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Conservation and Development on the Loess Plateau

It takes ten years to grow trees but a hundred years to educate a person--Chinese Proverb

Story by Joy Liu August 13th, 2016

on the Loess Plateau

Agriculture has always been a crucial part of the Chinese identity and cultural heritage. At the heart of China, where agriculture began to flourish, is the Loess Plateau, which has taken millions of years to be blown in by the wind, and known as ‘cradle of Chinese civilization’. The Loess Plateau covers an area 2.5 times the size of UK, and is stripped away by the mighty Yellow River, a raging torrent which washes up to 1.6 billion tonnes of soil downstream every year (Williams 2010).

Researchers and policy makers in China and around the globe have been working on soil and water conservation on Loess Plateau since the dawn of 20th Century. From the eastern part of Loess Plateau, climate transitioned from semi-arid to arid to the inner west. Facing the encroaching desertification from Inner Mongolia to the north and the massive urbanization projects within the region, rural farmers on the Loess Plateau are torn between conservation agriculture, mechanization, and relative deprivation when compared to their urban counterparts.

The Yellow River gets its name from the yellow loess suspended in the water.

Ecological construction

To control severe soil erosion on the Loess Plateau, the Chinese government imposed a series of policies for fragile ecosystems, such as the 1999 state-funded “Grain-for-Green“ project or Sloping Land Conversion Program, which has resulted in significant land use changes. Related programs have produced beneficial effects on reducing soil erosion and water cycles. However, the long term impact of these changes in soil and water cycle on ecosystem functioning is unknown and demands further study. Against this backdrop, forestry agencies on the Loess Plateau has opened up experimental spaces for different approaches to ecological restoration, including efforts led by grass-roots organizations.

Trees are required to plant along side all major highways, railroads, and especially urban centers.
Terraced hill planted with mixture of Robinia psudoacacia (Black locust), Populous simonii (Cottonwood) and Pinus tabulaeformis (red pine) seedlings.
The fragile, loosely packed loess soil crumbles easily, its powdery texture is prone to erosion.

Great aridness

The challenge of reforestation on the Loess Plateau is the efficient and reasonable use of water resources and soil conservation due to the characteristic hilly and fragmented landscape. Terracing and soil amendments are among the many ways to achieve this goal. Mostly rain-fed agriculture (annual precipitation ranges from 400 to 600 mm), the vegetation includes naturally grown grass, shrub and trees that scattered at the edge of hills and gullies. The word “loess” comes from the German word for “loose.” Loess is soft enough to carve, but strong enough to stand as sturdy walls. On the loess plateau, more than half of the residents build cave-like dwellings in thick loess cliffs that are cool in summer and warm in the winter.


Every inch of land worth a gold

Not all lands are suitable for reforestation. Those with least productivity and steep slopes, which cost a lot for maintenance are designated as reforestation zone. Native species that are tolerant of drought is planted with proper density to avoid unnecessary water consumption. On the other hand, corn had become more than just a subsistence staple, but a commercialized product on the Loess Plateau. In 2012, corn surpassed rice to become the largest single crop produced in China, who has doubled its share of global corn output from about 10 percent in the early 1960s to over 20 percent now, and is the second-leading corn producer in the world after the United States. (The U.S. share of world output is about 40 percent in most years.)

Corns and more corns.

The pursuit of happiness

Reforestation does not produce immediate financial gains for farmers to improve their quality of life. In rural China, the definition of well-being is changing, albeit slower than its urban counterparts. I still remember a local village resident who hosted me during my three-days visit in rural Lanzhou asked: “Are you here to lift the poor?”. The term, lifting the poor, is the party-government’s official lexicon, a term very pervasive in rural China. The residents of the village are conscious of the fact that they were being labeled “poor”, which in China also implies “backwardness” and lacking “quality” (素質) and “civilisation” (文明).

Perhaps similar to the concept of adopting a needing family during Christmas season in the U.S., in China, almost every public agency from local to national-level, has an adopted and designated village that they are responsible for supporting financially all year long, as part of the National poor lifting policies.

Under the development banner of “Scientific development & Harmonious homeland“, at present, almost all rural villages in Gansu have access to electricity, television, cell phones, health care and agricultural programs funded by the government. However, the massive urbanization projects, which are developed to correct regional disparities are usually easier said than done.

Nothing more valuable than a smile on the face of an elderly who lived through the demolished, transformed & accelerated ages of China.
Walking back home on a foggy and rainy day in late July in rural Gansu. Gate reads: "Scientific development & Harmonious homeland".
Sheep and cattle are increasingly becoming profitable commodities as the commercial market grows in the region.
Walking home after school.
A proud moment for Mrs. S, who received honorable recognition for achievement as "Advance Agriculture Development Individual from 2006-10".

conservation farming

The transition from smallholders economy to larger-scale commercial production requires sound and steady adaptation that fits local social and environmental management arrangements. The term conservation tillage and conservation agriculture (CA) is prevalent in rural northwest China. Increased water infiltration and reduction in water and wind erosion is achieved through reduced tillage and retention of ground cover. But it is still moderately embraced by farmers, who are skeptical of the outcome of some of its lauded technology and find precision agriculture not worthy of investment when market prices are volatile in the near future. However, several techniques have already been widely implemented due to its easy access, low cost and risk, such as: large-scale terracing, ridge-furrow irrigation, plastic mulch, and fertilizer.

Film mulch reduces water usage through reducing evapotranspiration. However, massive used films has become a waste issue.
Every household in the mountainous area has at least one water cellar to harvest rain water.
Semi-outdoor composting toilets is very common.
Checking the crops: river irrigated corns with slow-release nitrogen fertilizer experimental zone.
Used corn collected and stored for winter use as burning fuels.
water pathway.png

Great expectations

What is missing from the push for conservation agriculture and reforestation is the ‘human development’ component. What does the future entail for the villagers in Shanxi and Gansu provinces? What are their visions of their land and lives for future generations? Is it the Chinese Dream proposed by president Xi Jinping? How could people with little power in the state-making machine avoid falling apart as they enter the crazy swirl of “modernization”?

girl in barn.png
Preparing watermelon for the guests (officials, NGO).
Wash your hands and face, and keep in mind water are scarce resource here in Loess Plateau.


As technology and science advances, would we be able to create a sustainable future in a meaningful manner in less than a few decades when the weight of history is still strapped on our shoulders? This history that both Chinese leadership and advanced developed countries considered ‘backward’.

There is a longstanding tendency in the Western media to paint China in negative and hostile narratives, partly because of westerners’ preoccupation with human rights and related notions inherited from the Cold War era, as pointed out by Sullivan (2015) and many other scholars. Some regard China as merely another successful or doomed avatar of Euro-America’s politico-economic institutions, and feel no need to take a serious look at the Chinese experience on its own terms. However, attentive observers of China would notice how as a nation, people from rural to urban areas in China has been readjusting herself and grapple with clashing ideologies (McVeigh 2015) in a plural normative world on her route towards modernization and globalization.

In the rural villages in Shanxi and Gansu, people continue their search for prosperity, as well as negotiate their place in the pro-development pursuit of modernization led by the government.

It takes 10 years to grow trees but 100 years to educate a person. (Chinese Proverb) 十年樹木百年樹人

Is it possible that when we (outsiders) view China, we miss the forest for the trees? In both developed and developing countries, conservation efforts are growing as concerns about environmental sustainability led both Chinese top leaders and citizens question their earlier approaches towards development. The durability and environmental outcome of these government-sponsored and grass-root initiated reforestation projects is unknown at this time, but the cooperative process among local officials, NGO and farmers is valuable because it offers an alternative way of governance that enables ‘two-way learning’, albeit slow, that would help us understand how to incorporate the human-development considerations with the technocratic way we govern our environment.

A modern public health worker and a local elderly.
Reforested area from 2007 in Shanxi.


I hope that combining the empirical nuts and bolts of a phenomenon (reforestation) in a particular society (rural China), with a historically informed and cross-cultural view, will benefit researchers and the general public a like by providing a healthy perspective and thereby respects the diversity of the human condition. As a fellow of the 2014-2015 Confluence Center Fellowship at the University of Arizona, I had the opportunity to explore ways to apply and communicate the relevance of interdisciplinary research that centers on this very reforestation project and the agriculture development that is happening in rural China. With the guidance from Dr. Thomas Sheridan and other peers from Confluence fellowship, I was inspired to translate scientific work into a photo essay to engage the general public.

Acknowledgements: The Green Action Charity Foundation (GACF) based in Hong-Kong is the leader and sponsor of the reforestation project, along with Shanxi Academy of Forestry, and local researchers, farmers from both Shanxi and Gansu provinces, and my advisor, Dr. Diane Austin. Without their support, this discovery could not be made. It is essentially a confluence of people and ideas that allow us to gain a glimpse into a lesser known world in the continuing making of modern China.

Footnote: All photography by Joy Liu ( in 2013 and 2014 in Shanxi and Gansu, China.