A reflection… The canary in this coal mine is dead

- October 6, 2017

By Noel Oettle

Following two field trips to visit degraded areas in Inner Mongolia that have been “greened” in the past decades, I reflected on the vast gulf between the official rhetoric, the slick corporate advertising and the visible realties.

In China, limited access to the languages and interpretive historical narrative make it difficult to understand the complex interplay between cause and effect of degradation and rehabilitation, let alone understand what the long-term outcomes are likely to be. This reflection is an imperfect representation of subjective impressions that I gathered over the two weeks I spent in Inner Mongolia.

Trees planted to rehabilitate desertified rangeland in the Kubuqi desert
   Trees planted to rehabilitate desertified rangeland in the Kubuqi desert

Trees scattered over the landscape, in soulless patterns, with no individual human purpose, create a green desert, an impoverished ecology, a cultural tragedy, a desert of human creativity. No birds in these skies, no buzzing and humming of busy insects.

Trees are the centrepiece of the new green religion: they are presented to the gullible as doing immeasurable good, and certainly doing no harm to eco-systems. Endless square kilometres of trees are taming the wildness of the Mongolian steppe, and the unruliness of the herders.

Mongolian herding culture is built into impressive new monuments and recreational facilities in and around Ordos, yet within sight of the impressive Genghis Khan Mausoleum, stable steppe grassland and shrubland within a national park celebrating the Mongol legacy is being transformed into pine plantations on a massive, landscape scale. The logic of this landscape transformation proved to be elusive.

Pines planted on rangeland in the Gengis Khan National Park
  Pines planted on rangeland in the Gengis Khan National Park

What was the cause of the desertification of large parts of Inner Mongolia? Disruption of the age-old migratory patterns, the intense pressures to produce food for the starving nation in the post-war years as the Party struggled to reshape all aspects of the nation’s worldview, its economy, and the belief systems of the people. Then came the devastating dust storms that choked roads and railways, buried houses, and reminded the bureaucrats in the capital of the growing ecological disaster in the north-west. This is dust that respects no borders, that darkens the skies and drifts down on Bejing, Seoul and Tokyo. Then came the rampant industrial expansion of an energy-consuming economy, ripping off the topsoil and strip-mining the black gold, the carbon that had been so slowly sequestered in primordial swamps over millions of years.

A dawning realisation that the global commons are collapsing and that we are in deepening trouble, galvanising the nations of the world to commit to the Rio conventions. A quarter century later we are slipping down the slope in an ever-quickening mudslide. There is a palpable urgency in the calls to apply better science and metrics, to improve our actions and monitor accurately so that we can look forward to an improving situation. OR AT LEAST A NEUTRAL ONE!

Land Degradation Neutrality. Achieving it nationally, globally is all a question of metrics. Take an ecosystem out here, recreate one there.

Whether we recreate or transform, modern human landscapes are increasingly covered in green deserts, such as mono-crop farmlands, plantations and golf courses.

Have we demonstrated how to adequately restore degraded eco-systems? Greening is not equivalent to restoring the ecosystems that evolved with us. If species richness and hydrological function are lost in interventions designed to green the landscape these should not be described as restoration.

And what are we seeking to transform? The new buzz-word in the UNCCD is transformation. In the absence of any definition of what we mean by this, all are free to apply it according to their lights, in line with their world-view and pre-existing policies and practices. Much of the language used at COP 13 reflects a view that transformation is understood primarily to be changing the state of the landscape from a run-down, over-utilised, poverty-stricken and degraded one into a new state that is productive and profitable. Enhancing eco-system services and retaining or increasing biodiversity appear to be relatively minor goals, which may be subsumed if the productivity and financial gains are substantial enough.

Creating a green land at the expense of functional eco-systems and self-sufficient cultures and livelihoods is no solution to the problems of land degradation, however beguiling the propaganda.