Thirty years of gritty determination — China’s desert warriors
En route to Shapotou, there is nothing much to see but sand: endless sand. Shapotou in northwest China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region nestles where the Yellow River meets the Tengger Desert. For more than five decades researchers have been coming here to fight desertification. Li Xinrong is one of them. “Sands are as precious as forests,” is his mantra. Having been here for three decades, he clearly has a very personal perception of this arid land. “Deserts are landmarks god has given us. They nurture special biotic resources. We must protect them.” Shapotou came into the public eye in the 1950s with the construction of the Baotou-Lanzhou Railway, an artery that traverses the Tengger Desert six times. The project ran into difficulties in Shapotou’s ever shifting sand dunes: hardly an ideal substrate for railway track. That was when the first group of scientists arrived. When the trains finally began running in 1958, Shapotou had gained worldwide fame as a paradigm of successful sand control, principally the result of the “straw checkerboard” technique. Checkerboarding requires straw, usually wheat or rice straw, to be laid out in a grid across the desert and partially buried. The checkerboards have remarkable, though poorly understood, windbreaking properties and help to keep dunes in place, allowing topsoil to form. When a sufficiency of soil is established, drought-resistant plants can be grown. However, a receding water table has led to recent degradation of vegetation and a decline of the fixative effect. “We can’t just sit back and relax. We must become tireless tree planters so that others may rest in the shade,” said Li to his colleagues when he first arrived in Shapotou in 1987.