Glance out the window while descending into Lanzhou — the capital city of China’s northwestern Gansu province — and there will be a seemingly endless expanse of desert and arid mountains, with hardly any vegetation in sight.
Desertification in western China has been a crucial national issue since even before the central government officially recognized it as such back in 1959. That year, the State established its first desert control center in Gansu’s Minqin County, which operated under the auspices of the local forestry bureau. Today, the county — which is sandwiched between China's third- and fourth-largest deserts, the Badain Jaran and the Tengger, respectively — remains a geographically significant region in the battle against desertification. With a population of 250,000, it is vital to prevent the area from turning into a wasteland.
Over the years, Minqin’s local government and forestry bureau have made numerous attempts to push back the advancing desert, primarily by assigning small groups to carry out afforestation projects in areas deemed vulnerable to desertification. Yet the local government lacks the resources and manpower to keep up with the encroaching sands. Social organizations have stepped up to fill this void and are now playing a critical role in local anti-desertification efforts.
According to Yang Qingwen, director of the Minqin forestry bureau, things began to change in 2012 when the government started outsourcing its anti-desertification projects to local cooperatives — for-profit organizations registered with the county bureau responsible for industry and commerce. As of 2018, there are 60 such cooperatives in Minqin competing for anti-desertification contracts.
Desertification can occur when substandard topsoil becomes dry and sandy, and is blown around by the wind. The government is trying to restore the county's ecology by planting afflicted areas with saxaul — a hearty desert shrub the locals call “suosuo.” Saxaul roots dig deep into desert soil, ultimately fixing it in place and preventing further erosion.
This is a lengthy process, however. It takes about three years to determine whether or not a given project is successful — the amount of time for saxaul plants to become fully rooted in the sand and able to survive without human-led watering efforts. The government therefore pays cooperatives half the agreed upon sum plus operating expenses upfront, with the remainder disbursed after three years — provided the saxaul have survived. “This way we can ensure a higher rate of success,” says Yang.
“People in Minqin rely on the weather for their livelihoods,” says Han Jierong, a Minqin local and the founder of the Saving Minqin Volunteers Association (SMVA). Han adds that frequent sandstorms have had a negative impact on residents' quality of life. Meanwhile, the depletion of the nearby Shiyang River beginning in the late 1990s has caused further environmental degradation.
A Saxaul plant in Alxa League, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, May 14, 2016. Wen Wu/IC
In 2004, Han — who was then a graduate student in computer science — created a website on which people could post comments and share information about anti-desertification volunteer activities. Two years later, he established the SMVA with his business partner, Ma Junhe, to better facilitate such activities, apply for more funding, and initiate anti-desertification-related projects. To date, the SMVA has planted 20,867 square meters of saxaul around 12 local villages.
Han emphasizes maximum results for minimum cost. When it comes to desertification, he finds that traditional methods — such as creating a square barrier of hay to prevent saxaul buds from blowing away — are the most cost-effective.
Yet he has also worked to improve traditional methods by integrating them with a more scientific approach that uses assessment and evaluation. Locals used to plant saxaul at random around their homes and fields, without considering the prevailing winds and the optimum distance between plants. This proved neither a particularly effective nor efficient means of combating desertification.
Han and other desertification experts have therefore experimented with how best to plant saxaul in order to maximize their survival rates. Moreover, his team has also calculated that the region’s prevailing winds come from the northwest, and so have begun planting saxaul accordingly to prevent excessive sand from blowing onto arable land.
In addition to environmental issues, economic problems have also played a role in Minqin’s advancing desertification. Rising sands have contributed to lower agricultural yields, driving more farmers to leave the area. The fight against desertification is labor-intensive: The fewer people there are, the less manpower there is to carry out afforestation work.
Thus, Han not only specializes in anti-desertification, but also stays involved in local agriculture after his projects are completed. He has started an initiative in which he identifies, interviews, and observes successful local farmers before publicizing their best practices in a systematic but accessible format from which others can learn.
Raising agricultural yields may not be enough to convince local farmers to stay, however: sales must also be increased. To this end, Han has established an e-commerce cooperative providing farmers a platform to directly sell their produce to retailers. As of 2018, 132 rural households had agreed to sell goods — including watermelons and goji-berries — through Han's cooperative.
A similar movement is underway in the nearby city of Dunhuang. Liu Jie — founder of a Dunhuang-based youth innovation association — says that in addition to planting saxaul, her group also works with local organizations that target desertification. “We wanted to create a platform in which both entrepreneurial young people and already-established organizations such as co-ops could learn about fundraising campaigns and government grants.” To this end, Liu helps individuals and groups find domestic funding opportunities and teaches them how to establish a new organization. Elsewhere in Dunhuang, one village cooperative is taking a more direct approach, promising a fixed income of 3,600 yuan ($550) a month and access to a shared bulldozer to help members cultivate their lands.
Local groups are opening new fronts in the fight against desertification. No longer content to use the same methods as before, they are blending traditional techniques with more modern approaches and working to keep local residents in the area through economic incentives and the promise of stable incomes. If the tide of desertification is to be turned back, social groups and co-ops will likely find themselves playing a key role.
Editors: Matthew Walsh and Kilian O’Donnell.
This article was funded by the Sixth Tone Fellowship. In 2018, Sixth Tone sponsored eight young scholars to come to China for a six-week research trip to conduct fieldwork in eight provinces all over the country.
(Header image: A local woman carries Saxaul saplings in a desert in Wuwei, Gansu province, April 5, 2010. Cao Zhizheng/VCG)