Striking a Balance Between Ecology and Development
Compared with greenhouse gas emissions from industrial sectors, emissions from agricultural sectors, which can be high, have long been overlooked, particularly in the production of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This is according to Lin Kuocheng, director of the Inner Mongolia program of The Nature Conservancy (TNC). Founded in the U.S. through grassroots action in 1951, The Nature Conservancy has grown to become one of the most effective and wide-reaching environmental organizations in the world. Now, the organization is cooperating with the local government in Inner Mongolia to advance climate-smart agricultural projects, trying to blaze a path of green, high-quality development for agriculture and husbandry.
Xigou Village in Bairin Left Banner, Chifeng City, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, is one of the places where TNC carried out its agricultural projects. According to the village’s Party branch secretary Wu Chunlin, in order to rehabilitate the ecological environment, the small village with only 316 permanent households began to implement the national policy of returning marginalized farmland to forestry in 2015. A professional afforestation company has been designated to restore vegetation in the village. Villagers who return their grain plots to forestry are entitled to a subsidy. Since the campaign began, there are now around 500 hectares of arable land left in the village. Locally produced crops are mainly corn and sorghum.
Before the TNC project came to the village, local farmers had been following the traditional farming practice, putting their harvest at the mercy of the elements. After the irrigation facility was installed, during the spring sowing and drought periods, widespread irrigation began to be adopted in the village. Sitting in a semi-arid region and enjoying ample sunshine, rainfall in the area is mainly concentrated in the summer months, accounting for 70 percent of the annual amount. In 2017, Lin Kuocheng, as director of the TNC project in Bairin Left Banner, came to the village and introduced a brand-new farming method for local people.
“We intend to develop climate-smart agriculture via nature-based solutions (NbS), which have the potential to solve ecological problems and increase farmers’ income,” said Lin. TNC defines NbS as “actions to protect, sustainably manage and restore natural or modified ecosystems that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits.” Utilizing its global resources, experience, and advanced technology, TNC has implemented a comprehensive pilot project in the village, involving structural adjustment of agriculture and animal husbandry, forestry and grassland restoration, ecological management of watercourses, wetland protection and restoration, and technical guidance and training. To advance their project in Xigou Village, the TNC team had to persuade local farmers to give up their original planting methods and adopt the double-ridge planting technique featuring full mulch film coverage over a vast area of land. The merit of the new method is that the mulch film can ensure that rainfall is retained in the soil rather than quickly evaporating. Meanwhile, the construction of check dams can prevent water and soil loss, thus realizing water conservation and land protection.
The ongoing degradation of arable land caused by traditional farming methods had led to local farmers constantly moving to new parcels of land to grow crops. To this conundrum, the solution given by TNC was to develop environmentally friendly dryland farming, while restoring local ecological functions. Taking advantage of local big temperature differences between day and night and ample sunshine, Lin’s pilot farming project team has tried to avoid the use of herbicides and pesticides, lower the input in farming, only rely on rainfall, and improve quality and output of agricultural produce, thus maximizing farmers’ income as much as possible.
The pilot project’s outcome has pleased local villagers. “Farmers’ income increment was up to RMB 7,500 per hectare,” said Wu. The encouraging result made their project promotion in the next year easier. In 2020, the arable land that adopted the new planting technique increased to around 340 hectares from 27 hectares, accounting for more than half of the village total. The successful pilot project in Xigou Village has also attracted the participation of its adjoining villages, even with no financial support available.
After the Grazing Ban
Taohai Gacha, a typical pastoral village about 60 kilometers south of Xigou Village, hosts another TNC pilot project in Bairin Left Banner.
In summer, vast stretches of green grass set against the blue sky make it difficult to believe there once was serious water and soil loss caused by overgrazing in the past. However, what are missing in this charming picture today are herds of cattle and flocks of sheep, due to the local grazing ban. In January 2019, supported by local government and TNC, Longgao Farming and Husbandry Cooperative was founded. The project also aims to increase herdsmen’s income with less input, thus guiding local people to pursue a more ecologically friendly method of husbandry. To make grazing prohibition feasible, they have to provide suitable feedstuff for the livestock.
In the “fresh grass” processing plant of the cooperative, its leader Wan Fu demonstrated how to produce “fresh grass” fodder. They first grow oats, barley, and wheat in a greenhouse until their green shoots emerge, and then mix them with straw and hay and process them into a special type of fodder, which has a pleasant taste for cattle and sheep. After making the new fodder available, local people began to rear livestock in pens. “The new rearing method has led to husbandry costs dropping. For a sheep, during its three-month growth period, the amount of costs saved is around RMB 180,” said Wan. In addition, the new method has also saved labor costs as compared with traditional grazing. As the new feeding merits became visible, more and more local herdsmen have joined the cooperative with the participating household number reaching 30 from the original seven.
“For many villagers, without the accompanied income increase, they would not pay attention to those projects aimed to alleviate climate change, which is seemingly irrelevant to their lives. So, on different levels, government, villagers, and non-profit organizations all have their respective focuses. For example, farmers’ main concern is agricultural production, while organizations like TNC focus on ecological improvement, and government addresses the issue of how to balance production and ecological protection,” said Lin. The pilot projects in Xigou and Taohai Gacha aim to demonstrate that with an improved ecological, agricultural, and husbandry environment local people can have better livelihoods.
China Three Gorges Corporation (CTG) is an important cooperation partner for these pilot projects, which has ensured the sustained capital input.
“Since 2003, China Three Gorges Corporation has invested nearly RMB 300 million to partner in projects of Bairin Left Banner to help with poverty alleviation. Our cooperation with TNC in Inner Mongolia started in 2017,” said Zhang Yan, a manager at CTG who is now on temporary assignment as deputy magistrate of Bairin Left Banner. Those poverty-alleviation projects, including the one in Xigou Village, have been jointly financed by CTG and TNC with an annual input of RMB 2.2 million from 2019 to 2021. The capital has been used to purchase seed sowing machines, film-picking machines, and mulch film, along with covering labor expenses.
“Despite some capital input, we mainly provide intellectual support. It’s CTG that has given the major part of financial support,” said Lin. The most important lesson he has learned from the rural projects is to avoid asking cash-strapped farmers to invest capital at the outset of the projects. In the first year of Lin’s project, participating farmers were given free production materials including mulch film; and from the second year, villagers can exchange labor and livestock manure for mulch film. “Without capital input required, farmers would be more willing to participate due to the low risk,” said Lin. Even so, when the project started in 2019, to dispel villagers’ qualms, Lin’s team promised to pay RMB 6,000 per hectare if harvest failed after farmers adopted the new farming methods.
Now, TNC’s projects in Bairin Left Banner have begun to show positive results, which have enhanced his confidence in building the region into a national demonstration area for climate-smart agriculture.
How to recycle and dispose of the deserted mulch film is becoming the TNC team’s next major concern. Such solutions as introducing treatment factories and using degradable mulch films have been discussed with local farmers, who are unknowingly changing their farming concept. Originally, even mulch film was a novelty for them; but now concepts like degradation have become familiar. The issue of climate change has penetrated into the very fiber of their life.
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