Last weekend I managed to get outside of Beijing and visit Shanxi Province, about 7 hours west by train. I visited the city of Datong, famed for its coal mining industry. The surrounding countryside, however, is a poor farming area, dominated by terrace farming. Shanxi is located on the Loess Plateau, an area larger than France, with some of the poorest soil in China.
The Loess Plateau, which contains the Yellow River, is considered the cradle of China’s first civilization. However, as with the other once-fertile areas that gave rise to ancient civilizations, hundreds of years of cultivation have taken a severe toll on the land. More recently, increased population pressures, deforestation, and overgrazing have also contributed to the soil erosion. The Loess Plateau now has the dubious distinction of being “the most eroded place on earth”, according to a recent report by Forum for the Future (http://www.greenfutures.org.uk/supplements.aspx?id=27)
However, it is also home to a recent success story in ecological restoration. In Shaanxi Province (just west of Shanxi), also located on the Loess Plateau, a 7 year restoration project has lifted hundreds of thousands of farmers out of poverty. It also appears to be one of the relatively few examples of the World Bank successfully contributing to its goal of a “world free of poverty.” The World Bank-financed Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Project focused
on about 2% of the Plateau’s land area containing some of the poorest of counties in China. In order to reduce soil erosion and restore soils, the project emphasized replanting slopes with trees and grasses and restricting grazing. Locals were employed to replant the hillsides, while also creating terraced fields for agriculture so that crops were no longer planted on hillsides. According to the World Bank, “the population living under the poverty line in the poverty
area has dropped from 59% in 1993 to 27% in 2001.” (http://info.worldbank.org/etools/reducingpoverty/docs/newpdfs/case-summ-China-Loess-Plateau.pdf)
A key reason for the success of the Shaanxi was the involvement of local people in planning and carrying out the restoration. Similar ecological restoration is desperately needed in other areas in China. South China also boasts severe soil erosion as a result of deforestation. In northern China, overgrazing is rapidly turning grassland into desert. As with the former situation in Shaanxi, these areas seem hopeless because as the environment degrades the poor people in the region have no other option but to continue to sustain their pressure on the region in order to survive. But the example of the Loess Plateau project suggests that this seemingly hopeless cycle can be broken by well-planned government and/or international