By Gong Yidong of China Features
BEIJING, June 17 (Xinhua) -- Less than two hundred kilometers north of Beijing, a vast sandland called Hunshandake stretches endlessly into central Inner Mongolia. From this region in the 13th century sprung Genghis Khan's legendary Mongol marauders and his grandson Kublai Khan who founded the Yuan Dynasty. In their day Hunshandake was "a sandland glistening with gold" surrounded by the waving grasses of the steppe.
In the last two decades, as the effects of inappropriate land use practices have accumulated, the 5.3-million-hectare sandland has become the crucible of many of Beijing's notorious sandstorms, prompting the former Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji to ruefully nickname the area Hundan dake, literally "bastard dake".
Now, a pilot program led by Jiang Gaoming, a researcher of ecology from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), is seeking to restore the ancient equilibrium by charting a new path in tune with nature that challenges much received thinking about how to deal with desertification.
Ecological Conservation (not equal to) Tree Planting
Along with Horqin, Mu Us and Hulun Buir, Hunshandake is one of the four biggest sandlands in China, all of which are located in Inner Mongolia, covering a space of 15 million hectares, or equivalent to 60% of UK territory.
When Nasen Wuritu, a herdsman from Bayinhushuo Gacha (village),Zhenglan Banner (county) in the heart of Hunshandake, recalled the terrible sandstorms that occurred from 1997 to 2001, his voice was bitter.
"When the sandstorm blew in, the sky turned dark yellow. Cattlegot lost, we couldn't find them. I had to fasten the windows of the tent and turn on a kerosene lamp even though it was daytime," lamented the 50-year-old.
The sandstorms contrasted sharply with Wuritu's memories of the "good old days". When he was ten, the grass grew right up to "the withers of a robust horse". Home to more than 800 advanced plant species and five habitats -- fixed dunes, semi-fixed dunes, shifting dunes, lowland and wetland -- Hunshandake resembled an African Savannah landscape, rich in elms, grasses, lakes, wild geese and wolves. The other name of ecologically-diverse Hunshandake is "temperate Savannah".
Large-scale degradation of Hunshandake began in the 1990s, when the local Mongolian herdsmen abandoned nomadic life and settled down in permanent houses. In 1995, every villager was allotted 23 hectares of grassland.
Livestock numbers swelled to meet the demands of a bigger population and changed living habits. In a short space of time in Xilin Gol League (city), the upper administration governing Zhenglan Banner, the number of livestock skyrocketed from 10 million to 23 million.
But over-grazing exacted a very heavy toll: by 2000, some 80% of the grasslands in Hunshandake had deteriorated into sandy, desert-like land, and 33% of the land had become mobile sand dunes-- up from less than 2% in the 1960s. The figures mirrored the increased frequency of sandstorms. There was only one recorded sandstorm from 1930 to 1960, then one every two years in the 1960s,but in 2000 there were fourteen. A significant indicator of sandland degradation, according to Wuritu, was the disappearance of the wolf, "king of the grassland".
In 2000, Jiang Gaoming and other researchers chose a 2670-hectare grassland in Hunshandake -- one third of the grasslands in Bayinhushuo Gacha -- to experiment a new approach to restoration. The grassland was fenced off and no grazing was allowed.
Initially, Jiang and his team planted 100,000 yuan (13,000 U.S. dollars) worth of willows on the degraded land, because "conventional thinking held that planting trees is the best solution for curbing desertification and sandstorms". It is true. Every year, the Chinese government invested a huge amount of money on planting trees in sandy grassland areas. For instance, Xilin Gol League received 500 million yuan (65 million U.S. dollars) in 2002 for reforestation and airplane seeding projects.
To foster the growth of willows, Jiang even used a root hormone, only to find that all the trees withered and died in a year's time. In a semi-arid area with less than 300 mm in annual precipitation, the trees were like "water-pumping machines" and the sandland simply could not sustain them, he found.
Pushing his observations further, Jiang concluded that the planted trees could not stem the sandstorms. Poplars are the trees most commonly planted under the Three North Forest Shelterbelt Project, but the sand dunes have continued to advance right through the middle of stands of poplars.
In 1978, the Chinese government embarked on a 73-year-long forestation project in northeast, north and northwest China, covering four million square kilometers, with the aim of halting desertification. Back then, the slogan was "let's march toward desertification and turn the country green". Over the past three decades, the central government has spent billions of yuan on this project. But Jiang is far from convinced.
"In some areas of Inner Mongolia, the goal is simply to plant trees, irrespective of whether or not those trees can survive. Money is being poured into tree-planting and so it carries on whether it is successful or not," said the outspoken Jiang.
In Xilin Gol League, despite large-scale tree planting, forest coverage is still less than 1%, nearly half of which is primary elm forests. "What has happened to the trees they planted? The reality is that most of them have died", Jiang said. The overall survival rate of trees in the designated Three North areas is less than 25%, he found.
Facing an uncomfortable truth and unwilling to repeat the mistakes of the past, Jiang and his team shifted their focus away from re-forestation and opted for a new strategy of "nurturing the land by the land itself". To supplement the loss of forage resulting from grassland fencing, they used 67 hectares of land adjacent to the fenced area as a forage base that produced high-yield corn. Meanwhile, the 2670-hectare grassland was left to mend all by itself.
"Some of my colleagues criticized me for doing nothing 'scientific' with the grassland, they said it was unworthy of a scientist", said Jiang. Bayinhushuo Gacha's 72 households were also dubious. "The method sounded implausible to most of the villagers," recalled Gang Temoer, the 36-year-old village head.
To everyone's astonishment, this "leave-it-alone" strategy paid off: in 2002, the grasses grew to a height of 1.43 meters and there was a record 79.5 tons of fresh grass per hectare.
This was excellent news for the local herdsmen. Before the experiment, each household had to spend an average of 10,000 yuan (1300 U.S. dollars) to purchase forage-grass for their livestock during the winter. But in 2004, each family harvested 35,000 kilograms of grass on average, which became an important source ofincome.
"I no longer have to drive the tractor hundreds of kilometers north through the snow searching for forage for our cattle and sheep. Standing in the high grass, I feel that I am back in touch with my lost childhood", smiled Wuritu. This year's sandstorms have been much less severe, even on days with force seven winds, he said. More convincing still, wolves are returning to the grassland, not to mention the re-emergence of roes, grey cranes and pheasants.
"People say there is no 'science' in the project. But repairing the damage by doing nothing that contravenes natural rhythms is true to the philosophy of nature," observed Jiang.
Conservation first, construction second
The success achieved in Bayinhushuo Gacha quickly spread to the surrounding regions: several gachas followed suit, fencing off grasslands for natural restoration and thereby expanding the protected areas to more than 6500 hectares.
The CAS program has triggered a series of changes in Bayinhushuo Gacha, both in terms of material wealth and in terms of the way people think. For instance, more than one third of the villagers now have access to electricity. Annual income per personrose from 2400 yuan (314 U.S. dollars) in 2000 to 2700 yuan (353 U.S. dollars) in 2004.
Wuritu attributed the increased income to the upgraded breed of livestock. "After the grassland was fenced off, I cut down the number of cattle, but the milk output doubled because a new variety of cattle called Ximentaer was introduced. The mortality rate of livestock during the winter has also dropped because of the guaranteed supply of forage."
In 2005, Wuritu spent 30,000 yuan (3920 U.S. dollars) on decorating his house and installed a central heating system. His eldest son has graduated from the Inner Mongolia Agriculture University -- an achievement unthinkable in the past. The university graduate recently presented his dad with a Motorola camera phone on which he can see the photos of his future daughter-in-law.
"In the past, we used to joke that when night falls, herdsmen have no options other than sleeping and making babies. But now we are in contact with a world of research and new ideas, things unknown to us before," smiled Wuritu.
With the help of the CAS and the government, Bayinhushuo Gacha has set up a company making traditional milk products, eco-tourism and has also started farming chickens whose impact on the land is less dramatic than cattle and sheep.
Starting from this year, Jiang Gaoming plans to expand the program and turn Bayinhushuo Gacha into an ecological village based on biogas produced from cattle dung and re-processing of grasses.
But what matters most to Jiang Gaoming is correcting the government's desertification control policies. "Ecology is on everyone's lips, but ecology does not mean blindly planting trees." Jiang is pleased that a policy of "ecological conservation first, ecological construction second" has been included in the 11th Five-Year Plan on Ecological Protection.
He is happy that, from 2006, the 55.8 billion yuan (7.3 billion U.S. dollars) project for combating sandstorm sources around Beijing and Tianjin will include many other species of vegetation rather than exclusively focusing on trees.
Jiang also hopes that the role of Inner Mongolia in the national economy will be reconsidered. "People traditionally regard Inner Mongolia as a livestock base. In fact, China's total grasslands of 400 million hectares provide only one fifth of the nation's animal husbandry products, but at a cost of serious environmental deterioration. A more intelligent geographic approach is needed."
Coming from a village in East China's Shandong Province, Jiang Gaoming believes that science has its limits and mankind should co-exist with nature instead of arrogantly trying to impose his will on it.
For instance, to feed the population, the Chinese government began intensively cultivating the land in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and northeast China's Heilongjiang Province in the 1950s.
"Fifty years later, it is distressing to see that great swathes of the land that has been developed land is suffering from low water levels, removal of topsoil and the loss of wetlands, making it vulnerable to erosion and floods," said Jiang. "We have to learn the lessons and avoid these errors in the future."
Jiang's ecologically-aware message has taken root in Bayinhushuo Gacha. "People of my generation have tasted enough bitterness from desertification and must save our descendants from a similar fate," beamed Wuritu, pointing to the tall grasses swaying softly in the wind.