Solution to Mountain Peoples' Hardship - Move Them to the Plains

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In the next two years the Peoples' Republic of China will relocate 350,000 people in the Ning Xia Hui Autonomous Region.

These days the national news from China is about the business- and profit-oriented policies of Deng Xiao Ping, and how they have transfigured the country. The local news in the Ning Xia Hui Autonomous region, however, tells a different story. The primary concern in this small and dusty province in northwest China is not profits but survival. Local leaders struggle to provide mountain peasants with the opportunity for a decent life in the face of the region's age-old lack of fertile land, food and water. Local leaders have no choice but to ignore profit-and-loss statements as they seek to solve the same problems Mao Zedong promised and failed to address when he fled through the region 50 years ago on his famed Long March. The immediate success of their efforts appears promising, but the long-term effects remain to be seen.

Ning Xia Hui's leaders today have chosen a solution that represents the kind of engineered mass change which, despite the flush of new spirit in the central government, is thoroughly characteristic of China. In the north near the Huang He, the Yellow River, people with picks and shovels are transforming the desert valley to farmland. In the poverty-stricken south, peasant families in the mountains are preparing to move en masse to the new farmlands in the north.

The highland area of southern Ning Xia, the Liu Pan Shan, is the area that is to be partially evacuated into the newly retooled desert. Here the rolling fields billow with pink blooming buckwheat, jade green potato plants and golden stands of millet. Up on the mountains, shepherd boys chuck stones at their sheep. Down in the hollows, mud-walled villages provide shelter from the wind.

Everyday lives in these beautiful hills are full of hardship. In one riverbed, women gather around a shallow pit, waiting while it slowly fills with water. Then, using their teacups, they scoop the water into their empty buckets. The rotten-egg smell of sulfur springs lingers in the air. Unfortunately, this spring is the only one where water flows year-round.

Water for crops is also in short supply. Even in drought-free years the soil is dry and hard. This part of China is covered by loess, a sticky and crystalline red dirt that reaches down for hundreds of feet. Deep gorges erode into the loess and slice canyons into the otherwise gently rolling hills. With each heavy rain the gorges will furrow further upslope, claim more farmland and adds to the peasant's constant frustration with soil that would rather shed water than hold it.

Lack of good land is another hardship. Since the great communal farms were dismantled, farming is once again a family enterprise. Redistribution has left inevitable inequalities in this region where the poor fields outnumber the good.

The dominance of the Hui, or Moslem Chinese, makes the region's problems more difficult to solve. Now that the Cultural Revolution is but a memory, the Moslem religion is again flourishing. Mosques are being rebuilt and the Hui people are taking full advantage of special privileges not enjoyed by the Han majority. For example, Hui people are allowed two children per couple; Han are allowed only one.

Small villages in the Hui-dominated mountains are full of the shouts of children. Yet these happy-sounding children often show the raw skin or the brittle, light-colored hair that are hallmarks of nutritional deficiencies. These physical characteristics indicate food and pure water shortages on the subsistence farms. If the next generation is as large as the present one, the deficiencies are likely to persist.

The only uninhabited land in this ancient province is the desert, a broad stretch of sparse grass where wandering herds of scrofulous, sour-faced camels can be found. The Yellow River runs through this dry basin and for thousands of years farmers have irrigated the land close to the river's banks. The plan now is to extend the river fed system and undertake tube well irrigation throughout the surrounding desert, an area that reaches out about 25 km on either side of the river and stretches north along the river for almost 200 km to Ning Xia's border.

"This land can hold many people," says Dr. Huang Jing Fang, a research laboratory director at the Ning Xia Agricultural College. "There has been irrigation here for 2,400 years, and this old irrigation area is very fertile."

Today, all across the basin, new colonies have erupted from the empty desert. Long, straight dirt roads have been laid across the dry plain, and new houses line up to the roadways. Roadside drainage ditches have been dug, wells put in place and settlers from the south have been shuttled in. In the next two years alone, 350,000 people will be moved from the mountain regions of southern Ning Xia and provided with houses and irrigated farmland.

"These people are very happy to come here," says Dr. Huang.

They are told about the new land by the radio or the newspapers. They do not mind leaving their old villages. When they come, they bring their whole families with them. Many people have volunteered to come. The government gives people in the villages numbers that tell them which people are allowed to come first.

Under the government program, fertilizer will be supplied to the farmers for the first five years. During this time, the families will also receive food supplements. After five years, the people are expected to be able to feed themselves. "On new irrigation land, the soil becomes fertile within five years," says Dr. Huang. "Then the people will have a good harvest of wheat and rice."

The scheme was begun in 1977, when experts from China's National Committee of Science recommended planting trees and grasses in the desolate areas. Unlike the US, which must prepare environmental impact statements when changes are planned for government land, China has no such requirement. "In the desert, only the rabbit will lose his home," Dr. Huang guarantees.

In the American West, however, where the climate is similar, mass draining has caused significant ground water depletion. The Chinese government has yet to study such a possibility. The salinization of the soil, a situation that plagues many irrigated areas worldwide, has also been dismissed despite the salty taste of the local well water and the white, salty rime that rings the evaporating puddles in the desert. "Salt will be removed by flushing the land with more water," explains Yang Xing Guo, Director of the Ning Xia Committee on Science and Technology. The question remains as to whether there are enough water reserves to flush out the salts that are likely to accumulate from such an irrigation scheme.

"All this [development] is being done to implement Deng Xiao Ping's policies to give land to the people and rewards to the factory workers," Young says.

Despite its investment in development, Ning Xia's government never expects to see a profit from the enterprise. "There will not be more agricultural exporting from Ning Xia because of this land," Dr. Huang says. "The new farms, like those in the south, will be only for the subsistence of the families that live on them."

The settlers seem to be greeting subsistence with enthusiasm. Up and down the roads in the desert development area trundle donkey carts crammed with people. The Moslem women veil their heads and, riding sidesaddle on their donkeys, look as if they were posing for an illustration in some long-ago missionary's Chinese Bible. The children have shiny hair and clear skin. Gone are the blue uniforms of Chairman Mao's day; young people dress in loud pinks and reds, a sign that they have been able to afford new clothes in the not too distant past. The new clothes, like the new houses, are a symbol of prosperity.

The change in the lives of these colonizers is immense. Many poor hill people from the south have been born and raised not in houses but in caves dug into the loess cliffs, where chimneys smoke up into the noses of the sheep which graze the pasture above. In this earthquake-prone region, cave dwelling can be fatal.

Like most houses in northwest China, the new ones are constructed of loess. In the old villages, these rammed-earth houses crowd together, all nestled beneath tall poplar trees. The new houses out on the basin spread willy-nilly. Without their popular sunscreen they're bald to the desert sky. The arrangement beats the maddest dreams of any US suburban developer. A few houses sport television antennas, homemade affairs of wire clinging atop tall poles. Fewer yet have camels, flat-footed lords of this former desert, tethered in the yards.

Within 20 years, all the reclaimed desert should be alive with tall trees, emerald rice fields and the families of those who move north. For now, new residents expect an initial five years of poor harvest. For the long term, the capacity of this desert to sustain these and subsequent lives remains to be seen. What is clear is that without this vast reclamation scheme, Ning Xia would not be able to claim even the modest achievement of maintaining for its "mountain" people the status quo.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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