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China’s Greening of the Vast Kubuqi Desert is a Model for Land Restoration Projects Everywhere

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With hands stretched wide, Meng Baoyindaogetao backs the ewe into a corner, seizes it by the horns and swings his leg over its back. A farmhand then approaches cradling an emaciated lamb, barely a few days old. The little creature’s tail begins to wag as it latches onto the sheep’s underbelly. “He’s weak,” Meng says of the lamb. “But he should survive.”

Life has a chance these days in Inner Mongolia’s Kubuqi Desert, around 18,600 sq km of golden sand dunes that plunge south in an arc from China’s Yellow River. Centuries of grazing had denuded the land of all vegetation, and the region’s 740,000 people were wallowing in isolated poverty. “In the past, if people built a house, they used mud and straw bricks,” sighs the 60-year-old Meng. “We had a tough life.”

But it is one that is now improving. In 1988, the Chinese firm Elion Resources Group partnered with local people and the Beijing government to combat desertification. Almost three decades later, one third of Kubuqi has been greened. Special plants have been grown to grip the shifting sands and to prevent the dunes encroaching on farms and villages.

The cattle have returned, and secondary industries have sprung up, with tourists flocking to new locally-run hotels and restaurants, eager to explore the dunes on boards and buggies. “Before, if we needed a box of matches, it meant a day’s ride to the shop by camel or donkey,” says Meng’s 39-year-old son Kedalai, who runs a thriving restaurant serving local specialties like yoghurt candy and platters of roast lamb. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates the Kubuqi Ecological Restoration Project — to give the greening of the desert its formal name — to be worth $1.8 billion over 50 years.

Kubuqi’s transformation burnishes China’s credentials as an environmental leader at a time when Washington is retreating from its international commitments. When President Donald Trump refused to reconsider U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate agreement, which he announced on June 1, France’s newly elected President Emmanuel Macron said it flat out: “Now China leads.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping had already made that pitch when he become the first Chinese leader to address the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, calling the Paris Agreement “a responsibility we must assume for future generations.” China is the world’s biggest carbon emitter — pollution regularly chokes its cities, grounds flights, and may figure in a third of deaths across the country — but it also has the zeal of a convert. It is the world’s largest renewable-energy investor (nearly $90 billion last year) and employs 40% of the sector’s global workforce, aiming for 13 million jobs by 2020. Today, five of the world’s top six solar manufacturing firms hail from China, where the cost of panels dropped 30% this year.

Kubuqi, for one, boasts China’s largest single-stage solar farm, boasting 650,000 fixed and sun-tracking panels, which together channel 1,000 megawatts of electricity into the national grid — about half the power-generating capacity of the Hoover Dam. A team of 47 households are employed to maintain the panels. “Everyday each household can clean more than 3,000 panels using high pressure water jets,” says chief engineer Tian Junting. “And the run-off water feeds the crops that grow underneath.”

The Kubuqi project illustrates how private firms can tackle environmental degradation, boost livelihoods and safeguarding the planet — all while chasing profits for themselves. The scheme won Elion the 2013 Global Dryland Champion Award — a prize given out by the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification — in recognition of the “tremendous impact” on local people’s lives, says convention spokeswoman Yukie Hori. “It was a wonderful model that partners with the people who live there rather than bringing in others from outside.”

Nevertheless, the Kubuqi desert project was born of business necessity rather than altruism. In 1988, Elion founder Wang Wenbiao, a Kubuqi native, took control of the near-bankrupt Hangjinqi Saltworks in the middle of the desert. At that time, all the salt produced had to be transferred to market via a roundabout 350 km route, as there was no road through the desert to the nearest train depot, just 65 km away as the crow flies.

During the area’s frequent sandstorms, all transportation ceased. Wang knew that he needed a direct road for the salt works to survive, and built one — but the sand quickly swallowed it. It became clear the desert had to be tamed, but that would only be possible if the local community benefited at the same time. “Welfare work alone is not sustainable,” says He Pengfei, secretary general of Elion’s charitable foundation. “It may last five or ten years but not 100 years. So we had to make sure local people made a profit alongside us.”

A general view shows the desertification transformation project on the outskirts of Dalate
A file photo shows the transformation of the Kubuqi Desert on the outskirts of Dalate county in north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region on July 11, 2007.Jason Lee—REUTERS

At first, the local community were paid to plant trees, but most of the saplings died, as nobody had a monetary stake in their survival. So Elion began to offer bonuses for trees that lasted the distance and the survival rate soared. Then they pioneered a method of planting willow trees (chosen because they require little rain) using high-pressure water jets, reducing planting times from 10 minutes to 10 seconds per seedling. There was much trial and error along the way. “We had many failures,” says He. “We brought poplar seeds from U.S. but they were not appropriate. Only after 25 years did we reach the stage where we made a profit.”

Today, the sand is lush with drought-resistant trees and hedysarum laeve maxim, a flowering bush. “We pretty much have the deforestation problem handled,” says chief engineer Han Meifei. “The challenge now is to industrialize it.”

To earn profits from the greening, local people are encouraged to grow licorice, which doesn’t require much water and can be sold for large sums for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). (The root is an integral part of many TCM treatments, and TCM’s herbal preparations together make up almost a quarter of China’s pharmaceutical industry.) After four years a crop of licorice root is harvested, by which time the soil has regained enough integrity to host other crops, such as grapes, tomatoes and potatoes.

“We say Kubuqi licorice is the best because it red while other is black,” says Wu Zhi Hua, 60, who earns 6,000 renminbi ($900) a month from her licorice plot. That’s 50% more than her son can earn mining coal in a pit outside the nearby city of Ordos. “It’s very dangerous work and of course I worry about him,” she tells TIME. “I hope my son can come back one day so he can do something for his hometown, and he can make a contribution to our community.”

The Kubuqi model cannot be applied to turn any patch of desert into lush oases; it restores only recently degraded land. But the lessons learned in Kubuqi will prove invaluable in a country that boasts the world’s largest population but only 7% of its arable fields, and where 27% of the land suffers from degradation. The provinces of Gansu, Hebei, Xinjiang and Tibet are undergoing similar greening work. Teams from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have also studied the lessons of Kubuqi, and there’s a great opportunity for China to export green tech along Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative — a $900 billion trade and infrastructure network spanning the ancient Silk Road across Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa. About 2 billion people around the globe depend on drylands, 90% of them in developing countries.

Among them are people like Meng, whose original herd of 200 sheep has now swollen to 700, along with 80 cows. Today, he earns up to $30,000 a year, which is a fortune for this part of China. Many of his neighbors still aren’t as well off as he’d like them to be — “many local people still live on government handouts,” he says — but things are slowly improving.

Soon Meng thinks he might even be able to enjoy that most exotic of pleasures — a holiday. He says he would like to visit the nation of Mongolia, to the north. “After all, my ancestors were from there — you know, Genghis Khan,” he says.

Once more, the Khan’s progeny are on the warpath, only this time it is desert that they conquer — leaving behind greenery, not scorched earth, in their wake.

With reporting by Zhang Chi/Kubuqi

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Write to Charlie Campbell / Baotou at charlie.campbell@time.com