Written by Kathleen Buckingham. 

When asked to name a restoration project in China, the likelihood is that the Loess Plateau will come to mind. The hilly, semi-arid region in north-central China is roughly the size of Afghanistan. Thousands of years of farming, which intensified during the Cultural Revolution, left the former grasslands degraded and eroded. Food production was down, waterways filled with silt, and air in faraway cities suffered sand storms born on the Loess Plateau. A population that rose to 50 million people made the problems worse. China has spent 40 years restoring degraded lands and expanding forest protection. It has invested more than $105 billion in six forest restoration programs covering 76 million hectares of land across more than 97 percent of counties. The government’s drive for large-scale management is strong. In 1999, the Chinese government launched one of the world’s largest conservation programs, “Grain for Green”, in which millions of rural households worked to return agricultural lands to areas with more vegetation, tree cover and erosion-fighting terracing.

According to the World Bank, in some places in the Loess Plateau local farmers saw their incomes double, erosion reduced by 100 million tons of sediment annually, a reduction in flood risk, and grain production dramatically increased. However, these results came with costs. The speed of China’s efforts was only possible by using single species or minimally diverse plantings, and local communities were often unable to enjoy the benefits of restored forests. Whilst in some areas, restoration has protected land from desertification and brought better rural livelihoods, in others, trees have grown slowly and some are already dying. Tree survival rates have been recorded as low as 25 percent in some regions. Chinese experts readily admit trees were sometimes planted in arid regions better suited to grass. This has led to a growing desire to ‘green China naturally’.

China’s historic forest loss has made it one of the world’s most forest-deficient countries, with a national forest cover of 22 percent, compared to a global average of 31 percent. Tree loss is just the tip of the iceberg. China also stands as one of the most water-stressed countries on the planet having 21 percent of the world’s population but only 6 percent of its freshwater. Sustainability of both water resources and land affects the population and the economy. Water and land use are inextricably linked. The Loess Plateau, aimed to restore the watershed, but clearly new approaches are needed to guarantee ecological and economic sustainability – in terms of tree and livelihood survival.

An interesting partnership has emerged which promises to address this issue. Danone, a multinational food-products corporation, Danone Waters China (DWC) and IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) have joined forces to restore the Jiaquan watershed in the middle of the Donjiang Basin, as part of a larger watershed protection project in Southern Guangdong Province. As one of the three major branches of the Pearl River, the Dongjiang River and its river basin represent a critical resource, supporting the economy and population of the Pearl River Delta. The Dongjiang River Basin provides water to more than 400 million people and six major Chinese cities including Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Ironically, it is not the trees in this case that are protecting the water source. Economic tree plantations, agricultural practices and the application of chemical and community waste is causing pollution in the watershed. The watershed water’s quality and quantity is currently at risk from geological hazards and disasters as well as community lifestyle and agricultural practices. The aim of the project is to empower local communities through a public–private partnership that aims to provide sustainable livelihood opportunities, maintain healthy ecosystems and promote a supportive policy for sustainable watershed management. Aside from the corporate vision, how does this work in practice?

The private sector has an important stake in restoration. Their business relies on the land. In the Pacific Northwest, a group of international experts came together for a seminar on forest landscape restoration. In the forest, participants told their restoration story. Zhang Hanqian, a representative from Danone, told a story that was frankly inspiring. There is a food security crisis in China. Unlike the environmental agenda that faces potential conflict and censorship from the government, food is an ideal entry point to relieve tension through aligning on a common agenda – from the government, to NGOs to the private sector. The Chinese word for ‘crisis’ is illustrative in this case -the combination of the words ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’ provide a platform for two issues to come together – popularizing the danger of the food industry (of toxins, additives and bioaccumulation) coupled with the environmental needs for restoration. The drive for green food in China has come at a time when safety concerns are paramount, when, Western internet aside, China is finding their own channels of online communication.

Danone are starting small piloting projects based on techniques in ‘bio-dynamic agriculture’ from Australia. The area was blighted with Huanglongbing, what was locally known as ‘mandarin cancer’. The area suffered from pests and diseases in monoculture mandarin plantations while farmers made money from rapid growing Eucalyptus. The area provided for the economy while the landscape began degrading. Three key practices have been trialed to address restoration challenges involving ducks, bees and mandarins. Prior to planting rice in the sub-tropical south, natural legumes have been planted to fertilize the soil. The practice aims to recreate a natural practice of soil fertilization. After the wetland rice has been established, baby ducks are introduced to act as ‘natural pesticides’ by eating the insects and providing natural fertilizer. The rice works on rotation and is part of a wider landscape of honey production and ‘vertical orchids’ which aim to create spatially and temporally ecologically appropriate plants all year round. Beekeepers in recent years have been so stretched for pollination that they have been forced to load bees on trucks to travel in search of pollinating plants.

Working on a small-scale won’t solve the problem of degradation globally. There has to be a financial model which allows the farmers to see the impact of restoration on their business – one that allows them to switch to native Chinese Fir instead of non-native, rapid growing Eucalyptus – one that provides competitive prices in the high-end honey market and proves that mandarins can be farmed without high chemical input. Zhang Hanqian believes creativity is the key, but also economies of scale. Maybe we can use the Chinese food crisis in all its forms and connotations to start a movement for restoration.

Kathleen Buckingham is a Research Associate at the World Resources Institute. The opinions in this piece are the author’s own and do not represent those of her employerImage Credit: CC by Danone