Introduction to ecosystems
Introduction to ecosystems

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Introduction to ecosystems

6.2 China’s Loess Plateau

China’s Loess Plateau is a region that stretches for 640,000 square kilometres across north central China. It is an example of an ecosystem that has been ravaged by human activities, such as agriculture.

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China’s Loess Plateau

JOHN D LIU
This is China's Loess Plateau. Until recently, this was one of the poorest regions in the country, a land renowned for floods, mud slides, and famine. But with the fanfare comes the hope of change for the better. My name is John D. Liu. I've been documenting the changes on the plateau for 15 years. I first came here in 1995 to film an ambitious project where local people were constructing a new landscape on a vast scale, transforming a barren land into a green and fertile one. The project certainly changed my life, convincing me to become a soil scientist. The lessons I've learned in the last few years have made me realise that many of the human tragedies that we regularly witness around the world - the floods, mud slides, droughts, and famines - are not inevitable. Here on the Loess Plateau, I've witnessed that people can lift themselves out of poverty. They can radically improve their environment, and by doing so, reduce the threat of climate change. When I first came to the Loess Plateau, I was astounded by the degree of poverty and degradation. And I wondered, how could the Chinese people, the largest ethnic group on the planet, and my father's and my own ancestors, come from a place that was this barren? China's Loess Plateau is a region that stretches for 640,000 square kilometres across North Central China. Unspoiled valleys in neighbouring Sichuan show us how it might once have looked. It's the sort of natural abundance that is necessary to support an emerging civilisation. How could a landscape with such potential have been reduced to this? When Chinese scientists and civil engineers began to survey the area, they realised that several thousand years of agricultural exploitation had denuded the hills and valleys of vegetation. The relentless grazing of domestic animals on the slopes meant that there was no chance for young trees and shrubs to grow. The rainfall no longer seeped into the earth, but simply washed down the hillsides, taking the soil with it. Over millennia, this progressively destroyed the region's fertility. When this happens over an area as extensive as the Plateau, millions of tonnes of silt are swept down into the Yellow River, which gets its name from the colour of the fine Loess soil. The mounting quantities of silt clog up the river, impeding its flow, contributing to the floods that give the river another name, China's Sorrow. In some areas, creating floating mud mattresses that attract passing tourists. A local problem becomes a national problem. In the dry season, the light, unprotected soil is swept up in the winds, causing the dust storms that are blown over China's cities and beyond its borders. On the Plateau, the researchers realised that progressive degradation of the environment trapped the local population into a life of subsistence farming. It's a process that has occurred throughout the world, where poor agricultural communities find themselves overusing their land in order to survive, depleting its fertility, and further impoverishing themselves. One thing that became apparent early on is the connection between damaged environments and human poverty. In many parts of the world, there's been a vicious cycle. Continuous use of the land has led to subsistence agriculture. And generation by generation, this has further degraded the soils. The vital question we have to ask is, can this destructive process be reversed? 15 years ago, Chinese and international experts were confident it could be. They decided that to prevent further erosion, it was necessary to cease farming on certain key areas to allow the trees and shrubs to grow back. But this could not happen without the consent of the farmers themselves. They took some persuading.
MR. TAFUYUAN
[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]
TRANSLATOR:
Of course, a lot of people didn't understand the project. They weren't thinking in the long term.
VILLAGER
[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]
TRANSLATOR
They want us to plant trees everywhere. Even in the good land. What about the next generation? They can't eat trees.
JOHN D LIU
What eventually convinced the local people was the assurance that they would have tenure of their land, that they would directly benefit from the effort they invested in the new project.
MR. TAFUYUAN
[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]
TRANSLATOR
The goal was to give a hat to the hilltops, give a belt to the hills, as well as shoes at the base. The hats meant that the top of these hills had to be replanted with trees. The belt meant that terraces had to be built, to be used for crop planting and also for trees. The shoes were the dams, which we had to build so that the hills could grow back to life, and our economy as well as our lives could improve.
JOHN D LIU
Hills and gullies were designated as ecological zones to be protected. Farmers were given financial compensation for not farming on them and keeping their livestock penned up. When I first filmed Mr. Tafuyuan and his colleagues back in 1995, I had no idea this initiative could achieve such dramatic results. The effort that people put into converting their slopes into terraces has resulted in a marked increase in agricultural productivity. The higher yields are directly related to the return of natural vegetation and the surrounding ecological land. Now when it rains, the water no longer runs straight off the slopes. Trapped by the vegetation, it sinks into the ground, where it is retained in the soil, taking weeks and months to gently seep down and irrigate the fields and terraces below. Restoration has occurred over an area of 35,000 square kilometres. The impact of such an enormous addition of vegetation goes far beyond the plateau itself. There's been a significant reduction in the soil rushing down into the Yellow River. As I've been travelling around the Loess Plateau, I've seen extensive changes. The vegetation cover on the hillsides, on the tops of the hills, and down in the valley, everything has changed. It's changed the lives of the people. And in fact, the people themselves have done this because they were the ones who changed their behaviours, terraced the fields, improved the soils, learned to protect the marginal areas. The changes are not simply on the hillsides. On the plains, you can see greenhouses that are filled with vegetables. This extends the growing season. It's very high value produce. The abundance and variety of new produce can be seen in the local markets. Follow up studies have shown that incomes have risen threefold. And scientists point to a more global benefit. Plants, through photosynthesis, remove carbon from the air, countering the effect of human greenhouse gas emissions on the climate.
PROF. CAI MANTANG
[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]
TRANSLATOR
In terms of climate change, we can say that the project made a double contribution. Firstly, the project was successful in restoring vegetation on a large scale. So many trees and so much vegetation grew up, and this definitely helped take carbon out of the atmosphere. Secondly, because the health of the Loess Plateau's ecosystem has been so much improved, the region will be better able to resist the negative impacts of climate change.
JOHN D LIU
As a result of its success, the lessons learned from the Loess Plateau rehabilitation are now being applied all over China. But could such projects work elsewhere in less centrally controlled societies with fewer resources and different soils?
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Contributors to this video include John D Liu.

Video: ©co-produced by The Open University and EEMP for BBC World, with support from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), The Open University, The Rockefeller Foundation, and the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture and The World Bank. © Environmental Educational Media Project (EEMP) 2009

The hills and valleys of China’s Loess Plateau eroded because grazing domestic animals denuded them of vegetation. Valuable soil was washed away into the nearby Yellow River, leaving the plateau unfertile.

The rehabilitation of the plateau has been a slow and arduous task. As you watch the next video think about the following questions:

  • What were the activities that resulted in the destruction of the Loess Plateau?
  • What actions were taken to restore the plateau?
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Loess Plateau’s success

SPEAKER
I remember when I was a kid, the water would run terribly off the slopes. Now that the trees have grown this doesn’t happen any more. Before the soil was very poor. It was difficult to grown anything on it. The land we used to cultivate was large, but it produced little. Now we have less land, but it produces more. So things have improved. In the beginning, I didn’t think much of the project. I was only a few years old, so I didn’t think that much. I was a bit afraid.
VILLAGER 1
Now we eat noodles and rice. Life has improved. Before, the best we had was millet. When conditions were bad, we did not even have millet.
VILLAGER 2
Before we hardly had anything to eat or wear. Life was really difficult. It’s much better now. Now we eat well and dress better. Conditions have really improved.
SPEAKER
Our standard of living has clearly increased. Our revenues are much higher than before. Now everything is much greener than before. It’s much better. Before everything was so barren, there was nothing. Now, it’s green.
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Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

Video: ©co-produced by The Open University and EEMP for BBC World, with support from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), The Open University, The Rockefeller Foundation, and the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture and The World Bank. © Environmental Educational Media Project (EEMP) 2009

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