Wang Wenbiao’s business empire aims to turn barren lands into oases

By Zhou Yu Source:Global Times Published: 2015-5-15 5:03:01

Alongside local herdsmen, Wang Wenbiao plants a tree in the Kubuqi Desert. Photo: Elion Resources Group

Wang Wenbiao, Chairman of Elion Photo: Elion Resources Group

The desert made Wang Wenbiao's life hard, but it also made him rich. Better known in China as the "Son of the Desert," Wang, 56, is the chairman of China's largest private green industries enterprise, which has total assets of over 10 billion yuan ($1.6 billion).

The place where he grew up, the Kubuqi Desert, is China's seventh largest desert, covering 18,600 square kilometers of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, 800 kilometers west of Beijing.

Twenty years ago, more than 100,000 herdsmen and farmers suffered from the harsh climate in the barren and sandstorm-stricken Kubuqi. It was one of the three major sources of sandstorms that blighted Beijing. Sandstorms originating there could make their way into Beijing overnight.

Now, few of Beijing's sandstorms come from the Kubuqi. Driving on wide roads that make their way deep into the Kubuqi, visitors do not see endless sand dunes, but instead, abundant greenery. The vegetation belts runs along the roadside, more than 10 meters in width.

In 1988, Wang Wenbiao became manager of a salt factory in the Kubuqi. The salt was to be supplied to the vast population of Inner Mongolia. But when he arrived, Wang was dismayed to find that large amounts of the salt could not be transported to outside markets due to a lack of roads. He realized his destiny lay in improving the desert.

"We were forced to control the sand. In the beginning, this wasn't my goal," Wang told the Global Times. "Salt had to be sold, and we had to build roads. Over the last two decades, it went from one road to a network of roads in the desert. With the support of the government, Elion has not only connected with the outside market, but also controlled the sands along the way."

Dividing the desert into several sections along the roadside, Wang led his team in using a grid to stabilize the sand before planting trees, grass and Chinese medicinal herbs. In addition, his company carried out planting and aerial seeding to build a 242-kilometer-long sand-control eco-protection zone on the periphery of the desert. This grid prevented the moving sand dunes from advancing and affecting the road. 

Sand and sources

Integrating traditional agriculture with modern technology by taking advantage of the desert's long daylight hours, more than 1,000 kinds of drought-resistant seeds have been developed by his company, the Elion Resources Group, making the Kubuqi Desert one of the world's largest seed banks for desert plants.

The red dates, rahamnoides, licorice, and other organic fruits and vegetables produced here are sold in the country's western regions. Large tracts of scorching sand are gradually being covered with vegetation, and much of the barren lands of the past are becoming rich, ecological oases vibrant with life.

By inviting top desert scientists from Israel, UK and the US, Elion has cooperated with 200 universities worldwide to promote technological innovation. The son of the desert has become an expert in mergers and acquisitions and purchasing shares in small and medium-sized enterprises internationally. More than 6,000 square kilometers of desert have been afforested and over 11,000 square kilometers of desert have been brought under control. Major winds and sandstorms that used to occur 130 times per year are now a rarity in the Kubuqi.

Cyclic economy

Wang has created a cyclic economic process combining sand control and business profits, a sustainable development model that makes him an innovator.

With 20 years of experience in the desert, he possesses an intimate knowledge of the sun, sand, drought, plants and the local people, and utilizes them all. He created the "tree and grass planting plus power generation" strategy to develop the photovoltaic industry, which is much cleaner than coal-fired power generation. Elion has applied this technology to the Winter Olympic Games eco-project in Zhangjiakou, Hebei, and a pilot project in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. His company also works on photovoltaic projects in Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan and Australia.

At a UN forum in 2013, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi used the Kubuqi's success as an example. "[Kubuqi] residents utilize sand wisely and transform it into treasure. More types of wildlife have reappeared in the desert, and the annual precipitation rate has risen from 70 millimeter per year to 310 millimeter." 

Wang is confident in his model of development, but this confidence belies a feeling of crisis. In a speech delivered to members of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in March, Wang spoke of his concerns: "Wherever there is desert, there is poverty." He said that two-thirds of the nation's land is in the western area, one-third of the west is desert, and one-third of people living in the desert (in China's western regions) are poor. One-fifth of China is in the desert. The fragility of the eco-system and land deforestation are key reasons for extreme poverty. "Deforestation is more dangerous than war," he added.

Funding the future

Wang's lifetime has seen him go from a laborer in the desert to the chairman of a modern enterprise.

His experience in deforestation control and eco-business has given him a unique position to contribute to the "One Belt and One Road" initiative.

For Wang, this means big business. Planting trees and generating electricity is a dream for him. Last November, he put his vision into action. Together with the United Nations Convention To Combat Desertification, Elion announced the first "Green Silk Road Partnership Program" through a PPP (Public-Private-Partnership) model. The program aims to plant 1.3 billion trees along the Silk Road over the next 10 years to improve the ecosystem.

On March 8, the Green Silk Road Fund launching ceremony was held, where it was announced that 30 billion yuan would be allocated to the project. The first 10 billion yuan will be invested in ecology protection work comprising electricity generation, tree and grass planting and livestock breeding.

"The fund initiates and supports eco-agriculture, not only guaranteeing food safety, but also helping to harness deserts and improve the environment. This is exactly what private enterprises are jointly contributing to 'One Belt and One Road,'" said Zhu Xinli, Chairman of the Huiyuan Juice Group. 

For two decades, Wang has been combating the desert, but he has another enemy - time. "Natural restoration of the desert needs over 10,000 years, and artificial restoration needs over 30 years," he said.

Newspaper headline: Son of the desert

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