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A filmmaker’s take on China’s environment (part one)

John D. Liu is a filmmaker whose current project is China’s Sorrow, Earth’s Hope, documenting the ecological rehabilitation of the Loess Plateau. In the first segment of a two-part interview with chinadialogue editor Isabel Hilton, Liu describes how the plateau became a model for the revival of damaged ecosystems.
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Isabel Hilton: What attracted you to the Loess Plateau project?

John D. Liu: We started a decade ago [with the World Bank] to document it and gradually, by returning each year, we have seen such astonishing changes. Gradually it became clear that this was a representation of the fundamental information that determines whether ecosystems survive or collapse. Human civilisations develop, and in development they degrade their environments to the point that they can no longer compensate and they collapse. When the ecosystem collapses, it takes the civilisation with it. This is the perfect example.

This is the cradle of Chinese civilisation -- the largest ethnic group on the planet -- and it’s fundamentally ecologically destroyed. What is astonishing is that anybody bothered to try to rehabilitate it. It’s counterintuitive to stand on a mountain and not see any vegetation for 360 degrees around and imagine that there is anything you can do about it. Our normal preconceived idea is that it’s too bad, that civilisation destroyed itself. It’s over. There’s nothing we can do.

When we started to film this rehabilitation of the Loess Plateau, that was definitely how we felt. We thought it was definitely a bridge too far. Environmental understanding is all well and good, but this is so degraded. How can you do anything? There was a tremendous sense that this could not be done. Thankfully, the project organisers were not distracted by that. Now we have a functional model of how such ecosystems can be rehabilitated.

IH: What is the biggest obstacle ahead?

JL: We are facing climate change. Sir David King, Britain’s chief scientific advisor, said that this is the most difficult and challenging problem facing humanity, ever. We have to have some big ideas, some hope that we are just not going to watch as the world deteriorates and the ecosystems degrade and the disparity between those who live in wealth and those who live in poverty continues to grow.

Right now, if you take current trends and project them, it’s hard to imagine a happy ending to this. It looks like all over the world you have potentially billions of people living in abject poverty. They are, maybe, subsistence farmers. They are probably using unsustainable agriculture. They may be trying to migrate. And as those ecosystems further degrade, more of those people will try to do that, assuming there is nothing we can do.

The Loess Plateau is a functional model that shows that it is possible to rehabilitate damaged ecosystems and return to some extent ecological function – maybe not 100%. We might get a lot of function back if we really understand what’s going on. The thing that struck me was that when we look at the world now and we imagine that tens of millions of people are squatting by the side of a dirty road, what are they doing? They are not engaged in rehabilitation. If they are not waiting for the United Nations to bring them something to eat, they are probably cutting down trees or killing wild animals for food. And they are ravaging the environment.

IH: What lessons have emerged from the plateau project?

JL: Certain clear principles have come out in the Loess Plateau work: unsustainable agricultural practices must end. They don’t go anywhere; they don’t help anyone to escape from poverty. They just ravage ecosystems. Even tiny changes can have outsized impacts on an ecosystem. That’s why it’s interesting to see what happened on the Loess Plateau. The Chinese were thinking they were building the strongest civilisation, that they were the superpower – does that sound familiar? It’s happening now! If you understand this information, you can act. If you don’t, the outcome is predetermined – human activity without ecological understanding leads to ecosystem collapse.

IH: How can ecosystem collapse be avoided?

JL: There is an alternative – especially for the poor. This is an opportunity to look beyond nationalism and traditional divisions. There is only humanity on this planet if we are talking about the survival of the species. We are all in this together. It doesn’t matter if we are wealthy if these ecosystems degrade. A massive investment has to go into ecosystem rehabilitation and you need millions of labourers – and you find that it works. Large-scale ecosystems can be rehabilitated through the return of function and carbon sequestration which addresses our worst problem.

IH: Will the experience of the Loess Plateau’s rehabilitation be applied elsewhere?

JL: We are now going to Africa to speak in Rwanda, Tanzania and Ethiopia, to design programmes to transfer this information. We want to link the Chinese development people with Africans who need and want to do this, together with the global financial community and the global development community. At first I thought, I’m making a documentary film. Now I think it’s about a basic understanding of the issue that will help us survive. If we don’t understand it, the outcome is predetermined.

NEXT: John D. Liu speaks about his US background and how he became involved in development and environmental issues in China in part two.

The authors:

John D. Liu is a Chinese-American filmmaker whose current project is China’s Sorrow, Earth’s Hope, documenting the ecological rehabilitation of the devastated Loess Plateau.

Isabel Hilton is a London-based international journalist and broadcaster. She is also the editor of chinadialogue.

Still images are taken from John D. Liu's film China’s Sorrow, Earth’s Hope

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


刘登立制作了一套相当吸引和具启发性的电影--《中国的悲哀,地球的希望》,每一个人都应该要看,而且很好的是他准备把它推广到非洲去。但是他并没有完全回答你说黄土高原的经验是不是将会被运用在其它地方的问题。这篇文章主要集中在一小撮受影响的贫困人口和他们的迁移上(这本身可以引起挺有趣的辩论:在何种程度上可以说,在社会主义国家如中国,类似的迁移是最容易不过的),但是由于实行了适当的政策(比如说鉴别和区分生产、生态健康的区域等,禁止自由放牧家畜,禁止在斜坡上耕种等),而且公众财政投资总数达到6亿--这听起来很多,但在相等于三分之一法国的面积里,其实平均每人只有大约$9(据我估计)--恢复生机的工作已做得相当成功了。适当的政策、筹措资金和动员可用的人力资源,还有从国家到本地各级政府官员、发展机构和公民社会团体的共同愿景,这些因素集合起来,成功的造就了生机的恢复。--John Warburton

Not the full picture

John Liu has made a fascinating and inspiring film (China’s Sorrow, Earth’s Hope) which everyone should see – and it is great that he is taking it on a tour to Africa. But he has not fully answered your question as to whether the experience of the Loess Plateau will be applied elsewhere. The article focuses on the involvement and the mobilisation of a small army of poor people (which in itself could lead to an interesting debate about the extent to which such mobilisation is easiest in a socialist country such as China), but the rehabilitation work has also been successful because of the application of appropriate policies (identifying and zoning land for production / ecosystem health etc., a ban on free grazing of livestock, a ban on cultivation on steep slopes etc.) and public financial investments totalling some $600m – which sounds a lot but equates to only approximately $9 (I think) per person, within a region one third the size of France. It is this combination of policies, financing and an involved and available labour force, as well as a shared vision among officials from national to local level, development agencies and civil society organisations, that has really delivered the successful rehabilitation. John Warburton

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



I agree.

This is a very good website with rich content.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



excellent project

The Loess Plateau project is excellent, and its experience could be introduced to elsewhere in the world.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


约翰•瓦伯顿(John Warburton)说要恢复被大规模破坏的生态系统是一项复杂的工程,在这一点上他是正确的。我们当然不能只关注生态系统的功能而不去考虑社会经济方面的问题。我们不断地研究并试着找出什么才是最重要的因素。我们发现这能在许多方面取得成功。对生态系统功能的认识更正了对可调整环境的充分投资及大规模参与的科学理解。至于该原则在其他国家是否可行,或者由于中国的特有条件使其只能在中国可行。我认为这项原则适用于任何地方,当然在不同的地方其个别特征也应该考虑到。每个地方情况都是独特的,但这并不会改变该模型的有效性。

John Warburton is right

John Warburton is correct in saying that it is a complex undertaking to rehabilitate large-scale damaged ecosystems.

Certainly you cannot concentrate on the ecosystem functions and leave out the socio-economic aspects.

We keep studying and trying to understand what are the important factors.

We found that it took several things to succeed.

An awareness of ecosystem function
Correct scientific understanding
An enabling regulatory environment
Sufficient Investment
And mass participation

As to whether this can work in other countries or whether China has special conditions that make it only possible there. I would have to say that the principles of this can be used anywhere but of course individual characteristics will need to be taken into account in each place. Each place will be unique but this still doesn't change the validity of the model.

John D. Liu

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



This is a very good article

It will be of great help to resolving China's environment issues, if more similar articles are published.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


我是一个在中国的律师,每个月我们都发觉许多与环境污染有关的案例。尽管我们有足够的证据去证明,在某种程度上,工厂在处理废水和废气的过程中缺乏管理体系,但是当地政府不会让这些污染环境企业停止运行,并且在司法审判中施加影响。在这些问题中涉及到许多部门的利益关系,尤其是这些公司在给当地政府税收上带来一个的好处。所以总的来说,公司自身是在保护环境中起主导作用的。 Shine Tone

china's other firms ought to take their obiligation

I am lawyer in china,and we can see many cases about evironmental pollution nowadays every month. Even we have overwhelming evidences to prove the factory is in some sense out of management in the devises used to dealing with waste water and air, local goverment will not let them stop,thus exerting influence on the justice judgement. The problem in it is involved complex interests of many parts,esp. the firms which are imposed good money to the goverment. So as a whole, the firms themselves are the main subjects in charge of the eviroment. Shine Tone