Using a tried-and-tested method, Wang Youde digs into a sand dune to build small square ramparts out of straw in which plants designed to check the desert’s relentless advance will take root.
Wang, 57, is the head of the Baijitan collective farm in Ningxia, a remote region of northern China that is regularly battered by ferocious sandstorms and whose capital is under threat from the expanding Maowusu desert.
Ningxia, next to the vast Gobi, is often called the “thirsty country.”
As a youth, Wang witnessed the ravages of desertification, from lost cultures to families forced to flee and houses buried — events that have affected him deeply.
“At the beginning, the situation we faced was very difficult. We did not have the money to fight the sands. We had to go to the town to find financing,” said Wang, whose face is deeply tanned after decades of working in the open air.
Along with his relatives who, like him, are members of China’s Hui Muslim minority, Wang launched himself into a Sisyphean battle to try to “fix” the dunes of the Maowusu.
His method of using straw to fence off plants and protect them is simple but labor-intensive. The Baijitan cooperative employs around 450 workers who live on site.
“Each worker has an annual target of digging 10,000 holes, sowing 10,000 plants and makes 10,000 yuan [US$1,567],” Wang said.
Using water taken from the region’s very deep water table, they are achieving miracles. The director shows off the fruits of his -project: orchards, planted in a sandy valley, that produce juicy apples.
All around, the sand dunes are checkered with squares of green as bit by bit the vegetation takes over.
Wang said the planting has slowed the winds carrying the sand by 50 percent.
The Baijitan reserve covers 1,480,000 mu (about 100,000 hectares). It contains a “green belt” 10km wide and 42km long, intended to contain the advance of the dunes. The land belongs to the state, but the government only puts up around one-fifth of the financing with the rest coming from the sale of farm produce, including apples and peaches.
Chinese leaders, including President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and Vice-President Xi Jinping (習近平), have traveled to Baijitan to hail it as a “model” project.
However, his success belies the harsh realities elsewhere in China, where experts say the desert is gaining at a rate of several thousand square kilometers a year. Desert already makes up more than a quarter of the country.
Agro-economist Lester Brown says about 24,000 villages in China’s northwest have been totally or partially abandoned since 1950.
“China is now at war. It is not invading armies that are claiming its territory, but expanding deserts,” he wrote recently. “Old deserts are advancing and new ones are forming like guerrilla forces striking unexpectedly, forcing Beijing to fight on several fronts. And in this war with the deserts, China is losing.”
Nonetheless, China’s limited success in the fight against desertification has become a global reference point, and foreign experts and political leaders are flocking to Baijitan to see the project.