Planting the seeds of change: How one Chinese company is using sustainable energy and innovation to fight land degradation

  • Source:库布其国际沙漠论坛
  • Date:2017-08-09

By Wang Wenbiao, Chairman of Elion Group

Desertification remains a global problem impacting 2.1 billion people in 167 countries and regions. China is one of many countries suffering from some of the most serious impacts of desertification, with one quarter of its land and one third of the population at risk.

Kubuqi Desert is China's seventh largest desert, with a total area of 18,600 square kilometers. It is the nearest desert from Beijing and one of the three major sandy wind sources for the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region. In the1970s, I returned to work at a small salt factoryin the hinterland of KubuqiDesert and began fighting with the desert, only to be defeated repeatedly. I then realized that one cannot fight against the desert, but rather conform to it and respect it.I devised a plan for desert eco-economics and put it into practice. The theory contains three dimensions.

First: Comprehensively plan and manage the desert ecosystem in a large-scale and systematic manner.

Thirty years ago, we began our efforts by extracting 5 yuan from the profit of each ton of salt and formed a 27-worker team to deal with the desert.We made initial progress by protecting the ecosystem of the salt factory, but the roots of the problems were left unsolved, mostly because it was not conducted in a large-scale and systematic manner.

Later, with the support of governments at all levels, we planted trees around and inside the deserts and built roads across the desert to deal with each desert section. Trees were planted in the southern, northern and central regions of the desert, along with one forest spanning over 240 kilometers.We also transferred all local residents, built protection forests in the hinterland of the desert and planted large areas of licorice, forest and grass — which were planted in enclosures, by planes and using artificial afforestation.

Eventually, we saw the formation of the desert oasis and ecological microclimate environment, which enabled rainfall and biodiversity to replace sand. As theoasis expands, the environment sees more rainfall, better biodiversity and fewer sandstorms, resulting in a more livable environment. Without systemic planning, it is simply impossible to build an ecological system conducted solely through minor or sporadic greening efforts.

Secondly: Respect the laws of nature, economics and industrial development, and support desert ecological management by developing the desert eco-economy.

We should increase local people’s income in our greening efforts through a combination of factors, including: ecology and industry, enterprise development and ecological management in order to ultimately form a desert ecological industrial system integrating agriculture, industry and the tertiary sector.

To achieve this, we can plant drought-resistant, salinity-tolerant plantsand tap the economic value of desert plants by planting and processing licorice, cistanche, organic fruits and vegetables. Meanwhile, we should balance planting with farming and develop organic and antibiotics-free fodder by planting high-protein sand plants, such as salix, caragana, licorice and alfalfa.

Elion Group encourages cooperation between companies and farmers to feed cow, sheep, bustard and other localized livestock and poultry to improve enthusiasm among locals for cultivation and breeding.

The next step is to develop industries to control desert expansion. We can usebiological, ecological and industrial waste and crop straw decomposition to develop soil amendments, fertilizer, organic fertilizer and other manufacturing industries. To better control desertification and improve soil quality, we set out to cultivate organic farms and develop land economy, reduce sand layer, turn waste into resources and form one comprehensive desert ecological industry chain that is low-carbon, recyclable and pollution-free.

Once that is in place, one must make full use of the energy resourcesthat are freely available. The desert receives some 3,180 hours of sunshine and heat per year. That is power than can be used toward photovoltaic panels, which can produce green energy. From there,planting can do its part against sand and wind, while cattle and sheep waste will go tofertilize these plants, thus achieving a more sustainablecycle amongenergy and ecology.

This very model has been introduced into the Hebei Province’s city of Zhangjiakou to aid in the implementation of the Winter Olympic ecological restoration project and Beijing-to-Zhangjiakou ecological photovoltaic corridor project.

But a sustainable model can’t do it alone. Financial resources must to be leveraged to help sand control. To that end, Elion Resources Group and dozens of large enterprises and financial institutions have launched the "Green Silk Road Fund" to investin ecological restoration and ecological industries. We willrestore desertified land along the Belt and Road through industrial development to benefit people along the Silk Road.

Third: Insist on innovation — including concept innovation, institutional innovation and technological innovation to integrate multiple parties to unite forces.

First, we set out to create a four-wheel driving mechanism, which features government policy support, industrial investment, farmers and herdsmen market-oriented participation and sustainable ecological improvement.

Desert ecological restoration takes a lot of investment and time before one can see and measure its effects. Sustainability could only be achieved when striking the balance among ecology, economy and people's livelihood. Ecology serves as the foundation, economy as the driving force, and people's livelihood as the guarantee.

In the case of the Kubuqi Desert, the government, enterprises and local people formed a close community and achieved a multi-reciprocal, win-win situation. The government introduced plans and policies to stop grazing and support infrastructure development, while enterprises leverage different platforms and investments to make full use of the desert space and resources and integrate state-owned, private and foreign-funded enterprises to develop desert ecological economy.

At the same time, Elion Resources Group established entrepreneurial and employment partnership with local farmers and herdsmen and set up more than 200 professional and technical teams to make the desert greener, enterprises stronger and farmers richer.

Next, we created leading ecological germplasm, planting and industrial technologies. In the Kubuqi area, Elion is the main body of technological innovation, which keeps increasing its investment in science and technology.

As a result, we have developed over 1,000 kinds of seeds of plants that are resistant to cold, drought, salt and alkali, including salix, caragana, hedysarum mongolicum and hedysarum scoparium. We also built west China’s largest sand shrubs, rare and endangered plant germplasm resources and innovated over 100 desert ecological technology achievements including "airflow" tree planting and drone tree planting.

Meanwhile, we also developed over 100 desert ecological technique packages. For example, if you choose to plant licorice, salix and other sand plants, which do not need farming and watering, then these plants can grow well with little to no water. If you plant salix using the "airflow" method, it can be finished in about 10 seconds and they can be grown on high sand dunes with a survival rate of over 90 percent. These technologies have helped solve the challenges that arise in our deserts and have laid the foundation for more efficient desertification control.

After three decades of utilizing these practices, Kubuqi has formed a replicable, promotable and sustainable desertification control model, and it another important contribution to global desertification, as China continues in its mission to promote the construction of ecological civilization.

At present, Elion’s ecological efforts have extended to curbing the desertification, stony desertification, salinization and degradation of the river covering regions from Inner Mongolia to Beijing, Tianjin, Xinjiang, Gansu, Yunnan, Guizhou, Qinghai, Tibet and other regions. Since this foundation, we are expanding to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Australia and other countries along the Belt and Road Initiative.

Our achievements using desert eco-economics in Kubuqi echo President Xi Jinping’s  desire to preserve our lucid waters and lush mountains as invaluable assets as we construct a more ecological civilization. With this "Kubuqi Model,” we’ve created a Chinese solution to dealing with desertification, with desert eco-economics practices that can be promoted in the Belt and Road region.

The sixth Kubuqi International Desert Forum was held in the Kubuqi Desert in Ordos, Inner Mongolia on July 28. The theme of this year’s forum was entitled “Greening the Belt and Road and Sharing the Desert Eco-Economy.”