Folio News Story
January 6, 2006

A river runs through it

Yangtze River project is restoring the environment and economy

by Lee Craig
A Chinese farmer shows off hard-working silkworms feeding off plants used in reforestation along the banks of the Yangtze River. Dr. Larry Wang (inset) shows off silk, the byproduct of an international project that is helping to heal the river and increase income for farmers.
A Chinese farmer shows off hard-working silkworms
feeding off plants used in reforestation along the
banks of the Yangtze River. for farmers.

Dr. Larry Wang was in China's rugged Yunnan Province at the beginning of December to celebrate the successes of the first five years of a program to restore the health of the Yangtze River.

"Thousands of farmers have been benefited by the two projects we have completed," said Wang, a professor emeritus of biological sciences at the University of Alberta. "The farmers have successfully switched from a corn-based economy to a tree-based economy, resulting in enhanced soil protection, water quality, and significant family income."

The reforestation projects are the work of the Ecological Conservancy Outreach (ECO) Fund, which was launched at the U of A in October, 2000. The ECO Fund grew out of discussions between Wang and Sam Chao, an American electrical engineer who grew up with Wang near the Yangtze River and wanted to do something to reverse the environmental degradation the river and landscape had suffered.

"Sam has been a childhood friend of mine for over 50 years," said Wang. "When Sam wanted to do what he did, I was very touched and vowed to help him realize his dreams the best I could."

Chao was prepared to put $1 million (US) into restoration efforts, but didn't want to simply turn his money over to some large development fund. He wanted to know what his money was doing and to have confidence that it was being used wisely. He hoped that Wang, with his academic background and connections, could help.

Wang assured his friend that the U of A had the necessary expertise in soil conservation, forestry management, and rural economic development to put his vision into action, and he soon secured the full support of a dozen or more of his colleagues from across campus.

The main culprit in the deteriorating water quality of the Yangtze River is the intense cultivation that has taken place on the steep slopes that border the river and its tributaries. Where there were once vast forests that could absorb huge quantities of monsoon rain, there are now terraced fields from which rainwater flows into the river, washing huge amounts of topsoil from the slopes and into the river.

By helping the farmers in the areas to grow tree crops, the ECO Fund hopes to improve not only the soil conditions along the river valleys, but also the livelihood of the local farmers.

The two projects that have been completed in the first five years are both located in the Qinhai Highlands of the Yunnan Province, close to the Yangtze River's source. Wang said the planting of 667 hectares of new forests plus 2,700 hectares of mountain closure will allow natural and accelerated recovery of eroded forests on the slopes of the upper Yangtze River.

By teaming up with their counterparts from the Chinese Academy of Forestry, the Yunnan Academy of Forestry and the South West College of Forestry, the team chose the use of tree species that will grow fast and steady to provide farm income quickly while exerting environmental benefit at the same time.

"During our visit to Heqing and Shuifu, the county governments introduced local farmers to make presentations on how their lives have been changed for the better because of the ECO Fund projects," said Wang.

"The support for this project runs from China's highest politicians all the way down to the grassroots. The involvement of the whole community at both Heqing County and Shuifu County was a strong testament that a properly planned and executed community-based, sustainable forestry development can quickly change the way of life, even in the remotest areas of China, with strong ecological, social, and economic benefits."