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Desertification control: China shares lessons with Africa

(Xinhua)

12:16, October 04, 2011

BEIJING, Oct. 3 (Xinhua) -- For Abdi Muktar, China was pretty much about kung fu stars Jackie Chan and Jet Li, before he learned what the oriental country had done to control desertification this summer.

It took the Ethiopian man nearly 12 hours flying from his homeland to China. The following eight-week training on desert control totally enriched his knowledge about China and proved his long journey, according to himself, worthwhile.

"I love here so much, and if possible, I'd like to have my master's degree in China," said the 24-year-old.

Muktar works for Land Resources Management and Environmental Protection Department of the Ethiopian government. Together with 22 people from 10 African countries, he learned desertification-combating techniques like sand fixation, water-saving irrigation and greenhouse planting, and visited an International Horticultural Expo held in Xi'an, capital of northwest China's Shaanxi Province.

"We need such kind of training because it strengthened our awareness in desert control, and we will spread the technologies we learn in China back home," he said, adding that he had started writing proposals on implementing the learned techniques.

Sponsored by China's Ministry of Commerce, the training program has been held annually since 1993. More than 700 people from 63 developing countries have participated in the training, said Liu Shizeng, head of the Gansu Desert Control Research Institute (GDCRI).

The GDCRI, the organizer, invited experts and scholars from China, the United States, Israel, and Australia to give lectures. "It's an international platform for desert control exchange," said Liu.

One third of the African continent is occupied by deserts, including the Sahara, the largest desert in the world. In Ethiopia, the coverage of desert takes one quarter of the country's territory, threatening local agricultural production.

Some other African countries, such as Lesotho and Zambia, though having no desert at present, are suffering from severe land desertification.

"We need to learn how to combat desertification before our land becomes desert," said 36-year-old Itumeleng Bulane from Lesotho, who works for the ministry of forestry and land reclamation.

In 2009, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao announced at the Fourth Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Egypt that China would train 20,000 professionals for Africa over the next three years. Apart from training on desertification control, Gansu Province in northwest China also organized training on solar appliance, wind power and rainwater saving and utilization.

"The awareness of environmental protection is widely stressed during the training, and talented professionals would spread the awareness and techniques to the land of Africa," Liu said.

Like Africa, China is also suffering from desert and desertification. According to statistics from the State Forestry Administration, China has a desert area of 2.6 million square kilometers, which accounts for 27 percent of its total land area.

Desertified land, which was not originally desert but has become barren due to constant water shortage, overload of land resources and excessive exploitation, makes up more than half of the total desert area.

Desert expands and forces people to relocate. Sandstorm torments in the spring. Although China is pouring a large sum of money on struggling with desert, the desertification area is still spreading.

"We want to disseminate what we have learned from our own lessons, so that others can avoid suffering as we are facing now," said Fang Etian, deputy chief of GDCRI and one of the instructors for the training.

"Your attitude will determine your success," Abdi Muktar said, emphasizing that deserttification control, as a global issue, needs joint efforts.

"'One hundred lemons are a burden for one person, but one hundred lemons are beautiful for one hundred people,' as the proverb in my country goes," he said.

FISHING OVERWEIGHS FISH

The Horn of Africa, where Ethiopia is located, is witnessing the worst drought in 60 years, causing serious food production decline and more than 12.4 million people in Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti suffering from widespread famine, according to the United Nations.

Apart from drought, poor agricultural technologies are also blamed for low production in most of African countries, according to Huang Ribao, a senior agronomist with an agricultural sciences research institute in Liuzhou City, south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

"Food donation is temporary. Giving them self-sufficient farming skills is far more important," said Huang. "Just like what ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-tse had said: 'Teaching fishing skills is more important than merely giving fish to others.'"

Huang is among 100 Chinese agricultural experts sent to 32 African countries for agricultural planning and technical promotions, a project sponsored by ministries of commerce and agriculture. Huang was assigned to the Central African Republic, a small inland country in the middle of Africa, for one year from July 2009.

"All they had was a chopper, not even a plough," recalled Huang. "Every year they chop trees down and wait for plantation till rainy days."

Due to the food shortage, local people only have one meal per day, mainly on cassava rich of starch, which prevents them from feeling hungry.

The Chinese people built two farms in the country, helping cultivate fine breed and promote advanced technologies to local farmers.

"We brought seeds of peanuts, corns, beans, dry rice and vegetables. The dry rice is suitable to be planted because of the tropical climate there," he said.

The dry rice seed Huang mentioned was introduced to China in the late 1980s, when former premier Li Peng visited Brazil and returned with the seeds.

"Years after breeding, the seeds have turned much more productive than the local breed," Huang said.

Zhao Zhihai, dubbed "father of hybrid millet" in China, also found the hybrid millet he developed had yield bumper harvests on trial plantation in Ethiopia, Uganda and Ghana.

"For the local breed, farmers can only gain around 100 kg per mu (0.067 hectare), but with ours, they got 300 kg," said Zhao, director of the Millet Research Institute in the Zhangjiakou Academy of Agricultural Sciences in north China's Hebei Province.

Millet is the staple food in many African countries. Zhao said that if the Chinese variety of millet is popularized on the continent, it could provide a credible solution to food shortages that have long been haunting African countries.

Zhao, who just came back from Ethiopia early September, found the climate in Ethiopia is ideal for farming.

"Local people can get food out of soil almost any time throughout the year," he said.

Zhao said China should help spread agricultural technologies in Africa, share with local people readiness to fight natural disasters and make agricultural achievements together with them.

His institute rent 0.33 hectares of land in Mojo, 75 km away from the capital city Addis Ababa, for the trial plantation of the millet, and distributed seeds to farmers nearby.

"They just do what we do and get harvest. No need to train them at all," he said.

(Xinhua correspondents Zhang Wenjing, Cao Guochang and Wang Xi also contribute to the story.)

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