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The Fall of the Green Wall of China
Alex Steffen, 29 Dec 03

Deserts are spreading everywhere around the world, but the problem's particularly bad in China. There, government officials say, 3,600 km2 of former grasslands and farms are overtaken by the sands every year - and they're probably downplaying the problem: one recent remote-sensing study suggests that the area being lost each year to complete desertification now exceeds 4 million hectares/ year (about 15,500 square miles - an area larger than the Netherlands). Whole towns and cities have been abandoned, and environmental refugees number in at least the millions, and probably the tens of millions. The Chinese government estimates economic losses of almost $50 billion a year.

Whatsmore, the marching dunes are contributing to worsening dust storms. BIG dust storms, dust storms that dwarf the American Dust Bowls of 1930s, dust storms that create their own weird weather effects (like "black winds" and "mud rains"), dust storms that travel clear across the Pacific to drop grit on Vancouver and Seattle.

The government's response? Declare the creation of a "Green Wall" - a 2,800 mile, 9 million acre treeplanting effort, quite possibly the largest ecological restoration effort in history.

Unfortunately, it's not working. Desertification is a complex process: wind erosion, water erosion, overgrazing, salinization of soils through over-irrigation, plants made vulnerable to disease and drought by China's terrible air pollution and climate change all apparently play a part. But the Chinese effort has been top-down, poorly designed and weakened by massive corruption. Millions of trees have been planted, but few survive. Hundreds of thousands of herders have been forcibly relocated, but the grasslands continue to parch and blow away. Huge armies of local labor have been drafted to try to stabilize dunes and build sand fences, but the dunes keep coming.

The Green Wall, like the Three Gorges Dam, is a top-down mega-project fix, while by most expert accounts, China needs a grassroots-driven mega-collaboration response. Local people need the power, information and tools to sculpt local efforts in the most effective ways. China's done the opposite: decision-making power has stayed in the hands of the Party heirarchy, information has been kept secret or distorted for political purposes, and the tools most commonly used are gun barrels and shovels.


The need for a collaborative approach couldn't be more clear. Centrally planning an effort of unparalleled scope, involving an incredible diversity of places, peoples and situations is crazy. Having some official in Beijing point at a map and say "plant trees here" - which is essentially the current model - will never match the results of directly involving villagers whose fields are threatened by the swirling sands. A few manifold, complex and site specific efforts have been studied, but those studies are generally ignored, despite their promise:

"[Local participation] cannot be achieved with the wave of a central government policy wand. It will require a range of measures that take into account local factors, including soil types, weather conditions and animal and human populations. Unlike previous government policies, which tended towards a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem, officials are now seeking expert advice on an innovative mix of basic ideas that are tailor-made to local conditions. Some of these involve adapting well-established techniques, such as terracing to prevent soil erosion on sloping land, improving water-saving and storage techniques and encouraging peasants to plant orchards that can also be a source of revenue. Growing awareness of desertification has prompted a search for solutions at a grass-roots level. Experimental projects are springing up in many affected areas. In Dingxi county, Gansu province, farmers are starting to grow alfalfa, a plant with deep roots, which can be used as fodder for stall-fed animals who would otherwise be free-grazing. That's just one element in a 'clever policy mix aimed at making progress in forestry conservation, grassland and steep-land rehabilitation' now being tested in government-funded pilot projects in several provinces, says Bob Clements. 'It includes giving farmers a quantity of grain and some cash and planting tools for the alfalfa which happens to be a nitrogen fixing plant that will help regenerate the soil,' he says."

But China has some real advantages, if it chose to use them – a history of doing imaginative work with little, a brilliant and well-trained scientific community, a culture of cooperative efforts that far exceeds anything in the West, etc. It's already begun a massive project to monitor desertification, involving almost 10,000 researchers and field experts and "combining land-surface survey with satellite remote-sensing technology, geographic information system and the global positioning system."

Good information is always useful. But China's missing the boat here by keeping the creation of that information in expert hands, and the use of that information in bureaucratic ones. Imagine what it might accomplish with a distributed approach, something like eBird, combining sensor readings and local observations from those closest to the problem, sharing knowledge about what's happening and distributing access to innovative tools.

And the tools exist. Lester Brown notes that China could embrace and distribute windpower (banked windmills make admirable windbreaks) and water conservation technologies (less water used = less salt on the land = fewer deserts) which would have the added advantage of spreading development in rural areas (urban China may be booming, but the poor in rural China are poor by anyone's standards). Bioengineered traditional crops have shown real promise in stabilizing marginal soils while providing usable fiber and food. And the kinds of communication tools you'd need to set up a national information infrastructure on desertification are the same kinds you need to spread literacy, promote health, and connect local farmers with better market information.

While too many in the funding world still see grass-roots and high-tech, local and networked, traditional and smart, as contradictory terms, people in India, Sub-Saharan Africa and Central America have been proving they're not. Examples abound of the power of technology, better information and freer communication to help most those with the least. Example also
teem of how local people, armed with the right information and incentives, often do a better job at protecting their land than outside agencies.

A green and collaborative war on deserts is entirely possible, but highly unlikely where bureaucrats see empowered people as a bigger threat than expanding deserts.

But what China needs is not a Green Wall, but a Green Net. Let's hope they get it.

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seeing the forest for the trees :D

"In the summer of 1998, China imposed a sweeping ban on logging after the worst flooding in almost half a century. Experts agreed that excessive tree-felling in the upper reaches of the Yangtze and other river systems had contributed to floods that killed more than 4,000 people and forced more than 18 million from their homes. The ban slowed the destruction of China's forests. But it also forced Chinese industry to turn to imports to meet the burgeoning need for timber -- helping to accelerate the felling of some of the world's remaining major forests."

maybe home depot can help!?

"In a project set to begin before yearend, the Nature Conservancy has teamed up with Home Depot Inc. and a British aid agency to track lumber from the stump to the store. Logs and boards will be tagged with bar codes that allow buyers to determine whether their wood was harvested in a sustainable manner. 'People were asking what we were doing not to add to the deforestation of the world,' says Ron Jarvis, head of lumber merchandising at Home Depot. 'We didn't have the answer.'"

oh and isn't the sahara in retreat? how's that happening? *quickly looks it up* :D

"The driving force behind the retreat of the deserts is believed to be increased rainfall.

"Better farming methods have also played a critical role, according to researchers...

"And the researchers say that while overall improvements have been steady, dramatic progress has been made in particular villages and areas, particularly those where donor agencies have invested consistently in soil and water conservation.

"One particularly successful farming technique is known as "contour bunding". It consists in placing lines of stones along slopes and contours on the land to help rainfall soak in, and to stop topsoil washing away.

"And that is helping to transform thousands of hectares into productive fields - where nothing grew just a decade ago."


Posted by: smerkin on 29 Dec 03



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