China’s Loess Plateau, roughly the size of France, lies between Tibet and Beijing just south of Mongolia, and is traversed by the Yellow River. Once covered in forest and grassland and the center of Chinese power and wealth, this area eventually became severely degraded by agriculture and unmanaged grazing. The fragile loess soils, composed of glacially deposited fine sediments, were prone to serious erosion when denuded of vegetation. By the 20th Century, the Loess Plateau’s barren landscape was regularly ravaged by dust storms and cycles of flooding, drought and famine. When rain fell, it left the land as quickly as it had come. Some 95% of rainfall simply washed off into gullies, flooding the river and choking it with sediment from extreme erosion.
In the mid-1990s, the Loess Watershed Rehabilitation Project began. The Chinese government working with the World Bank assembled a team of hydrologists, agronomists, and soil and forest specialists to evaluate the problem and what it would take to regreen the region. Apparently engaging local people every step of the way, they identified ecologically destabilizing land management practices, established land management policies (banning agriculture on steep slopes, tree cutting and unmanaged grazing), and developed implementation strategies. Each village was asked to work together to determine how land would be divided fairly among households, each of which received a long-term land use contract for a particular parcel for which they were responsible. Local people were hired to implement ecosystem restoration measures, such as terracing, building small earthen dams to capture rainfall, and planting vegetation. The results have been positive overall, with vegetation and biodiversity returning to a previously desert-like landscape.