On Wednesday evening, April 20, The Asia Society put on a talk by John Liu of the Environment Education Media Project. John is a film maker and has made documentaries on environmental degradation in a whole range of countries, including China, Rwanda, Ethiopia and, now, Ecuador. The talk he gave was about watershed restoration work that was carried out in an area of the Loess plateau in China beginning in 1995.
The Chinese government had received a revolving fund from the World Bank(WB) to restore an area which had been almost completely denuded of vegetation. John was sent by the WB to record the work on film. What he showed was quite remarkable, especially as it happened in China which probably has the worst environmental record of any country on Earth. Meticulous mapping of the area was carried out, and the local inhabitants – all very poor farmers – were involved in a participatory process to make sure they had a stake in what was being proposed. The idea was to find ways of retaining the rainfall so that it could infiltrate the soil instead of stripping it in massive floods which caused huge erosion gullies and caused massive siltation further downstream. A major part of the plan was to plant trees everywhere, which was seen by some locals as being somewhat ridiculous as ‘you can’t eat trees’. However, the people were mostly positive about it once it was decided to pay them for the work they did, and, most importantly, give them contractual ownership of the land they worked. They set about remaking terraces on the hills, and planting trees with earthen catchwaters around them to ensure that the trees could take up the rainwater instead of it running off down the barren slopes and taking more soil with it. In ten years the place was totally transformed to a healthy ecosystem which not only had plenty of native trees growing, but also had a massive increase in biodiversity, whilst the farmers increased their crop yields by 4-10 times. When the area was hit by one of the worst droughts in decades beginning in 2005, it was able to nevertheless thrive.
What makes the story even more interesting is the fact that this area was the cradle of Chinese civilisation, and was possibly only second to Mesopotamia in independently giving birth to agriculture. It was, over centuries, turned into a barren wasteland because of destructive human practices – that is, agricultural techniques and free range herding of sheep and goats. This collapse of a thriving ecosystem is exactly what Joseph Tainter and Jared Diamond have described as the cause of many collapsed civilisations, and it is exactly what we are now doing to the planet on a global scale instead of a local one. So this story has huge significance for all of us, as it shows that both ecological and economic restoration can be done with almost unimaginable success. However, as John Liu stressed repeatedly, it requires a complete re-evaluation of our attitude to ecology and the economy. We need to learn that ecosystem functions are more important than production and consumption, or in other words that the economy is dependent upon the ecological ecosystems of the world and not independent of them as is the conventional wisdom amongst most economists. He stressed what a dire situation we are in, and that we are heading for collapse of ecosystems and civilisation unless we act with great urgency. But his message was one of hope, for the Loess Plateau is an astonishing success story that is being taken very seriously by governments around the world (well, some of them!).
This was an inspiring evening, and I came away with two of his DVDs, which I hope to be showing soon as a Transition South Lantau activity. I’ll keep you posted. John Liu’s website is www.eemp.org