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Some Policy Suggestions Concerning Returning Arable Land to Forest on the Loess Plateau and Control of Soil Erosion


Wang Xiyu

Located to the east of Riyue and Helan Mountain Ranges, west of Taihang Mountain Ranges, north of Qinling Mountain Ranges and south of the Great Wall, the Loess Plateau characterized with an erosion topographic form in Northwest China, has, according to the calculations by experts concerned, an area of about 360,000 square kilometers inhabited by a population of more than 62 million in 217 counties under separate jurisdiction of seven provinces and autonomous regions. This Loess Plateau region has long been plagued with severe soil erosion and a deteriorating ecological environment. As a result, the Yellow River gathers nearly 1.6 billion tons of sand and silt every year. The area has become a typical ecologically-fragile region with a concentration of the poor population in our country due to the backward productivity and economic underdevelopment.

To control soil erosion on the Loess Plateau and restore ecological balance is not only the eager desiring of the local people, but also a fundamental solution to permanent control of Yellow River floods. Meanwhile, it will have a significant impact on the ecological environment and economic development of the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River, and even the entire national economy as well. Encouraged by General Secretary Jiang Zemin's instruction of "Recreating a Northwest Region with Beautiful Mountains and Rivers" and guided by the control strategy proposed by Premier Zhu Rongji, that is, "Returning arable land to forests (pastures), cordoning off mountains for forests to grow, relief through payment with grain and individual land contracting," people in those areas have started a massive, large-scale campaign of planting trees and grass and controlling soil erosion.

To return arable land to forests, control soil erosion and restore ecological balance is in essence a readjustment of relationship between mankind and nature, which is an arduous and complicated task. More difficulties have popped out due to the fact that the work has usually to be done in poverty-hit areas, where there is a low capability of input and the local people are leading a hard life. Experience in some localities that had taken actions earlier showed that "it's difficult to do the work of returning arable land to forests, but it's even more difficult to ensure there is no recurrence." Therefore, the overall situation should be taken into account when adopting comprehensive measures in dealing with the problem. We will adopt not only engineering and biological measures to regulate the relations between mankind and resources and environment, but also a correct policy to promote local economic development and regulate the relations between people. In addition to properly resolving the problems of people's concept so as to make them change their traditional concept and farming habit, much attention must be paid to the settlement of specific problems. According to an investigation, the prominent problems in those areas at present include a sluggish economic development in the region, difficulties in increasing farmers' income, excessively heavy burdens on farmers and difficulty in controlling population growth. To implement a correct policy, properly resolve those problems, and bring into full play the initiatives of farmers and all the forces of the society––––all these constitute the key factors concerning the success or failure of controlling the soil erosion of the Loess Plateau.

I. To restructure the industrial mix and take livestock as the pillar industry of the Loess Plateau in accordance with the requirements of sustainable development and the construction of ecological environment.

The main body of the Loess Plateau is a semiarid region and a cross strip suitable for livestock, agriculture and forestry, which has an advantageous potential for developing livestock. However, the proportion of livestock in this region is lower than the national average level. One of the reasons for the damaged ecological environment is that agriculture characterized with extensive cultivation has remained the main form of production and attention was focused on blind pursuit of grain production. Therefore, determination must be made to return arable land to forests and grasslands. In the long run, the strategy is to make utmost efforts to develop livestock on the basis of capital construction of farmland, scientific farming and the increase in the self-sufficiency of grain. As a result, livestock can be expected to take up more than 50%-60% of the total agricultural output value. The Loess Plateau region cannot take grain production as its main industry, still less be made a base of grain production.

In the development of livestock, a fundamental measure is to shift the focus to stall-feeding-based animal husbandry and resolutely change the traditional habit of grazing on grasslands. Some successful examples have been made in those areas and their experience needs summing up and popularization. Stall-feeding of sheep and cows can raise remarkably the productivity of livestock and product quality and increase income, it can also prevent domestic animals from destroying the vegetal cover and surface of the loess and help conservation of soil and water. To this end, while improving ecological environment, efforts must be made to accelerate development of the industry of grass planting and fodder processing, improve animal breed and promote commercialization of livestock.

II. While returning arable land to forests (pastures) and improving ecological environment, earnest measures must be taken to ensure the increase in farmers' income.

Under the current situation, most of the farmers on the Loess Plateau have basically solved the problem of food grain, and their difficulties are the lack of cash, poor dwelling conditions, and backwardness in medical conditions, culture and education. Returning arable land to forests and grasslands and the supply of grain by the state may maintain the existing living standard but cannot increase the income of the farmers. In some places where arable land was returned to forests (pastures), the actual income of farmers is likely to fall because the amount of retained-funds collected by the collective and other social burdens have not been cut accordingly. This is the major resistance factor to implementing pro-ecological measures.

In view of this fact, measures must be taken in two aspects -- increasing income and reducing burdens. Apart from considering long-term regional economic development and industrial restructuring, plans should be made to allow farmers to plant a certain amount of cash forest in places where arable land is returned to forests (pastures) so as to increase their income under certain conditions and possibilities, while ecologically-friendly forests and grass are planted on the hillsides where arable land has been returned to forests. In the meantime, vigorous support should be given to the development of local specialty-based economies to speed up the pace of their commercialization. Some supporting measures should be adopted in the near future to avoid a reduction in farmers' income and alleviate their burdens. For instance, agricultural tax and special local product taxes on farm and forestry products can be reduced or exempted in accordance with the area of arable land returned to forests. The collective-retained funds for public welfare undertakings such as non-state subsidized school teachers, the training of militia and preferential treatment given to the families of servicemen and martyrs, which are collected on the basis of arable land should be reduced or exempted. The gap in the expenditure for those activities should be subsidized by the state in a proper way. Moreover, the reduced income of local governments resulting from banning the felling of natural forests should be covered by the budget of the central government by way of transfer payment.

III. Carefully organizing migration work and let it play a positive role in restoring ecological balance.

In some mountainous areas that have no basic subsistence conditions, particularly those areas without water, electricity and roads where farmers live in a scattered way, the farmers "have been living off the mountain" for generations. They opened up the mountain when they had no food for their meals and felled trees when they had no firewood or money. This traditional habit is an important reason for the deterioration of the ecological environment of those areas and also one of the root causes of poverty. In addition, the population growth in those areas is often out of control, thus forming a vicious circle of "the poorer, the more births, and the more births, the poorer; the poorer, the more land reclamation, and the more land reclamation, the poorer." In recent years, some poverty-hit mountainous areas took migration work as an important measure of shaking off poverty, which has achieved obvious results. However, this kind of migration was aimed at getting rid of poverty and dominated by the migration of individual farmers, thus affecting the role of migration in protecting ecology. Therefore, it is suggested that the positive role of migration in restoring ecological environment be enhanced and the work of migration be incorporated into key measures of returning arable land to forests (pastures) and protecting ecological environment.


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