Interview with John Liu
American environmental filmmaker John Liu left conventional news journalism to devote himself to documenting the world’s ability to restore lands degraded by poverty and mismanagement.
When Deng Xiaoping in 1986 granted the US television news magazine 60 Minutes a historic interview opportunity, CBS entrusted John Liu to be behind the camera. Liu’s ability to work in China under all conditions also made him a regular contributor to several European public service television stations, including RAI (Italy) and ZDF (Germany). But in the mid-90s, Liu turned his back on mainstream television, choosing to concentrate exclusively on environmental issues.
“I became allergic to formulaic news bites that give people an understanding so superficial that it might as well be false,” says Liu. “What interests me today is seeing whether the lessons of successful projects to alleviate poverty and rehabilitate ecosystems can be adapted and spread to parts of the world where the people are so poor that they are destroying their own future. And ultimately, their future is inseparable from ours because we all live on the same planet.”
Global climate change is already exacerbating desertification and water shortages around the world, and the problem is likely to get worse. Poor land management not only magnifies these effects but releases carbon dioxide through deforestation.
The advance of the Gobi desert not only threatens Beijing, but creates sand storms that cause economic damage in Korea and Japan. Liu believes that desertification is the result of unsustainable human activities. Even as the Yellow River, the cradle of Chinese civilization, sometimes runs dry before reaching the sea, in Northern China, agriculture and industry continue to drill ever deeper to extract ground water.
Although policy decisions of recent decades, such as planting wheat on Inner Mongolia’s grasslands, have wrought enormous damage, Liu maintains that the pattern of deforestation and soil erosion goes back centuries. Restoring ecosystem function increases carbon sequestration in biomass, such as trees and organic matter in the soil. Liu believes this is both a natural and effective means of transfering CO2 from the atmosphere, where the gas is thought to exacerbate the heating effects of the greenhouse effect by reducing the re-radiation of heat from the sun.
“There will be no solution if the peasants cannot lift themselves out of poverty,” he emphasises.
One scheme in particular has given him a sense of hope and purpose: the Loess Plateau rehabilitation project. A section of northwest China the size of France, the Plateau was once highly fertile and easy to farm. The region was the base for the First Emperor of China, Qinshi Huangdi, whose tomb is famed for an over 8,000-strong Terra Cotta army. However, centuries of deforestation and over-grazing have destroyed the region’s ecosystems.
Commissioned by the World Bank to document the project, Liu remembers standing on a barren mountain top and panning his camera 360 degrees without seeing any hint of vegetation: “The land was horribly scarred by barren gullies that developed because the rain water could not infiltrate the ground, for it lacked soil capable of retaining water,” he says, recalling his initial skepticism.
But with each successive trip Liu discovered that the project was changing the landscape. Scientific experts had drawn up a plan: slopes too steep for sound agriculture were zoned as ecological lands and taken out of production; no-man’s gullies were blocked to prevent precious rain water from running off; goats were forbidden from free ranging to graze on vegetation needed to hold soil in place. Each of these measures required that the peasants abandon destructive practices that delivered short term marginal income. Especially difficult was the programme to plant and protect trees. Liu recalls:
“At first I filmed peasants who were indignant about the tree planting on land they wanted for crops, however poor the yields were. Gradually as trees and vegetation improved the environment, instead of losing land to new and deeper gullies, they found that the gullies filled with soil that retained moisture and nutrients. If they worked with the ecosystem, they were rewarded.”
“’Success’ is a word that I’d save for a bit later when we know even more, but so far the outcome far exceeded expectations,” says Liu. “All parties from the local population to the scientific community are gathering valuable information about the extent to which rehabilitation can take place.”
Although the project required an investment during the start-up phase, Liu believed the money was well spent since it put a stop to the subsidence farming that was ravaging the land. Today he sees poverty eradication through ecosystem rehabilitation as the way forward in many places around the world. In 2008 he completed a film, the Lessons of the Loess Plateau, and is now working on a new longer one.
Liu does not believe that a single intervention, for example, the reduction of carbon emissions, is going to restore ecosystems to their original biodiversity. Slogans and posturing, he warns, deny the complexity of nature, which is not bound to serve human interests when inherently fragile environments are subject to unsustainable exploitation.
“We need to act as a species, not as nationalists and we need to do this quickly,” concludes Liu.