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.
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.