XI'AN - One of the country's worst affected counties by soil erosion, Wuqi in Shaanxi is now well on its way to turning into a green belt, thanks to a grain-for-green project that kicked off a decade ago.
As part of the project, which was started in 1998, Wuqi authorities asked local farmers to keep better varieties of goats in sheepfolds and stop them from grazing on hills, besides planting trees and grass in return for grains.
The county was the first in the country to start such a project, which proved successful.
By the end of October, Wuqi's green area increased to 62.9 percent from 19.2 percent in 1997, Wang Yanlong, magistrate of the Shaanxi province county, said.
Zhu Weishang, a 37-year-old farmer, who has benefited from the project, said each member of his family of four made an income of 3,500 yuan ($510) this year from two hectares of fruit orchard and some 40 sheep reared in an enclosed sheepfold.
Zhu said that the slope lands in the county were earlier used for grazing goats, which ate out the grass, causing soil erosion.
"Till 10 years ago, our lives were hard. Grazing destroyed the environment and cut deep into our incomes. Now, we keep goats in sheepfolds and plant apple trees and grass on the slopes. Things are a lot better," Zhu said as he toiled in his orchard.
Official statistics showed that Wuqi farmers' average annual net income reached as high as 2,658 yuan per capita in 2007 from 857 yuan in 1997.
The grain-for-green project created an ecological value of 2.48 billion yuan in its first six years, according to figures available with the Beijing Forestry University.
Wu Zongkai, director of the county's grain-for-green project leading office, said his officials visited a local village more than ten years ago and came across an ill farmer, who could not do farming but lived better than most of the fit farmers because he kept four of his goats in sheepfold.
The office's investigations also showed that grazing completely destroyed slope lands because goats ate out the root of the grass.
"This one case of the ill farmer made us decide on completely changing the way of farming, in order to improve the ecological environment and increase the farmers' income," said Wu.
Lu Zongfan, a researcher at the Northwest Soil and Water Conservation Institute, said the grain-for-green project was the best method to reverse soil erosion and flood disasters in the Yangtze and the Yellow River basins.
The central government started a similar trial drive across the country in 1999 and fully implemented it in 25 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities in 2002.