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Farmers Learn, Earn from Nature

The successful business story of Li Wenfa has helped persuade skeptical farmers to return their cultivated farmlands back into grassy pastures in this Muslim-dominated region suffering from severe soil erosion.

Li, a Muslim living in Houtang Village of Haiyuan County of Northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, earned more than 30,000 yuan (US$3,600) a year by processing clover into animal feed.

Li's income is stunningly attractive here where the per capita yearly income is just 1,000 yuan (US$120). With harsh natural conditions, including low rainfall and poor terrain, the area is one of the poorest parts of China.

The wide farming, animal husbandry and ranching activities in the area dominated by hills have destroyed the local top soil and resulted in serious erosion problems.

To prevent a continuing cycle of over-farming and to protect the environment from further damage, the central government decided in 2000 to implement a policy of "turning farmland to pastures and forests" across the area, and throughout China.

Under the accord, the government is offering cash and food subsidies to farmers who choose to get involved.

For example, farmers in northern China can receive 1,500 kilograms of grain and 300 yuan (US$36.5) government subsidies if they turn 1 hectare of cultivated land into grass or forest.

The programme began in 2000 and continues through 2008.

"It is an urgent task for governments at all levels to help farmers find better ways of earning a living when the government subsidies run out," Ma Qizhi, chairman of the government of Ningxia, said in a recent interview.

Otherwise, farmers may simply return to their old damaging practices of re-cultivating land when the government largesse ends, Ma explained.

In Haiyuan County, the local conditions are good for growing clover and liquorice, widely used Chinese traditional herbal medicine ingredient.

Such plants can thrive well in arid conditions since their roots are long. Deeply rooted vegetation is also good for helping retain top soil and for water preservation.

"We have devoted much of our time and energy trying to persuade farmers to plant such vegetation because their traditional thinking is very deeply entrenched... the farmers all think they should be planting grains for their farms to survive," said Ma Yuanwen, head of the Jiatang Town of Haiyuan County.

But the market value of the alternative vegetation has increasingly persuaded the farmers.

Some have found that 8,000 kilograms of clover from 1 hectare can be sold for 3,300 yuan (US$400). The value is double or even triple what the farmers can bring in from planting traditional grains such as corn.

The market potential of clover, which is excellent sheep and cattle feed, is huge in Ningxia because such livestock are now raised in pens to reduce damage they can cause wandering around the environment.

So far, Haiyuan County has returned 67,000 hectares of cultivated land into grasslands or forests and 170,000 hecatres more are expected to be similarly converted in the future, said Han Zhirong, director of the county's forestry bureau.

Han said the practice has greatly improved the local ecology after three stringent years of disciplined efforts by farmers.

(China Daily September 8, 2003)

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