GUIYANG, April 10 (Xinhua) -- Chen Chunliang was herding a flock of sheep on a hill, watching the animals graze on vegetation where once there was only barren wasteland decaying into stony desert. He never imagined the once sterile land could become fertile.
"Rocks were all over the hills. We didn't get a good enough yield to grow corn on the land and we could harvest nothing during years of severe drought," said the 60-year-old farmer, who has lived his whole life in Qinglong County in Guizhou Province.
Chen's home is located in the Karst region, which mainly extends across southwest China's Guizhou and Yunnan provinces and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Although the Karst formations create splendid landscapes, these areas have been denuded over the past decades by destructive farming practices, excessive land reclamation and other unsustainable human behavior.
Chen's family and millions of others living on the degraded land have long been affected by stony desertification, which has resulted in water shortage, soil erosion, and persistent poverty and deprivation since few crops can survive in such thin and arid soil.
Per capita grain production in Chen's village 11 years ago was only 335 kg, far bellow the nation's food safety level of 400 kg per person per year.
In recent years, with financial and technical support from the local government, Chen and other villagers began planting grass that turned the rocky land into vast verdant meadows.
Chen now raises 150 sheep on the grassland. In addition, his yearly income has increased from around 1,000 yuan to more than 60,000 yuan (9,524 U.S. dollars).
The improved vegetation has made a huge change in Chen's life. His income from raising sheep enabled his family to move out of their old tile-roofed house to a cement one three years ago.
Farmers also grow cash crops on sandy lands to improve vegetation and increase earnings. For example, more than 3,333 hectares of zanthoxylum, a genus which includes prickly-ash and spice-producing trees, have been planted in Southwest Guizhou's Zhenfeng County, where the fragile ecosystem had forced a number of local people to migrate to more livable places.
The Dingtan area in Zhenfeng was once believed by some experts to be totally unfit for human habitation. The people in the area could only survive through the allocation of 300 tonnes of grain by the government every year.
Now, however, the forest coverage rate in the area has climbed to 70 percent from 6.7 percent in the 1970s, while residents' per capita annual income has reached more than 3,000 yuan.
Despite these improvements, though, keeping deserts under control is difficult.
From 1978 to 2005, deserts in southwest China's Karst region expanded, said Xiong Kangning, dean of the South China Karst Research Institute of Guizhou Normal University. According to Xiong, population pressure has made it difficult to restore the ecological environment in areas threatened by stony desertification.
Desertification has especially hampered economic development for ethnic minorities in Guizhou Province, which faces the most severe threat of stony desertification in the region, with 18.8 percent of its total land degrading into stony deserts, said Xu Jun, deputy secretary general of the Buyi and Miao Autonomous Prefecture in Guizhou Province.
Fighting desertification tops the agenda of local authorities and is also a national priority. The State Council, or China's Cabinet, approved a plan in 2008 to control desertification in southwest China's Karst regions.
The plan called for the government to increase investment in environmental improvement in the Karst region and allocate special funds to deal with stony desertification in eight provincial-level regions.
Premier Wen Jiabao, in his government work report delivered to the annual session of the National People's Congress in March this year, also encouraged more effort to deal with stony desertification.