Desertification is a global land degradation problem, severely threatening human survival and development. It is estimated that about 1.9 billion hectares of land and 250 million people are currently affected by desertification worldwide [1
]. In response to the threat, many countries have implemented desertification control projects (DCPs), such as the Prairie States Forestry Project in the United States and the Spanish National Action Programme to Combat Desertification in Europe [2
]. The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) came into force in 1996, and proposed a new sustainable development goal for Rio+20—zero net land degradation by 2030 [4
Many studies have assessed the effects of the DCPs, undertaken by employing diverse theories and methods [5
]. Zhang et al. analyzed the normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) retrieved from satellites for 32 years in northern China, finding that the DCPs contributed to a regional vegetation growth and greening trend [6
]. Jafarian et al. used two spatial analysis models and two-dimensional matrix methodology to assess the effects of planting trees in the semi-arid areas in Iran, where forestation was shown to reduce the area classed as “very severe desertification” [7
]. In addition, numerous previous studies gauged the effects of the DCPs spanning different time and space scales [8
]. Da Silva et al. took a semi-arid zone within northeastern Brazil as the study area, concluding that vegetation gain and the conversion of land use type decreased the rate of soil loss between 1987 and 2010 [9
]. Recanatesi et al. studied the changes in soil vulnerability and landscape degradation for 50 years in Italian agro-forest districts. Here, the extensive agricultural system mitigated the desertification risk [10
]. Although these studies have identified the effects of the DCPs from different viewpoints, they are not sufficient in revealing the operating mechanism and potential problems of the DCPs. Firstly, most places where the DCPs have been implemented are inhabited by farmers. The measures are also adopted by or upon the farmers. Therefore, unlike natural indices, information from the farmers affords a more human-oriented and practical demonstration of the effects. Secondly, no individual area is uniform and homogenous throughout. Varying outcomes due to intra-regional differences are likely. Potential limitations of the DCPs and concomitant countermeasures may become evident.
China is amongst the countries suffering the most from desertification. Here, desertification has affected the vast arid and semi-arid regions of northern China. Through the processes of wind erosion and salinization, desertification has caused many detrimental effects on the environment and social economy [11
]. A series of desertification control projects (DCPs) represent China’s great efforts to combat desertification, such as the Grain for Green Project, the Natural Forest Conservation Project, and the Beijing–Tianjin Wind and Sand Source Control Project [12
]. At the same time, many lower-level governments have also carried out a number of projects to control desertification on the basis of regional characteristics, which are complementary to the central government’s projects [14
]. All the DCPs have achieved desertification control, especially in terms of the increase of vegetation coverage [15
]. Scientists have also carried out research assessing the effects of these DCPs [16
Yanchi County is a favorable research field for assessing the effects of the DCPs from the farmers’ perspective. To begin with, Yanchi County is situated in the agro-pastoral ecotone of northern China and suffers from the severe desertification caused by inappropriate human activities. To combat desertification, several considerable DCPs were carried out in Yanchi County after 2000. We note that the Grazing Prohibition Project was initiated throughout the county from 2002, even though Yanchi is famous for its livestock products. Finally, Yanchi County can be divided into the northern region and southern region. The two regions are under the implementation of the same DCPs but have different natural environments, and the farmers also have dissimilar production patterns.
The purpose of this paper was to adopt an optimal approach to assessing the effects of the DCPs implemented in Yanchi County in Northern China after 2000. The conceptual framework of the paper is shown in Figure 1
. In our assessment of the DCPs, we attached great importance to the information obtained directly from the farmers, such as their attitudes and perceptions. Farmers are one of the key stakeholders in the implementation of the DCPs. The views from the farmers allowed us to explain the effects of the DCPs from a social perspective. We also considered intra-regional differences in the assessment process (particularly the north–south regional differences). We paid attention to both the commonalities and differences between the two regions and the farmers, which led to a comprehensive evaluation of the DCPs. The results of this study will help to assess the effects of the DCPs and other similar environmental conservation projects from the farmers’ perspective.
2. Materials and Methods
2.1. Study Area
Yanchi County (106°30′–107°41′ E, 37°04′–38°10′ N) lies in the eastern part of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and covers a total area of 6774 km2
, extending nearly 110 km north–south and 66 km east–west. The Mu Us Sandy Land, which adjoins the county to the north, is one of the four major sand areas in China. Yanchi County has a typical temperate continental semi-arid climate, meaning that it has a short summer and long winter, a large temperature difference, and low rainfall but high evaporation [18
]. The annual average temperature is 8.7 °C, and the annual temperature range is 28 °C. Annual precipitation is 250–350 mm, mainly concentrated in July and August and decreasing from south to north. In addition, strong winds and drought often occur simultaneously during winter and spring. Yanchi County is known as the home region of China’s Tan sheep (a kind of sheep famous for its delicious mutton and high-quality sheepskin), and is also the main producing area of China’s licorice (a traditional profitable Chinese herbal medicine). Grazing is the main agricultural activity in Yanchi County—in 2017, the income from grazing and livestock production accounted for 56.1% of the total agricultural income [19
]. Yanchi County contains eight towns, and in 2017 the total population of the county was about 172,000, of which 84.4% were associated with agriculture [19
Yanchi County is in the agro-pastoral ecotone of northern China, which is the transitional zone from cropping in the south to grazing in the north [20
]. Historically, Yanchi County has for a long time been spatially interlaced with cropland and pasture, with temporally overlapping sedentary agriculture and nomadic pasturing. According to this transition, Yanchi County can be divided into two parts: the northern region and southern region (Figure 2
), covering about 78.7% and 21.3% of the total county area, respectively. Although the boundary between the two regions runs roughly along the mountain ridges, there are further differences between them. Firstly, topographically, the northern region comprises hilly Ordos Mesa with gentle slopes, and altitudes mostly under 1600 m. The southern region comprises hilly Loess Plateau and altitudes mostly above 1600 m. Secondly, the vegetation types in the northern region are mostly desert steppe and sand vegetation, and the vegetation type in the southern region is mainly steppe vegetation. Thirdly, the soil types are mainly aeolian sandy soil and sierozem in the north, and dark loessial soil in the south. Fourthly, there is more grassland in the northern region, and thus farmers there raise sheep as the main agricultural activity. The southern farmers do not graze many sheep, and instead have more arable land than the farmers in the north. Lastly, owing to the environmental conditions described above, the northern region is more susceptible to wind and sand hazards than the southern region.
In the past decades, Yanchi County has experienced severe desertification and land degradation mainly caused by over-grazing and excessive digging for licorice. To combat the desertification, three primary DCPs have been implemented. The Grain for Green Project was initiated in 1999, converting the sloping or desertified cropland into forest and grass. The Natural Forest Conservation Project began in 2000, forbidding cutting the natural forests for commercial interests. The Grazing Prohibition Project began in 2002, inhibiting all farmers from grazing sheep in the grassland throughout the whole county; as a result, sheep could only be raised by stall-feeding. All three DCPs are mandatory top-down projects. According to the land area and time period involved affected by the DCPs, rural households were given an appropriate subsidy by the government as compensation. Among these DCPs, the Grazing Prohibition Project was the most significant and had the greatest participation, as it is the only project based on the local conditions of Yanchi County.
2.2. Data and Analysis
We conducted a questionnaire survey in October of 2017 to assess the effects of the DCPs from the farmers’ perspective. In this investigation, the Participatory Rural Appraisal approach was used [21
]. The most prominent feature of the Participatory Rural Appraisal approach is that the whole process of investigation emphasizes the participation of farmers, and thus the results are more operationally relevant to the farmers. The investigation was conducted by a semi-structured interview based on questionnaires. In the in-depth face-to-face interviews, the questionnaire was designed in advance, but the order of asking the questions and the way of explaining them to the participants were formed during the communication process. The content of the conversation and the answers to the questions supported each other, increasing the credibility of the investigation results. Before the formal investigation, a pilot survey was undertaken in 15 random households, and the questionnaires were improved according to these initial responses. The formal survey covered all eight towns of Yanchi County, and the households were selected by stratified random sampling according to the population of each town. There was no local authority involvement or assistance before and during the interviewing process. Additionally, the farmers were informed that the questionnaires were anonymous and that all the information obtained would only be used for academic purposes. Hence, the answers showed the true, independent view of the farmers. All the participants provided their verbal consent to our investigation.
The designed questionnaire included both multiple-choice and open-ended questions. The multiple-choice questions sought to investigate and characterize the interviewees’ attitudes and perceptions. The open-ended questions aimed to extract the specific reasons for the farmers’ behavior. The questionnaire comprised five sections, based on the five categories of information needed, and was composed of basic family information such as household income, farmers’ perceptions of environmental changes after the DCPs, farmers’ attitudes towards the DCPs, farmers’ environmental awareness, and farmers’ suggestions about the DCPs.
Firstly, the average values or percentages of the responses were calculated to show the general characteristics of the data. Then, the data were analyzed by the Mann-Whitney U test and the Fisher’s exact test. Both test methods were used for detecting whether there was a significant difference between the northern and southern regions. For ordinal categorical data such as income and other basic information, the Mann-Whitney U test [22
] was used. For the nominal categorical data such as the answers “yes” and “no”, the Fisher’s exact test [23
] was used. The tests were processed by the SPSS 24.0 statistics software (IBM Corp., Armonk, NY, USA). Moreover, we qualitatively analyzed the farmers’ responses to the open-ended questions.
After excluding 8 invalid questionnaires, a total of 212 (response rate of 96.4%) valid questionnaires were collected in the two regions: 165 and 47 from the northern and southern regions, respectively. Among all the respondents, 71.7% were male, and 55.2% of them were in the age range of 40–65 years (middle age); therefore, most of the interviewees were household heads or were well-informed of the household’s affairs, such that the information provided was comprehensive and accurate.
The implementation of the Desertification Control Projects is vital for the arid and semi-arid regions of northern China. By analyzing questionnaire data from Yanchi County, this study assessed the effects of local DCPs carried out after 2000 from the farmers’ perspective. We found that the DCPs had effectively improved the local environment and increased the farmers’ income. The farmers from both regions of Yanchi County had positive attitudes towards the DCPs, but farmers in the southern region had a higher degree of acceptance. Three problems concerning the farmers’ participation, the projects’ sustainability, and the DCPs’ measures were identified, and suggestions for solving these problems were discussed.
This paper adopted a novel approach to assessing the effects of the DCPs from the participants’ perspective. The findings of this study have some important implications for other regions with similar environmental conservation projects, even in other continents or under different socioeconomic conditions. Firstly, all the results are based on the direct interviews with the farmers, which allows us to treat the government projects in a humanistic way. In this study, the farmers’ feelings and opinions are the center of consideration, rather than relying on official comments or corporate profits. Secondly, intra-regional differences exist in all project areas. Assessing the effects of projects on the basis of the intra-regional differences does not complicate the assessment, but instead gives the study a stronger scientific basis and improves its reliability. Finally, the problems found in the DCPs of Yanchi County are a valuable reference. Similar environmental conservation projects in other areas may have similar problems to those of the DCPs, such as the low participation rate. In summary, this paper analyzed the measures and achievements made by China to combat desertification, contributing to the UNCCD and its goal of zero net land degradation. However, compared with the total population of Yanchi County, the number of respondents interviewed in this study is rather small. Some results are tentative in their generalizations and understanding of the farmers’ attitudes. Further research needs to consider the sample size and sample representativeness, which could allow firmer results and suggestions.