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Harnessing Nature
Innovative green thinking transforms the Kubuqi Desert into a revenue generator
By Li Xiaoyu | VOL.11 June ·2019-06-04

Photovoltaic panels are installed in Kubuqi Desert to generate power (GEORGE STENMETS)

As a result of overgrazing and deforestation in the mid-1950s, along with the advent of global warming, China is now affected by deforestation as it is impacting 400 million people. Researchers estimate that this scourge costs the Chinese Government 213 billion yuan ($31 billion) a year.

However, China is also the first nation to see the vast swathes of its desert lands decline by more than 2,400 square km a year.

Achieving this impressive feat is in large part due to the Kubuqi model of desertification control.

The Kubuqi Desert of "Yellow Peril," as it is colloquially called, is located in the Hanggin Banner of Ordos City, the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in north China, covering an area of 18,600 square km. This makes it the seventh largest desert in China. Yet despite the often negative connotations of arid lands, today's Kubuqi is a symbol of life, development and hope.

Green pioneers

The transformation of the desert into a viably sustainable area began in the 1980s, with the ideas of Qian Xuesen, a famous Chinese scientist. He was the first person to theorize about what he called the "sand industry." According to Qian, the 1.6 billion mu (1.1 million square km) of China's Gobi Desert could yield hundreds of billions of dollars each year.

It took a small group of people from the Hanggin Banner to put Qian's ideas into practice.

Heeding Qian's call, in the late 1980s the Ordos Government promoted plant development in the region to combat environmental degradation.

"Thanks to the concerted efforts of the government, businesses and residents, Kubuqi's ecological economy model has been able to come into being," Liang Changxiong, Deputy Director of the Hanggin Banner Forestry Bureau, told ChinAfrica.

The government's role is to provide support through subsidies and the transfer of land use rights. Companies, by investing in the development of green industries, are the driving force of the model, while farmers and shepherds serve as the workforce.

"At the outset, it was difficult to balance ecological protection and economic interests," said Liang.

In the 1980s, in order to mobilize the population, people who operated forest farms or pastures could get all the economic returns from the lands. "The problem was that we were only interested in speed and rate of reforestation, without worrying about the sustainability of these trees," said Liang.

Since 2010, they have become aware of the importance of sustainability.

According to Liang, it was difficult to get the people motivated to take part in the green mission they had set themselves.

"We started planting species that could generate more financial returns, such as fruit trees. In tandem, we have developed biomass energy. The ultimate goal is to link environmental protection with industrial development to stimulate local economic growth," he said.

Fortunately, there was also an ace in the pack that would prove to be vital to the region's reforestation efforts.

In harmony with the environment

The Elion Group is the spearhead of private companies in the fight against desertification. Over the past 30 years, ELION, which means "Eastern Lion," has successfully reforested one-third of the Kubuqi Desert, or 6,000 square km, with two-thirds of the remaining dunes stabilized. The company has invested more than 38 billion yuan ($5.8 billion) to carry out this work.

"We first transformed part of the desert into an oasis, and then upgraded the farmland to introduce 'smart' approach of raising livestock and farming, in harmony with the environment," Wang Wenbiao, President of ELION, told ChinAfrica.

"Through this method, we are materializing sand-fixing, reforestation, animal and plant reproduction, and the realization of cash flow at several levels," he said.

ELION's industrial chain, including pharmaceuticals, livestock, photovoltaics and ecotourism, has helped lift more than 100,000 local people out of poverty.

One of them is Mengkedalai, a 40-year-old farmer who grew up in Kubuqi.

"When I was young, we lived in a mud house and had to travel by camel," he said. Beginning in 2012, the government and businesses in the region provided the locals with skill training related to the tourism sector. Today, Mengkedalai lives in a modern house built by ELION and has his own hospitality business.

"I was the first local resident to open a hotel," he said. Several families were able to open restaurants and set up catering businesses and companies, providing camel rides or off-road vehicle rides, along with many other opportunities.

"Now the region has become very prosperous, with the per-capita annual income between 15,000 yuan ($2,180) and 20,000 yuan ($2,900), whereas it was only 200 yuan ($29) in the past," said Wang.

Modern technology is also used to exploit the desert and lift the locals out of poverty. With 3,180 hours of sunshine each year, Kubuqi is the ideal place to develop solar power. According to Tian Junting, head of ELION's photovoltaic plant, the ecological, economic and social benefits are considerable. Indeed, the plant, which currently has an installed capacity of 510 mw, covers over 50,000 mu (33 square km) and thus requires the sand to be fixed over this entire surface area. The use right of the land invested in by the plant belongs to farmers in the area, who lease it to ELION, allowing them to increase their income. The company has invested $4 billion into this green energy initiative and so far generates 900 million kwh of electricity per year, the equivalent of the annual consumption of an average city. This translates into a saving of 440,000 tons of coal and 14.5 million tons of carbon removed from the atmosphere. By the end of 2019, ELION plans to double its installed capacity. "The construction of the second part of the project will lift more than 800 families out of poverty," said Tian.

Under the photovoltaic panels are fields of lush grass, rich in protein and adapted to the environment, which can feed sheep, as well as crops of licorice and alfalfa, lucrative medicinal plants resold by the company. Licorice is a plant with valuable virtues in the pharmaceutical industry. "We have developed seeds of cold- and drought-resistant plant species that can be grown in saline and alkaline soils," said Wang.

Describing ELION's work as the "miracle of the Kubuqi Desert," Monique Barbut, Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, sums up in short the success of the company that combines ecology and economy, creating a balance between fair, sustainable and livable developments.

(Comments to lixiaoyu@chinafrica.cn)

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