A Chinese “marathoner” for desert greening

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The desert once made the life of Wang Wenbiao miserable, but now, it has made him and other locals rich.

Better known in China as “the son of the desert,” Wang, 59 years old, lives in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region’s Kubuqi desert, the country’s seventh-largest desert around 800 km north of Beijing. The constant expansion of the desert has forced many people to migrate while those who stayed faced poverty and adversity.

“Sand and hunger haunted my childhood,” Wang said. “Sand was everywhere. When I ate, I tasted sand. When I went to bed, I slept on sand. When I breathed, I inhaled sand.”

His dream used to be leaving the desert and eating a meal without sand in his food.

However, for the past 30 years, Wang, chairman of the Elion Resources Group, a leading Chinese green industry enterprise, has dedicated himself to the battle against desertification.

Nevertheless, he was first motivated by business rather than altruism. In 1988, Wang, then a government clerk, ventured into business and managed a near-bankrupt saltworks on the edge of the desert. Despite the high salt reserves in the lake beside the saltworks, Wang constantly worried about the company’s operations as the desert was swallowing the lake.

Wang set up a special fund, setting aside five yuan (0.75 U.S. dollar) from each tonne of salt sold, for afforestation, and dispatched one-third of his staff to plant trees encircling the lake. His plan worked, output increased, and the saltworks managed to make a small profit with quick turnover.

As there was no road through the desert to the nearest train station, which was 67 km away, all the salt had to be transported via a long route of 350 km. High transport costs further squeezed the already thin profit margin, “the saltworks could not be sustained without a direct road out,” Wang said.

Thanks to the government’s efforts to tame the desert, in 1999, a 115-km-long highway through the middle of the desert opened to traffic but was quickly swallowed by sand. Wang realized that to do any business in the desert, he first needed to deal with the sand.

He renamed his company to Elion, focused on curbing desertification, and developed a business model to generate both economic and ecological benefits.

The game-changer in his business model was licorice farming as licorice grows well in deserts and is one of the most profitable medical herbs widely used in traditional Chinese medicines.

Moreover, the plant works well in curbing desertification. The nodule bacteria living around its roots have a nitrogen fixation effect, which increases soil fertility. One licorice plant can help reclaim 0.1 square meters of desert land.

“We invented a planting method where one licorice plant is able to reclaim one square meter of the desert, ten times more than before,” Wang said.

Elion encouraged local people to grow licorice, providing them with licorice seedlings, training, and other support. When they harvested the roots, Wang’s company bought them at a fair price.

Through this business model, the desert turned green, local residents made money, and Elion’s desert business empire now covers six sectors including healthcare, environmental protection, clean energy, farming and livestock, tourism, and feed processing.

With Wang’s input along with millions of individuals as well as enterprises, China’s fight against desertification has made significant progress. As shown in the latest national survey in 2015, the areas of the country’s desertified lands shrank compared with a previous survey in 2010.

To curb desertification, an essential part of the country’s ongoing drive for environmentally-friendly development, the government banned grazing on degraded grasslands, increased financial input, and stepped up law enforcement in the sector.

“We could not have made it without the government’s supportive policies such as the grazing ban,” Wang said.

“We have gained useful experiences in dealing with the sand, and we would like to share our experience with others,” he said. Elion now operates afforestation projects in arid areas such as Xinjiang, Gansu, and Tibet.

In December 2017, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) honored Wang and five other inspirational environmental leaders with the Champions of the Earth Award.

“The challenge lies in promoting technological innovation to reduce afforestation costs and boost efficiency,” Wang said.

Elion has developed technology to plant trees via drones, which takes less than a minute to deploy seeds with protective covers in a 666.7 square meter area. “We are now working with the UK-based BioCarbon Engineering to develop the third-generation of drones, which will improve the survival rate of seeds and performance of the drones,” he said.

“Not all deserts should be treated, and only desertification caused by human activities can be reversed. Greening the deserts is like a marathon, as long as there is a desert, my marathon will not come to an end,” he said.

Wang said his dream now is to lead Elion overseas, to countries along the Belt and Road in particular, where the company’s business model will help those also in the fight against desertification. Enditem

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