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John Liu

John Liu gives his perspective on the restoration work, and its relevance for development elsewhere
John Liu gives his perspective on the restoration work, and its relevance for development elsewhere

Restoring land and hope in China

John Liu is Director of the Environmental Education Media Project (EEMP). His film "China's Sorrow - Earth's Hope", documenting the remarkable rehabilitation of the Loess Plateau in Northern China, is being shown to African audiences to illustrate the challenges and potential rewards of involving farmers in large-scale ecological restoration projects.

A threatened future?

We have been documenting China's Loess Plateau since 1995. When we got there we found a fundamentally degraded ecosystem. I think it's a perfect example of the collapse of ecosystems and then the collapse of civilisations. It's an old story, the same as Easter Island or the Mayans, and it is a tragedy.

By simply looking at barren mountains you start to understand that a number of ecological functions have been lost. We have noted five: biodiversity, soil stability, natural fertility, hydrological regulation and carbon sequestration. Because of human impact all of these functions were lost. Humanity cannot live without these ecosystem functions; if we destroy them we are finished.

Loess Plateau - an integrated approach

Work began initially in the Loess Plateau due to a silt problem. Erosion of the deep Loess soils was clogging the Yellow River with 600 million tons of soil every year. This had such downstream implications that it was decided that rehabilitation upstream, to lower erosion rates, would be less expensive. We had to control soil erosion from the slopes and this was coupled with action against desert encroachment in the north. If you don't fight it on every side it will overwhelm everything. You cannot just garden around the edges.

Integration of poverty eradication and large-scale ecosystem rehabilitation was essential. The idea is that you cannot fix the ecosystem without ending poverty in that area and you cannot end poverty without fixing the ecosystem, so you must move these things forward together. Local people had to be persuaded and given incentives to take part. Even if they cannot understand the ecosystem benefits at the start, as long as their problems began to be lessened in some way then they have reason to be involved. We saw even illiterate people begin to be able to discuss indicators of ecological health within a couple of years. Awareness of a potentially positive future for agriculture provided them with the motivation to give up some of the most marginal land for re-planting with natural grasses, shrubs and trees. This was coupled with advice on how to increase production from remaining farmland. The result has been that farm incomes have quadrupled in 10 years, lifting tens of millions of people out of poverty, and linked to visible ecological improvements.

Expanding on success

We have a dissemination strategy and we are taking this information directly to the places it is needed most - most important right now is Africa. The documentary has been presented in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Rwanda and South Africa, and people have been fascinated to see what has happened on the Loess Plateau. So the idea is to try to let the people in those countries see and understand that it is possible to rehabilitate large-scale damaged ecosystems and show the principles that were employed to do that in China.

One principle was the differentiation between ecological and economic land, between land that could continue to be farmed and that which has to be taken out of production. Without that it was absolutely impossible to remove human impact from the most fragile and severely damaged areas. Another principle has to be that unsustainable agricultural practices must end and when they do it opens a whole new range of opportunities.

The work in the Loess plateau project has helped to define what the responsibility and role of the poor is. The poor do not have to sink deeper and deeper into poverty; they can go out and actively rehabilitate ecosystems and economic lands that can then be sustainable for them, and for others who rely on the ecological functions of that area.

Seeing the future

For many people, when we look ahead at population trends, the disparity of income and the misery and suffering of millions, the obscene wealth that other people have - we don't see a future that looks very promising - we see despair. But when these ecological improvements are found over a large-scale, the entire dynamic of the region changes. The outlook of the people changes - they imagine a future that includes intact ecosystems and they imagine a future with hope.

If we cannot imagine a world with intact ecosystems we can't have one. So I think in this case imagination is critically important, because if you look at those degraded ecosystems it is hard to imagine that they can be restored or rehabilitated. People are causing enormous damage to fragile ecosystems but they could be active agents for conservation. They feel alienated and ground down by the situation, as if they are not important. But they are far from unimportant. They are some of the most important people on earth, because they could determine whether we can emerge as a sustainable planet. They need help, education and direction, but they are willing if we can find the will to help them.

The fact is that there is strong visible evidence that it is possible to rehabilitate large-scale damaged ecosystems. It is not easy, but the principles, the policies and techniques are understood and they provide real ecological benefits, as well as socio-economic benefits for the people. The biggest demand, however, will be on the next generation - the children. They are the ones we are giving the challenge of preserving and restoring ecosystems for the future.

Date published: November 2006


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