[Marxism] The encroaching deserts in China

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Aug 16 07:22:37 MDT 2007

from the August 16, 2007 edition - 

China sounds retreat against encroaching deserts
Decades of flawed agricultural policies have led to rapid desertification.
By Simon Montlake | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Zhengxin, China

Behind the walled farmhouses, where fields of cotton and fennel bask in 
bright sunshine, the desert begins. Pale ochre sand dunes loom over rows 
of carefully tended crops that represent a lifetime of labor for the 21 
families who live here.

As the desert closes in, this community has been told to leave, so that 
their fields can be replanted with native grass. Local authorities say 
this will revive the parched land and halt the sand dunes, and have 
promised new land and housing to villagers. The forced move is an 
admission that China's grandiose plans to turn its arid land into farms 
have run dry.

In recent years, China has met some success in slowing the sands by 
imposing curbs on grazing in Inner Mongolia and other measures.

But with China's average annual land loss of about950 square miles to 
desertification, according to researchers at the Chinese Academy of 
Sciences, in addition to vast swaths of land turned over to industry and 
housing, the amount of farmland available to feed a large population is 
being pinched.

In all, more than 10,500 residents of Minqin County in northwest Gansu 
Province, along the ancient Silk Road, are due to be relocated over the 
next three years.

It's a tactical retreat after decades of cropping that exhausted scarce 
water resources. What matters now, say experts, is preventing this and 
other marginal land from turning into vast dust bowls where nothing grows.

"Minqin is an example of what's happening all over China. If we lose 
villages here, we can expect to lose villages in other places," says Sun 
Qingwei, a researcher on desertification at the Chinese Academy of 
Sciences in Lanzhou, the provincial capital.

For decades, China has been trying to hold back the deserts that cover 
one-third of the country and produce seasonal sandstorms that scour 
Beijing and other northern cities. Experts say deforestation and 
overfarming are to blame for desertification, though global warming may 
become a greater factor in the future, as the Tibetan glaciers that feed 
China's waterways are melting.

China has more than 20 percent of the world's population and only 7 
percent of its arable land. China announced Monday that rising food 
prices pushed the inflation rate in July to 5.6 percent, a 10-year high. 
Adding to the pressure on farmland is rampant environmental degradation 
that has poisoned waterways and soil.

Attempting to stop the sandy tide

To combat the encroaching Tengger and Badain Jaran deserts, China has 
planted billions of trees – to replace felled forests and as barriers 
against the sand. This isn't a panacea, though, say experts, as thirsty 
trees can exacerbate the problem by sucking up groundwater.

"Planting trees is one way, but it's not that simple. It doesn't tackle 
the fundamental issue" of water resources, says Wu Bo, a professor at 
the Chinese Academy of Forestry in Beijing. "We need to calculate how 
much water the trees will absorb, or else it could have a negative impact."

Villagers in Zhengxin have taken on this challenge, with limited 
success. When the irrigation channels began to run dry, Lu Xianglin 
switched from wheat to cotton and fennel on his 12 acres. He also 
planted trees to protect his fields from sandstorms. He says he still 
gets good yields using flood irrigation and earns a decent income for 
his family of six, who live in a walled courtyard house.

Other farmers haven't stuck it out: About 1 in 3 have left Zhengxin in 
the past 10 years after their wheat crops wilted. Young people who can 
find jobs in the towns rarely return.

Last week, Mr. Lu joined the other men in his village on a 
government-arranged trip to see the land that has been set aside for 
their relocation, nearly 40 miles to the south. The next day, he was 
back pruning his cotton fields, shaking his head at the plan. The 
prospect of uprooting his family troubles him, as does the idea of 
abandoning the land that fed his forefathers. He prefers to stay and 
keep up the fight.

"With enough water, this problem can be solved," Lu says. "We can plant 
trees and grass, and they will grow bigger. That will stop the desert."

Experts say that farmers in Zhengxin could switch to drip irrigation to 
lessen their water intake for growing crops, but warn that it may be too 
late to reverse the soil erosion. Elsewhere in the region, farmers have 
erected brick greenhouses this year as part of a plan to grow vegetables 
using less water. Roadside signs above the windswept plains urge farmers 
to "Save Water, Protect the Environment."

A legacy of flawed past policies

Elderly residents remember when there was plenty to go around. 
Hongyashan reservoir, which was built in the 1950s under Mao Zedong's 
ill-fated "Great Leap Forward" campaign, fed the frontier fields of 
Minqin, spurring dreams of bumper grain harvests. It was a testament to 
Mao's dogged belief that man must "use natural science to understand, 
conquer, and change nature."

But decades of unchecked development, including new upstream cropland, 
depleted the reservoir, so farmers began sinking wells that sapped the 
water table and left the soil contaminated with salt. Recent wells go 
nearly 1,000 feet deep in arid areas.

Today, the reservoir is an expanse of shallow water that occasionally 
runs dry. A neon sign carries a message from President Hu Jintao, a 
hydrologist who began his career in Gansu, proclaiming that Minqin must 
not be lost to the desert.

Heroic posters of Mao still adorn some walls here, but his vow to 
conquer the desert rings hollow. In Hoanghui, the first village due to 
move out at the end of August, residents gripe at the government 
compensation of RMB 3,000 (US$395) per person being offered. To force 
them out, authorities have turned off wells and stopped farmers from 
planting their spring crops.

"I have no option," says Zhao Yongfu, a wiry farmer in a baggy blue 
shirt. "The government tells me to move and won't listen to us."

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