After spending most of his life in a rural village in western Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, 72-year-old He Zhili picked up and moved into an apartment in downtown Erdos two years ago.
He is now one of the roughly 400,000 residents of the city's "eco-immigrants area".
The mass relocation was part of a plan by the local government to convert farmland to grasslands and forests. Many people came from areas dominated by the Maowusu and Kubuqi deserts, where only 4 percent of the land is arable.
"Water is scarce and crop yields are small," He said of his former home, 130 km away.
About half the people from He's village have moved away.
Since 2000, Erdos has encouraged people to relocate by offering housing and jobs.
"People should help nature and allow the ecosystem to revitalize," Chu Bo, the region's Party secretary, said.
In 2001, media reports said 70 percent of the central Xilingol Prairie had been left barren by three years of drought and overgrazing. Livestock had nothing to eat and their corpses littered the harsh landscape.
The situation was getting bleak: In 1985, Xilingol League had 144 million hectares of degraded grassland, nearly half its total area. By 1999, the figure was 192 million hectares.
The effects of decades of government policies aimed at improving food safety and self-sufficiency are partly to blame for the severe overgrazing of the grasslands in northern China.
They led to widespread cultivation of the grasslands, but the lack of adequate irrigation and fertilization resulted in extremely low crop productivity. As the soil quality decreased and crop yields declined, many plots of land were abandoned.
After several years, the abandoned land became shrouded in a blanket of sand.
"I could see no grass, just sand, when I came here six years ago," Chu said. "Things must change dramatically."
The official said deciding to effectively "close down" parts of the region's pastureland by banning farming and herding had been difficult, but it was an essential first step toward saving the ecosystem.
Geligao, a 47-year-old ethnic Mongolian from Xilingol League, said he supported the government's policies.
"I will leave my descendants rich grassland," he said.
The efforts have paid off, and the region's environment-protection bureau has been pushing for more "scientific methods" for raising crops and livestock. Satellite images show the region's green coverage has increased over the past five years in Hulun Buir, Xilingol, Horqin grasslands, the Erdos Plateau and Alaxa Desert area, among other places.
In Xilingol League, where the livestock population fell from 16.7 million in 2000 to 14.5 million last year, the average per capita income of herders rose by 699 yuan to 4,202 yuan. The amount of vegetation cover increased by 11 percent on the steppe during that period.
Chu called the improvements "a revolution".
"The ecosystem in Inner Mongolia is getting better, and our landscaping speed is now faster than the speed of desertification."
(China Daily August 2, 2007)