions of the world - that given the right policies and investment, ecological 'rebirth' is possible if not left too late.

Sowing the seeds of destruction

Fossil remains on the Plateau provide evidence of human activity for dating back 1.5million years. Over millennia, with no understanding of the impact on the region's complex ecological balance, trees were felled, crops were planted on steep slopes, and vegetation was extensively grazed by livestock.

As a result, the area became denuded, the ecosystem collapsed and people suffered successive floods, droughts and famine. With no vegetation to stabilise the soil, 95 per cent of rainwater now runs off, stripping the topsoil, which is deposited in the Yellow River. Moreover, the microclimate has been altered and periods of intensive rain and drought are becoming more frequent. With no protection from the wind, soil particles are transported thousands of miles, impacting on human health and exacerbating global warming.

With no alternatives, the rural population of the region continued to eke out a meagre living on increasingly marginalised land. And without a major change in perspective, it was obvious to experts who visited the region in 1992 that little could be done to reverse the degradation.

A new dawn

With the regeneration of the Plateau, livestock keepers have better access to fodder (WRENmedia)
With the regeneration of the Plateau, livestock keepers have better access to fodder

However, with support of the Chinese government, the World Bank and other donor agencies, rural communities have been asked to transform the region by giving up thousands of years of traditional - but unsustainable - agricultural practice. At first, the suggested approach was met with scepticism. One farmer remarked, "They want us to plant trees but people can't eat trees."

The initial emphasis of the Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Project was on working with farmers, local officials and experts to understand how the ecosystem might be restored, but answers were not readily forthcoming. After further investigation, several villages demonstrated examples of more sustainable practice that had the potential to be scaled-up. In collaboration with the local people, a package was drawn up that could be applied to a small watershed.

Small dams were built to harvest the rainwater and tree planting was initiated on a large scale to stabilise the soil. Farmers, whose primary interest was to increase productivity to increase their incomes, were paid for their labour. They then retained the land rights to the newly-built terraces. Each farmer involved in the project now has a long-term lease on the land.

Another important part of the project was to instigate a policy change for grazing - a highly sensitive issue. The project promoted a shift in emphasis for livestock keeping by promoting pen feeding of sheep and goats with cut-and-carry fodder, as well as terracing for crops, and development of high-value orchards, vineyards and greenhouses.

Nature finds a way

After a decade of hard work and determination by local people, the results are little short of miraculous. Trees, shrubs and grasses have become established, with as many as 50 different species evident on one terraced area. Increased insect and birdlife is evident and gradually villages are becoming hidden within a forest of greenery. Jürgen Vögele, World Bank task manager, has been amazed that the results have been possible within the project period but he admits, "Nature is strong if you give it a chance."

Within ten years, local people have seen their incomes quadruple as food security and incomes have increased. Moreover, the hydrological balance has been restored, the soil rehabilitated and the flood risk for millions of people along the Yellow River has decreased.

The transformation of the Loess Plateau need not be unique. Whilst many soils (in the Mediterranean, for example) have reached a 'point of no return', others have a chance of rehabilitation but only if human impact on the ecosystem can be reduced.

According to data from the Dartmouth Flood Observatory, over 200 flood events occurred globally in 2007, killing over 8000 people and displacing tens of millions of others. Whilst it may be impossible to prevent flooding, its impact could certainly be reduced if forests and mangroves ecosystems were restored. But the world's sorrow can only be turned to hope if communities are made aware of their impact on the environment, provided with alternative livelihood options and able to choose to be part of its rehabilitation.

Date published: March 2008


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