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A combination of farming, animal husbandry and water conservation has provided relief in poverty-stricken regions of Northwest China, although questions remain over its long-term sustainability

By NewsChina Updated Jan.1

Yang Zhirong’s courtyard has two cattle sheds: the bigger one houses eight cows, the other four. These cattle are the main source of income for Yang and his family in Xiji County, Northwest China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.  

Xiji is tucked in remote Xihaigu, a mountainous area of southern Ningxia known for its harsh environment. Containing nine counties and districts, Xihaigu was deemed among the most unfit places for human settlement by the UN World Food Program in the 1970s. 

Fast forward four decades, the environment and living standards of Xihaigu’s farmers have changed significantly over the last decade thanks to China’s intensified poverty alleviation programs.  

Not far from Yang’s house in the town of Malian is his cornfield. His harvested corn silage, once it is fermented in an excavated 30-square-meter pit nearby, will be used to feed his cattle.  

According to Yang, fermented corn silage is more suited to the cattle’s appetite, which makes them grow faster than plain hay. 

“There are government subsidies for planting corn for silage,” Zhang Yongqiang, deputy head of Xiji County, told NewsChina. “Farmers get a 200-yuan (US$30.2) subsidy for planting the corn per mu (0.067 hectares), and 2,000 yuan (US$302) for excavating a fermentation pit.” 

The subsidies have helped increase corn production enough to feed the livestock of each household. Many farmers are also switching to higher-yielding, higher-priced beef cattle breeds like Simmental and Angus.  

Small-scale cattle farming has significantly increased incomes for farmers. Yang Zhirong sold two cows last year, the bigger one fetching 23,000 yuan (US$3,480) and the other 15,000 yuan (US$2,270). This meant an annual per capita income of up to 7,600 yuan (US$1,150) for his family of five, far exceeding the provincial poverty line of 4,100 yuan (US$620) per person annually.  

Wei Tingfeng, Party secretary of Malian, told NewsChina the town’s total cattle stock is more than 21,000, or 1.35 head per villager. In Xihaigu’s largest city, Guyuan, the total has surpassed 1.1 million head.  

Ma Hancheng, mayor of Guyuan and vice chairman of the Ningxia regional government, told the reporter that cattle farming has increased the average income of farmers by 2,000 yuan (US$303) per year. Ma said the city will open a slaughterhouse with an annual capacity of 100,000 cattle to reduce transportation costs for farmers. 

Water Shortages
A long history of deforestation and overgrazing in Xihaigu, compounded with climate change, has exacerbated water scarcity issues and hindered the region’s economic development for decades. 

However, things began to change in 1999 thanks to the central government’s nationwide reforestation program. “For nearly 30 years, rainfall has increased by 10 millimeters per year,” Ma Hancheng said. He added that rainfall in Guyuan for 2019 was 755 millimeters, and there have been about 500 millimeters in the first nine months of 2020.  

In recent years, Guyuan has built nearly 200 reservoirs and more than 700 dams, which has increased local water reserves.  

More importantly, a 4 billion-yuan (US$581m) water security initiative for central and southern Ningxia completed construction in 2016 and now provides tap water to every household. Solving the area’s water shortages has made farming and animal husbandry possible.  

There are also support policies in place for those unable to work. According to Wei Tingfeng, Party secretary of Malian, families that have members with physical disabilities are eligible for monthly subsidies ranging from 240 yuan (US$36.3) to 500 yuan (US$75.7). For extremely poor families unable to invest in farming or business, government jobs are provided in areas such as road maintenance, sanitation or forestry. Also, nearly every village in Malian’s jurisdiction has a solar panel farm that generates an annual income of up to 150,000 yuan (US$22,695). Eighty percent of the solar projects’ profits are distributed among extremely poor households.  

Through all these efforts, Ma Hancheng told NewsChina that Guyuan has reached its goal of bringing its per capita income above the mandated poverty line of 4,100 yuan (US$620). These efforts have also met poverty alleviation targets across Xiji County. 

“But poverty alleviation efforts are not over,” Ma said. “The next focus is to prevent poverty from returning.” 

Employees ship local products at a factory set up with governmentfacilitated poverty relief funds, Minning Town, Ningxia Hui Autnomous Region

Sending Money Home
Another important income source for Guyuan is its migrant workers. Ma Hancheng told NewsChina that while cattle farming makes up 44 percent of total income generated for local farmers annually, migrant workers make up 38 percent. “These major sources of income account for more than 80 percent,” Ma said. 

It is also important to create more job opportunities in Guyuan while ensuring opportunities for locals to find employment elsewhere. Yet, as many local officials admitted to the reporter, there are limited opportunities for workers in Guyuan - and even regionally - due to lack of enterprises.  

“For disabled and extremely poor families, we should continue the current social security policy, monitor dynamic changes and make corresponding adjustments,” Ma said, adding that Guyuan includes those earning less than 5,000 yuan (US$756.5) a year in its dynamic monitoring and big data management system. 

For those at risk of returning to poverty due to a sudden change in circumstances, such as a serious illness or car accident, a combination of timely detection through the dynamic monitoring system and improvements in the corresponding insurance system is necessary. 

Also, while Xihaigu’s drinking water woes have been addressed, Liu Xuezhi, deputy director of Poverty Alleviation Office of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, told NewsChina that agricultural water supplies are still short.  

“Once precipitation becomes scarce, locals could face crop failure and feed shortages that ultimately impact the entire cattle husbandry industry,” Liu said. “This is what local governments should prepare for.”