Sep 01, 2010

Southern Mongolia: Tree-planting to End Desertification

In an effort to stop the desertification in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China the government has adopted measures to encourage tree-planting and to resettle the nomadic population. However the forced removal of tribes from their traditional pastures remain controversial and those who refuse to leave are often arrested, detained or assaulted.


Below is an article published by The Star:


As a child growing up in Inner Mongolia, Han Yu was surrounded by breathtaking nature. “The scenery was beautiful. There were lots of trees. Even though you can see sand dunes, there were still different trees fronting the dunes,” says the farmer, now 54.


Today, the landscape could not be more different. The views of galloping horses and moving herds in rolling grass meadows are long gone, replaced by barren sandy plains. Yu bears witness to the sea of sand washing over his farm, and those of his neighbours: “In the 1960s and 70s, we had to increase food production to feed the population so trees were felled and the grassland slowly diminished. By the mid-80s, we began to see the desert expanding.”

The sand dunes of central Asia are marching outwards unrelentingly. In Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, a third of the land now lay wasted. China’s third largest province, it is fighting severe desertification, much like the provinces of Xinjiang, Gansu, Qinghai, Ningxia, Shaanxi, Heilongjiang and Hebei. Over-grazing, expanding farms and population pressure, coupled with drought and the freezing and thawing of iced soil, have steadily turned once fertile grasslands into sandy plains.

In a 2006 report to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, China declared that 2.63 million sqkm – 27% of its land – is covered by desert, compared with 18% in 1994. Its grasslands have shrunk by 15,000sqkm annually since the early 1980s. The loss of land and ensuing economic activities is costing the country US$6.5bil (RM22.7bil) annually. As farmers abandon parched lands, rural poverty has worsened.

And each spring, dust and sand are whipped up by the winds to form the “Yellow Dragon”, a choking cloud that engulfs China’s northern cities, causing respiratory and eye infections among millions. As the sandstorm drifts along, it binds with pollutants from factories and coal plants, creating a toxic plume that spreads as far as North and South Korea, Japan and even North America.

Aware of the ramifications of failing to act, China has adopted measures – such as reforestation, resettling nomadic Mongolians from their traditional grasslands to towns and restricting grazing areas – to stop the land degradation.

To enable the denuded land to heal, the government has zoned farming areas and introduced seasonal grazing: cattle and sheep from March to mid-June and only cattle in the other months. Farmers are also taught more efficient farming methods, and this has raised corn yields from 300 to 400kg per mu to between 500 and 1,000kg. (One mu is 675sqm)

“If they can enjoy the benefit of better yields, they will not open up land illegally. The farmers obey the rules on grazing and farming areas as they can get government assistance such as free fertiliser. Those who contravene the rules face fines,” explains Batole, head of the forestry division of Tongliao province in Inner Mongolia.

Meanwhile, a reward scheme encourages tree-planting. A farmer who keeps the forest on his land intact will receive Y10 (RM5) per mu. He also gets saplings for replanting. If he clears the forest, he gets a fine.

Batole, who like most Mongolians go by one name, says the efforts have shown result as tree cover in Horqin was 18% in 2008 (the latest available figures) compared with 12% in 2001. He believes that the barrier of trees has somewhat curbed sandstorms, with only one hitting the region this year and none last year. But as the areas affected by sandstorms are widespread, he says other areas still suffer from it.

But not all the steps to combat desertification have found support. The forced removal of nomadic tribes from their traditional pastures to reduce over-grazing, remains controversial. Opponents of the government’s plan say herders who have grazed the grasslands for centuries are key to solving the problem, and should not be blamed for spreading deserts.

They say much of the desertification is a result of over-grazing by new farmers from the Han Chinese ethnic majority, who poured into Inner Mongolia to raise goats when the cashmere industry became lucrative in the 1980s. This had allowed China to export millions of cheap cashmere sweaters to Western consumers.

The US-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Centre group said the resettlement of herders has endangered the very existence of the Mongolians. Those who resisted the relocation had been arrested, detained or assaulted.

Tree-planting, being easy to do and non-controversial, has become the most ambitious effort to halt the spread of the desert. The state television CCTV reported that by the end of 2009, China had reached its goal of a 20% tree cover. And late last year, President Hu Jintao committed to add 40 million hectares of trees by 2020.

Supporting the government’s reforestation efforts are numerous non-governmental groups. One group working hard at stemming the advancing sand is Japan-based Green Network. Over the past decade, with funding from universities, volunteer groups and companies such as Timberland, it has been greening Inner Mongolia’s Horqin desert that is tucked away in the north-east region of China, the area once known as Manchuria.

“Up until 30 years ago, fertile grassland spread out from here and the area was called the Horqin field,” explains its executive director, Yoshio Kitaura.

“However, due to excessive grazing and cultivation, the soil became impoverished and the area is now known as Horqin desert. In the 60 years after the establishment of the Republic of China, the population increased four-fold and livestock such as goats and sheep amazingly, increased about 300 times. So the people are forced to live while depending on disorganised grazing and cultivation which is the cause of the desertification even now.”

Kitaura says Horqin desert is one of the fastest expanding deserts in China, growing by six million hectares annually. It now sprawls over 42,300sqkm – as big as Switzerland. With its eight permanent staff and 15 part-timers – all locals – the group has greened 1,850ha so far. The tree-planting endeavour has proven infectious: even locals do it on their own accord, supported with seedlings from Green Network.

“This land was once open forest, so it is not impossible to return it to its original state by changing the way the people lived which was what caused the desertification, such as the excessive grazing and cultivation, together with adequate efforts of greening,” says Kitaura.

He is all too aware that tree-planting merely addresses a symptom, not the root cause of the expanding desert, which is overpopulation and unsustainable agriculture. Thus his team also advises locals on wiser landuse and farming methods. In the works is a scheme that encourages villagers to grow corn for food rather than animal feed, as the more lucrative prices will mean less land needs to be cultivated.

Of course, farms still encroach into restricted zones as the vast spread of the land hampers governmental policing but Kitaura is hopeful of a transformation as villagers have grown mindful of their harmful activities.

As attests by the farmer, Yu: “As more companies and groups come here to plant trees, we have become more aware. We now realise the seriousness of the problem. We didn’t know better before. If we knew, we wouldn’t have over-grazed or cut trees for fuel.”

With proper guidance, there is hope yet for the land to flourish again.