If you visit the Loess Plateau right now you will find a suitably luscious landscape in the province thought to be the cradle of Chinese civilisation. Agricultural land is rich in produce and animals, tourism levels have significantly increased, and farmers are reaping the rewards of an economic boom on the land they own, not merely tend to.

It is incredible to think that little over 10 years ago this flourishing ecosystem was devastated to the point of collapse, and no longer able to support the population. Centuries of unsustainable farming on the land caused alarming levels of soil erosion, flooding, nutrient depletion, crop failure, and poverty was widespread throughout the province. No solution seemed sufficient, and after supporting settled agriculture for an estimated 9,500 years, the Loess Plateau seemed beyond repair.

Its transformation into today’s luscious green greatly contrasts the desolation of a decade ago. The answer, we are told, lies in sustainable or regenerative farming, also known as permaculture.

The Root of the Problem

In 1995, the Chinese Government received $300 million in funding from the World Bank Institute, a co-operative providing international financial assistance, to launch a two-stage recovery initiative. After consultations with experts in hydrology, soil dynamics and economics, the Chinese government knew they needed to successfully tackle both the agricultural and social problems in Loess. These issues were both cause and symptom of problems in the area and one could not be resolved without the other.

The actions of destitute farmers who farmed rather than owned the land had exasperated agricultural devastation. As trees were cleared to make way for arable land, the consequent soil erosion was taking a dangerous toll on the great Yellow River, which began to flood regularly with deadly results. For too long, villagers had seen little incentive to preserve trees, which would take years to become profitable, above feeding their families. Cover-crops that don’t benefit yield in the short term, but sustain the soil over the long term, didn’t have much appeal.

When Juergen Voegele, Senior Director of Agriculture Global Practice at the World Bank, spoke to a community in Shaanxi Province about the importance of planting trees, a village elder shouted in exasperation, “people can’t eat trees!”

A New Approach

Incidents like this showed the research team that giving farmers ownership of their own land, and access to the resources and education necessary for more responsible agriculture, was essential to giving them the incentive to improve what it could yield. The farmers worked with the government to create planting techniques and wide-yield terraces to secure the soil and improve crop productivity. They used nitrogen-fixing cover-crops to regenerate nitrogen in the soil, and further reduce erosion.

Long-term land-use rights for the villagers was introduced, giving them a reason to invest in the health of their land and explore the techniques being trialled. The project also protected areas of arable land in order to improve vegetation cover and sediment control. With the support of these farmers, free-range grazing and the indiscriminate felling of trees was banned in order to allow regeneration to take place. Terracing structured ridges of earth across a slope, reducing water damage and erosion, which helped increased the food supply.

The combination of all these techniques has reduced soil erosion by 60 tonnes per year, decreasing the variability in food production, which in turn led to a better standard and price of the crops. As crop security improved, the labour needed was decreased, allowing farmers to pursue secondary projects and improve their financial stability.

Reaping the rewards

A decade later, responsible farming on a local scale has lifted an estimated 2.5 million people out of poverty, making the Loess Plateau Project one of the largest success stories for sustainable farming. In treating the social issues alongside the agricultural, contributors to the project have halted a cycle into seemingly irreversible destruction. It is a remarkable achievement, and those involved are confident that the measures should be adopted in similar environments, and also by domestic farmers and gardeners worldwide. Project leaders passionately claim that their project demonstrates that farmers using sustainable techniques can provide for themselves and a market, while acting as stewards of the earth.