10, 000 years of damage, but not beyond repair.
Today’s visitors to the Loess Plateau will find a suitably luscious landscape for a province thought to be the cradle of Chinese civilisation. Agricultural land is rich in produce and animals, tourism levels are markedly increased, and farmers are reaping the rewards of an economic boom for land they own, not merely tend to.
It is incredible to think that little over a decade ago this flourishing ecosystem was devastated to the point of collapse, and no longer able to support the population. Centuries of unsustainable farming on the land had caused alarming levels of soil erosion, flooding and crop failure, while poverty was widespread throughout the province. No solution was far-reaching enough, and after supporting settled agriculture for an estimated 9,500 years, the Loess Plateau seemed beyond repair.
Yet today it is an area green, verdant and simply transformed beyond recognition from the desolation of a decade ago. The answer, we are told, lies in sustainable or regenerative farming, also known as permaculture.
The Root of the Problem
In 1995, the Chinese Government received $300 million in funding from the World Bank Institute, a co-operative providing international financial assistance, to launch a two-stage recovery initiative. After consultations with experts in hydrology, soil dynamics and economics, the Government knew they needed to successfully tackle both the agricultural and social problems in Loess once and for all. These issues were both cause and symptom of problems in the area and one could not be resolved without the other.
The actions of destitute farmers who farmed rather than owned the land had exasperated agricultural devastation. As trees were cleared to make way for arable land, the consequent soil erosion was taking a dangerous toll on the great Yellow River, which began to flood regularly with deadly results. For too long, villagers had seen little incentive to preserve trees, which would take years to become profitable, above feeding their families. When Juergen Voegele, Senior Director of Agriculture Global Practice at the World Bank, spoke to a community in Shaanxi Province about the importance of planting trees, a village elder shouted in exasperation: “People can’t eat trees!”
A New Approach
Incidents like this showed the research team that giving farmers ownership of their own land was essential to giving them the incentive to improve what it could yield. They worked with the Government to create planting techniques and wide-yield terraces to secure the soil and improve crop productivity. Long-term land-use rights for the villagers were introduced, giving them a reason to invest in the health of their land and the sustainable techniques being trialled. The project also protected areas of arable land in order to improve vegetation cover and sediment control.
With the support of these farmers, free-range grazing and indiscriminate felling of trees was banned in order to allow natural regeneration to take place. Terracing structured ridges of earth across a slope, reducing water damage and erosion, which contributed to increased food supply. The combination of these techniques reduced soil erosion by 60 tonnes per year, decreasing the variability in food production, which in turn led to a better standard and price of the crops. As crop security improved, the labour needed decreased, allowing farmers to pursue secondary projects and improve their financial stability.
Reaping the rewards
A decade later, responsible farming on a local scale has lifted an estimated 2.5 million people out of poverty, making the Loess Plateau Project one of the largest success stories for sustainable farming. In treating the social issues alongside the agricultural, contributors to the project have halted a cycle into seemingly irreversible destruction. It is a remarkable achievement, which those involved are confident should be adopted in similar environments, but also by domestic farmers and gardeners worldwide. Project leaders passionately claim that their project demonstrates that farmers using sustainable techniques can provide for themselves and a market while acting as stewards of the earth.
With thanks to Xenia Zia Morales from The World Bank Institute.
Images provided by Yan Jinmin.