08/11/2006, 00.00
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China and Italy working together on an innovative reforestation project

Sino-Italian cooperation applies innovative methods in Inner Mongolia, demonstrating that the desert can be stopped. Specialised technology, precision and respect for the land are the bases of good results.

Beijing (AsiaNews) – Deserts might be progressing from the north-west and the whole of northern Asia might experience dust storms, but in Inner Mongolia Italian and Chinese experts are working on innovative reforestation technologies that can halt the process of desertification.

In China, beginning in the 1950s, wrong farming policies centred on cultivation and animal grazing wiped out entire forests. Deserts were thus able to expand.

This was true also for Chifeng, a municipality in Inner Mongolia. During the Liao dynasty, about a thousand years ago, its territory was 96 per cent forests. Today it is 51 per cent desert, right in its heart, and expanding because of intensive farming and sheep rearing.

But it is here that the "Vallerani" system is being applied. Named after Italian engineer Venanzio Vallerani, this system is part of a project funded by the Chinese Ministry of the Environment and Land Preservation. Its goal is to reclaim degraded grazing and sandy areas in Balinzuoqi County, Chifeng.

Preliminary results presented at a June 5 assessment meeting indicated that some 280 hectares (700 acres) of land was replanted in just under a month with 690,000 saplings, including larches (20 per cent), bainingtiao or shrubs (60 per cent) and shanxing or wild almond trees (20 per cent), all this without any major irrigation project or invasive practices. Trial runs included direct seeding, drip irrigation using recycled plastic bottles and organic fertiliser.

Ground treated this way showed a remarkable capacity to harvest rain water. Costs were lower and work less labour-demanding. A special tractor designed by Vallerani was used—despite the rocky soil, its performance was the equivalent of a thousand men.

Balinzuoqi County Deputy Chief Li Qingdong explained that out of a total local population of 360,000, 300,000 are employed in sheep-rearing. With 200,000 hectares (500,000 acres) in grazing land, their flocks' grazing needs far outstrip the land's capacity.

The situation is not unique to this corner of China. Beijing is aware of the problem and has ordered breeders to cut their livestock by 40 per cent. But for Mr Li, they cannot possibly do so because their average annual income is 2.820 yuan (about US$ 353).

Piero Gagliardo, chairman of Italy's National Anti-Drought and Desertification Committee, stressed that no irrigation scheme was involved in the Balinzuoqi project and that machinery was not used at full capacity. Research from the project, he said, could then be applied to break the vicious cycle that links sheep farming to soil degradation and desertification.

At the meeting, Dong Jianlin, an Inner Mongolian official, underscored how his region, which covers an eighth of China's overall territory, is 60 per cent desert, noting that the success in applying this technology locally could be extended to the whole.

Concorde Lothar Caviezel, Swiss ambassador to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, an agency that has funded similar projects using the same technology, also emphasised its potential for other parts of China.

On June 8, Lu Hongcun, deputy director of the International Cooperation Department of China's State Forestry Administration, was full of praise for the project's innovative contents, which he is certain can be integrated to China's anti-desertification strategies and methodologies by 2007. (PB)

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