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China's largest sand area looks to green future

SHENYANG, June 14 (Xinhua) -- It looks like a scene from the fertile rice-growing areas of south China.

But the early summer picture of farmer Wang Haiquan working his water buffalos in a paddy field lined with rice seedings is actually in the former sandy area of north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

Wang's village, Fuxingdi, is in Horqin, China's largest sandy area, spreading over Inner Mongolia and the northeastern Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang Provinces.

The sand covers an area of 410 million mu (270,000 square km), and another 113 million mu of surrounding is at risk of desertification.

Liaoning's Fuxin City and neighboring Tongliao, in Inner Mongolia, have become the frontline in the battle to stop the sands being blown south towards Beijing and Tianjin Municipality.

Twelve kilometers north of Fuxingdi, in Zhangwu County of Fuxin, is a boundless stretch of sand where greenery is almost non-existent.

"Rice seedings could not have survived before, as the winds would have buried them with sand," Wang says. "But sandy winds are rare now and the rice we grow has become a brand product."

Enveloping the paddy fields are layer upon layer of tall poplar trees, forming a shield against the furious sandy winds from China's far west or Mongolia.

Wang Xinying, director of Fuxin's afforestation committee office, says, "Horqin has reversed the trend of desertification and the speed of afforestation has surpassed that of desertification."

Horqin was a grassland before overgrazing and drought turned it to sand. Desertification began as early as Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) when the emperors decided to cultivate the area.

Desertification pace accelerated during the large-scale farming movement of the Mao era.

In 1978, the Chinese government decided to build a "Green Great Wall" in the country's north to deal with water loss and soil erosion.

Forest coverage in Tongliao has increased from 8.9 percent in 1978 to more than 23 percent.

According to the State Forestry Administration, each year Horqin's newly forested area is an average 750,000 mu larger than the new sand area.

In Aerxiang Town, Zhangwu County, in southern Horqin, grass and wild flowers emerge among the pine trees in the sand dunes.

Town official Song Bo says, "The ecosystem was basically restored here after we used barbed wire to enclose the grazing area for a decade."
However, the cost of planting trees is "much higher" than elsewhere in China. A 2-year-old pine sapling costs about 10 yuan (1.47 U.S. dollars), a dozen times the price in mild climate areas. Fortunately, central and local government funding pays for most of tree planting.
An artificial forest 1,044 km long and 2 km wide has been formed in the south of Horqin thanks to the money from the local government in 2008.
Wang, of Fuxin's afforestation committee, says the shelterbelt plays a significant role in preventing the damage caused sandy winds and halting the sand dunes on Horqin's border.
Commercial forestry also took off after the central government started a tenure reform of state-owned forests in July 2008.
Wang said better land that could be planted was contracted to farmers in line with the basic policy of the tenure reform, while local forestry departments were in charge of low-quality sandy areas.
Li Xiangbin, of Fuxin, leased more than 12,000 mu of land around the Horqin border and began to plant poplars.

"Green now dominates this area, and there is little wind. Headcloths and masks used to be essential outside and visibility disappeared in sandy winds," he says.

With an initial investment of more than 10 million yuan, Li is hoping to earn hundreds of million of yuan from his timber crop in about 12 years.

Chinese law stipulates that felled trees must be replanted and timber businesses must be officially authorized by the government.

However, Professor Wang Shi, of Jilin University, says desertification is still a serious problem and its management is increasingly difficult.

"Overgrazing and excessive land reclamation still exist. The ecosystems of some areas that have been managed are still vulnerable. Efforts should be made to study more effective technologies to tackle the problem." Enditem

Editor's Note: June 17 marks World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought.

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