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Seeds of hope for a green Sahara

By Xu Jianchu | China Daily Global | Updated: 2019-05-15 08:12

A joint project of the Kunming Institute of Botany and the World Agroforestry Center is exploring the potential of Calotropis as an ecological restorer in arid regions

As a result of climate change and poor land-use practices, much of the Global South is plagued by the problem of landscape degradation.Impoverished villagers turn to whatever short-term solutions they can find, including the harvesting of valuable local resources. Because many of these resources are not easily replenished, this ultimately leads to deforestation and desertification. In this battle for subsistence, both local villagers and international development organizations are mired in the old ways of doing things, planting seeds that simply will not sprout into a sustainable future.

But there is hope. Plant varieties that were once poorly understood by the scientific community are now being developed and tested by Chinese scientists from the Kunming Institute of Botany under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, with some species showing incredible promise for global poverty alleviation. One of the plants is Calotropis, commonly known as milkweeds. Native to the Sahel Africa, and other semiarid tropics in Asia, Calotropis is a fast-growing and drought-resistant plant that adapts to diverse soil conditions. Naturally suited to grow where other plants fail, Calotropis may globally transform the way we think about ecological restoration in arid and semiarid regions.

Seeds of hope for a green Sahara

Calotropis is much more than simply a hardy plant that can rejuvenate soil and reduce erosion. Calotropis seeds are coated in a downy fiber that is comparable in smoothness and softness to silk, but is as breathable as cotton.

As a result, Calotropis fiber has been called the cashmere of the plant kingdom. The fine, silky, durable, and high-quality fibers of Calotropis are beginning to be used in an array of industries. With the price of cotton soaring in recent years, there is great potential for the increased marketization of Calotropis, and the multipurpose uses of the fiber is beginning to draw the attention of the industry.

Its twigs and leaves can be utilized as manure and an organic pest repellent; its stem fibers can be used in bio-composites for construction; its latex contains a stable protease with industrial potential, and its dried latex can act as a potent anti-inflammatory; and after treatment, Calotropis leaves can be used as fodder for livestock. Importantly, Calotropis can bloom and fruit in the same year of planting, and in the third year, outputs reach a high level.

Because Calotropis is a perennial plant and does not require plowing or sowing, the planting costs are low, making it an ideal crop within poverty alleviation campaigns. and, unlike other cash crops, Calotropis has a short reproductive cycle and is well adapted to salty soils, meaning it can be planted and harvested with a much quicker turnaround.

Seeds of hope for a green Sahara

The global potential of Calotropis remains untapped.What is required is not only continued research, but transformative initiatives that integrate this research into industry and society. The Center for Mountain Futures - a joint laboratory of the Kunming Institute of Botany and the World Agroforestry Center headquartered in Nairobi - has been collecting and screening indigenous germplasms to facilitate the improvement of Calotropis varieties with drought-resistant for integration into degraded African landscapes.

But the Mountain Futures pilot project in Kenya is not simply following old models whereby outside experts come in and dictate the terms of development; instead, Mountain Futures relies on the insights and expertise of local institutions, as well as local managerial and technical staff.

The research and development of Calotropis in Kenya has attracted the support of the Ministry of Environment, Water and Natural resources in Kenya, who believe in the potential of this unique Sino-Africa cooperation project. On the basis of field research, the Kunming Institute of Botany will recruit Kenyan PhD students to carry out genetic research on Calotropis, and South Eastern Kenya University has been assigned to carry out the domestic cultivation.

Meanwhile, the Center for Mountain Futures has established a Calotropis cultivation base and suitable planting areas in Africa and Asia. A preliminary study has also been carried out to test the effects of environmental factors on fruit and fiber production, which confirmed the fact that in sub-Saharan countries with wild distribution, the resources are very rich.

Cooperations and collaborations like these provide a solid foundation for the further development of Calotropis. We will continue to invest in this research because it offers the dual hope of ecological restoration and poverty alleviation.With the shared expertise of Africa and China, we may help to build a green Sahara, the benefits of which will be felt across the globe.

The author is a scientist at the World Agroforestry Center and a professor at Kunming Institute of Botany of Chinese Academy of Sciences. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily.The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

(China Daily Global 05/15/2019 page13)

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