Sand stoppers of China's Inner Mongolia

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The Appliance of Science

In an effort to improve the sapling survival rate, the local government invited scientific organizations to resolve some knotty problems, subsequently rolling out new technologies to excellent effect.

Taking advantage of its proximity to the Yellow River, Dengkou County excavated a channel linking the river with the desert so as to introduce melt-water to its arid areas. "The water table was getting lower by the day, posing huge difficulties for environmental management and farming," says Ma. "But once the river water is introduced into the desert, the moisture content of the desert increases with the natural diffusion of water vapor, benefiting the growth of plants. The project is an important link in the ecosystem, and at the same time relieves flooding in the lower reaches that often occurs when the frozen Yellow River thaws in early spring." Standing beside the canal, with the wind rippling the water and birds chirping nearby, the hot desert air seems to disappear. Started in July 2009, the project has already introduced water to 6,700 hectares of desert, the ultimate target being 20,000 hectares.

Ma Xuexian says it costs RMB 600 to control one mu (15 mu = 1 hectare) of desert, but they get only RMB 100 per mu from the government support fund, leaving a huge financial gap for them to bridge. As part of its battle against the sands, the Forestry Bureau is recruiting allies - enterprises and individuals - to develop cistanche deserticola production. "In association with research organizations, we launched a program in 2002 to look into the grafting of cistanche deserticola onto sacsaoul, and started promoting the technology two years later. Cistanche deserticola., also called ‘desert ginseng,' is a TCM herbal ingredient with high economic value. Grafting it to the root of sacsaoul combines desertification control with economic benefit. So far there are 2,000 hectares of cistanche under cultivation, and 10-plus enterprises engaged in this industry."

Bringing Commerce into Sand Control

Inner Mongolia Prince Cistanche Deserticola Biology Co., Ltd. is one of the biggest companies in this field, with a turnover of over RMB 10 million last year. It outputs the product as slices, teabags and beverages. "Sand control is ‘a dry subject,' but this plant brings it to life," quips general manager Wei Jun.

"We provide seeds for free, and train farmers in our planting base. They can master the technology in a hour," he continues. "We sign contracts with farmers to collect their output at the market price. We buy up every ounce they produce."

Wuritu is a Mongolian farmer living nearby the desert. He planted 10 mu of cistanche in 2005. "The lowest yield has been 200 kg per mu. At RMB 15 per kg, every mu can generate 3,000 yuan a year," he explains. "I used to plant about 40 mu of crops, but made just 10,000 yuan a year. I earn three times that now! And cistanche is way easier to grow. After harvesting, it just grows back the next year without affecting the sacsaoul."

The economic value of cistanche has attracted local people to sand control. "Previously, the sacsaoul usually died in a couple of years because of poor management, but now people are keen to take care of them. Fixing sands, planting sacsaoul and cistanche have become part of their life," says Ma Xuexian.

Of the 284,600 hecares of desert in Dengkou, over 60 percent have been effectively controlled. Old Nie Zhenhe, who has spent his life beside the desert, feels the benefits brought by the sand control project. "Big sandstorms are getting fewer, and the animal population is expanding. I saw hedgehogs, foxes and Mongolian gazelles this spring, which was unimaginable before. "

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