China is the most populous and possibly one of the most diverse nations on the planet, with a population of over 1.3 billion people and 56 ethnic groups. What each one of those people shares with the rest of the world, regardless of political, linguistic, economic, and existential differences, is the complete and utter dependence on the ability to find food. In China’s Loess Plateau, sustained generational farming had depleted the soil, leaving in its wake a textured landscape of dust. When winds came, the dust blew into cities, compromising air quality. In the rains, it washed down the valley, depositing more of the silt that gives the Yellow River its name. In 1995, scientists and engineers surveyed the land of the Loess Plateau in an attempt to determine what was causing the once fertile belt to be a thorn in the country’s. The results of their study led to an experiment in permaculture in China that offers hope to the world.
John D. Liu, Chinese American ecologist and documentary film-maker, documented the project in an award-winning film called Hope in a Changing Climate. In the film that Liu narrates, he reports that the first thing that the scientists discovered was a causal relationship between ecosystem destruction and human poverty. Where environmental degradation is severe, the population becomes trapped in a downward spiral. Because they needed to eat to survive, generational subsistence farming had stripped the land bare in the Loess Plateau. In search of food for themselves and their flocks, farmers and their families continued to deplete the fertility of the surrounding ecosystem, further impoverishing themselves.
When scientists developed the plan to restore the ecosystem in China’s Loess Plateau, generational farmers had to be convinced that not farming was critical for their families’ long-term survival. To get buy in from the locals who did not understand how their families would eat if they were not allowed to farm, the government subsidized them and taught them how to do the work that would restore their land from a scarce dirt pit to a thriving ecosystem.