China’s Ecological Project Breaths Life into Vast Desert Land


Kubuqi, China – Whoever thought that a desert is a waste land and only evokes poverty for its inhabitants would rethink after touring the 7th largest desert in the People’s Republic of China.

Report by Alpha Daffae Senkpeni,[email protected] 

The meticulous anti-desertification of Kubuqi is not only raising huge resources for its investors, it has also ‘shaken’ 100,000 people out of poverty and renews the world’s prospects of ecological transformation.

Located in the northern autonomous province of Inner Mongolia, Kubuqi Desert – which means ‘sea of death’ in Mongolian language – was infamous for its harsh environmental condition which condemned many inhabitants to poverty and some were constrained to relocate.

This vast desert covers 18,000 square meters of sandbank, and for thousands of years most of its inhabitants, herdsmen and famers, struggled until a private ecological firm stepped in.

Tackling Poverty

But almost 30 years after massive investments into eco-restoration, eco-industrialization, eco-health, eco-energy and eco-tourism, the land once referred as ‘Sea of death’ is renamed ‘sand of gold’.

“We work here for three decades and alleviated poverty; the original goal was to deal with poverty and after three decades of efforts, it has reduced the number of poverty stricken communities,” said Zhao Yong, Vice President of Elion Resources Group.

Elion Resources Group is a leading world class Chinese private ecological investment firm managing the anti-desertification project in the area. The company has successfully implemented eco-restoration of trees on 6,653 square kilometers out of the total 18,000 square kilometers. 

The company applies world class technology to plant trees in the desert, grows a special ingredient-plant for Chinese traditional medicine and produce vegetables and fruits to help support the thriving desert touristic industry.

In 2016, over 100,000 tourists visited Kubuqi Desert and. That conference lured international experts and government officials to discuss the global concerns about desertification and how manage desert in order to curb poverty in achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

Elion has a direct invested of US$500 million into the project and a US$5 billion in its ecological investments in the area.

The UN uses the project as an example to support others across the world and values the investment at US$80 to US$90 billion after evaluation.

Over the last 30 years, the firm has constructed five highways totaling 5,000 kilometer, built new health centers, schools, villages, improved water supplies, provide jobs and augment locals’ income to 30,000 Yuan per year (about US$4,300).

Module for Ecological Restoration

Despite the social improvements of locals after 3 decades, it is the science of transforming the vast land mass of sand that seems impeccable. The planting of trees to curb desertification has gained tremendous progress.

Experts say the survival rate of planted grass and trees is 85% with just 10 seconds to plant a Salix tree by digging about 5 meters into the sand.

Once the tree is planted, it takes 15 days to grow without care but the breaches must be trimmed after three to five years to allow it spiral freely.

Rain fall analysis shows that precipitation in the area has increased to over 300 millimeters while the sand storms have also reduced from hundreds per year to one or two times annually.

While the desert is being made green, the production of Liquorices by Elion Group is generating huge proceeds for the company.

The roots of Liquorices are used in Chinese medicines and leafs are for fertilizers for growing other plants. This herbaceous plant is found in 90% of Chinese traditional medicine and the company says it is one of the pillars of production in the Kubuqi Desert.

The firm, regarded as the pioneer of ecological investment, says its achievements in the area are based on support from the Chinese government.

Planting trees in the desert is an important way of maintaining ecological restoration and sustaining agriculture production and other industries

Mr. Zhao said the company enjoys support from the provincial and central government and was guaranteed the rights to develop the area, obtained long term low interest loans from the government which able them acquired high scientific equipment to implement the projects and expand tourism. It was given the property rights to the area for three decades.

There are ongoing negotiations to extend the rights to 20 more years as the firm tightens collaborations with locals to sustain the investment.

“Many local residents are participating in our process of industry operations and some businesses in our company, and some households have sub leased their lands to our company and through this way, they can get a lot of money,” Zhao said, adding that most of these locals are also employed in the tree planting or solar power sectors in the area.

United Nations Eyes Collaboration

Elion Resources is proud of its achievement and says the Chinese government feels the same as the country looks to utilize all sectors to connect the rest of the developing world through its One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative – which seeks to strengthen economic cooperation amongst development countries and enhance trade and people to people exchanges.

As Kubuqi prepares to host another anti desertification conference from July 28 to 30th this year under the auspices of the United Nations and Chinese government, Elion Resources Group, the host of the event, is optimistic that experts and African governments would expand cooperation in tackling the challenges of desertification in their respective countries.

It’s the second ecological conference being hosted in the area. In 2015 a conference on rejuvenating efforts on desertification control was held in the sophisticated convention center located just a stone throw away from the famous luxurious Seven Star Lake Hotel in the heart of Kubuqi Desert.

The executive director of the UN environmental program is optimistic of expanding ties with the firm in order to initiate a global desert greening innovation center in Kubuqi, the company Vice President said.

Mr. Zhao is aware of the huge potential that explore in desert lands and says combining the firm’s vast experiences in the ecological sector with the Belt and Road initiative can intervene in what’s happening (desertification)  in many countries that have desert land.

Eyeing Collaboration with Africa

The firm is also looking forward to sharing its model African countries (with desert land) to achieve economic value for desert and curb poverty in these areas.

Already, the Elion’s anti-desertification technology module is being used in several other desert regions in China and it is confident can also be utilize in other regions including Africa.  

“The module can also be put to use in Africa and Africans can also enjoy many benefits from it,” Mr. Zhao said, while suggesting that further collaboration with Africa would help alleviate poverty in countries already struggling to deal with desertification.

During the 2015 ecological conference held in Kubuqi desert, many global figures attending the conference emphasizing the threat of desertification hailed the Kubuqi model implemented by Elion Resources Group in fight against this environmental degradation.

John Kufuor, former Ghana President who attended the conference in 2015, hoped that African countries can gain some experience from the “Kubuqi model to turn desert areas into ecological oases and also promote growth of other industries”.

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