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China's 'warrior of the sands' battles deserts

04 november 2011, 11:23
Using a tried and tested method, Wang Youde digs into a sand dune to build small square ramparts out of straw in which plants designed to check the desert's relentless advance will take root, AFP reports.

Wang, 57, is the head of the Baijitan collective farm in Ningxia, a remote region of northern China that is regularly battered by ferocious sandstorms and whose capital is under threat from the expanding Maowusu desert.

Ningxia, next to the vast Gobi desert, is often called the "thirsty country".

As a youth, Wang witnessed the ravages of desertification, from lost cultures to families forced to flee and houses buried -- events that have affected him deeply.

"At the beginning, the situation we faced was very difficult. We did not have the money to fight the sands. We even had to go to the town to find financing," says Wang, whose face is deeply tanned after decades of working in the open air.

Along with his relatives -- who, like him, are members of China's Hui Muslim minority -- Wang launched himself into a Sisyphean battle to try to "fix" the dunes of the Maowusu.

His method of using straw to fence off plants and protect them is simple, but labour intensive. The Baijitan cooperative employs around 450 workers who live on site, two thirds of them Muslims.

"Each worker has an annual target of digging 10,000 holes, sowing 10,000 plants and makes 10,000 yuan ($1,567)," says Wang.

Using water taken from the region's very deep water table, they are achieving miracles. The director shows off the fruits of his project -- orchards, planted in a sandy valley, that produce juicy apples.

All around, the sand dunes are chequered with squares of green as bit by bit the vegetation takes over. Wang says the planting has slowed the winds carrying the sand by 50 percent.

The Baijitan reserve covers 1,480,000 mu -- a Chinese measure equivalent to around 100,000 hectares. It contains a "green belt" 10 kilometres (six miles) wide and 42 kilometres long intended to contain the advance of the dunes.

The land belongs to the state, but the government only puts up around one fifth of the financing with the rest coming from the sale of farm produce, including apples and peaches.

Chinese leaders including President Hu Jintao and Vice-President Xi Jinping have travelled to Baijitan to hail it as a "model" project.

Wang is a classic example of the heroes that China's Communist leaders are trying to promote, and who also include Yang Liwei, the first Chinese man in space, and Yuan Longping, inventor of a hybrid rice.

The "warrior of the sands", as he is known, was even one of the torch carriers at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

But his success belies the harsh realities elsewhere in China, where experts say the desert is gaining at a rate of several thousand square kilometres a year. Desert already makes up more than a quarter of the country.

Agro-economist Lester Brown says that around 24,000 villages in China's north-west have been totally or partially abandoned since 1950.

"China is now at war. It is not invading armies that are claiming its territory, but expanding deserts," he wrote recently.

"Old deserts are advancing and new ones are forming like guerrilla forces striking unexpectedly, forcing Beijing to fight on several fronts. And in this war with the deserts, China is losing."

Nonetheless, China's limited success in the fight against desertification has become a global reference point, and foreign experts and political leaders are flocking to Baijitan to see the project.

Hussein Hawamdeh of the University of Jordan is one. He told AFP in Ningxia that China's experience had been useful in his country's Badia region, a major farming area that is under threat from rapid desertification.

By Sebastien Blanc

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