A Continuing Inquiry Into Ecosystem Restoration: Examples From China’s Loess Plateau and Locations Worldwide and their Emerging Implications

Authors: John D. Liu and Bradley T. Hiller


In early September 1995, after spending 15 years working as an international news television producer and cameraman, John D. Liu embarked on a life-changing assignment that ultimately prompted this section (Figure 4.8.1). Liu was part of a documentary crew flying in a small Soviet-era copy of a Fokker Friendship aircraft (dubbed the “Friendshipsky”), which landed at a small, dusty airport in Yanan in Shaanxi Province, on China’s Loess Plateau (see Box 4.8.1). CONSIDERING THE IMPLICATIONS

The Loess Plateau has proven to be an excellent place to pursue a type of ecological forensics to witness and understand how human actions over time can destroy natural ecological function. The restoration process of the plateau is providing a living laboratory in which the potential of returning ecological function to long degraded landscapes can be studied. Essentially, what has been witnessed and docu- mented on the Loess Plateau is that it is possible to rehabilitate large-scale damaged ecosystems. This realization has potentially enormous implications for human civilization. Witnessing firsthand many geopolitical events as a journalist, including the rise of China from poverty and isolation throughout the 1980s, the Tiananmen tragedy in 1989, the collapse of the Soviet Union, global terrorism, and much more, provided John D. Liu with references to compare to the restoration of the Loess Plateau. He quickly came to realize that, in terms of significance for a sustainable future for humanity, understanding what occurred on the Loess Plateau would be critical.

Yanan is perhaps most famous as the mountainous hideout where Mao Zedong led the Chinese communist Red Army to escape annihilation by the Nationalists (this retreat is often referred to as the “Long March”). The typical dwellings in Yanan at the time were man-made cave dwellings dug so deeply into the soil that they were almost invisible, which made Yanan a particularly good place for a revolutionary to disappear. By 1995, the Chinese communist revolution had moved on and China’s socialist market economy was flourishing on the eastern coast and making waves worldwide. But Yanan remained virtually untouched by the agricultural changes, the industrial growth, and the increasing international influence that much of China was experiencing. Yet in this backwater, a new revolution was brewing.

The purpose of the assignment was a World Bank baseline study for an ambitious development project called the Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Project (see Box 4.8.2). The scene (as depicted in Figure 4.8.2) was of a completely barren landscape.

Download the PDF