by Traci Knight – Staff Writer
Loess Plateau (Yellow River Basin) is widely credited to be the cradle of Chinese civilization and the second place on Earth where humans began to use agriculture. Despoiled over 1000 years ago, Loess Plateau was degraded and farmed to the point where it became barren and dry – the sad dusty remains of a once fertile landscape. Modern inhabitants of the region were impoverished, due to lack of natural resources. Encompassing an area the size of France, re-greening the Loess Plateau was an ambitious undertaking, using permaculture on a massive scale. The return on the efforts was remarkable, with the program having met all of it’s preliminary goals.
Identifying the Problem
Severe desertification had taken place over the last century in the Yellow River Basin, actually filling the river with yellow silt. Outreach to local residents was crucial, in order to educate the population about their personal impact on the land. It’s transformation is inspiring a movement to restore all degraded places on Earth. As we explore the facets of permaculture development in the region, we see that such lofty goals, are indeed attainable.
Funded by the World Bank in 1995, experts in hydrology, soil dynamics, forestry, agriculture, and economics worked together to design a plan to rehabilitate the plateau. Home to over 50 million people, the soil on Loess Plateau had eroded severely. Deforestation, overgrazing, subsistence farming, and population welfare were addressed immediately. Natural resources were protected by controlling herds, wood gathering, and unsustainable farming methods. Bans were placed upon cutting trees, free range grazing, and planting crops on slopes, hills, and gullies in order to stop the ongoing environmental damage.
Re-greening the Plateau
Water management was obtained by terracing the steep hillsides and using straw mulching for water retention (dune stabilization). Warping dams were placed at the bottom of eroded gullies. When the dams fill with eroded soil, another dam is placed underneath. When that gully dam is filled, yet another is dug, and so on in a continual fashion. This method created fields where before there were only steep slopes.
Organic biomass composting from straw hatching and field waste was added to the landscape. When enough organic matter was introduced the land was ready to plant. Intensive planting of trees and dense, local vegetation was implemented to rebuild the soil and sequester carbon back into the earth. Marginal lands were released back to nature. Natural habitats provided the greatest yield of all the reconstruction efforts and are a key component of permaculture principles of land management.
Agro-ecology, Permaculture, and Functional Wealth
Short and long term environmental recovery was created through a buy in from natives of the area. Loans were available to help farmers move from traditional goat herding to building pens and paddocks, including those for more suitable livestock. Walnut farms were encouraged as an alternative income source. Perennial crops provided soil cover and raised local incomes. Land rights were secured and the people of Loess Plateau were taught new ways to manage their farms.
By gradually introducing new farming practices, a cultural adjustment in land management has occurred, mitigating the mismanagement of the past. The reported result has been a sharp increase in income and productivity in the region. Terracing has been shown to significantly improve water retention and crop yields in some places of Loess Plateau, while also being implicated in diverting water from the Yellow River causing it to run dry.
Follow up is revealing that in some parts of the region cultural acceptance has not been so swift and more water is being pulled from the water table than before the terraforming efforts. Yet the net environmental gain seems to overshadow the difficulties with construction and implementation. Witnessing the dramatic revitalization of Loess Plateau shows that consolidated permaculture efforts concentrated in specific regions can have a profound effect on the landscape and prosperity of biologically degraded environments.
Local efforts are often even more successful. Rather than accepting loans from international agencies, more individuals and communities need to make an assessment of their resource management practices. Efficient water management is an essential element of sustainability that permaculture is attempting to address. Conservation of energy is another. It is important to remember that personal efforts really do create change. Following the path of China’s Yellow River permaculture and restoration project, allows us to prepare our thoughts for a future of aggressive resource management.