Taming the desert the Kubuqi way

By Jacques Fourrier
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China Today, September 6, 2015
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In 2000, throughout March and April, Beijing was engulfed in one of the worst spells of sandstorms in history. I can still vividly recall how people in northern China had been literally gritting their teeth for the previous two decades. A clarion call of sorts: sandstorms were no longer a distant threat; the enemy was at the gate.

Fifteen years later, the situation has dramatically improved. A substantial number of strategies to tackle desertification have been implemented in China. Some of these initiatives have had impressive results, and Kubuqi appears to be a highly regarded reference both in China and abroad.

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Wang Wenbiao, 56, has always had a skin-deep awareness of the curse of desertification in the Kubuqi Desert in Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region. "I come from a family of farmers. My parents and grandparents were farmers," the chairman of Elion Resources Group explained. "I always tell people that where there is desert, there's poverty, and when there is poverty, there is desert."

As young manager of a salt factory in the 1980s, he saw the benefits of new local and national policies, notably the reform of property rights, so enabling synergy between rural households and businesses to prevent and control desertification. In 1988, this visionary leader took the helm of Elion Resources, which specializes in desert-based green economy (medicinal plants, renewable energy, soil improvement, and ecological restoration), green infrastructure construction and eco-tourism.

In the Kubuqi Desert area alone, the livelihoods of more than 100,000 farmers and herdsmen have been transformed. Local farmer Zhang Xiwang, 44, has been planting a drought-resistant, economically efficient indigenous species of willow for more than 10 years. "Our team can plant up more than 1,000 mu (66.7 hectares) every year. Elion has lots of teams involved in this project." Such teams can earn up to RMB 200,000 annually, enough to provide each team member with a median annual income of RMB 5,000.

Elion gained international recognition and won the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) "Environment and Development Award" in 2012. The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) proposed a target of land degradation neutrality around the world by 2030 on the basis of the Kubuqi Desert development model in China.

Besides desertification control and afforestation, Elion has also diversified its activities in Kubuqi and developed not only a vibrant herbal medicine sector (mainly licorice, ginseng and cistanche), but also biomass together with solar and wind energy.

Work for a Green Silk Road

Elion has also established the "Green Silk Road Foundation" dedicated to the Belt and Road Initiative. The new initiative unveiled by China's leadership in 2013 is a concept combining ecology and civilization to develop what has been coined a Green Silk Road.

Besides public investment, private business is essential for implementing the initiative. Early on, Elion pioneered public-private partnerships (PPP). "Some 30 years ago, we took the lead in PPP. Of course, we hadn't even heard of this new-fangled acronym. A combination of government support, individual land leases and private business initiatives made the desert greener, companies stronger, and farmers richer," Wang Wenbiao said at the Fifth Kubuqi International Desert Forum. His words were echoed shortly after by China's Vice Premier Wang Yang. Wang hailed Kubuqi as archetype of a mutually beneficial model in combating desertification in China, and announced the dawn of a new era in the construction of an ecological civilization.

The model is now gaining momentum along the Silk Road Economic Belt, not only in China's western regions (Gansu and Xinjiang) but in Kazakhstan too, where Elion is implementing this initiative. The company has also launched afforestation projects in Zhangjiakou in Hebei Province, where the 2022 Winter Olympics will be held.

"We shall protect the environment like we protect our own eyes and appreciate the ecosystem as we do our own lives," said Chinese President Xi Jinping in a call to arms to protect the environment. The clock is ticking and studies show that the rate of desertification in China appears to be exceeding the rate of environmental restoration. Kubuqi has undoubtedly blazed a new trail and has given fresh impetus to a more sustainable approach, one that should be emulated in similar ecosystems in China and along the Silk Road.

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