Restoring ecosystems, transforming lives

This post contributed by Jill Petraglia Parsons, science programs manager at the Ecological Society of America.

In areas of the world where local people rely on subsistence agriculture, ecosystem degradation can threaten the lives and resilience of the community. On China’s Loess Plateau in Linxia County, Gansu, this was exactly the case for some time. Though this area was once incredibly fertile, decades of farming and grazing resulted in desertification, erosion and landslides—communities eventually became caught in a cycle of degradation. When agricultural productivity slowed, an increase in poverty, disease and hunger ensued.

However, the Loess Plateau Rehabilitation Project has shown that success in large-scale ecosystem restoration is possible. A  roughly 35,000 square kilometer area of the plateau has seen drastic change over a ten-year period. Now the Yellow River on which the plateau sits is cleaner, farmers have a longer growing season and local incomes have increased threefold. In addition, the new vegetation cover is helping with carbon capture and making local communities better able to deal with the negative impacts of climate change.

So, what was the key to this project’s success? There was definitely resistance at first, and many did not believe restoring the Plateau’s ecosystem was even possible. One man declared emphatically that the “next generation can’t eat trees,” a sign that he was unsure how the restoration project could improve future livelihoods.

The Chinese government gave land tenure to the locals and compensated them financially for not farming or grazing animals in designated zones. They invested in new technology, terraced agriculture and consulted communities about their priorities and traditional farming techniques. Once the vegetation cover improved, people saw the difference it made in their crop yields and the river’s water quality. They came to value the trees and vegetation cover as a natural resource that was integral to their lives and vital for future generations.

John D. Liu, founder of the Environmental Education Media Project (EEMP) which produced the above film, described this change in a Guardian Weekly article earlier this year:

We did surveys in the early days, and if you asked the Chinese public, “What does the environment mean to you?” they would say, “Nothing, it has nothing to do with us – it’s the government or somebody else’s responsibility.” Now if you ask the public, they would say, “A healthy environment is the most important thing to us.” This is a complete reversal of understanding for the population.

A project of this scale requires many stakeholders acting together and expertise from an array of disciplines; its success requires input from engineers, ecologists, anthropologists, economists, planners, locals, public policy experts and government officials. In the case of the Loess Plateau, the Chinese government also played a key role in restoring a vast amount of land in a relatively short period of time.

Including local opinions and providing financial incentives for changes in livelihoods is critical as well.  Ultimately, success likely depends on the available technology, sufficient capital, government structure and presence, the extent of ecosystem degradation and the degree of participatory processes in project development and implementation.

When compared to successes in Rwanda and Ethiopia, it is abundantly clear that local community members can be effective stewards of land if given ownership. Rwanda’s Rugezi Wetlands have been restored, after the government helped farmers create terraced agriculture on hillsides, and can once again provide valuable hydropower for Kigali. In Ethiopia regenerating vegetation cover also increased agricultural productivity and food security, meaning there was less need for external aid.

On a global scale, Loess Plateau Rehabilitation Project will likely make a significant impact in terms of storing carbon and helping to mitigate climate change. Perhaps the greatest value from the success of the Loess Plateau, however, is a message of hope. With careful planning, commitment and sufficient resources, we can indeed restore ecosystems and transform lives in the process.

This is the story told in “Hope in a Changing Climate,” a film created by the Environmental Education Media Project—an organization focused on increasing public awareness of environmental, public health and sustainable development issues. The film (see above) is designed to appeal to a vast array of audiences, and while some scientific details have been omitted, it sends a powerful message in less than 30 minutes.

Jill holds a Masters in Anthropology of Development from the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK and a B.A. in Environmental Sciences and Policy from Duke University.  She joined ESA in March 2010, and worked previously at several UK charities, the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, and the Duke Lemur Center.

Author: Jill Petraglia-Parsons

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