Large stretches of China are covered by grasslands, most of them in areas of high altitude. Rolling hills and plains, covered with waving tall grasses stretch as far as the eye can see in every direction. These areas are unsuitable for agriculture, but they are used by transhumant herders who raise yaks, sheep, goats and horses. For thousands of years these nomadic pastoralists with their herds and flocks have moved between winter and summer pastures, maintaining a precarious balance between sustainable rangeland management and a subsistence existence.
In recent history many changes have come to the grasslands. Watercourses have been altered and land drained in order to facilitate agriculture and other human activities in other, drier areas. Hunting has decreased populations of predators such as wolves, foxes and eagles, leaving more room for rodents (that eat grass and roots) to multiply. Nomadic herders have been required to settle in designated areas, leading to increasing population pressure on a fragile environment. More animals are required to graze diminishing rangeland, leading to overgrazing. The climate and the weather, in general, are changing. Wind blows top soil away, leaving no fertile earth for grass to grow, and covers other areas with layers of sand that suffocate any plants.
As a result of some or all of the factors mentioned above, in many places the grasslands are disappearing. The grass is diminishing, and patches of sand are appearing and spreading at an alarming pace. This process is called desertification. Once the process is set in motion it is very difficult to stop, let alone reverse it. Part of the difficulty is that scientists still do not know all the causes of desertification and how they interrelate. There is no easy solution.
Alpha Communities helps nomadic communities that are faced with destruction of rangeland by progressive desertification. We work together with families and settlements to fence off vulnerable stretches of rangeland, so that the grass can recover without interference from yaks or sheep. In places where the sand has increased so much that the grass will not recover with only fencing, we help local people plant new grass. This also works to support the yak bank project, as controlled grazing allows an increased number of animals to be supported.
Apart from these immediate measures, Alpha also wants to address more long term concerns. Working together with local officials and communities, Alpha helps people to harvest and store local grass seeds. In this way there is less need to buy expensive seed from outside markets, and there is no risk that the new kinds of grasses will not grow. In cooperation with local schools, Alpha develops lessons that teach children about sustainable development, rangeland management and resource use. And out of each family involved with Alpha Communities in grass planting, one child is sent to school. These children will not become herders, but learn professions and trades that are useful to the local economy. This will, in the long term, help build a more diversified local economy and take pressure off the vulnerable grasslands.
We are aware that we can not reverse global or continental trends in desertification by replanting some parts of threatened grassland. But we can soften the impact and help people cope better with a long term threat to their lifestyle and culture.