While filming a project in China, American filmmaker John D. Liu realized that large-scale ecological restoration is not only possible, but may be the path for the development of our humanity. Mr. Liu is currently director of the Environmental Education Media Project and visiting fellow at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology at the Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences (NIOO/KNAW).
In sacred and protected places on the Earth it is possible to see the magnificence of ancient intact systems—climax forests, grassland systems and the remnants of intact peatlands. The beauty and functionality of these biomes reflect the organization of nature without human interference. These perfect places illustrate that the Earth provides us with air, water, food and energy—all that is needed for life to flourish.
While it is still possible to find perfect systems, the reality is that all these biomes are under threat from human impacts and the majority of the Earth’s natural systems have already been seriously altered. Pollution of all kinds can be found in all parts of the Earth. Human impacts have reduced the habitat of many species on all continents, causing widespread and alarming extinctions. It is now quite clear that human activities are altering the Earth’s hydrological cycle, the weather and the climate. Also today, gunfire pops like a constant drumbeat at the edges of civilization. The screams and bewilderment of traumatized women and children echo through a shared human history of recurrent warfare.
Considering the ravages of history, I began to wonder: “Is it inevitable that we continue to live in violence and degrade the Earth’s landscapes?” This question resonated with me, and after long study, I feel that I know the answer.
In 1995, on assignment for the World Bank, I was introduced to the Loess Plateau in northwest China. This vast plain of approximately 640,000 square kilometers is the cradle of Chinese civilization and the site of one of the earliest agricultural developments on the Earth. When I first went to the Loess Plateau, I was confronted with desperately poor people trying to eke out a living in a dry and dusty ruined landscape. I was there to document the baseline study for the Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Project, and seeing the extent of the degradation, it was hard to imagine that such a ravaged landscape could be restored.
A team of Chinese physical and social scientists, with the help of international experts, analyzed the history of the plateau and identified deforestation, primitive agriculture on slope lands and unrestricted grazing of goats and sheep as the main causes of the degradation. They noted the cycle of flooding, drought and famine that kept the population in poverty. They also studied the costs of sedimentation and found that these were extremely high. They reasoned that if they could reduce sedimentation and the effects of flooding and drought that this caused, the costs of restoration would be small in comparison. Armed with an econometric justification to spend whatever would be required, they began to engage the local people in a monumental task.
They began by explaining to the people why they were banning tree cutting, slope farming and unrestricted herding of goats and sheep, and they offered the people an alternative income for their participation in restoration. With the entire community’s labor and expert management, integrated watershed management was implemented in a project the size of Belgium. Initially, water harvesting methods including terraces, small dams and sediment traps were established. These physical interventions quickly became biophysical as the natural and agricultural vegetation grew. Perennial, diverse and sustainable agriculture replaced annual monocultures. As I continued to study and document the work, it became clear that it is possible to restore large-scale damaged ecosystems and that this knowledge is not just an interesting fact, but a responsibility that can change the course of human history. More