September 12, 2017

Blue Waters and Green Mountains: Opening A New Era of Integrated Landscape Management in China

Sara ScherrEcoAgriculture Partners

Three impressive landscapes demonstrate the triumphs, and challenges, of integrated landscape management in the world’s most populous country.

In August I spent several energizing weeks in western China, visiting three landscapes with Professor Li Changxiao of China’s Southwest University, one of the country’s leading experts on landscape restoration and a Fellow of EcoAgriculture Partners. While these places each pose strikingly different landscape challenges, in all three the local governments are energetically struggling to devise integrated landscape management solutions and to mobilize partnerships with communities and the private sector to do so. This reflects not just one more new program, but rather is a central feature of China’s official new vision of becoming an “ecological civilization.”

Shifting towards a national policy of eco-development

First, some background. As China pursued its vision of collectivist economic growth, including the Great Leap Forward, during the first decades of Mao’s rule, with massive industrialization and input-driven agro-industrial development, the environment received scant attention; natural resources were valued mainly as inputs to be exploited. By the end of the 20th century, however, the resulting environmental degradation had reached critical conditions, with wake-up calls to policymakers taking the form of damaging floods, landslides and sandstorms; loss of scarce agricultural lands due to salinization, depleted organic matter and contamination with toxic chemicals; water sources unsafe for human use; and chronic levels of air pollution in major cities hazardous to human health.

In response, starting in the 1990s many steps were taken by the government to address the symptoms of unsustainable development—waste clean-up, logging bans, payments to farmers to convert sloping landsto grass or forest, emission controls on pollutants and greenhouse gases, investment in renewable energy and large-scale land restoration programs. China’s government agencies have historically been highly ‘siloed’ with little cross-sector planning or implementation, so these environmental programs were largely on their own.

The new national government formed by President Xi Jinping has officially embraced a new strategy of sustainable development. Not only is the country committed to reach the global 2030 Sustainable Development Goals by 2020—a decade early—but also has embraced a new vision of China as the “ecological civilization.” The three civilian priorities of the government are to invest in the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative building the infrastructure for global trade networks within Eurasia and the Horn of Africa, to eradicate poverty, and to restore and sustain a healthy environment: they explicitly seek to accomplish these in an integrated way. When I asked the best way to translate “integrated landscape management” into Chinese, a group of local researchers suggested we use the language of President Xi to describe this new perspective: “Blue waters and green mountains make mountains of silver and gold.”

Mobilizing local action and innovation

This central government mandate has set off an urgent search for local development strategies that simultaneously deliver economic growth, environmental conservation and community incomes. Provincial and municipal political leaders are being held accountable for achieving these goals, and they are explicitly pushed to devise and use integrated approaches across agriculture, forestry, industry, water, tourism, energy and social development sectors.

A research team led by Dr. Li Changxiao (center) is working to domesticate drought-tolerant native species to assist in landscape restoration efforts in Ningxia Autonomous Region.

These 3 landscapes show what Chinese vision of 'ecological civilization' may mean for agricultural areas. Click To Tweet

This struggle is reflected in the three landscapes I visited, and is already yielding some innovative new strategies. In the temperate, arid Ningxia Autonomous Region, irrigated croplands along the Yellow River are using water-saving practices, developing new industries based on domesticated native plant species and locally-developed wine grape cultivars. A private energy conglomerate is growing commercial wolfberry and alfalfa crops under the largest array of solar panels in Asia. Massive irrigated shelterbelts have been established along the highways, waterways and settlements to green the landscape and protect from driving sandstorms from neighboring Inner Mongolia. Meanwhile, on the rainfed grasslands, a total grazing ban was implemented in 2003 to allow grassland restoration and promote stabling systems, and research is underway on low-cost technologies, based on biomass from invasive species, to accelerate the restoration process.

The Three Gorges reservoir flooded millions of hectares of farmland and communities. Efforts to restore the ecology and economic value of the nearly 3000km shoreline of the reservoir, including the steep slopes of the hydro-fluctuation zone, are underway.

Chongqing Municipality, an urban-agro-industrial center in the high-rainfall sub-tropics, faces quite different challenges.  On the one hand, it is working hard to conserve natural habitats in the context of very rapid urbanization. A unique protected area and botanical garden, Jinyun Mountain Nature Reserve rises 1000 meters above the heart of the city and protects an unusual forest ecosystem, while serving as a beloved recreational center for urban dwellers. The municipality also includes 85% of the reservoir area of the Three Gorges Dam (the dam itself, and associated tourism, are in the neighboring County). With more than 3000 km  perimeter to the reservoir, and a 150-meter, steeply-sloped hydro-fluctuation zone between the high and low water levels in the reservoir, a huge total area is at risk of erosion while its pre-flooding economic value has been lost. I visited some innovative strategies for eco-restoration of these slopes with diverse flood-tolerant perennial trees and grasses that also produce economically valuable products for the farmers who formerly worked them.

The stunning karst hills of Libo County, along with its traditional rice-fish-duck agroecological system, contribute to its inscription as a World Heritage Site. Protecting its cultural and natural qualities, while growing incomes for local residents, is a key challenge.

The most stunning vistas of my visit were the karst hills landscape of Libo County in Guizhou Province. Libo was designated a World Heritage Site in 2007 for its unique geography and ecology. The landscape also has very high agrobiodiversity and notable integrated agroecological practices developed by indigenous peoples in the landscape, such as irrigated rice-fish-duck systems and multi-species fruit agroforestry systems. Tourism is growing quickly and government and private companies are investing heavily in infrastructure, facilities and development of new scenic spots and other attractions. Determined to protect the iconic natural features and ecology in the face of rapid tourism development, and to improve livelihoods of rural communities who lost access rights to the protected forest, the municipal and village governments and local entrepreneurs are promoting new models of eco-friendly development. These include sustainable agriculture and agroforestry production, agro-processing, and value chains that link farmers to tourism service providers and promote agroecotourism. Organic herbs, ornamentals and nutritional plants known for their quality, free-range chickens and eggs and other eco-friendly products are also being sold through the internet across China.

What next?

I will be watching with great interest to see whether and how China can sustain a transformative local process integrating the work of multiple government agencies, and public-private-community landscape partnerships towards creating new synergies between economic growth, sustainable agriculture, poverty reduction and ecosystem management. The focus and scale of policy ambition in China, backed by substantial government budgets  and incentives, private and public financial mobilization, and new standards and monitoring systems, promises to catalyze new models that could be relevant elsewhere. We at EcoAgriculture hope to learn from their experience, and share our own with Chinese partners.

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