loess plateau

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Lessons of the Loess Plateau  

“In 2005, the Chinese government, in cooperation with the World Bank, completed the world’s largest watershed restoration on the upper banks of the Yellow River. Woefully under-publicized, the $500 million enterprise transformed an area of 35,000 square kilometers on the Loess Plateau — roughly the area of Belgium — from dusty wasteland to a verdant agricultural center.“

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Black Earth*
by Tong Lam

Northwestern China’s Loess Plateau has long been regarded as the birthplace of Chinese civilization, but it is also seen as a source of the country’s deep sorrow. In particular, the yellowish loess of the region, found beside the Yellow River, is often associated with cycles of ecological erosion, floods, and droughts and has come to represent China’s poverty and backwardness. Nowhere is such hardship better depicted than in Yellow Earth (1984), an epic film that was the joint product of two giant figures in Chinese cinema, since Chen Kaige directed it and Zhang Yimou was its cinematographer. Among other things, the internationally acclaimed film, which is set during the 1930s, offers a vivid portrayal of Chinese villagers in a desolate region trying to eke out a living on unpredictable loess land.

Until a decade ago, the area located just south of the Ordos Loop of the Yellow River in Inner Mongolia was no different from other poverty-stricken regions in the Chinese Loess Plateau. Local conditions were so harsh that residents were often unable to sustain themselves and had to rely on government subsidies. But the discovery of one of China’s largest coal deposits in the region, coupled with skyrocketing coal prices, have elevated Ordos from one of the poorest places in the country to one of the wealthiest in less than a decade.  

Today, the prefecture-level city is filled with designer architecture, new SUVs, wide avenues, and construction sites with hoardings that promise an even better future. If China’s agrarian civilization was once built on the “yellow earth,” the future of Ordos is built on a thick layer of black deposits under the loess. It is estimated that Ordos is home to about one-sixth of China’s national coal reserves. The sudden arrival of wealth has subsequently led to the development of an overbuilt city and widespread real estate speculation. Indeed, until the central government tried to tame the out-of-control real estate market nationwide a few years ago, it had seemed that only the sky was the limit for Ordos’s hysterical expansion.

In a certain sense, Ordos is the wild west of 21st century China. And only time will tell how this urban economy rooted in black earth develops from here.

Photo 1: Goats grazing along the Yellow River at the northern edge of Ordos. © Tong Lam

Photo 2: In the Ordos region, there are approximately six meters of coal deposits below the yellowish loess. However, a drop in coal prices has led to the slowing down of coal extraction in these open pit mines in the past few years. © Tong Lam

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(via https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bLdNhZ6kAzo)


Really awesome video on the possibilities of restoration ecology! 

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Published on Jul 19, 2012
“It’s possible to rehabilitate large-scale damaged ecosystems.” Environmental film maker John D. Liu documents large-scale ecosystem restoration projects in China, Africa, South America and the Middle East, highlighting the enormous benefits for people and planet of undertaking these efforts globally.

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Without trying to romanticize poverty, here are a few places that function regardless of the terrible conditions of life.

  1. From the barbershop to the movie theatre, every aspect of life in Makoko has been adapted to meet the demands of life on the water.
  2. Despite being a disadvantaged community, when it comes to good live music, the atmosphere in Makoko is quintessentially Nigerian. At any given time, you’ll find a band floating down the lagoon, for all of the community to enjoy.
  3. In Makoko, forced evictions are a daily reality. In response to the government’s plan to clear out the area to make room for development, the Nigerian architect Kunle Adeyemi built a school for the children of Makoko. Today, the entire community uses the structure, and the building appears like a beacon against the landscape.
  4. Under the cliffs of the Mokattam Rocks in Cairo, Egypt, one will find the Zabaleen – a community of Coptic Christians who make their living by collecting and recycling waste from homes and business across the city.
  5. The collected waste is brought back home where it is sorted and crushed before being sent off to a third party. To those in the Zabaleen, the waste becomes nearly invisible, as living amongst piles of garbage is merely a new definition of normal. Here, a window out into the garbage.
  6. On the street level, the area seems to be in complete disarray, but step inside one of the homes, and you’ll be met with all manner of elaborate interior design choices.
  7. In the provinces of Shanxi, Henan and Gansu in China, you will find collections of yaodongs – underground cave dwellings that are dug out from the soft and malleable Loess Plateau soil. Up until the early 2000’s an estimated 40 million people still lived in sunken courtyard houses which sit seven meters below-ground.
  8. For the poor farmers, building a yaodong costs next to nothing – all one needs is a shovel and a few friends to dig the soil. And the end result is very homey.