A Chinese Alternative to Welfare

Poverty often goes hand in hand with degraded landscapes, so it makes sense to alleviate both together.

Image: Permaculture Research Institute
The Loess Plateau in 1995.

John D. Liu’s online film, The Lessons of the Loess Plateau, provides a dramatic case in point.

China’s Loess Plateau is an area the size of France with mineral-rich soils up to a thousand feet thick. For most of the 1.5 million years that people have lived there, it was lush and fertile. Its rich forests and grasslands could absorb and hold rainwater for over 100 days. Many of China’s most prosperous dynasties, including the Han, flourished there.

Gradually, though, the region’s fertility waned. By 1,000 years ago, most of the wealthy had fled. To make ends meet, locals had to graze their sheep and goats ever farther from home and scale the hillsides to cut firewood. By the 1960s, the plateau was so barren that when it rained, 95% of the water ran off immediately without soaking in. Floods carved vast gullies and carried away so much silt that their outlet became known as the Yellow River. A permanent rotation of floods, droughts, and dust storms hammered the region.

In 1995, the Chinese government set out to reverse these trends. It hired ecologists, economists and hydrologists from the World Bank and other agencies to identify the land use practices that were and weren’t working in the region. After about 4 years, it had a clear strategy: reforest the hilltops, terrace the gullies, pen all grazing animals, and allow farming only on relatively flat lands.

At this point many locals weren’t happy. They stood to lose hillside farms and pastures their families had used for centuries. Never mind that these lands were now 90% bare. The project needed their cooperation to succeed and they weren’t budging.

Two things brought them around:

  1. The government drew up contracts so that every parcel had a family to look after it, and every family had long-term rights to use it.
  2. The project hired the locals to survey and partition the land, and then to implement the project. This provided full employment while it was underway. No handouts required.

Ten years later, the region was lush and green again, and farm incomes had increased tenfold. In Liu’s film, it’s amazing to see the transformation  in the land and people.

Image: Permaculture Research Institute
Loess Plateau, 2011

Meanwhile, here in Athens County, Ohio, our lush greenery is rooted in soils much thinner and poorer than the Loess Plateau.

(Actually, this is true of most places, as few have thousand-foot deep soil!)

It would take far less rough treatment to ruin things here. We have a boom and bust cycle of extractive industries, and entrenched poverty and dependence. For now we have welfare, and people need it to survive.

In the long run, we might do better to follow China’s example and invest in renewable local economies.

Photos: Permaculture Research Institute


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