by Xinhua writers Fang Ning, Zhang Yunlong, Li Ming
HOHHOT, Sept. 20 (Xinhua) -- A man-made oasis in China's seventh biggest desert of Kubuqi at the southern bank of the Yellow River has been the backdrop of several international environmental events so far this year.
Amina Mohamed, deputy executive director of UNEP said at the launch of the Chinese edition of Global Environment Outlook-5 (GEO-5) on Sept. 4, at a convention center built in the oasis, that the place was chosen to showcase the success of the Kubuqi Desert control mode and encourage its worldwide replication.
For international environmentalists, it is not just building a big stretch of greenery on the desert that has made this oasis but also the initiator's creativity. He used commercial funding rather than governmental financing or charity funds, developing sustainable clean energy industries. He also got local people involved in both the businesses and the environmental protection cause.
The initiator of this anti-desertification work, Wang Wenbiao, a 54-year-old entrepreneur, is a native of the arid land, who remembers smelling dust and sand in the air and eating food mixed with sand.
Wang's private firm started in 1997 to build the first road running through the desert in northern Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. In order to consolidate the roadbed, Wang and his colleagues planted low water use plants and grass along the road.
Twenty years on, four other roads have been built in the same way, extending greenery to nearly one third of the 18,700-square km Kubuqi Desert.
During the incessant greening work, Wang has developed his desert-based business into a multi-billion conglomerate.
Desert planting has long been considered as high cost and low yielding work, which has made it highly dependant on governmental financing or NGO funding for ecological rehabilitation or poverty alleviation programs.
With labor costs rising fast in China, government funding for anti-desertification could hardly support the drive necessary to curb deserts and drylands, which have already accounted for 18 percent of the national territory, from further expanding.
According to the Inner Mongolia Forestry Department, the cost for hiring a worker for desert planting has risen from 30 yuan per day two decades ago to 300 yuan (47 U.S. dollars), while the government's investment in the sector has not increased to keep up with the cost hike.
Wang's initiative in tackling the conundrum amazed international environmentalists convened at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20 Summit) in June and the UNEP event in the Kubuqi desert oasis. They called it a "green myth."
However, he was awarded with a special contribution to the world's anti-desertification drive by the UN in June.
The teacher-turned entrepreneur said he was not blindly courageous, after seeing his fellow villagers retreat as floating sand dunes kept engulfing their living space.
"When I was charged to run a saltworks in the desert at the age of 28, I somehow learned to regard the desert as a resource rather than a mighty enemy," Wang said.
He said the desert region has sufficient land, mineral resources and solar energy but it needs road transport facilities to send them out.
With this idea, he has developed the salt plant into Elion Resources Group assimilating local herdsmen and farmers as shareholders to build roads and plant desert crops to protect the roads from being buried by sand dunes. He also introduced investors to help turn every useful desert resource into products ranging from herbal medicine, biomass to solar panels.
With greenery expanding, the industries have also taken shape. The pharmaceutical subsidiary of Elion reported an output value of 1 billion yuan in 2011. The company has developed 4,000 varieties of medicinal products mainly using desert crops like licorice.
Another branch of Elion -- the bioenergy resource division -- planned to add 80 million yuan of investment this year to build biomass facilities using desert willow, planted by locals, to produce fuel oil.
Manager Qiao Jianguo said the two tons of desert willow can produce one ton of biomass oil, which can also be processed into gas for cooking and heating.
Qiao said reaping desert willow does not damage the desert greening work, since the desert plant's old branches wither every three to five years. After the old branches are cropped, the plant can still grow.
Elion also introduced photovoltaic producer Zent Group last year to build an industrial park in the Kubuqi Desert with a projected investment of 50 billion yuan.
Besides the industries, the company also raised livestock, built greenhouses to grow vegetables, which makes food self-sufficient for workers employed by its scenic spots, where the company has developed some off-road extreme sports and desert tourism.
His company's greening and infrastructure building has helped protect and enlarge the area of Qixing Lake -- once a group of scattered springs in the desert -- which Elion has turned into a tourist spot.
Surongkeri, a herdsman-turned shareholder of Elion, said his family can earn more than 15,000 yuan per capita a year from planting and tourism.
His son Wunierdaogetao like many other younger generation of local Mongolian herdsmen families stayed with their parents in the hometown, planting trees and working tourism-related jobs, such as keeping horses and camels for leisure tourism.
Wang's commercial development with full support from the local government, although not with direct governmental financing, has benefitted 30,000 people living in surrounding areas.
Although the environment and the livelihood of local residents is getting better, Wang said he was still obsessed by the urgency of new measures to improve the work.
"Developing water-efficient industries is a constant challenge. I have to think all the time about how to make recycling use of resources in all the businesses I have introduced to the biologically fragile region," he said.
His team has recently developed a new technique of using water hose to sow seed in desert planting, which is more water efficient and favorable for plant survival.
His colleagues joked that Wang could eat raw food if he had to cook himself, because he has no spare time for cooking.
Although already at a senior age, Wang, who is also vice chairman of the All China Federation of Industry and Commerce, has developed a new ambition aiming to add another 10,000 square km of greenery on China's decertified drylands in the next ten years by sharing his greening experiences.