The Dirt on Ecosystem Stewardship

Originally published at

Filmmaker John D. Liu believes we have a solution to climate change, but it's not as simple as reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Liu's film Lessons of the Loess Plateau, recently presented at the Asia Society's headquarters in New York, explores how, with outside investment and local people's commitment and courage, ecosystems destroyed by human habitation and land misuse can be restored. The World Bank's Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Project, undertaken in cooperation with a team of Chinese scientists from the Ministry of Water Resources in the early 1990s in central China, prescribes a course of action--one Liu says we should take. Formerly a journalist who helped CBS open their China bureau after he arrived in Beijing in 1979, Liu has spent the past decade creating ecological films, primarily in China and African nations, and directing the Environmental Education Media Project. Here are excerpts from my recent telephone conversation with him.

Soil isn't a sexy sell for editors or producers.

I'd like to find a place for this film or find a company to work with on another, but they say, "Soil? Poor people? That's a ratings disaster!" I don't care about ratings. I think we have to communicate this message.

Did you depart traditional media so you could take on the role of an advocate?

I wouldn't call it advocacy. The way I look at the difference between journalism and what I'm doing now is that in journalism if I got sent out some place and I was really on the frontline, my task is to gather the initial data, process it really fast and bang out a report. I'm told I have no responsibility beyond that. But knowledge is responsibility. You can't critically look at this situation and walk away. It's about more than making a television show.

How did you come to this Loess Hills project?

The World Bank sent me to make a film about investing in people. The World Bank's president at the time, James Wolfensohn, had the idea that instead of implementing giant infrastructure projects, which the organization had been criticized for because it disrupted culture and society and possibly enriched gigantic industrialists or corrupt politicians, that the World Bank's goal was to end poverty. To do that it was necessary to directly work with local people.

Tell us about your interaction with the people of the Loess Plateau and how you followed up after the first film.

These people don't have a lot of opportunities or opportunities, but they're quite willing and able to participate at a high level. We finished that film immediately, but we didn't know what the results would be. In 2004, the World Bank asked me to do another film, Scaling Up Poverty Reduction in China, which was to include land restoration among other topics. When I returned to that region, I was stunned that these were the same places I had filmed a decade ago. I knew we had to do another film.

When you first visited the region in 1995, did you believe this poverty alleviation project could also restore the ecosystem in any meaningful way?

I stood on a mountain for a 360-degree view and couldn't see any vegetation, so you couldn't get the idea, "Hey, let's fix it." We thought, "Let's run." (Laughs.)

You've engaged in documentation of many grassroots efforts like this. How can responsible parties explain how bad local practices ruin land without making peasants feel their way of life is threatened or that they're being personally indicted?

The best method I've seen is Participatory Rural Assessment (PRA). It's consensus building, essentially. If the local population doesn't have answers because most of their behavior is negative, you won't necessarily extract the solution from them, but you still engage them in inquiry. For example, you can ask, "Is there a chance of growing crops without soil moisture?" And then you look into it together.

Can you give me another example where it's people, not the natural ecosystem, that's the problem--where changing paradigms could spur change?

What we're finding in Africa is that these places have huge rainfalls--2,000, 3,000 milliliters of annual rainfall--and yet these places are deserts. And people are saying, "Well this is an arid or semi-arid area. Nothing grows here." But this is just intellectually lazy. What's really happened is that you have massive disruption to the vegetation cover. We've reduced biodiversity, biomass and organic matter so that when the rains come, it doesn't infiltrate and it's not retained. Instead, the huge process of gullying begins. All of this disrupts carbon uptake and disrupts carbon nutrient cycling, which reduces the fertility and productivity of the land. The hydrological cycle becomes disturbed too, and because nothing is growing you lose potential photosynthesis. All of this dysfunction accumulates. Then you're committed to outcomes from long-term destructive ecological trends.

How important is it that the average person understands the science of climate change, and what are some common misunderstandings?

Somehow Al Gore and others have got people thinking that it's all about carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere. This is too simple. There's desertification, there's hydrological dysfunction and reduction in biomass and biodiversity. One third of the animal species are threatened. We have knowledge to see that a single intervention with reducing carbon emissions is not going to restore equilibrium. We need to think about the levels of complexity. If we never look correctly at the problem, we'll never find the answer.

In my reporting in China, no matter what the topic, it always leads back to "tizhi wenti" ("a problem with the system"), which seems to me to be what you're saying too.

There's dysfunction in many areas. The media is broken. There's this worldwide financial crisis. If you have an economy that doesn't value infiltration and retention of rainfall, fertility, biodiversity, I think whatever you do to prop it up will fail. It's not a rational system. We've created a false cosmology of money and power and ethnic and national groupings. We're extracting and manufacturing and consuming without understanding. We're messing with deep-rooted fundamental natural laws. You can't interrupt a biological process that has been continuous since the beginning of evolutionary time and not expect to have quite catastrophic results.

All stemming from collective will run amok?

There are a lot of ways you can say it, but the actual outcome is that we've selected certain species of life forms without knowing it and killed others with brutality and extreme prejudice. We did this without knowing what was the role or purpose of those life forms in symbiotic relationships.

Reform in China often takes a top-down approach. How critical was this bottom-up approach to the Loess Plateau Rehabilitation Project to its success?

It was important, but so were other elements. Five hundred million dollars was invested over 35,000 square kilometers in over a decade. Now in terms of per capita and area, this is a very small amount of money, but it's still five hundred million dollars. So one thing is the investment. Another thing is the government provided an enabling regulatory environment and real leadership.

What lessons should we take away from the project?

The one concept that would change the world if it were used right now on a planetary scale is to differentiate ecological and economic land. For example, they took the 25-degree slope lands and evaluated the yields they could make versus the value of creating areas where rainfall could be infiltrated and retained to seep into the ground soil, where organic matter could accumulate, etc. When looking at it that way, the choice was easy. To be able to add value to the ecosystem rather than grow a few more corn plants proved priceless. And by differentiating ecologic and economic lands, the economic lands became vastly more productive because they had soil moisture and nutrient cycling. What I learned on the Loess Plateau was not that they did everything perfectly, but that all of them together-the people and the government and the scientists--all played their role. We need that sort of species response.

It was striking in your film to see what a dramatic change took place in that region in 10 years.

I've been looking at what happened in the US after the intervention after the Dust Bowl, and the results there are even better. I've collected evidence in Africa as well. There's much to suggest it's possible to rehabilitate damaged ecosystems and even to restore ecosystem function.