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CHIFENG, Inner Mongolia, China, Jul 5 2012 (IPS) - As scientists increasingly label desertification as one of the most burning challenges facing the world today, a small village in China’s semi-arid Northeastern region of Inner Mongolia is fighting back.
Chifeng City’s dry climate and sparse vegetation have given way to severe surface erosion and poor soil fertility. Agriculture and animal husbandry, the two economic cornerstones of Chifeng City’s nine counties and three districts, are increasingly threatened by the spell of desertification, though afforestation began as early as 1940.
Chifeng City identified deforestation and plowing of hill slopes, continued overuse of sandified farmlands and intensive grazing as the main culprits of the problem, in a region low in plant density and productivity.
Degraded land, shorn of its green cover, became increasingly vulnerable to the March-May spring season’s high velocity winds, which, according to researchers, deposit an average of 35 tonnes of sand on a single square kilometre over a one-month period.
Qihetang, a 228-household village in Chifeng’s Linxi County, is experiencing an ecological disaster due to deforestation and over-grazing. By 1990, its per capita income was 300 yuans, or 50 dollars, and each family harvested a meager 150 kilogrammes of grain from average landholdings of roughly two hectares on the lower hill slopes, which led to rampant out-migration.
In 1992 the local village committee decided to fence hillsides, plant fruit trees and prohibit open grazing. In 2000, the State government chipped in with finance and technical advice for the green conversion. It gave ‘Grain for Green’ subsistence subsidies of 50 yuans (roughly eight dollars) and 200 kilogrammes of grain. Later it allocated 160 yuans, or 25 dollars, for each unit of land owned by farming families, said Cao Wenzhong, director general of the Inner Mongolia Forestry Department.
Of its total area of 2,154 hectares, Qihentang village today boasts a green cover of 80 percent with fruit trees, pines and resuscitated grasslands.
“Per capita income has (shot up) to 8,000 yuans (1,260 dollars) from fruit and timber trading. Farmers are even buying tractors,” Zhang Chun Jie, the head of the village, told IPS.
“Only the severe winter months see migration these days; but many stay home to process farm-grown crepe apples, pears and apricots, grass for fenced animals’ fodder and wood for panels. Tourism is a nascent industry too,” Jie said.
“More than two billion hectares of degraded land worldwide are suitable for rehabilitation through forest and landscape restoration, the majority of it through a combination of agro-forestry and smallholder farming,” Mansour N’Diaye, Chef de Cabinet of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), said at a workshop in Chifeng earlier this year.
Situated directly in the middle of Chifeng, close to the Horqin Sandy Land – which is the primary source of sand drift in the region and one of the four major sand drift sources in China – Wengniute County is the most vulnerable to sandification, and the most important focus of the country’s desertification control programme.
“Reclamation, using (labour) and machinery, costs 7,500 yuans or 1,180 dollars per hectare. The survival rate of indigenous sand-tolerant species like Chinese and Mongolian pine, yellow willow, and eight varieties of shrubs, is 75 percent,” Wang Feiyue of the Farmland Conversion Office told IPS.
While many believe that successful reclamation efforts rest on the government encouraging farmers to reduce livestock numbers or relocate away from arid areas, others believe the temporary displacement of farming communities throws up its own socio-cultural challenges.
In most grassland reclamations the government buys the land from farmers and herdsmen before the project is even launched. For five years all production and grazing is prohibited; from the sixth year seasonal and rotational land-use is allowed.
When a wave of protests in May last year swept across Inner Mongolia, where ethnic Mongolians comprise 20 percent of a population of 23 million people, experts pinned the cause to disruption of deep cultural ties between traditional nomadic ways of life and the grasslands.
China’s 12th Five-Year Plan aims to resettle the remaining nomad population of 1.1 million by 2015.
“We definitely need to better understand the traditional nomadic culture on the steppes here. Nomadic herdsmen are not comfortable with static agriculture. Governments may seek limiting the number of grazing animals (14 million in Chifeng City in 2008) but herdsmen want to own more animals; they lose two-thirds of their stocks to the winter cold,” said Yang Youlin, Asia regional coordinator for the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).
China on a knife’s edge
China is currently saddled with a colossal 2.6 million square-kilometre area of desertified and sandified land – almost a quarter of the country’s total territory, covering 18 provinces and impacting 400 million people.
China’s national desertification control programmebudgets five billion dollars annually to this crucial work and 19 ministries work together under the National Bureau to Combat Desertification.
Xu Qing, deputy director general of the programme, says China aims to reclaim half the 530,000 square-kilometre treatable area by 2020, and hopes to reclaim the area in its entirety by 2050.
Quoting results from the third round of national desert monitoring, Jia Xiaoxia, director of China’s Implementation of the Convention to Combat Desertification (CICCD), says the degree of sandy desertification has gone from 3,436 square kilometers in 1999 to 1,283 square kilometers annually.
China has emerged as a leader in fighting sandy desertification by resorting to a combination of scientific eco-construction and land conversion combined with suitable laws and policies that offer lessons for similarly affected regions.
A global crisis
The conference on sustainable development in Rio, Brazil, may have ended last month, but burning environmental issues like desertification continue to make headlines.
“From Rio 1992 to Rio 2012 we have learned that desertification, land degradation and drought are drying up the ‘Future We Want’,” Luc Gnacadja, executive secretary of the UNCCD, warned at the closure of Rio+20.
“In 1992, the Rio meeting agreed to combat land degradation. Rio 2012 has given birth to a new paradigm, land-degradation neutrality,” he said.
The nearly 100 world leaders who gathered in Rio agreed to curb the growing gap between land degradation and its restoration, monitor it globally and improve and share related scientific information including forecasting and early warning systems.
“Desertification, the most urgent land crisis (of our time) affects over 40 percent of the world’s total land area. Asia has the largest desertified area of 1.7 billion hectares; the African continent is two-thirds dryland of which 71 percent is impacted by desertification, land degradation and drought (DLDD). Worldwide 110 countries have drylands that are potentially at DLDD risk,” Youlin informed attendees at the Chifeng workshop.
“By 2030, the demand for food is likely to increase by 50 percent, and by 45 percent for energy and 30 percent for water. Each of these demands will claim more land. This would lead to more deforestation unless we commit to restore degraded land,” Gnacadja stressed.
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