The Great Work of Our Time By John D. Liu

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).

John D. Liu

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

 

China Suffers Drought, Water Shortage

This summer has been one of the hottest in decades in Jilin Province, China, and several counties are facing the complete loss of their harvests.

Currently, Changling, Nongan, Gongzhuling and 10 other agricultural counties in Jilin are facing a severe drought. The severity of the drought is comparable to that in 1951.

A villager Ms. Lee from Wanglong village, Huajia Township, Nongan County, Changhun City, told Epoch Times: “The drought is very bad. All the corn leaves have turned yellow. Corns are not fully grown, only their tips are seen with barely any kernels.”

Since July 1 this year, the rainfall in Jilin Province totaled only 4.4 inches, which is about 48 percent less compared to the same period from previous years. This year had the second lowest rainfall in history; the least amount since 1951.

Over 14 million acres of farmland are affected.

Government data indicates the drought has impacted more than 1.3 million acres of farmland in the major agricultural areas of Jilin with no improvements in sight. According to the weather forecast, the average rainfall could be as low as a third of an inch per day.

Ms. Lee, a villager from Wanglong village said: “Even the water level of our own well is slowly dropping. It is only enough for domestic use. Our farmland has not been irrigated for over a month.”

Mr. Sun from Zhen-Chai village, Nongan County said that all their cucumber plants have perished from the drought.

Chinese media has reported two-thirds of the corn stalks have withered in some towns while others have completely perished.

Local governments have not taken any measure to tackle this problem and villagers are on their own. A staff member at Jilin Grain Bureau only briefly told Epoch Times that the situation was “unclear” and then hung up the phone.

Other Provinces Impacted

During the summer, a total of 12 provinces, including Shandong, Henan, Shaanxi Anhui, Hubei, Gangsu, and Xinjiang, have been affected by the drought. Over 14 million acres of farmland are affected.

Henan Province, for example, is witnessing the worst drought in the last 63 year with 740,000 people facing a temporary shortage of drinking water. In Shandong Province the cost of the lost harvest is reaching $630 million.

All these statistics put into question the recently announced food exports to Russia. After Russia announced it would stop importing food from Europe, the United States, and Australia, China immediately started building a warehouse on the Russian boarder to facilitate customs clearance for fruit going into Russia. More

 

China Experiment in Permaculture Offers World Hope

China is the most populous and possibly one of the most diverse nations on the planet, with a population of over 1.3 billion people and 56 ethnic groups.

What each one of those people shares with the rest of the world, regardless of political, linguistic, economic, and existential differences, is the complete and utter dependence on the ability to find food. In China’s Loess Plateau, sustained generational farming had depleted the soil, leaving in its wake a textured landscape of dust. When winds came, the dust blew into cities, compromising air quality. In the rains, it washed down the valley, depositing more of the silt that gives the Yellow River its name. In 1995, scientists and engineers surveyed the land of the Loess Plateau in an attempt to determine what was causing the once fertile belt to be a thorn in the country’s. The results of their study led to an experiment in permaculture in China that offers hope to the world.

John D. Liu, Chinese American ecologist and documentary film-maker, documented the project in an award-winning film called Hope in a Changing Climate. In the film that Liu narrates, he reports that the first thing that the scientists discovered was a causal relationship between ecosystem destruction and human poverty. Where environmental degradation is severe, the population becomes trapped in a downward spiral. Because they needed to eat to survive, generational subsistence farming had stripped the land bare in the Loess Plateau. In search of food for themselves and their flocks, farmers and their families continued to deplete the fertility of the surrounding ecosystem, further impoverishing themselves.

When scientists developed the plan to restore the ecosystem in China’s Loess Plateau, generational farmers had to be convinced that not farming was critical for their families’ long-term survival. To get buy in from the locals who did not understand how their families would eat if they were not allowed to farm, the government subsidized them and taught them how to do the work that would restore their land from a scarce dirt pit to a thriving ecosystem.

Around the world, populations are living a scarce subsistence lifestyle similar to the one that the citizens of China’s Loess Plateau used to live. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) states that besides fleeing for personal safety, the basic need for food and shelter is the primary motivation for people leaving their homes and becoming displaced. If there were a stable food supply and supportive ecosystem, then the motivation for the world’s most vulnerable populations to move, would decrease. The UNHCR reports that competition for scarce resources triggers violence. If there were a way to restore resources so that people had food and a sense of power in their lives, the fuel for much of the world’s violence would be spent.

The permaculture experiment in China indeed offers hope to the world. Working with scientists, the local population terraced slopes, they planted trees, and they penned their herds so that the trees could grow without being eaten. Soon they found that their hillsides were green. Instead of letting the rains sheet off the mountains, the terraces collected the water and fed the delicate new roots systems, transforming the arid land into a booming garden. Liu reports that since he first visited the area in 1995, the people have seen a threefold increase in income and a profound sense of hope and empowerment. More