See what’s possible: Restoring degraded landscapes

It’s been a challenging week to stay grounded. In the U.S. alone, from hurricanes Harvey and Irma to wildfires raging their way through the American West, we’ve seen the kind of footage that’s been used in documentaries and sci-fi films to illustrate how scary climate change would be — and it’s our reality, right now. And at the same time, politicians with fossil-fuel lobbyists’ hands in their pockets tell us that this is not the time to talk about climate change.

It’s times like this when it’s hard to resist the inner voice — or loud public voices — that say, “It’s too late, we’ve destroyed the planet and can’t possibly repair it.”

It’s times like this when we need to see, with our own eyes, that repair IS possible, even when some say it’s too late. Here are some of the most inspiring examples we know of large-scale landscapes that have been restored even though they were devastated to the point of collapse. Near-desertified land was brought back into agricultural production using regenerative practices.

We need to see to believe, and we need to believe to move to action. So this post is heavy on the visuals, with links to click for those of you who want to learn more.

This is what is possible.


China’s Loess Plateau Rehabilitation Project

In China’s Loess Plateau, a degraded, desertifying region almost the size of Belgium has been transformed into thriving, verdant, food-producing landscapes. The project by the Chinese government and the World Bank Institute, famously documented by John Liu, managed to bring this land back into sustainable agricultural production, improving the livelihoods of 2.5 million people. By terracing the land, the restoration team was able to reduce erosion and water damage.

Loess Plateau before (1995) and after (2009). Image: Lush

What made this project so successful is that it engaged local people and officials alongside with experts on hydrology, soil conservation, agriculture etc. It offered local farmers incentives to change their practices to sustainable ones: they got paid to learn sustainable farming practices, and were given land tenure on the terraces. In other words, it solved social and economic problems alongside with ecological ones.

Loess Plateau before (1995) and after (2009). Image: Ecosystem Restoration Camps


Here’s a short excerpt from John D. Liu’s wonderful documentary, “Hope in a Changing Climate”:

Learn more about the Loess Plateau Rehabilitation Project:


Ethiopia’s Tigray Region Restoration
Image: Tigrai Online

The success of the Loess Plateau project has sparked similar restoration projects in places such as Rwanda and Ethiopia. In the Tigray region of Ethiopia, an acclaimed project has reversed desertification while providing training in sustainable livelihoods for women and young adults.


Reversing Desertification through Managed Grazing

Another effective mechanism for reversing desertification in the world’s dry grasslands has been Holistic Managed Grazing. In the image above, the land on the left side of the fence is under holistic management, meaning that grazing livestock is brought there periodically for intense but short periods of grazing and the land is then allowed to rest. The land on the right side doesn’t have grazing on it. So the next time someone tells you that livestock always, inevitably, causes desertification, send them to this TEDTalk by Allan Savory.

To highlight these positive examples is not to deny that we’re facing some very serious challenges. It’s to counter the attitude that we humans can only destroy, that we can’t solve the problems we’ve created. In all of the cases above, the problems were created by humans. But so were the solutions. The projects were ambitious, they required an incredible amount of work and funding, but they have been successful. They should inspire us to not bury our heads in the sand, but to ask the question:

What else is possible?


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