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    Adversaries to Allies: A Contentious History of Conservation

    In impoverished Ningxia, shepherds at odds with a lifestyle-altering nature reserve gradually become its allies.

    This is the second article in a series on desertification in northwestern China. You can find the first here.

    From high up in an observation tower, Yunwushan looks like an oasis in the middle of a desert.

    For decades, the national nature reserve protected the land and restored its biodiversity to a level unrivaled anywhere else in China’s northwestern Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, just a short distance south of the Gobi Desert. Stipa grass and meadow-rue bushes provide shelter for foxes and steppe cats. Wild-growing thyme perfumes the air.

    Outside this enclave of biodiversity lies the Loess Plateau — a hostile, dusty environment that is the color of sand and covers an area roughly the size of France.

    The story of Yunwushan is not only that of one of the country’s most unique nature reserves, but also that of a fierce existential conflict between the reserve and the local herdsmen.

    Since its inception, the reserve has encroached on the surrounding community’s land, threatening the herdsmen’s traditional way of life. With the help of a small Beijing-based nongovernmental organization, however, the foes have now become allies working together to save the land from desertification.

    On a cold spring day in 2014, the wind blew so hard in Yunwushan that it made the power lines swing like jump ropes. When two exposed ends at one of the electrical poles slapped together, they sent down a flurry of sparks onto the dry grass below. Fanned by the wind, the fire spread so swiftly that the reserve’s firefighters couldn’t subdue it. They had no choice but to turn to the locals for help.

    “I was afraid to go,” said Hai Yangsheng, remembering his reaction to the reserve’s plea for help. “The flames were taller than the people fighting them.” And yet Hai and about 200 other villagers answered the call, and together with the reserve’s firefighters, they put out the fire.

    Thanks to the villagers, only a small part of the reserve — 0.67 square kilometers out of a total of 66 — were consumed by flames, the reserve management told Sixth Tone.

    Just a few years earlier, however, the fire would have played out differently. Back then, said Zhang Xin, Yunwushan’s longtime director, nobody would have responded to the call for aid.

    “People didn’t want to help us then,” Zhang said. For decades, the locals had viewed the reserve as the cause of their poverty and struggles, and farmers and herdsmen described their relationship with reserve management as “antagonistic” and “hostile.”

    When it was established in the 1980s, the nature reserve was groundbreaking in many ways, even if the concept itself was simple. But as the number of livestock grew along with the population, open grazing of goats, which had been practiced for centuries, became unsustainable. Slowly, the insatiable animals destroyed the root networks of the grasses, loosening the soil and making it susceptible to erosion.

    More than half the land in the region has turned into desert, and is now so dry and hostile that it is nearly uninhabitable. Much of the rest of Ningxia — and almost 30 percent of China’s total land area — is facing the same threat. In fact, experts have called desertification the country’s biggest ecological problem.

    Yunwushan, located in the less-affected southern part of the region, was one of the first areas that tried to reverse this trend. To restore the grasslands, the local government established the nature reserve, making it the first and only reserve on the Loess Plateau. Within its boundaries, all grazing was banned.

    Herdsmen who had only ever raised sheep on the open land learned of the ban from notes they found posted to their doors. “We fought every day [with park management] because people couldn’t accept the change,” the villager Hai said.

    Patrols made sure that the grazing ban was enforced during the day, but once the sun set on Yunwushan, the herdsmen snuck in under cover of darkness. To them, there was no other choice.

    “They were starving,” said shepherd Li Zhanfu, referring to the 30 goats and 10 cows he owned at the time. When the herdsmen were caught, they were fined, which only escalated the tensions.

    When scientist Cheng Jimin walks through the grasslands, the overwhelming beauty of the scene around him makes the 60-year-old forget about the pain in his leg. Cheng has spent more than half of his life in the reserve, researching and chronicling the conservation area for the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “Engaging in this kind of work, you really have to enjoy it,” he said.

    When Cheng first arrived, sandstorms frequently battered the brown earth. “We were eager to improve the ecology of the local environment,” he said of Yunwushan’s beginnings in the early ’80s. But with their eyes set on restoring the grasslands, he added, the community’s economic needs were overlooked.

    With less land for grazing, the herdsmen couldn’t sustain the same numbers of livestock. Most of them still lived in caves, but having fewer and fewer sheep, goats, and cattle resulted in a kind of poverty they were unfamiliar with.

    Li Zhanfu’s family was so poor that he gave his son, Li Yongjun, some noodles and two bowls for his wedding. “See if you can live off this land,” Yongjun recalls his father saying. Soon after, the young couple left Yunwushan to seek a fresh start elsewhere.

    While the locals suffered, though, the reserve flourished. Yunwushan’s grass coverage increased from 30 to 90 percent, proving that land can indeed be saved from encroaching desert. This success also set an example for the regional government, which passed a grazing ban for all of Ningxia in 2003, in effect putting even more pressure on the locals.

    When the reserve expanded five years ago and became officially listed as a national park, it drew the attention of the Global Environment Institute (GEI), an NGO based in Beijing.

    “They were disenfranchised,” said Peng Kui, GEI’s program manager for ecological conservation and community development, of the shepherding community. In terms of conservation, Peng found the reserve to be in great shape, albeit at the expense of the locals.

    “The community was underdeveloped and its farmers were poor,” Peng said, “so we thought, ‘Maybe we can find a sustainable way for the nature reserve and the local community to coexist.’”

    One of the main issues, according to Peng, was that the herdsmen did not understand the basics of animal husbandry. “All they knew was open grazing — they didn’t know how to raise the animals at home,” he said.

    GEI’s first initiative was to teach the locals how to raise goats, sheep, and cattle in corrals, as well as how to build barns and grow crops that can be used for feed. Next, GEI established a small fund to help the herdsmen purchase new livestock.

    On the land around the reserve, the locals began growing Chinese pears and several varieties of hybrid fruits. When Peng comes to visit, Hai, the farmer who helped fight the fire, is now plucking plump pears from his orchard.

    GEI has worked with over 25,000 farmers, Peng said, giving them a renewed sense of ownership of and responsibility for the land, in addition to providing alternative sources of income for the local community.

    With seedlings from GEI, Hai planted over 5,000 square meters of apricot plum trees. Each year, his apricot plum harvest earns him around 18,000 yuan ($2,600). Hai can tell that the reserve is beneficial for the overall health of the region. There are fewer sandstorms and, according to the locals, more rainfall — something they attribute to the reserve’s success. Hardly anyone sneaks into the reserve to graze these days. “It was once a hostile relationship,” Hai said. “Now, it is harmonious one.”

    Studies show that the grazing ban has helped reverse desertification across Ningxia, although the restriction remains highly controversial because it has robbed many people of their traditional way of life and their primary source of income.

    In the same way that the reserve’s local grazing ban led to a larger, region-wide ban, GEI hopes that their support program can eventually be expanded to cover more struggling communities. “Imagine if we could carry out this kind of project all around the Loess Plateau,” Peng said. “It could benefit the whole country, not just Ningxia.”

    Li Yongjun, the son who left Yunwushan with his new bride, eventually returned. He had made some money selling pelts in northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, only to squander it. Yongjun’s father calls him “the most disappointing” of his five children.

    But Yongjun doesn’t see it that way. With the help of the GEI’s fund, he built a barn, and now he owns his own goats and cows. He also signed up to patrol the land for the nature reserve — a relatively easy task, as only a small slope separates his land from the reserve’s.

    When the risk of wildfire is high, Yongjun rides his new motorcycle to the reserve to keep watch for any potential dangers, but most of the time, him being there looking out over the land is enough to ensure that nobody sneaks in.

    Yongjun is proud of his one-room concrete house. It’s a far cry from his old cave, which was yellow and sandy like the mountains around it. Life has gotten better, both for him and the reserve.

    “Once, the mountains were all yellow,” Yongjun said, gazing into a sea of grass. “Now, you see that they are green.”

    Additional reporting by Li You.

    (Header image: Li Zhanfu, 68, stands in a field of grass that he grew to feed his livestock with seeds provided by the Global Environment Institute, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, Sept. 20, 2016. Xiao Muyi/Sixth Tone)