[Marxism] The encroaching deserts in China
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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
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
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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