After planting trees for 20 years, Inner Mongolian farmers turn desert into land of milk and honey

By Xie Wenting Source:Global Times Published: 2017/6/12 19:13:39

Residents of the Kubuqi desert are combining the effective administration of the environment and poverty alleviation

While villagers who have participated in these efforts are better off, some have found it hard to leave their old lifestyles behind

Officials are pondering whether they can spread the Kubuqi method of fighting desertification to other countries along the "Belt and Road" initiative's route


Workers lay a water pipe in the Kubuqi desert, North China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Photo: Cui Meng/GT


"If we want to eliminate poverty, we need to combat desertification first," said Zhang Xiwang.

Zhang, 46, has spent more than two decades fighting desertification. Every morning, he drives his car deep into the Kubuqi desert in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region to check on licorice trees he has planted which are often used in traditional Chinese medicine.

Licorice trees can withstand the harsh desert landscape and even improve its environment and bring people profits.

Zhang said he now can make nearly 100,000 yuan ($14,710) a year. These days, he and the farmers he employs are fertilizing the land.

"Decades ago, I came to the desert from home on foot, then by motorcycle and now by my own car. I'm now living the life that I never dared to dream about before," he told the Global Times.

Chinese President Xi Jinping came up with the "targeted poverty reduction" strategy soon after assuming office, vowing to help all impoverished people in rural areas and poverty-stricken counties under the current standard by 2020.

Based on the targeted poverty reduction strategy, people in the Kubuqi have explored ways of bettering the environment first and then developing related businesses including tourism and solar power. Like Zhang, thousands of residents of the Kubuqi desert are living better lives under the plan.

Also, as the Kubuqi stands on the route of the "belt" part of the "Belt and Road" initiative, officials are pondering to spread its useful experiences to other countries on the route which face similar problems of desertification and poverty.

Two women work in a greenhouse. Photo: Cui Meng/GT

Combating desertification

Zhang's family has for generations lived in the Kubuqi, which makes up the northern part of the larger Ordos desert, scratching out a hard living by farming on land near a small river.

"Life was so difficult back then. We only made about 3,000 yuan a year," he said. So when Wang Wenbiao, founder of Elion, a company dedicated to ecosystem restoration and environmental protection, suggested in 2002 they work together to plant trees in the desert, he agreed without hesitation. At that time Zhang made 20 yuan for each day's labor.

But he was still full of doubts about whether they could really turn this "sea of death" to a place of hope.

The idea was to use the water that sits underneath the Kubuqi to irrigate vegetation. The plants then release water through their leaves, stems and flowers, creating a more humid environment in the middle of the parched desert. This humidity and subsequent evaporation then leads to greater cloud formation, bringing more rain to help green the desert further.

But many seedlings died shortly after being planted into the sand with a shovel. Racing against time was also a hard task.

According to Zhang, it took them three to four hours to get into the deep desert by foot. But they needed to finish their work before sunset. "We would get lost in the desert without using sun as a guide," he said.

To save time they later set up camps near their workplace and carried supplies of dried food and water from home.

"We've no choice but to participate in the game with the sky. If we don't conquer the desert, we will have no life," he said. A few months ago, Zhang's car flipped over on his way to work. Luckily his injuries were minor.

Inch by inch, Zhang and his colleagues are gradually transforming the land and indeed the climate. He revealed that several years ago, it barely rained but now there are at least 10 downpours each summer.

People use a solar power system to generate electricity and make money. Photo: Cui Meng/GT

Poverty alleviation

Along the roads that stretch across the Kubuqi, giant billboards reading "Alleviating poverty is a tough fight" are a common sight. Compared with other villages across the country, villages dotting the Kubuqi look quite prosperous as they are filled with new homes.

Shi Meijun, 59, is among the last officially impoverished residents of the region. Shi, who lives alone, only made around 2,000 yuan last year.

"I make my living by farming and herding sheep. But my income isn't enough to cover my expenses. Often I need to borrow money from my relatives to survive," she said.

According to standards adopted in 2011, rural residents with an annual net income of about 2,300 yuan ($375) or less are classified as poor in China. The national poverty line is equivalent to less than $1 a day, while extreme poverty, according to the World Bank, is measured according to the international poverty line of $1.25 a day (in 2005 prices).

Following the central government's command, the local authorities are cooperating with companies including Elion to give people like Shi opportunities to increase their income.

This year, Shi began working in a greenhouse filled with vegetables and can make 120 yuan a day. Her annual income is expected to exceed the "poverty cap" this year.

While many are excited about the area's newfound prosperity, some find it hard to leave their old lives behind.

Siren Babu, an ethnic Mongol, still misses the nomadic lifestyle he once lived, following in the traditions of his ancestors.

Though they had little in the way of material possessions, he and his family were happy herding their sheep and horses. "At the beginning, I wasn't very willing to rent out my land and to say goodbye to my old life. Then the local government persuaded us to accept the deal. So we decided to give it a try," he told the Global Times.

Babu now runs a small fairground in the Kubuqi where tourists can rent all-terrain vehicles and experience dune rides.

Babu charges each person 100 yuan for a 10-minute ride. During the busiest season, he welcomes more than 1,000 tourists every day. This year, he has invested 300,000 yuan to purchase more vehicles.

Babu got the money to start up his business by renting his land to Elion. He was given more than 200,000 yuan from a 23-year lease.

According to Babu, 36 households in his village have abandoned herding and farming.

Looking back, he knows he made the right decision. "You need to give up something. My current life is much better than before," he said.

Inside their village, every family has a one-story house with a courtyard which has modern facilities they lacked before, including indoor plumbing.

Still, the villagers want to preserve their heritage. In an empty patch of ground in the village, a large Mongolian-style yurt has been set up. No one lives in the yurt but they can see it every day, a reminder of the past.

Now almost every household is engaged in tourism, mostly filling visitors' bellies. Seeing the profits, some people from other places have come to the village to get in on the business, renting villager's extra space.

Lessons for Belt and Road

Luo Bin, deputy director of the desertification control office of the State Forestry Administration, said that deserts are spreading in many countries along the Belt and Road and their fragile ecosystems have greatly restrained these countries' economic and societal development.

In 2016, China organized a forum on dealing with desertification which involved more than 100 countries along the Belt and Road route.

Zhang Jianlong, head of the State Forestry Administration, told Phoenix TV that China will provide other countries with technical support and training as well as staff exchanges.

The Kubuqi is the seventh largest desert in China, occupying a total area of 18,600 square meters and was previously nicknamed the "sea of death." But after two decades of prudent administration, more than 5,000-square meters of sand have been covered by green vegetation.

Zhang cited the Kubuqi as a role model for desert management. But he also noted that it's impossible for other places just to copy the Kubuqi.

Although Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is rich in underground water resources, the water is too salty for irrigation and needs to be purified first. So Xinjiang can't use Kubuqi's methods on a large-scale.

Zhang said that there are many places in Africa where the water quality is better than in Xinjiang, so they can learn useful lessons from Kubuqi.

Elion has already explored markets along the Belt and Road. So far, the company has started projects in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Australia.

Newspaper headline: Bloom in the desert

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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