Bao Yongxin is a driven man. The 43-year old farmer in Aohan of Inner Mongolia wants one thing above anything else, and that is to contribute to helping the desert county and it’s half a million plus population to prosper. But prosperity will never come unless his community can repel the biggest peril snapping at their land: the advancing desert.
Born and raised in a desert village where lives depend on the resources of the farms, Yongxin has been feverishly fighting that peril for nearly two decades, and is now recognized as a warrior against desertification.
As nomads, Yongxin’s family lived off raising cattle and subsistence farming, growing wheat and corn. While the family owned enough land to meet their need, there was one problem: the sand, blown in by the frequent dust storms from the advancing deserts, was continuously piling up in their farms, as well as at their homes. In the early nineties, the storms got very severe and as a result, farming became almost impossible. Also, the dust deposit kept getting higher each season. As a result, the family was forced to abandon their home and move into a new house. “In the past 17 years, we have changed our home three years.” says Bao.
Things then came to a point where the farmer had but two choices: abandon their village altogether and migrate to the nearby city, or do something to stop the menace of desertification.
He chose the latter.
Recalls Bao the incident that led to this decision: “It was the year of 1993. That year, the sand storms and wind had been stronger and more frequent than ever before. One night, it rained very heavily. The wind was so strong that it blew away the roof of my house. It was painful to see my wife with my infant children suffering, yet I could do nothing to help them. I felt very helpless. That night I decided that I had to start fighting the desert.”
The next morning, Bao went to meet the officials at local forestry department. The department had, by then, decided to start an aforestation program to check rapid desertification in all of Inner Mongolia. So, it provided Bao free saplings to plant and also an economic package to get by with a changed lifestyle. The changes included a complete halt of cultivation in his farm which was already degraded soil by then. In addition, the department advised Bao to stop open grazing and instead, raise his cattle in a fenced area, so they won’t chomp on the grass and saplings all over the village.
The result was amazing: in a single season Bao planted seven thousand saplings – a record for an individual anywhere in the county. Since then the farmer planted tens of thousands of trees over nearly 20 thousand ha of land.
For this exemplary effort, he was honored by Wen Jiabao, the prime minister of China, in 2007. In his speech, Jiabao described Yongxin as ‘a model combatant of desertification.’
Bao says that the task was not easy, but there was an urgency to do it. “The sand was rapidly shifting, covering new areas of our village and the farm. So, we had to begin by ensuring that the sand didn’t move. So, we started building ‘check posts’ with straw,” he recalls.
The method Bao adopted is a mix of two techniques: sand dune checks and the mulch. In the first one, tiny squares are made with in the sand with dry straw planted around them. Once the square of check is created, a sapling – usually a drought-resistant variety - is planted in the middle of it. Bao Yongxin has planted at least 3 varieties of them: ‘Caragana’, ‘Yellow willow’ and ‘Artimesia’. The last one – Artemesia – is known as the ‘pioneer grass’ as it dies after about a year, allowing other plants to grow.
The second technique is known as the Mulch in which tiny beds of straw are laid on the sand using as a covering.
According to Mansour N’Diaye, Chief of Cabinet, United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), both these techniques are used to retain moisture in the soil, suppress weeds and keep the sand cool. Organic mulches also help improve the soil’s fertility, as they decompose, and help increase the growth of the sapling planted. The techniques are now also being used by desert dwellers in Iran and in Namib and Kalahari deserts in Africa. “It is extremely important to combat the desertification and save the land that is our main basket of bread,’”says N’Diaye.
The plantation is done on the onset of Monsoon, so the saplings will be rain-fed and will not need to be watered. However, Bao says that the growth of the plants and very slow and needs constant checks – a reason why Bao must stay close to the desert areas. The result, however, has been rewarding; stabilized sand and the cover of green have led to the improved quality of the top soil. As a result, Bao is cultivating the farm again and is reaping better harvest. “The production has grown by 70%”, says the farmer who grows fruits such as apple and melon in his farm, besides corn.
The increased production has also improved his lifestyle. So Bao and the fellow farmers in his village now have tiled roof houses with solar power. “I also have a mobile phone,” says Bao who has two sons whom he named ‘Saudi’ and ‘Arabia’. ‘They were born when there was sand all over my house and my farm. So these are the only names I could think of. I have heard that ‘Saudi Arabia’ is also full of sand.” says Bao with a smile.
As a father, Bao is proud of the fact that his children will not face the danger of being homeless as he did because the sand is more stabilized now. But he also says that one must keep up creating the green cover. “Desertification is a real danger to our livelihood as it threatens to take away everything we have and leave us with nothing. But it is possible to fight it. We may have to make some small changes and small sacrifices. I had to stop farming for some years during which I treated the soil. But finally, I got back my land. I also had to stop grazing my cattle in the open and instead raise them in a fenced area. But it all pays off at the end,” says the sand fighter, happiness gleaming in his eyes.